Despite the financial incentives, most students enter practice right after graduation.
NATIONAL REPORT — Most residents pursuing specialties far surpass their DVM counterparts in long-term income despite earning just half the average starting salary paid to colleagues who enter practice immediately after graduation.
Table 1: Highest-paid specialties
DVM graduates averaged nearly $93,000 in educational debt in 2006. Still, the number going on to pursue specialty programs — offering higher future salaries than those earned by generalists — continues to rise, reports the American Veterinary Medical Association. More than 32 percent of last year's graduates pursued specialties, almost double the number a decade ago.
Specialty residents typically go through a three-year program after DVM graduation at a clinic or hospital, earning an average yearly salary of $27,782, while also publishing scholarly articles and possibly pursuing a PhD, says Dr. Andrew Maccabe, associate executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).
In addition to undergraduate and veterinary-school debt, post-DVM students earn low salaries for a few years and often incur more debt via a PhD program before earning higher paychecks.
It's a big initial burden, he says, but the eventual payback usually proves significant.
With a mean starting salary of more than $56,000, small-animal generalists initially earn double what specialists bring home, according to the 2007 AVMA Report on Veterinary Compensation, compiled from the results of its 2006 Biennial Economic Survey of Veterinarians.
What specialists initially earn upon completing their residencies is not calculated by the AVMA. "We don't identify an individual specialist and follow that person through their life," says Jim Flanigan, AVMA marketing director. But an evaluation of the long-term differences between board-certified and generalist salaries are telling as to the different levels of earning potential, he says.
With experience, the AVMA reports a generalist's salary climbs to $100,000 on average, while 17 of the 20 AVMA-identified specialties have average incomes exceeding $110,000.
Nutritionists are the highest paid, reportedly earning more than $202,000 annually. Only behaviorists and those with zoological medicine board certifications earn less than DVM-only graduates, at around $90,000 a year, the report says.
"You can't look at the immediate salaries. The benefits of specialties are seen in longevity," says Elizabeth Sabin, DVM, PhD, assistant director of the education and research division of AVMA's American Board of Veterinary Specialties.
Despite financial incentives to pursue a specialty, most students practice immediately after graduation, which is in line with society demands.
"There is always going to be a need for generalists," Maccabe says. "Sometimes the pet-owning public needs to see a generalist first to make the diagnosis and direct the course of treatment, which may or may not involve a specialist. It is a trend that is similar in human medicine."
While continuing to garner more attention throughout the profession, specialties still hold limited interest for DVM graduates, Sabin adds.
Dr. Andrew Maccabe
"I think it is very much based on an individual veterinarian's goal or aim. What is it that they want to do? What is their passion? What are their goals in the future?"