The many ways to plot a career
Career planning can be customized, and there's a lot of variability in executing your career plans while in veterinary school.
NATIONAL REPORT — Career planning can be customized, and there's a lot of variability in executing your career plans while in veterinary school. In fact, sometimes it may be beneficial if students start veterinary school unsure of their future career goals.
"We are comfortable with students beginning their studies in veterinary medicine undecided about what career path they will choose—small animal, food production medicine, research, public health, equine, etc.," says Mary Kelm, assistant dean for student affairs at the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine. "There are tons of opportunities during their four years of to really find their niche."
"There's not a 'defined moment' when students should begin their career plans," adds Kelley Madden, assistant director, career center liaison for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences of Colorado State University, spends time working closely with veterinary students – both undergraduate and graduate.
"Instead, we suggest that students explore options by doing externships, volunteering, getting as involved as they can that first year. Then, by the junior and senior years hopefully they'll narrow down choices."
Once students have settled on a decision suited to their desires and skill sets, the next step is to often begin networking with other professionals, according to Kelm. If you plan to seek employment in a zoo or exotic pet area, pursue experience working with people in these types of jobs.
By the middle or end of the student's third year, UI students are encouraged to begin developing a good resume/curriculum vitae and cover letter. During the fourth year, students will be prepared to actively seek employment.
"Some students come to veterinary school just knowing what they want to do. They network in their first year of school and use summers and school breaks to pursue externship opportunities that set them up for that first professional appointment."
Sometimes, veterinary schools have specific classes tailored to career preparation. Such is the case at Colorado State University (CSU), which offers a class on business management — a career-oriented practice management course. "This class solely focuses on what to expect when you leave school and have your own business. We review how to write resumés and cover letters, and how to prepare for an interview," Madden says.
Another option is to meet one-on-one with a career counselor or faculty member. "Many times counselors, advisers and faculty, are in touch with veterinary employers to get a sense of what they're looking for in graduates," Madden explains.
"The student who overlooks the opportunities that exist to network with veterinarians during their time in veterinary school really are missing a helpful tool for career planning," Kelm adds.
Kelm says she's found that most students think all they need is to do well in school and then jobs will be available to them.
"Personal issues play a huge role in making the final career decisions. For example, even though a student may have wanted to work with horses exclusively from the time they were little children, they may have an educational debt that will produce a $2,000 monthly payment," she says.
Since equine veterinarians can be the least well paid at the start of their career, it's important, according to Kelm, to factor in lifestyle issues before planning a career in food production medicine, for example. In this case, ask yourself tough questions: Are you willing to get up in the middle of the night to go on a farm call? Are you willing to be outdoors almost every day no matter the weather?
"For every career plan, there are extenuating or mitigating issues that may make a student have to think more carefully about what particular area of veterinary medicine is going to be most successful for them," Kelm says.
Madden adds to the list of overlooked items the myth that career plans take little time.
"It takes longer than a couple months to chart out your career," she says. "Occasionally we will have students come to see us in the second semester of their fourth year, sharing that they don't have experience. They're at a loss compared with their peers who have been networking and doing externships for years."
Narrowing down options
At the University of Illinois, students can take various courses, experience different visiting lecturers, seek out individual mentoring experiences, and pursue externships to get a broad-brush picture of career opportunities available for those pursuing a DVM degree.
In addition, elective courses in various specialties are available. Students are introduced to networking by opportunities to attend local, regional and national professional meetings. Student organizations are encouraged to invite guest speakers and outside organizations (veterinary product companies, USDA, the military) to discuss a variety of careers.
At Colorado State, Madden says many students, who may not have time to meet with career counselors, also may opt to go online and seek out available resources through the CSU veterinary program.
Keep up communications
Just as you'll be spending plenty of time talking to clients about various conditions of their pets, students are advised, according to Kelm, to "talk to everyone they can about the areas they are interested in," while still in school. "Students must be proactive about their exploration and the sky is the limit in this field."
Madden says that not only is it vital to talk to everyone possible about areas of interest, but she also advises students to begin doing this as soon as possible. She suspects many students are already aware of this, given the "personality" of the profession.
"The veterinary population is a very open and social population, given they have to work with humans as much as animals. Students need to understand the importance of this communications connection. For employers, communication is the No. 1 skill they are seeking. If the newly hired veterinarian can't communicate to the client, that's not going to benefit him or her, nor his employer.
Stephanie Skernivitz is a freelance writer from Cleveland, Ohio.