From a very young age, there were only ever two career paths I considered: that of a doctor, or that of a veterinarian.
Indeed, if you had asked nine year old me where I saw myself “as a grown up”, every conceivable mental image that I could conjure would have involved white-walled hospital corridors, scrub-clad nurses bustling to and fro, white coats and complicated-looking equipment beeping reassuringly in every room.
Bear with me for a brief side tangent; I promise it’s relevant (if a little gory).
When I was ten, I almost chopped the top of my finger clean off whilst absent-mindedly slamming the heavy wooden front door of my grandparent’s farmhouse. I distinctly remember clutching my dangling digit together with a lump of blood soaked toilet paper in the back seat of the car, sobbing profusely as I was driven to the accident and emergency unit.
I remember the sting of the injections (I am not ashamed to admit that they had to hold me down for these) and the influx of numbness, the blissful absence of pain that followed in their wake.
And I remember lying sedated but awake as the soft-spoken and hairy-armed Scottish surgeon quizzed me on my school lessons (we were studying the six wives of Henry the eighth at the time) whilst he carefully, meticulously stitched my finger back together.
Fascinated, I watched the whole thing, albeit whilst drifting in and out of the twilight realms only those with a heavy sedative on board can explore.
Following this encounter, I was hell-bent on becoming a human medical doctor. For years I was sure, 100%, adamant that this was what I would become. A surgeon. One day, I too would stitch little girl’s fingers back together.
So, it may come as a surprise for those new to the blog to learn that today I am 32 years old; have ten functional fingers (albeit one is rather scarred); and I am a veterinarian.
For me, the decision to change my goals from doctor to vet did not come as the result of a sudden life-changing epiphany, and nor from any flashes of inspiration that I can pinpoint.
I did not have a similarly fascinating experience at the vets with any of our scraggly coated but indisputably well mannered mongrel dogs. And I was not saved from a well by a benevolent collie dog (bonus points, for those who get the reference).
Rather boringly, I decided to become a vet rather than a doctor in my late teens, as a result of objectively weighing up the pros and cons of each profession. I even made a list (several lists in fact, over the course of several months). And I did my research…as should you.
As mundane as it seems, I do firmly believe that this was the correct way to make this call.
Had I gone with my gut instinct and become a human medic, I would have likely found that it was not the career I really wanted, for a variety of reasons.
Likewise, there will be those of you out there who are currently strongly leaning towards a career as a veterinarian, but who may discover as a result of this blog post (and your own research) that this is not the best option for you.
Let’s start by taking a look at the factors that made my list, way back in my school years…the relative benefits of becoming a doctor over a vet, and vice versa.
Of course, the original lists are long lost to the ages, and it’s inevitable that these contemporary lists will be influenced by my experiences as a vet…but many of the points remain unchanged and of course all remain valid.
And then, for a reality check, we’ll add a few factors that would never have occurred to me at the time of making the decision. These factors I can only allude to thanks to the dual benefits of experience and hindsight.
Let’s do this.
Reasons To Become A Doctor Over A Vet
- Will very likely earn significantly more money over the course of your lifetime.
- Will receive more respect from a society which remains more in awe of human consultants and surgeons than their veterinary equivalents. Indeed, somewhat shockingly vets in the UK weren’t even awarded the title of “Dr” until a few years ago, after a great deal of fighting for recognition.
- Patients are less likely to try and scratch, bite, kick or eviscerate you (although this is not guaranteed!)
- In all seriousness, being a doctor is safer, especially if you plan to work with horses or farm animals as a vet.
- Less “dirty” (probably). As a vet, I am routinely urinated on, shat on, or squirted with bodily fluids of various sorts. Animal patients do not realise that this is impolite. I’ve been up to my shoulder in cows (quite literally) a number of times. And don’t even get me started on the sheer maddening itch of being permanently covered in dog hair.
- If you know you want to specialize and become very, very good at just one thing, becoming a doctor may be the better option for you as this is more likely to happen (and you are also just focusing on one species throughout your studies, rather than many).
- And finally, if you work for the NHS in the UK you will unquestioningly be viewed as a hero by society at large and awarded discounts (at the cinema, restaurants, clothes stores etc).
Note: my understanding is that this is because people believe that unlike vets and veterinary nurses (who are all money grabbing bastards, of course) you work tirelessly for free.
Reasons To Become A Vet Over A Doctor
- Animals. Animals. More animals.
- More specifically (for me): puppies, kittens, and more puppies and kittens!
- Slightly lower chance of somebody trying to sue you compared to human medicine.
- Personally, I receive more gifts from grateful pet owners than my human medical friends receive from their patients, and these physical expressions of gratitude are a huge morale boost. Notable exception: one friend is a pediatrician and routinely receives expensive bottles of wine and boxes of chocolates from grateful parents.
- Greater autonomy at work; in nearly every instance you will be 100% in charge of making your own clinician decisions without a superior looking over your shoulder, or a constrictive standard operating procedure that you must follow.
- Greater variety at work: in terms of species you can treat; conditions you will see; and (most importantly to me) you can absolutely be a diagnostician, internal medic, soft tissue and orthopedic surgeon, radiographer, animal psychiatrist, immunologist, neonatologist…by default you will be all of the things, rather than just one!
For me in the end, it was the variety and the openness of one’s options in terms of career progression (off putting for some) which caused me to opt for veterinary medicine.
I knew I did not want to niche down too much, and I certainly never want to be in a position where I would have to give up medicine or surgery and focus on just one. I prefer to maintain a balance of both: so, for this reason, for me personally veterinary was ultimately the clear winner.
Take heed of the following, when making your decision…these are not factors I considered at the time of selecting my own path, but honestly, I wish I’d been more aware of them.
- Becoming a human doctor does not necessarily mean you will always be treated with respect.
Sadly, some people are just assholes, and very sadly, some people are assholes to the doctors who are working their butts off to help them.
At least as a vet I have the option of kicking the pet owner out of my consult room if they are abusive: I don’t need them to be present, in order to treat their animal (my patient).
Unfortunately my human medical colleagues need to keep their human patients around (thereby risking continued abuse) in order to treat them, which I’m sure can be exceptionally difficult and frustrating, even dangerous, in some instances.
I do have it on good authority however that sedating the patient against their wishes may be an option in this instance, which of course is a striking similarity between veterinary and human medicine!
- The human medical field is less forgiving of mistakes, and the expected standard is often higher.
That’s certainly not to say that there aren’t vets out there who are practicing to an equally high standard or higher than human medics, but by and large, there is an unspoken understanding in society in general that people matter more than animals.
I’m going to be really blunt here. If you become a vet, fuck up and make a poor clinical decision that results in – for example – the premature death of somebody’s dog, they are going to be sad and angry and may understandably try and sue you.
But no lynch mob is going to throw red paint over your front door. The newspapers and internet at large are not going to vilify you. And, so long as it was a genuine mistake and not negligence, you will keep your license.
However, if you become a human doctor, fuck up and it results in the premature death of somebody’s child…all hell will understandably break loose.
You will come under more intense scrutiny. You will be crucified online. Your personal life may be picked apart. You are more at risk of losing your license.
TLDR: The stakes are higher in human medicine. And this should absolutely be taken into account by any prospective human or veterinary medical student.
- You might have to work harder at vet school and have less of a life, than if you attend medical school.
Quick caveat: I can’t vouch for whether this is the case elsewhere in the world, or even at every university, as I really only have experience of studying to become a vet in the UK, and then only at one school.
What leads me to believe that the above may be true is as follows: whilst at vet school, I was dating a medical student. I was timetabled in lecturers and practicals every weekday from 9am-5pm, with a half day on wednesdays. Whereas my med student boyfriend finished lectures and/or practicals at either 1pm or 3pm most days.
So, here there was a clear difference in terms of contact hours. I also found that my veterinary classmates tended to study longer hours in the evenings and at weekends compared to my boyfriend and his med school buddies.
What’s more, during our easter, summer and christmas holiday, we vet students had to complete months of extramural placements (on farms, at stables, in veterinary practices etc), meaning in reality that we did not really get much in the way of holidays throughout our years at university.
This was not the case for the medical students. So again, more free time at medical school, and arguably less time spent grafting.
Is the above entirely anecdotal? Yes.
Might things be different elsewhere in the world? Again, yes. In fact, it is my understanding that extra-mural studies are not a requirement for completing a veterinary degree in many parts of the world.
All I’m saying is be aware that differences may exist in terms of the relative difficulty and intensity (in terms of study time, and time spent on placement) between the two degree programmes.
By the way: please don’t let this point sway you one way or the other. It shouldn’t be the deciding factor because obviously university is only a relatively short-term part of your life.
Just be aware that differences exist between the degree programmes.
- Don’t (necessarily) expect as much structure or support as a newly graduated vet, as you would receive as a newly graduated doctor.
Now thankfully, this does seem to be changing rapidly (which is a great thing), but certainly when I graduated, structured graduate programmes for newly qualified vets were few and far between in the United Kingdom at least.
Resultantly, the vast majority of us waltzed out of the veterinary lecture hall and directly into the baptism by fire of first opinion practice, where we were suddenly the responsible adult and responsible clinician in charge of life or death decisions.
Many of us will have operated for the first time with very little practical training and in lots of cases no senior clinician directly present – a scary thought for every pet owner out there, for sure.
What’s more, as a vet, nobody is going to ensure that you progress or specialize. If you don’t take the initiative, or if you lose that initial drive and ambition, you will stay a jack-of-all-trades first opinion vet earning a bog standard new-grad-esque wage for the rest of your working life, guaranteed.
If you want to specialize, you’ll either have to pay (no small fee!) to undertake additional certification yourself over the course of a year or more, or you’ll need to convince your employer to pay for this for you – meaning of course, you are stuck with that employer for a good long period of time…so choose wisely!
On the flip side, here in the UK there exists a slightly more structured outline for newly qualified doctors, with an expected progression and clear timeframes through to specialization. There is also one obvious body of employment – the NHS – in which you are pretty much guaranteed to work, at least at the start.
Put simply, you could think of the career progression for a doctor in the UK after graduation as being like climbing up the rungs of a ladder, where nearly everyone can be expected to eventually reach the top and achieve a high paying, specialized role (although of course that will take a lot longer for some individuals than others).
Whereas for a vet it’s more like being thrown into an ocean where only the smartest, most ambitious fish will ever nab a consultant-level role, or indeed a consultant-level or practice-owner level salary.
- If you become a vet, don’t necessarily expect the general public to be aware of the fact that you are equally as qualified as a human doctor.
…Or even as qualified as their local dog groomer for that matter! In fact, infuriatingly they’ll rate their groomer’s advice just as highly as yours half the time (the equivalent of listening to your child’s hairdresser over their pediatrician, in terms of their healthcare).
I still regularly have the questionable pleasure of meeting pet owners who assume I am the equivalent of a witch doctor, or that I obtained my veterinary degree (with distinction) online via a year-long part time course with Coursera.
Sadly there just isn’t always the same level of awareness amongst the public that vets have undergone extensive and in-depth medical training just like our colleagues in human medicine. Sometimes, this shows. And sometimes, it’s a bit disheartening.
An acquaintance of mine is a consultant veterinary cardiologist now, and I assure you she has equally as adequate of a level of education, training and experience as any human cardiologist. But nobody is immune to the fact that they will always be just another vet in the eyes of many: she still gets asked on a regular basis by clients to express their dog’s anal glands or trim their dog’s nails during a heart scan or ECG.
I can guarantee you that doesn’t happen if you’re a human consultant.
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I hope y’all found this helpful.
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