Choosing to pursue a future in veterinary medicine is a decision that takes commitment and determination. It is a demanding vocation, but anyone in the field can tell you that the personal rewards and sense of achievement far outshine the inevitable downsides that seem to be a package-deal with any career choice. Practicing veterinary medicine is not all puppies, kittens, and rainbows; there are considerably more foul smells, leaking body fluids, and just a general messiness that goes on behind the scenes. These are the gritty details that often go unacknowledged and unappreciated unless it is put in to perspective through first-hand experience.
I started working at a veterinary clinic when I was 17, cleaning kennels 6 days out of the week. Mike Rowe should try his hand at kennel duty, because that can be one dirty job. Now you may be wondering why I labeled my fellow humanoids as “gross” if cleaning up after their pets is Dirty Jobs material-worthy, but be not offended: It’s not you, it’s me. And probably many others who chose to be involved in veterinary medicine, considering this is a very popular phrase found on mugs and sweatshirts.
It is not that we do not like people, the field actually revolves around being able to work with them cohesively, it is simply that our passion is animals. We generally prefer dealing with animal grossness over human interaction, because our mission is to nurse pets back to normal for the sake of their very concerned and loving human counterparts. I speak for myself when I say that I normally prefer the company of my pets and a good book over actual social interaction most days, but I know I am not the only one. Before my time at the clinic, talking to strangers was a chore and often caused me to freeze up from social anxiety. Working at the clinic improved my social skills and sharpened my ability to communicate clearly. No matter the mess and the initial social awkwardness, I always wound up enjoying my time at the clinic. In return, this job opened many more doors for me. I was soon trained to perform tasks at the reception desk, then basic animal handling/care skills, lab work, and eventually surgery assistance. This job opportunity gave me a glimpse of the veterinary world, and I never looked back.
Veterinary medicine was my future, and I knew what I was getting in to, but I think all vet school applicants would agree when I say that the process is grueling and often more confusing than you could have ever imagined. It is a highly competitive field for one thing, and you can be easily overwhelmed by the requirements set before you. I will be the first to admit that the idea still gives me anxieties, but this reaction is a reasonable and relatively normal response to such an impending to-do list. If you find yourself facing uncertainties, don’t let yourself be drowned in the daunting entirety of all that you have to accomplish. Never be afraid to ask for opinions and advice; there are plenty of people available to provide you with mentorship. Nothing can be more comforting than receiving guidance from someone who has seen your struggles and faced the same battles, so I enlisted the help of a good friend of mine: Dr. Allie Mutz from Wyoming Veterinary Services in Wyoming, IL.
Dr. Allie Mutz is a 2014 University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine graduate. Her initial exposure to veterinary medicine was through her aunt, a small animal veterinarian. The summer before her 8th grade year, Allie’s aunt invited her to come behind the scenes for a week and witness the daily life at her clinic. The rest is history. I asked her how she came to enjoy practicing medicine for livestock so much, and she indicated that she originally wanted to specify in equine medicine. She was able to gain experience with swine through an undergrad internship in China, which helped her realize that she thoroughly enjoyed working in the agricultural side of veterinary medicine. Thus, her advice is not to limit yourself by narrowing your choices too quickly. Never be afraid to gain experience in areas that you would not usually choose; you may wind up surprising yourself and become an advocate for a field you may have otherwise missed out on. An important job for large animal vets is to “be a liaison between the ag community and the urban community.” She expressed that it is a nice platform to be on, and is usually a position that is respected by both sides. But how does your average vet school hopeful get to this point in the first place? Dr. Mutz was gracious enough to provide some enlightenment on how the process works and what to expect once you are accepted.
Dr. Mutz did not have your typical vet school application process: The University of Missouri was the only college she applied to, and she was accepted through their early admissions program. The university offered what she needed, and was convenient at the time. Usually, prospective students apply to several Colleges of Veterinary Medicine to increase their chances of acceptance and are encouraged to visit the campuses to find their best fit. You’re going to be there for at least four years, so take the time to research and decide on what will work in your best interest. She admits that the first year was harsh, referring to it as a “weed-out year.” First-year students start out by focusing on the anatomy/physiology and learning how each little part functions and what it is they do. Dr. Mutz reflected on how rigorous the first semester was, commenting that the first semester winter made it so that “you go to school when it’s dark, and you get home when it’s dark. You never see the light.”
During the second year, you begin studying more about diseases. You learn what is normal, the terminology, and pathology before you can move on to applying this knowledge in the medicine courses. These allow you to focus on how to approach the case and suggest a treatment plan. It is not until the third year that students typically start the clinical phase, receive actual cases, and practice bedside manner. She remembers how humbling it was to have people place so much trust in your abilities. This trust is particularly exhibited with the farmers and producers; buy entrusting their animals to your veterinary expertise, they are putting their livelihood in to your hands. Creating these working and lasting relationships with your clients is essential, so you need that social aspect to make everything go smoothly. She stressed that it is important to be an efficient multi-tasker, especially since you will always feel pressed for time.
The last year gives you the chance for internship/externship opportunities. Advisers will work with you to make sure you get the experience you want: Wisconsin for dairy, Kentucky for equine, zoos for exotic animals, etc. You may even wind up with something you did not want, but take it as a chance to travel and gain experience. Dr. Mutz best summarized the fourth year by stating that “the most important thing is that I’m going to develop more as a veterinarian and figure out what I like.” This mindset lead her to an enjoyable two-month experience working for the CDC in Atlanta. Even though this was more of a desk job, it allowed veterinarians to apply their knowledge for the benefit of public health. It helped her realize that the smallest things make a world of difference, and that “you have a big impact where ever you go, even if it’s just for a few people or for the nation.”
Though you may excel with many other aspects of the vet school process, do not forget that creating professional relationships along the way is vital. Networking is one of the most important aspects of being a successful, respected veterinarian. In order to connect, students have to be involved in school activities and build that resume. But with a heavy schedule, remember that balance is key. You are with the same group of students throughout this whole process so make sure you reach out and get that sense of comraderie. Personality is important; make positive first impressions that last and that will help you later on. Definitely don’t be afraid to let them know who you really are. I know it can be intimidating, but get out there and get some face-time with your professors. You do not want to be that quiet person who may do well and seem nice, but no one knows anything about your personality. In the sea of so many applicants, it helps to have that leg-up in the competition if you can get out there, meet people, and create your own network.
No veterinarian’s route through school is exactly the same; you have to create your own path by making the most of your experiences and life’s opportunities. Some vet students may even decide to take a year off after undergrad to work or travel before continuing forward. Dr. Mutz reflected that a couple of her classmates chose to take this route, and seemed to return to the game refreshed. All things considered, you have probably been doing the education thing since kindergarten so a break may be exactly what you need. For many, however, it is better to keep that forward momentum and keep charging at this uphill battle. Remember keep your goals close at hand and don’t forget why you started this journey; it’s your passion, so keep at it. It does not matter how you get there in the long run, as long as you are satisfied with where the road leads to in the end.
For any veterinary school hopefuls out there, I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors!
Greetings, blog visitors! My name is Rebecca and I’m a senior at Western Illinois University. I am currently working on my Bachelor of Agriculture with a Chemistry minor. I transferred to WIU my junior year after graduating from Black Hawk College East with my Associate of Science. I plan to pursue a career in veterinary medicine after I graduate from WIU. I am in Honors College, SHA, PTKAA, Tau Sigma, and I recently joined Hoof n’ Horn. I have worked at the veterinary clinic in my hometown of Morrison, IL for almost 5 years now and would love to practice small and large animal medicine. I dabbled in the dairy show business for about 18 years with my grandpa’s herd, and I have missed it greatly since he retired from the business.
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