As I continue my journey to one day becoming a veterinarian, I am often asked about what it takes to become one, both at Encina and dinner parties alike. People tend to have a general concept of how one becomes a human doctor, but even I was unclear about veterinary school when I began my career as a kennel technician so many moons ago. So, for all of you with a dream to become an animal doctor (or a niece/friend/neighbor with one), this blog is for you! I have broken down the process step-by-step, so you will know more about the person on the other side of the exam table next time you bring your pet in to see us.
Basic Formula: 1) High school diploma, 2) Undergraduate College degree, GRE test, Fulfill Vet School Requirements for admission (4+ years), 5) Veterinary school (4 years), 6) Internship (optional unless you are planning on specializing, 1 year), 7) Residency (optional for general practice doctors, required for specialists, 3-4 years)
High School: If you are struck by the veterinary bug early, there are a few things you can do before college to help ensure your chances at getting into the veterinary school of your choice. 1) Maintain good grades and get as many AP science classes out of the way as you can, as this will optimize your time spent in college. Chemistry, physics, and biology are all requirements for veterinary schools across the board. 2) Get some work experience by applying to work at a veterinary hospital over the summers or on weekends as a kennel technician. Dr. Atwater, Dr. Nurre, and Dr. Christofferson all started out this way, I can remember Dr. Atwater once telling me you could “eat off of” the kennel floors he scrubbed because they were so immaculate. Kennel technician duties vary from animal restraint, cleaning and restocking duties, to caring for the hospital’s boarders.
College: Choose a degree program that will enable you to get as many veterinary school requirements out of the way while obtaining your BS or BA. It helps to have a school in mind so that you can make sure that your degree program meets the admissions requirements. For UC Davis, the lower division science requirements are as follows: 1 year each of biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry, all with labs, and 1 year of physics without a lab. Upper division science requirements for admission (also at UCD) include 1 semester each of biochemistry, genetics, and systemic physiology. Also required are statistics, English, humanities, and social science classes. Some majors that enable you to meet all of these requirements include general biology, physiology, and of course, pre-veterinary. Tantamount to taking the classes is doing well in them, although most vet schools only require a 2.5 GPA for both science and cumulative coursework, the unwritten minimum for many schools is a 3.5 GPA because admission is highly competitive.
Other Requirements for Admission:
As mentioned above, the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) test is required for admission to veterinary schools. The GRE is sort of like the SATs for graduate school, it contains verbal, quantitative (mathematical), and analytical sections, all taken on a computer at a registered testing site. If your GPA is below 3.5, a high score on the GRE may be used to counterbalance your grades.
Also required by UC Davis (and most veterinary schools): 180 hours of veterinary experience, 3 letters of evaluation (one from a professor, one from a veterinarian, and one from either a professor or veterinarian of your choosing), and a personal statement.
Why is getting in so hard?
Getting into veterinary school is a dog-eat-dog race (pun intended), in fact, it has been said that getting into veterinary school is harder to get into than medical school. If I had a dollar for every human doctor or professor I’ve met that told me they wanted to be a vet but couldn’t get into to school, not only would I be making money in a very strange way, I would have amassed enough to catch a movie with popcorn. There are over 150 medical schools in the US but only 28 veterinary schools. The number of veterinary school applicants is smaller overall, but with fewer spots available the odds of getting in are stacked against the future veterinarians of the world. Many people get master’s degrees in science to increase their chances of getting into vet school.
Veterinary School: Once you are in, veterinary school takes 4 years to complete, the light at the end of the tunnel being a doctorate degree. Programs are considered to be highly involved and rigorous as a result of the fact that a veterinary doctor must master the inner workings of more than one species. The first two years of veterinary school are mostly spent in the classroom, studying subjects from animal nutrition to virology. During the last two years the student spends more time in a clinical setting, learning how to communicate with animal owners, as well as the evaluation and treatment of patients, all while under the supervision of attending veterinarians. After veterinary school the graduate must complete veterinary boards, at the national and state level.
Internship: Spend enough time at Encina, and you will catch a glimpse of a herd of white-coated interns trailing Dr. Johnson or one of our other specialty veterinarians in and out of exam rooms. These doctors are graduates of veterinary school who wish to further their education by completing rotations in oncology, internal medicine, emergency medicine, neurology, surgery, and dentistry, among others. Encina is unique in that we are a teaching hospital, and has had an internship and residency program in place for several years. The internship program provides our top doctors with an opportunity to teach another generation of vets about what they love the most, be it oncology or ear infections. Dr. Nurre has told me that some of the most important lessons about being a vet are learned after school, and our internship is a place where these vets are able to do just that in a safe environment where they are overseen by experienced veterinarians. Internships are not required, and a veterinarian may legally begin practicing right out of veterinary school.
Residency: Encina currently has one resident, Dr. Jenifer Wang, who is studying to become an internal medicine specialist. Dr. Wang joined us the year she graduated from veterinary school, as an intern, and decided to embark on her residency immediately after. She is overseen by Dr. Johnson and Dr. Nurre, and sometimes goes up to UC Davis for various aspects of her training. Other specialists such as Dr. Atwater and Dr. Johnson, completed their residencies at veterinary schools. The process takes 3-4 years to complete, and requires the resident to publish work, as well as pass a myriad of tests.
Feeling overwhelmed just reading this? If you did your math correctly, you probably figured out that a general practice vet spends about 8 years after high school in college to become a veterinarian (that number is increased to 10-11 years if that person got a master’s degree prior to attending veterinary school). Specialists such as Dr. Johnson spent 8 years in college and another 3-4 in an internship and residency, making for an impressive 11-12 years in school (increase that to 13-14 if a master’s degree was procured). Still interested in becoming an animal doctor? It is a rewarding job that is unique in that you get to help animals and the people who bring them in. If you or someone you know is thinking about becoming a vet, come in to our clinic for a free tour any day of the week between 8am and 10pm, and feel free to email your questions to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.