Listening to the future

What veterinary students want us to know

The journey through veterinary school is challenging. PHOTO COURTESY SDI PRODUCTIONS / E+ / GETTY IMAGES
The journey through veterinary school is challenging.

Growing up on a small family farm/ranch in rural Southern Idaho, I wanted to be a veterinarian starting at age six. What was the source of the spark that lighted a wildfire of purpose, passion and plan to add the letters DVM behind my name? Our local veterinarian, Dr. Hammerquist, who told me he knew I was a good student, had witnessed that I was good around animals, and believed I would not only make a good veterinarian, but would love the career. He was right.

Like any great teacher, coach, or mentor, he saw things in me I didn’t see in myself. Every time I worked with him at our ranch, in the clinic, or on the road with him on farm calls, he had honest feedback, always delivered with kindness. (Like when I passed the stomach tube someplace other than the esophagus.)

Dr. Hammerquist, his partner, Dr. Thompson, and every other veterinarian I spoke with from age six until veterinary school graduation encouraged me in my career. They all told me I’d love it. They all congratulated me upon admission, and told me how blessed I was to beat the odds and be accepted. They continued to coach me during summers and ask what they could do for me. They kept telling me I was going to love this profession just as they did. And they reacted when I flipped the tassel and tossed the hat like we’d won a shared lotto.

You know what I never heard from a single veterinarian I ever spoke with through my graduation from Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980? The following:

  1. You should be an MD like your sister instead of a DVM.
  2. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t be a veterinarian.
  3. I hate this profession.
  4. You’re never going be financially successful in veterinary medicine.
  5. You don’t learn the basics like we did. You rely too much on testing and not enough upon palpation, auscultation, stethoscope, your nose.
  6. You “sum bitches” are so lazy compared to my generation. You want everything handed to you and don’t want to work.

No, once I got accepted to veterinary school, I felt like I was on the Yellow Brick Road to financial success and emotional wealth. And I was! Dr. Hammerquist was right: I’d be a good veterinarian and love it until my last breath.

Unless you went into hibernation two decades ago and are only now emerging, today’s veterinary students can’t say the same. Veteran veterinarians, or even recently graduated classmates, telling them they’re making the wrong career choice. They’re warned over and over they’ll never pay off their student loans. They’re told they’re going to hate clients, that they’re lazy and spoiled.

So why do these amazing students persevere? What could they be thinking?

I believe today’s veterinary students are as smart (academically) as ever, and have much more emotional intelligence. They embrace human rights, equality, and diversity. They understand global challenges much better than we ever did. They also want a quality of life. Why should they work 60 to 80 hours a week? Thankfully, they know of and want work-life balance.

Rather than blather on about what I’ve heard in visiting with thousands of veterinary students during the past 10 years I’ve been preaching the Fear Free gospel at veterinary schools in North America, I asked three students from three veterinary schools to ask their classmates the following question:

“What do you wish all veterinarians and the veterinary healthcare community knew about your career path today, your veterinary school experience, and your ‘dream with deadlines’ for the future that if they knew, they would better understand you and improve your life/career.”

We have so much to offer as new graduates that extends far beyond our education alone. We are excited about this profession and our enthusiasm will radiate into the clinics we work in. Our unique experience during this pandemic has made us more resilient. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.com
“We have so much to offer as new graduates that extends far beyond our education alone. We are excited about this profession and our enthusiasm will radiate into the clinics we work in. Our unique experience during this pandemic has made us more resilient.”

So sit back and read on, and understand how we can build these new vets up instead of tearing them down. In alphabetical order of veterinary schools (Cornell, Guelph, Tuskegee) here are the comments gathered by my co-authors of this article, our future colleagues Amani Lee, Juan Orjuela, and Edna Seymour.

“It’s no secret veterinary students are preparing to enter a profession that is undergoing structural changes to previous business models while in the midst of a mental health epidemic. It is also no secret we are entering this profession after incurring exuberant amounts of student debt to obtain an education that is only just beginning to include business curriculum. Therefore, we ask for empathy in understanding new DVMs are reluctant to accept extended working hours, low wages, and the additional risk of practice ownership. All generations care, but we need to see and support one another to tackle the problems plaguing our field.”

~Jayden R, 25, Cornell CVM, Class of 2022

“I see the increasing suicide rates and the burnout riddled in our profession, and I am terrified. I am scared of the toll this profession will take on me and I want to do everything in my power to preserve my passion and empathy long term. If that means setting boundaries, enjoying personal relationships, and taking my vacation, I am going to do that. I will not feel guilty for prioritizing a fulfilling personal life while still learning and growing in my career, and neither should anyone else.”

~Jordan W, 24, Cornell CVM, Class of 2021

“I’m very hopeful my classmates and I will shape the future of veterinary medicine in a positive way. We have so much to offer as new graduates that extends far beyond our education alone. We are excited about this profession and our enthusiasm will radiate into the clinics we work in. Our unique experience during this pandemic has made us more resilient. We also have been heavily involved in the movement to embrace diversity and advocate for equality. Many of us, including myself, have a passion for entrepreneurship that will allow us to make a huge impact in this field. Although we are driven to make a difference, we have also learned the importance of prioritizing our wellbeing. Previous generations may view this as laziness, but I’m confident this mindset will only help to improve our profession in the long run. With the help of mentors like yourselves, I know we will become strong leaders who inspire positive change.”

~Edna S, 30, Cornell CVM, Class of 2021

“If the veterinary community is serious about diversity, they should ensure there is an aspect of inclusion for minority students/veterinarians. There should be a greater focus on outreach and mentorship geared toward middle/high school students and students at historically black colleges/universities who are interested in veterinary medicine.”

~Christopher H, Virginia-Maryland CVM, Class of 2023

“Veterinary students build our careers with different interests, experiences, and training. We must be intentional about being compassionate towards our colleagues when they’re at another level of ability throughout the learning process (which never ends in veterinary medicine). Be a part of creating a healthier learning environment in veterinary medicine!”

~Bairon M, 26, Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2023

“I wish the veterinary community knew how burnt out students are learning in this virtual environment. This environment combined with our decreased hands-on learning opportunities, we need your mentorship, encouragement, and support now more than ever!”

~Tatiana R, 28, CSU, class of 2023

“My journey to where I am now has been a constant, ‘Do I have the resources to do that?’ I wish students didn’t have to ask themselves this. One of my ‘dreams with deadlines’ is to advocate for a more accessible profession.”

~Yamila R, 25, Western University of Health Sciences, Class of 2023 

Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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