Veterinary School vs. Graduate School

Reader Eugenie mentioned on a comment to one of my posts that she was interested in perhaps attending veterinary school or graduate school  (?or both?) after she finishes her undergraduate work.  I’ve got a little experience in this area, having attended professional school and graduate school, so I thought I might share my experience in a little compare and contrast.

At the most very basic level, what you have to achieve in veterinary school and in graduate school are the same. You need to learn to look at evidence, often from disparate sources, you have to learn to ask the right questions, you have to learn how to integrate all the information that comes at you, and then know how to formulate a list of possibilities and to follow up on those to find the answer to the puzzle. Then- you have to take the next step-which differs depending on whether you are treating a pet or planning the next experiment to address your next hypothesis. I found the training process- in veterinary school versus professional school to be very different despite this sort of similarity in the ultimate endpoint. Of course the consequences of getting it wrong are pretty drastically different as well.

First- a couple of particulars about veterinary schools- they are different than medical schools. For those of you that don’t know- there are only a small handful of veterinary schools in the United States and Canada (I think 26 or 27 or something like that). The competition for admission to veterinary school is very intense and it is not uncommon for applicants to apply multiple times before being admitted. The class size is also fairly small- as small as 75, to larger schools with classes of 130 or so in each year. If you do the math you can see that not that many new veterinarians graduate and pass the licensing exam each year.

I found veterinary school to be much easier than graduate school. On the first day of my first year, I was handed a schedule of where I would be and what I would be doing from 8 am to 5 pm each and every day of my first year. This pretty much was repeated for each of the three years to follow- although in the clinical year this could be a little more variable than I’m letting on… just because clinical duties are somewhat unpredictable. My classmates were incredibly serious people- all really wanted to be there, none were in it for the money… what little there is, and most of my friends went on to do residencies and take jobs in prestigious tertiary care hospitals. That is one sort of quirk of this career- because of the extreme difficulty of getting into veterinary school- those that are selected are the smartest of the smart, and they are incredibly dedicated. Once they graduate… many go out into private practice where they are doing such incredibly stimulating work as vaccinating and expressing anal glands…and doing a lot of after hours call- and they get bored and burn out fast. Of course there are those that end up going on to further education, into specialty practice. But there’s something incredibly gratifying about diagnosis, treatment and cure, there is variety in the day to day- sometimes in ways you couldn’t predict- and you learn to improvise.  Nothing like being out there by yourself on the farm with the client, the horse, and nothing but what’s in your truck.

To me the most difficult part of veterinary school was time management… as in too much to learn and so freaking little time. Because you have a relatively short deadline for acquiring and retaining piles and piles of information- on not just one but more like 4 or so major species (and they are NOT all the same just FYI), in the first two years you are just cramming the information to regurgitate it on the test, and for the board exam… and any other time you might see it… like HEY- in medicine and in the clinics in 4th year. In medicine in the third year- you learn to integrate all the basic facts, pathology, histology, systems, pretty much everything into interpretation and resolution of clinical cases- that is where the fun begins. Of course there is nothing like trying your hand at this for real in the 4th year. I got a thrill the first time I had an aging, diabetic, hyperthyroid cat in the clinic- and I castrated a really mean Arabian stallion… didn’t get close to him until he was happily under anesthesia- didn’t want my head kicked off.  Doesn’t matter how many times you’ve memorized the scenario- there’s nothing like the live case in front of you.

I think you are getting the picture… veterinary school comes with a map, a pile of basics to learn, a defined time line, and a set of professional skills that are pretty predictable at the end.

Graduate school is a whole different business. You make your own map, and you set up your own timeline… with the assistance with your advisor and committee if things are working like they are supposed to. Oh sure, there’s some coursework- but how much, how long and what exactly will vary. And, well…. how quickly you reach your final formal educational destination, the Ph.D., is pretty much up to you.  Self-motivation and intellectual curiosity are a huge plus. In the first two years, you can spend much of your time doing course work… and then take some sort of a formal exam (a preliminary exam or qualifying exam) to be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. Usually at the end of your first year you have chosen a lab where you will do your thesis work- based on several rotations that you completed in the first year. The range of advisors, expectations, and projects is huge- and since the majority of your time in graduate school will be spent on your thesis work- it is in your best interest to chose a lab, an advisor, and a project with extreme and careful consideration.

That 3 – X year period that you spend doing your thesis research is pretty unpredictable.  I’ve seen very bright students spend many years on projects that have a streak of bad luck, and less than fantastic students finish quickly with many papers on projects that just went. There is an element of dumb luck, and not everything happens like it is supposed to. But- there is a huge advantage in learning how to adapt to this sort of random element- by being able to figure out which avenues could be the most fruitful and where to go with them. And even then sometimes, shit still happens. I make it sound like this might be a terrible experience- and for some it is. For me, it was great- I like the puzzle, I like the challenge, I’m motivated by my desire to see the result of the experiment and my excitement in going on to the next experiment. But I did need a break from basic science when I was done, because it can also be consuming.

The payoff and timing of gratification for you once you finish and are actually doing the business are very different when you are a veterinarian curing a bacterial disease in a client’s pet than when you are a basic scientist trying to understand the biology of that bacterial organism. The gratification of basic science is rare, and can take a very long time, and is much, much more immediate when you are a practicing veterinarian. In both careers you have to deal with people- maybe slightly less when you are a basic scientist versus a veterinarian- but you would be well served by having a few good ‘people skills’. There’s teaching in both- whether teaching students, or educating clients about how to take care of a pet, or do treatments,… there’s handling money… essentially running a business.

Well, I think that’s more then a few thoughts on this subject- I’m sure you all will fill in any (and all) points I have probably left out…


12 thoughts on “Veterinary School vs. Graduate School

  1. Fascinating! I long planned to go to vet school, and enjoyed working in clinics, but dropped those plans after I saw how burned out and bored the doctors were. Smart people who would say “I cannot spay another cat this week or I will go insane.”

    Didn’t want that life (and didn’t realize that vets could do other things…) so I was happy when I found a research discipline that grabbed me instead. I’m still happy with my choice, but this was a super-interesting look down the road not taken. Thanks.

  2. Great post.

    Before I was a research scientist I wanted to be a vet. So your point about vaccinations and expressing anal glands (from much time observing in veterinary practice I can confirm that entire afternoons can be spent by a vet doing just these two things) is one that I’ve always fallen back on when wondering what life would have been like.

    I now work with a lot of MDs and the one thing that I think with them, and maybe it applies to veterinarians as well, is that they do not always realize that they have a profession for life (usually) to fall back on, while research scientists do not, if we do not make faculty where do we go? That for me is by far the worst part of this job – the future career uncertainty.

  3. Thanks DrDrA! I think this made my morning. Hearing your take is extremely helpful.

    To be honest, I don’t want to be expressing anal glands from day in or day out. (For once I have an idea of something I’m not interested in! woohoo!) Small animal practice has never been a calling for me (although I have friends who are die-hard for the area).

    But my experience with a research vet over the summer was probably on the extreme end of the spectrum. (The critter we were working with is unusual, and difficult to get close to. The closest I got to one was on a necropsy table) The experience honestly turned me off about that kind of research (there were other factors at play).

    I’ve shadowed a dairy vet a few times and I can see where some vets burn out. I remember one day he did five of the same kind of surgery at five different barns.

    But the experience has been rewarding in different ways too. Putting in an IV in a cow’s jugular at 730am on a Saturday was pretty different, to say the least (most of my friends were sleeping off hangovers). I had to sit on the cow (to restrain it) for 20 minutes while the IV was administered (I was surrounded by the farm hands, farmer and vet who were all male and older then me by a good 20 years). I still think that morning was one of the best mornings ever (even though some of my friends think I’ve totally lost my marbles) and wouldn’t trade that morning in for anything else.

    Granted I’ll admit I’m in the honeymoon stage with vet med (I’ve only gotten a small glimpse of what’s out there) and with research (I’ve seen some bad but mostly the good). I think my game plan is to apply to both types of programs and see what happens. Like you stated before, vet school is tough to get into and I don’t think I’m good enough to be accepted anywhere…yet.

    Again, thank you for this post and have a good new year!

  4. I guess that, for a lot of people, the choice between professional and graduate school also a choice between a defined career path vs a more unknown route. Going to veterinary school means you will be a vet and even though there are a lot of choices within that career, it is a defined career with good job prospects. Grad school however can lead to a variety of not-so-well-defined career paths (academia, industry, government) which can be incredibly challenging and rewarding but some of which have few job opportunities relative to the number of qualified applicants.

    For me, I chose grad school over medical school and have never looked back but I can understand how others would prefer a more defined career path.

  5. Eugenie- I found practicing medicine during my 4th year rewarding in all kinds of ways- but that’s in a tertiary care setting where you see some really weird and interesting stuff. The day to day in your average small animal practice is not so interesting to me. I spent quite a lot of time volunteering in large animal practice before I went to vet school- and really enjoyed that… but I know many large animal practitioners that are very burned out-mainly because this job is just physically difficult.

    Dr. J.- I think anyone reading this would do well to take your point that at the end of professional school you walk out with a saleable skill. I know that I have a fall back position, I do my CE and maintain my license to practice- and this is a good thing.

    Dr. J & Mrs. H. – Burnout is a huge problem- as I said- you take all these really smart people and fill their days in private practice with some mind numbingly boring stuff…

  6. actually, doing the vet school route also leads to industry and government. go to and type in veterinary – at the moment you will get 117 hits for jobs. government contractors (industry) are now working on things like bird flu and foot and mouth disease, so don’t think that a vet degree leads only to an academic or medical practice. you will have MANY options.

  7. Jc- You are quite correct, there are many opportunities for veterinarians in industry and in the government. The most common government opportunity I can think of is meat inspector for the USDA… but I am sure there are other opportunities. When I was a veterinary student- I spent some time in my fourth year working in industry- and I really enjoyed that actually. There are TONS of opportunities for veterinarians -especially for board certified veterinary pathologists – in industry.

  8. In medicine in the third year- you learn to integrate all the basic facts, pathology, histology, systems, pretty much everything into interpretation and resolution of clinical cases- that is where the fun begins.

    Hey! What about physiomotherfuckinology!?!?!?!?

    Seriously, DrDrA, this is a great post. It is interesting that you didn’t mention what seems to me to be a huge feature of medical training, pattern recognition.

  9. C PP- Notice I also left out my own personal favorite, microfuckingbiology, as well, so don’t feel offended.

    And, I don’t remember coursework specifically to address pattern recognition- but all of the memorization of first and second year is about building background so that you can eventually integrate the information of a particular case and recognize a pattern if there is one. Also- my experiences of being a veterinary student- and teaching medical students- are like night and day- and not because I’m sitting in the chair in one and standing at the board in the other- Vet students are just different than Med Students- and the curricula are hard to directly compare.

  10. You summarize both nicely. I’m doing an MD/PhD, and had a similar decision to make before applying (whether to just do one or the other). I chose to do both, and I wouldn’t have it any other way now. I think a lot of what you write about Vet school goes for Med school as well. That said, like you said, graduate school is “a whole different business” (you can say that again!), but the skill set you come away with after grad school (particularly in regards to problem solving) is an asset for any profession, including any doctor/vet who works clinically. For your reader who was contemplating both, is she interested in doing what you are doing–that is, working in academia? If so, and having been through both yourself, wouldn’t you say that since research is an integral part of working in academia, those without the graduate program experience are at a great disadvantage?

  11. Mudphudder-

    I think if you want to be able to compete for federal research dollars, it’s best to get formalized training in the conduct of research, paper writing, public speaking, and the lead on to grant writing. This means graduate school. I’ve seen people do it with the MD or the DVM, but I myself am a strong proponent that you only do yourself a favor when you get the formal training you will need to compete in the academic world, if that is part of your career goal. Now with that said – there is no reason why they have to be done together (in an md/phd or dvm/phd type setting).

    I’ll just tell you one short story. A classmate of mine from my original veterinary school class (would have graduated in 95) finished vet school on schedule and went out into large animal practice for years. I almost totally forgot about this person (not because they were unmemorable- that’s not the case at all, simply- life went on). One day a couple of years ago I called up one of my colleagues who is now faculty at the mecca for my field (we were lab mates in graduate school), and my former vet school classmate was rotating in my former labmate’s lab. Now, my classmate is a graduate student in a very very well known lab in my field- we see each other at meetings etc.
    So- although the degrees were not done in a close time frame… I don’t think it will matter much for this person…

  12. drdrA- agreed–i didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. Actually in some cases I think it is better to do the degrees at temporally separate periods of time. I have a good friend who did a phd during clinical fellowship and is being served very well by it as he is going into a faculty job. In contrast, I’ll have to do a postdoc on top of my phd. Hopefully I’ll get my first job before I’m 40.

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