How to Become a Veterinarian: Steps to Take from High School
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If you love working with and caring for animals, then there’s a good chance that you’ve considered becoming a veterinarian. But as a high school student, it can be challenging to figure out which steps will set you up for career success, especially when certain career paths, like becoming a vet, have so many requirements. And how do you know if being a veterinarian really is the right career choice for you?
While you shouldn’t expect to have everything figured out by the time you’re in high school, it doesn’t hurt to begin exploring careers that you’re already interested in. Most students are interested in occupations with related skills and knowledge requirements. By beginning to learn about and prepare for one career, students often discover opportunities which will help prepare them for other careers in similar fields.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you have an interest in working with animals, and many animal-related occupations have similar educational requirements. So if you’re an animal lover, looking into becoming a vet is a great place to start. By taking the right courses and gaining practical experience while you’re in high school, you’ll be exposed to the variety of animal-related careers out there and be able to hone in on whether becoming a veterinarian is the right choice for you. Here’s some information to help you get started.
What Does a Veterinarian Do?
Generally speaking, vets care for animals in the same way that physicians care for humans. Vets examine animals to assess their overall health, diagnose illnesses and treat injuries and may provide care recommendations to animal owners of all kinds.
Veterinarians can specialize in a few different areas. Here are some to consider:
- Companion animals: Companion animal vets are the type of vet that you probably picture first. While they most often work with cats and dogs, they can also work with other common animals that someone can have as a pet, including birds, reptiles, and rodents (like rabbits).
- Food animals: Farmers and ranchers often need specialized vets who know how to work with large animals and make sure they’re not only healthy but that the animals will be safe for consumption as well. These vets often travel to farms and ranches to examine and treat animals and advise farmers and ranchers on feeding and housing practices.
- Zoo animals: Becoming a veterinarian for a zoo may sound exotic and exciting, but these vets have to do extensive training and education to be qualified for these positions. After all, they often work with animals that inherently pose a threat to their safety, including large animals such as rhinos or poisonous snakes, and they need to know how to treat these animals without endangering anyone.
How Much Does a Veterinarian Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for veterinarians in 2018 was $93,830. Of course, your salary will vary depending on the type of veterinary practice you do and also where you live. It’s also important to note that in order to become a veterinarian, you will need to complete at least a doctorate-level education and may need to work on weekends or emergency hours.
That said, the job outlook for veterinarians is promising; jobs in veterinary medicine are expected to grow 18% by 2028. There’s a good chance that once you graduate with your Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, you’ll be able to find employment.
How to Become a Vet
In high school, the best thing you can do is to gain experience working with animals and honing your skills in science while maintaining a good academic performance in all of your classes. You’ll need to do well in college-level science courses to have a chance at getting into veterinary school, so it’s good to start early by taking as many science classes as you can and working to do well in them.
You can get a leg up by taking more advanced classes as well, such as taking Honors or AP Biology or dual enrolling at your local college or university. And if you find that you’re struggling in a course, especially physics, don’t think that you’re doomed to never be a veterinarian.
Instead, use this opportunity to problem solve by implementing new techniques and habits to supplement your studies. Attending tutoring and extra help sessions and reviewing extra material through the internet or your local library can help you to develop a strong foundation. Not only are you likely to improve your grade, but you’ll also develop important “soft skills” that will help you in college and throughout your career.
You’ll also want to get as much experience working with animals as you can. This may involve volunteering at an animal shelter or zoo or shadowing a veterinarian in a small-animal clinic. Seeking out these sorts of experiences will not only be fun but they’ll also enable you to talk to people in the profession and learn about the variety of careers that are out there. High school is the time to explore your options!
Most veterinary schools do not require you to major in any particular subject, but they do require that you demonstrate strong skills in science in addition to your overall academic excellence. Many veterinary schools will consider your overall GPA, the GPA of your most recent courses dating back to about one year (for example, the last 45 credits), and the GPA of your science classes. As you can see, you should aim to do well in all of your courses, but you should especially focus on your performance in science.
Most programs require that students have completed a certain set of science courses, whether as part of their major or as electives. Here are some of the common courses you need to take:
- Two semesters of college physics
- Two semesters of college biology with lab
- Two semesters of college chemistry with lab
- Two semesters of organic chemistry with lab
- One semester of statistics
- One semester of genetics (upper-level)
- One semester of biochemistry
There are some slight variations between schools when it comes to the necessary prerequisites. For example, NC State requires all applicants to have taken an Animal Nutrition course, while schools like UC Davis and UF do not require it. Many schools also do not allow upper-division prerequisites, such as genetics, to be completed at a two-year or community college, although you can begin your education at one.
So while you can choose to major in anything, you may find it helpful to study something with a wide variety of science courses already included in the curriculum. Popular options include biology, zoology, microbiology, and animal sciences. Some undergraduate schools offer a “pre-vet” option within one of their majors, which can be an easy way to make sure you’re getting as many prerequisites covered as possible.
Veterinary School and Residency
In addition to completing your prerequisites, some schools may require you to submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. This is a general standardized test similar to the SAT or ACT you’ll take in high school, but it measures whether you have mastered college-level academic skills rather than just high school concepts.
Most veterinary schools also require that you have some demonstrated experience working with animals throughout college, whether in a formal veterinary setting or other settings such as zoos or animal shelters. They also look for substantive recommendations and interview their applicants before making their final selection. No matter where you apply, veterinary school is a competitive process.
Once you’re in, most veterinary schools are a minimum of four-year programs, where the fourth year is spent doing clinical rotations at veterinary clinics or hospitals, and many veterinary programs combine clinical experience throughout the four-year curriculum. As a result, most veterinary students graduate with hands-on experience working alongside licensed veterinarians on live animals in the common animal disciplines as part of the standard curriculum.
However, to specialize in certain practices, such as zoo veterinary medicine, or to be able to practice in certain states, you may need to complete a more traditional residency. While most vet schools can easily place their students in a campus-based animal clinic or hospital, you may need to apply for a residency in a more specialized skillset at another university.
Most vet schools will help their students prepare for the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, which is required to practice veterinary medicine in the U.S., as well as assist in preparing you to meet any state-specific guidelines.
Wrapping it Up
While there are some differences between veterinary schools, there are also a lot of similarities. They all require you to have a strong foundation in the sciences, and they emphasize real-world experience working with animals. As a high school student, you can begin to set yourself up on a path for success by focusing on your science classes and seeking out opportunities to work with animals.
If, after reading this, you’re not so sure you want to be a vet, that’s ok too. Many animal-focused careers start with the same two requirements of a science background and animal experience, so by taking these first steps you won’t be wasting your time barking up the wrong tree. You’ll be able to transfer your skills and experience to another career easily.
For more information about how to set yourself up for future success, check out our posts below:
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