When did you decide to pursue veterinary medicine?
This is going to sound like a cliché, but I have always wanted to be a veterinarian. For as long as I can remember, I told people that I was going to be an animal doctor when I grew up. When my middle school class was asked to write a letter to our future selves for a time capsule, mine was addressed to myself as a 4th year vet student on clinical rotations. As I got older, other career options crossed my mind but they were always my "Plan B" if, for some reason, vet school did not work out.
What did you do to prepare for veterinary school?
When I turned 16, I was old enough to start volunteering at the animal shelter in my town. I went there weekly during the school year and several times a week during the summer and school breaks. During the summer before I started college, I shadowed a group of four veterinarians at a local small animal veterinary hospital. The clinic’s schedule ran late into the evening, so I was able to spend a lot of time with the vets and technicians observing physical exams, surgical procedures, and in-house lab work. The following summer, I shadowed at another small animal hospital near my home. I also applied to volunteer or work at all of the veterinary clinics within a reasonable radius of my undergrad college, so that I could continue to acquire more veterinary experience while I was away at school. I had the option to start working at a small animal clinic or volunteer at a mixed animal practice. The idea of gaining more large animal experience appealed to me, so I chose the mixed practice. After several months as a volunteer, I was eventually hired as an assistant technician. I continued to work for this practice right up until the time I moved to Ithaca, and consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn as much as I did under the guidance of the veterinarians there.
What advice to you have for high school students who are interested in becoming a vet?
It is a good idea to start getting animal experience as early as you can. The goal of this is not just to meet the required number of hours set by the vet schools, but also to become more familiar with the great variety of different species you might work with as a vet, standard procedures you will be expected to perform as a vet, and to develop your communication skills through client interactions. Do not rule out being a small animal veterinarian if you have only ever handled horses; on the other hand, do not rule out being a large animal vet just because you have never touched a cow. Try to get at least a little bit of experience with as many different species as you can—you can even shadow vets who work at zoos or aquariums, or in the research field—before you start thinking about what type of practice might suit you best. Personally, I went into college thinking I wanted to practice exclusively small-animal medicine, but by the time I applied to vet school I had discovered how much I also enjoy working with large animals. Vet schools will also look at the quality of the hours and species with which you have worked, in addition to quantity, so having some variety may help make you a stronger candidate.
When you start looking at undergraduate colleges, make sure you choose one that will best prepare you for vet school. You do not necessarily need to be an Animal Science major, or even a science major (some of my classmates graduated with degrees in finance), but you do need to ensure that you will be able to complete all of the prerequisite courses for the schools to which you plan to apply. While most of the vet schools have similar requirements, they are not identical. The vet school admissions committees are more than willing to help you make sure you are on the right track and that the courses you are taking match their respective school's requirements; all it takes is a phone call or email. You can also use the Veterinary Medical School Admissions Requirements (VMSAR) book, which is updated yearly, to compare the pre-requisites, class sizes, out-of-state acceptance rates, and other information about the veterinary schools you are interested in. Many undergraduate libraries have a copy of the VMSAR that you can borrow if you do not want a copy of your own.
Although the primary reason to volunteer or work with a veterinarian is to gain the necessary number of hours of experience, it also allows you to develop good working relationships with the veterinarians (at least one of whom will need to write a letter of recommendation for your vet school application) and technicians. The other (much more important) reason to spend all those hours with a veterinarian is to find out if this is really what you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life. The best way to find out if you really want to become a vet is to spend as much time as possible working alongside one (or several!), so that you can imagine yourself in their shoes and see what their average day entails. Or, you might discover that there really is no such thing as an “average day” in the life of a veterinarian! It definitely keeps you on your toes and requires some creativity and flexibility, but that is one of the things that I love most about the profession.