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…