What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Veterinarian?

An image of a veterinarian for our FAQ about the Best Degree Path to Become a Veterinarian

Deciding on a career in healthcare is a major decision – but for aspiring veterinarians, it can be a rewarding one on many levels. Not only will the day-to-day job involve caring for animals, but the role provides a high earnings potential and the opportunity for independence by opening a practice. To become a veterinarian, you must earn a college degree at the undergraduate level and beyond. Below is the best degree path to becoming a veterinarian.

Bachelor’s Degree Options for Aspiring Veterinarians

Veterinarians must hold a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree to practice veterinary medicine. The doctorate must have been earned from an accredited veterinary college. In order to be admitted to veterinary school, certain criteria must be met.

A bachelor’s degree is not an absolute requirement for you to earn before applying to veterinary school, but most applicants earn one, if only to improve their applications. Acceptance into veterinary school programs is competitive. Fewer than half of all applicants gain entry into any program, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Pre-veterinary students can pursue any undergraduate major as long as the required pre-professional courses are completed. However, an undergraduate degree is not required.

Pre-professional courses required for admission to veterinary school are taken at the undergraduate level. College-level science courses are a main component of a pre-professional vet program, so aspiring veterinarians must spend some time getting a formal college education as an undergraduate. Prerequisite courses for veterinary school include:

  • animal science
  • biology
  • chemistry
  • microbiology
  • zoology
  • anatomy
  • physiology

Also, courses in humanities, mathematics, and social science can improve your chances of being accepted. They show that you are well-rounded. In fact, many veterinary programs require soft science or humanities courses.

Some institutions offer a major in “pre-vet” studies that is comparable to “pre-med” majors or concentrations. However, the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that the pre-vet major isn’t necessary for getting into veterinary school. Candidates approach the field from a wide range of educational backgrounds, some as unexpected as:

  • mathematics
  • engineering
  • English

More often, students choose a science major, such as:

  • biology
  • zoology
  • animal science

Experience caring for animals is another important factor in gaining admission to a veterinary school. In preparation for application to vet school, you should volunteer or intern with a licensed veterinarian. Other ways to gain experience include working with animals on a:

  • farm
  • stable
  • animal shelter

Veterinary School Curriculum

Just as doctors attend medical school to learn to care for patients, veterinarians must attend veterinary school, where they earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. This four-year program consists of three years of classroom, laboratory, and clinical education, and one year of hands-on clinical rotation. Veterinary school studies focus heavily on preventing, diagnosing, and treating diseases and medical conditions in animals. Curriculum also covers anatomy and physiology of different types of animals — from domestic to exotic. Some veterinary programs even offer business components for veterinarians who intend to open their own private practices.

Students admitted to vet school spend their fourth and final year of the program doing clinical rotations, as stated above. Clinical rotations take place in a veterinary medical center or a hospital where students gain experience working with all types of animals and emergencies. Once studies are completed, aspiring veterinarians must earn a license to practice in their state.

An image of a veterinarian for our FAQ about Best Degree Path to Becoming a Veterinarian

Licensing for Veterinarians

In the U.S., veterinarians must have a license to practice veterinary medicine. Requirements for licenses vary by state. However, most states require prospective veterinarians to have completed an accredited veterinary program and pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination.

In some states, aspiring veterinarians must also pass a state licensing exam in addition to the national examination. For veterinarians employed with state or federal government, a state license may not be required. But for those who do require a state license, the state exam covers all laws and regulations imposed and governed by that state. Rarely do states accept licenses from other states, so aspiring vets take licensing exams for the states in which they want to practice. If you move to another state, you will be required to take the licensing exam for that state.

Important Qualities for Veterinarians

In addition to education and licensure, veterinarians should possess certain qualities that are important to the role and occupation. These qualities may not be taught in the classroom, but are considered soft skills that every veterinarian should have to be successful in the role.

Ability to solve problems: A veterinarian must have good problem-solving skills as they assess animals and respond to emergencies. Vets must figure out what is causing problems for an animal and determine the best course of treatment. For those who conduct research, such as the impacts of certain drug therapies, superior diagnostic and problem-solving abilities are necessary.

Communication skills: Veterinarians explain problems and treatment plans to animal owners. They give instructions to staff and for owners to carry out at home. Having effective communication skills helps a veterinarian successfully convey instructions and directions.

Compassion: When working with animals and their owners, compassion is essential. Vets should treat animals with respect and kindness, while remaining sensitive to an owner’s feelings regarding treatment and care.

Empathy: As with compassion, empathy is important for veterinarians to have towards both animals and their owners. By understanding and sharing the feelings of an animal owner, a veterinarian conveys how much they care.

Manual dexterity: When a veterinarian performs surgery, they must have control over their hand movements. Surgery and certain treatments require precise movements and manual dexterity.

Quick decision-making skills: When emergencies arise, veterinarians must decide the correct path of treatment for injuries and illnesses in animals. Quick decision-making skills are necessary.

An image of a veterinarian for our FAQ about Best Degree Path to Becoming a Veterinarian

Job Outlook for Veterinarians

There are many rewards to a career as a veterinarian. They enjoy the option to operate their own practice, as 18 percent of veterinarians do, according to the BLS. However, most veterinarians chose the occupation not for the financial benefits, but because they have a passion for working with and caring for animals.

Overall job prospects for veterinarians are expected to be very good for the next decade. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment for this occupation is projected to grow 16% through 2029. The rate of growth is much faster than the average for all occupations. As pet-related spending increases among consumers and pet owners, veterinary services are expected to be positively impacted. Vet services employ veterinarians, thus an increase in hiring is projected.

In addition to consumer-driven impacts, new advances in veterinary technology and services will impact the job outlook for veterinarians. Today’s working veterinarians offer services that mirror many healthcare exams, procedures, and treatments on humans. Complicated kidney transplants and cancer treatments are just some of the advanced services offered to animals. These advancements should lead to the hiring of more skilled veterinarians.

Earnings Potential for Veterinarians

Healthcare practitioners, in general, can expect to earn $2.5 million over their working lifetimes, or more. According to BLS, veterinarians earn a median annual wage of $99,250, which is much more than the $69,870 median annual wage for healthcare practitioners as a whole. While the lowest 10% of earners in this occupation made an average of $60,690, the highest 10% earned over $164,490 per year.

Industry type impacts earnings for veterinarians. BLS reports four top-paying industries for veterinarians. These industries include:

  • veterinary services
  • social advocacy organizations
  • government
  • educational services (state, local, and private)

Earnings for each of these industries are as follows:

Veterinary services: $99,300
Social advocacy organizations: $98,000
Government: $94,610
Educational services: $87,110

In addition to industry type, earnings for veterinarians are impacted by geographic location. According to BLS’ Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, there are five top-paying states for veterinarians.

The highest-paying state for this occupation is New Jersey, where veterinarians earn an annual mean wage of $128,430. Maryland ranks as the second-highest-paying state for veterinarians. In Maryland, veterinarians earn an annual mean wage of $128,120. The District of Columbia offers an annual mean wage of $127,310 for veterinarians. In Rhode Island, veterinarians earn an annual mean wage of $126,630. Oregon ranks fifth among top-paying states. Veterinarians earn an annual mean wage of $122,840.

An image of a veterinarian for our FAQ about Best Degree Path to Becoming a Veterinarian

Earnings also vary by city. BLS reports top-paying metropolitan areas for veterinarians, as well as nonmetropolitan areas. In these cities and rural areas, veterinarians can earn a considerably higher wage than the average, especially in metro areas. However, earnings potential should be weighed against the cost of living and other factors that may impact the bottom line.

BLS reports the highest-paying metropolitan area for veterinarians as Houston, The Woodlands, and Sugar Land, Texas. In this metro area, veterinarians earn an annual mean wage of $169,220. This wage is considerably higher than the median annual wage for all veterinarians in this occupation. In fact, the pay is nearly 70k higher in this area.

Other high-paying metro areas include:

  • Bridgeport, Stamford, and Norwalk, Connecticut ($150,370 in annual mean wages)
  • Akron, Ohio ($150,330)
  • Ogden and Clearfield, Utah ($150,310)
  • Modesto, California ($149,460)

Top-paying non-metro areas for veterinarians include several eastern locations. However, the top-paying nonmetropolitan region for this occupation is Eastern Sierra and Mother Lode region of California. In this area, veterinarians earn an annual mean wage of $139,160. The annual mean wage is considerably higher than the average for all veterinarians, regardless of location.

The next-highest-paying nonmetropolitan area is Southern Florida. Here, veterinarians earn an annual mean wage of $135,160. Northern Pennsylvania is the third-highest-paying non-metro area for veterinarians. In this area, vets make an annual mean wage of $130,080. Southwestern Mississippi, according to BLS, offers an annual mean wage of $129,750. Southern Vermont is the fifth-highest-paying non-metro area for veterinarians. In this region, vets earn an annual mean wage of $125,740.

Work Environment of Veterinarians

According to BLS, approximately 89,000 jobs are held by veterinarians. Of this number, 76% of jobs are held by vets working in veterinary services. Veterinary services may be:

  • clinics
  • animal hospitals
  • animal care facilities

14 percent of vets are self-employed and three percent work in government. Approximately one percent of veterinarians work in education services and one percent work in social advocacy organizations.

As indicated above, the majority of vet jobs are found in:

  • private clinics
  • animal hospitals
  • other animal care treatment centers

However, some vets travel to farms or work in:

  • laboratories
  • college classrooms
  • zoos

Veterinarians may strictly treat domestic animals, such as cats and dogs, or work with farm animals. A small percentage of veterinarians work in food safety and inspection. These specialized vets may inspect food processing plants, farms, and slaughterhouses to ensure the facilities are adhering to safety protocols.

Most veterinarians work a 40-hour work week, though it is not uncommon for the job to require additional hours. As emergencies arise, veterinarians may be called in to work nights and weekends. The job can be stressful and highly emotional at times, as vets care for abused animals. Also, handling the stress of euthanizing a sick or ailing pet can be difficult.

Veterinarians can also experience physical risks, such as being bitten, scratched, or kicked when an animal is frightened or in pain. But to offset the risks and emotional wear and tear, the rewards are great. Seeing an animal heal from injury or illness can be highly rewarding.

If you are considering a career as a veterinarian, it is important to conduct research that will help you determine the best degree path to this rewarding and lucrative career.

BDP Staff
July 2021

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