About two weeks ago, David Segal wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “High Debt and Falling Demand Trap New Vets.” It made a fairly big splash in the veterinary community: I know the deans of at least a few veterinary colleges sent internal messages to their students and faculty, and both the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and the American Veterinary Medical Association posted responses on their websites. I know that it is old news now, but I want to offer a student’s perspective on the problems posed by Segal.
First, to summarize Segal’s main points — veterinary students are graduating with hundreds and thousands of dollars of debt; entering a profession that appears to have a shrinking client base and a relatively poor starting salary; and class sizes are increasing across the country, perpetuating these problems. One of the serious things that concerned me about the article was that it insinuated that veterinary students are not aware of any of these problems and are blindsided when they graduate from veterinary school. — a school which, by the way, they’ve seemingly entered only because they’ve always loved animals.
I can say with certainty that my classmates and I have been aware of all of these problems since before starting veterinary school. I think that veterinary schools actually do a great job in making students aware of the amount of debt they’re going to deal with even before they enroll. At almost all of the schools that I visited for interviews or accepted students tours, the interviewers either asked us what we thought about the debt issue or the administration held financial aid workshops to show us what the process was going to be like. It’s something my classmates and I aren’t happy about, but we completely understand the ramifications.
The low reported starting salary for veterinarians — under $50,000 — is a figure that puzzled me for years before I even applied to veterinary school, but is easily explained when you realize that a fair proportion of students enter internship programs immediately after graduation instead of entering private practices. An internship is another year of schooling where you’re paid minimally but gain valuable additional experience. However, it’s true that the adjusted starting salary, when not considering internships, is not still not ideal, but it’s not completely unmanageable.
The article made these monetary concerns seem insurmountable because it followed a graduate from the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine who had $312,000 in debt. However, Ross is a for-profit veterinary school with notoriously high tuition. Dr. Deborah Kochevar, president of the AAVMC pointed out in her response to the article that the national student debt average is actually around half of that because many students attend their in-state institutions which are usually significantly cheaper. Bringing these numbers into perspective means that the figures are still concerning, but not abysmally depressing — we understand how much debt we are accruing, are realistic about the fact that it’s not going to go away on its own and have at least vague plans in mind about how to pay it off.
As for the shrinking client base and increasing class sizes — these are issues we discuss in school on a regular basis. The recession made it harder for people to afford veterinary care, but hopefully this will change now that the economy seems to be on the upswing again. However, if it doesn’t, we also talk about what we can do to educate the public about the necessity of veterinary care and how to encourage people to own pets responsibly. Increasing class sizes at Cornell is rationalized by the fact that only pre-clinical class sizes are increasing — the way it will work out will make it so that the graduating class will not add to the national supply of veterinarians.
However, it is true that the supply of veterinarians is going to increase through other means — this is a serious issue that the profession is going to have to deal with. Veterinary students and colleges are not turning a blind eye to this fact: we’re constantly exposed to new concepts, technologies and professions that show us that being a stereotypical veterinarian is not the only career option for us. We’re powerfully equipped to enter public health, research, industry and other fields that would benefit strongly from someone trained in comparative medicine. It’s true that the majority of us want to be more traditional veterinarians — I would guess about 80 percent of my class. However, as the national oversupply becomes even more of a pressing problem, admissions departments can look to recruit students with other interests. However, The Atlantic recently released a few figures compiled from The Wall Street Journal’s study of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which revealed that veterinarians currently have the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the country at only 1.20 percent — this is not a statistic that makes us see the need to seek out another career path just yet.
That being said, getting into veterinary school is highly competitive and we’re told before we apply that loving animals is never going to be enough. Everyone says that the personal statements that start with “I want to be a veterinarian because I took care of my dog Fluffy when he was sick and then he died” are doomed from the start. We want to be veterinarians because of so much more than just loving animals — we’re passionate about the profession. The science is fascinating, interacting with the people is rewarding and the deductive-thinking techniques we have the opportunity to develop are exciting. Most of all though, the similarity I’ve seen across all of my peers is that we have a burning desire to make a difference. I’m just one veterinary student voicing how I see these issues, but I think that veterinary student voices are important when holding these kinds of debates, and I would have liked to see more of them in public sources such as Segal’s article.
Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a second-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.