Advising Our Kids Against A Career In Veterinary Medicine

I’m not alone in wondering how I’d feel if my child chose this profession for himself.

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My son is a 15-year-old high schooler who excels in the sciences and adores his animals. With those vital qualifications and a veterinarian for a mom, it makes sense to me that he might see veterinary stars in his future.

But now that he’s finally admitted he doesn’t, I had to ask myself: Am I disappointed, or relieved?

Different Directions

I’m not alone in wondering how I’d feel if my child chose this profession for himself. A quick online poll of my colleagues and classmates confirmed this common mental thread among veterinarians of a certain age. We definitely think about it,  perhaps more than we’d like to admit.

Despite the fact that ours is a career path most parents would embrace with enthusiasm, "most,” it would seem, doesn’t include us.

As it turns out, my decidedly unscientific poll intimated that the stats on a warm reception to the notion of a future veterinarian in the household drops off when it comes to the possibility of our very own vet wannabes.

One offered this: "What do I think about my 10-year-old’s obsession with my scrubs, stethoscope and clogs? At the end of a looooong day, a slow month and a recent look at my loan’s principal, it’s probably not my favorite thought.”

"Notsomuch,” was another’s terse riposte.

In fact, I received not one positive reply to my query.

It seems we’ve turned curmudgeonly on a subject that once saw us preaching enthusiastically to schools everywhere on becoming a veterinarian. So much so that you’ll find far fewer of us offering vet-happy career day talks—our own kids’ classrooms included.

But what’s worse is the certain knowledge that it’s not just my own tween- and teenaged-parent vet circle. Apparently, this is a bona fide issue among veterinarians of all ages.

Spreading Thoughts

I’ve long suspected that veterinarians harbored such evolving concerns about the profession’s direction, but when the online Veterinary Information Network (VIN) News Service published a recent article describing the "spur or deter” conundrum, I knew for sure the tipping point had come and gone.

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The article, "Advising aspiring veterinarians: spur or deter?” advances the idea that many veterinarians no longer consider their profession a hospitable place to enter. That we increasingly question whether we should "spur” on new veterinary candidates or "deter” them from seeking degrees as veterinary doctors.

And the acid test for such sentiments includes our own kids as litmus paper. After all, if we as veterinarians wouldn’t recommend the profession to our own children, what does that say about the state of veterinary medicine?

Asked by VIN to explain the rationale behind their choice to "deter,” our colleagues cited economics as the overriding complaint. To no one’s surprise, they offered up the profession’s uncomfortable debt-to-income ratio by way of clarification:

"It seems obvious that the current problem of the inability of our graduates to pay their educational debt will only get worse. This is a grim time to consider veterinary medicine as a career.”

Big Debt

Veterinarians, as the AVMA tells us, graduate with a mean of nearly $152,000 in debt. Meanwhile, our mean starting salary is just over $65,000.

It’s a ratio that compares poorly to that of other health professionals, and one to which our financial planners have applied the ominous term "precarious.” New graduates, for their part, find it a tough nut to crack, leading plenty to second-guess following their veterinary aspirations.

Indeed, asked whether we’d do it all over again in 2013, I’d wager that well over 50 percent of us would consider heading elsewhere to make our way in the world. Such are the challenges we observe on behalf of the younger generations entering the profession. "I wouldn’t do it to myself so why would I want it for my kids?”

As a veterinarian who graduated almost 20 years ago with well over $100,000 in debt (some of it—inexplicably—on credit cards!) and a debt-to-income ratio just shy of the current mean, I can understand all the negativity. After all, I live it.

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Still, after reading all the comments, I came to the conclusion that economics alone doesn’t offer a good enough argument. Here’s why:
1. Since when is money considered the primary motivation for becoming a veterinarian, anyway? Where does the long list of rewarding reasons for becoming a veterinarian figure in this discussion?
2. It’s a waste of energy to persuade anyone to abandon what’s typically a lifelong goal. As a kid, I was told vet school was way too competitive for me to expect to gain entry. All that negativity was wasted on me (as I’m sure it was on plenty of you).
3. What’s more, I believe it’s blatantly cruel to discourage anyone from following his or her personal ambitions. How would you feel if you were that kid with a head full of hope?
4. Then there’s the practical matter to consider: Discouraging candidates curbs competition—and doing so ultimately reduces the quality of our graduates and of veterinary medicine in general.

Make no mistake: I’m not advocating that we as veterinarians ignore economic issues that weigh heavily on our profession. After all, the fact that the profession’s economic viability has elicited such an emotional response underscores the extreme seriousness of the economics at play and, consequently, the urgent need to address it.

How We React

Instead, I’m arguing that we should stop reacting emotionally to the problem in ways that perpetuate pessimistic, unconstructive, even counterproductive thinking; ways that undermine our professional integrity, erode our collegial morale and even threaten to diminish the quality of our patients’ care.

Because ultimately, all new souls who enter this profession do so powered by the steam of their own dreams and the intellect to make them happen. As long as they’ve been made aware of the risks and benefits inherent to the profession, why do they deserve to be treated to any sort of dispiriting talk or disheartening opposition? Why would we deny ourselves such a passion for the profession?

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Where would any of us be if we paid attention to our detractors, hinderers, dissuaders and depressors, parental, veterinary or otherwise?

God knows I would have never made it past the fifth grade, much less through veterinary school and into a career that’s satisfying, rewarding and, despite all the loans, still pays the bills.

Even so, it wouldn’t be fair of me not to honestly answer the question I opened this column with.

Given that this far into my career I still have almost $30K left in loans, I will confess some measure of relief in knowing that I won’t be accruing even more veterinary debt on behalf of my son before I’m done paying off my own. 

Dr. Khuly is a small animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com.

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