An open letter from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate


An open letter from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate

While the financial problems plaguing veterinary education may hog the spotlight, this young veterinarian says it’s time to talk about the other issues—those that occur behind closed doors and within closed minds—that are making students sour.
May 26, 2017
By staff

Isaeva Anna/Shutterstock.comRecently I had an interesting conversation with a technician at work. She's bright, motivated, diligent and interested. She wanted to be a veterinarian when she was younger, but those dreams went by the wayside due to life circumstances and finances. Her father asked her if, since she's now working in a veterinary hospital, her old desires had been rekindled. Did she still want to be a vet?

"I think you would make a good veterinarian," I told her. "But I don't think you should go to vet school." The other recent grad and the fourth-year extern standing nearby immediately echoed my sentiments.

Why did we offer this advice? And why are veterinary students so unhappy? Why do they suffer from anxiety and depression at alarming rates? It's a multifaceted problem, but everything boils down to incredible anger about our experience in vet school.

Anger because we worked hard with little reward. Anger because we had to sacrifice our hobbies, social lives and emotional well-being to study, do grunt work and write volumes of paperwork no one would ever read.

Anger because we were at times mistreated, yelled at and punished for things we didn't do.

Anger because we were bombarded by statistics and articles that say vets are overpopulated, vets make salaries that are not consummate with the time and tuition they put out, vets are to blame for killing animals or practicing pseudoscience and are crucified on social media—with career- and life-ruining effects.

Anger because we watched animals suffer and die needlessly, were witness to errors we didn't have the power to fix and slogged on daily through injustice and mismanagement.

Anger because of the cumulative effects of massive, unrelenting stress.

It's true that veterinary medicine attracts type A people—the overachievers and the perfectionists. But I'm not referring to stress from internally driven motivators. There's a prevailing attitude in veterinary medicine that people need to "put in their time"—work like a dog for years, suffer, slave away, and slowly crawl to the top of the pile through copious blood, sweat and tears. I disagree.

This field needs collaboration, camaraderie and healthy competition. Instead, it has backstabbing, gossip and cutthroat antagonism. And at the university, I saw efforts to sabotage careers out of personal vendettas. I saw great attempts to discredit and embarrass clinicians in front of their students and peers. I saw patient care go by the wayside, a casualty of intra- and interdepartmental quarrels. And I saw—and even received—unjustified, over-the-top criticisms and punishments in order for someone to maintain a façade of undeserved authority.

At school I also had to follow orders I didn't agree with. On one occasion, I took part in a euthanasia for an ailment with a treatable solution, though the client hadn’t been apprised of this fact because the head clinician refused to acknowledge its possibility. Those of us in the opposing camp were vindicated—too late—at necropsy. Obedience and fear of consequences kept our mouths shut. But such cases continue to haunt me.

I can't wave a magic wand and make the outlook better for graduating vets. But I can offer some guidelines to serve as counterpoints to some of the negative behaviors I observed as a clinical student.

Be realistic. If the head clinician is overwhelmed, the house officers probably are, too, and the students are probably running around like maniacs trying to keep the whole thing afloat. Each person should try to recognize when someone is in over their head and help out accordingly. There were many times when I witnessed technicians sitting around gossiping or snacking while students juggled menial patient care and other pressing responsibilities—or when senior clinicians vanished to an office hideout while underlings were left to clean up messes, both literal and figurative.

Furthermore, 15-hour days, five days a week, plus emergency shifts, nighttime patient medication and walking, and weekend care just isn't sustainable for a student who's also trying to study for a block exam, prepare for boards, take care of responsibilities at home, read up on upcoming cases, finish paperwork and more.

Be respectful. The Golden Rule still applies, even behind closed doors when superiors aren't watching. I've witnessed some utterly heinous behavior from respected "professionals," directed both at students and at fellow doctors. This is demeaning, stress-inducing and morale-killing. It seriously contributes to workplace dissatisfaction, which leads to further pent-up anger, tensions, inefficiency and ultimately bad service for animals and clients.

Be receptive. Sometimes good ideas come from unexpected places. Sometimes clients can diagnose their pets before the doctor can, because they know the animal better. Sometimes students are armed with more up-to-date knowledge on their cases than the clinician, since the classes are fresher in their brains or because they took the time to comb through PubMed looking for a solution. Don't discount these ideas just because they didn't come from an "expert."

Be relevant. I've seen bad or outdated science touted as unquestionable fact. We must grow and change with the times. Universities should be at the forefront of medical progress, not stuck in the Stone Age out of stubbornness and reliance on "tradition." We have to challenge our dearly held beliefs daily if we hope to grow, remain current and be good doctors. Our patients and clients deserve nothing less.

There are certainly some excellent individuals serving as clinicians and teachers at universities. I hope these people who still value teaching high-quality medicine and the pursuit of scientific knowledge will remain in academia so future students can benefit from their knowledge and altruism.

This is how dialogue in the veterinary community ought to work. Please don't forget this.



A Young Veterinarian




Leadership sessions at CVC

Different Points of View

As a semi-retired 70-year old veterinarian, I have owned practices, been an associate, and worked relief in three different states. I have worked with/for doctors from young graduates to doctors older than I am now. I have worked for satisfied doctors, burned out doctors taking time off, and doctors who should not be practicing.

To Dr. Tom, MD; You are working in a different reality than veterinarians and different than young doctors in either of our professions. Since I am close to your age, maybe I can help you recall what it was like for us. I had $1,500 of educational debt when I graduated, not the $250,000+ owed by most graduates today. I was able to open a new practice with my DVM husband in his rural hometown.

Most clients thanked me for treating their animals even if things went wrong. The large animal clients were struggling during the farm recession. I delivered a calf from a feedlot heifer in my driveway. When she tore and I wanted to suture the vulva, the owner instead shot her, but not before thanking me. He had a running significant debt with us, and cattle were not worth much then. We struggled for years, and debt was a contributing factor to our divorce. That experience lead me to limit my work to small animals which would not produce such a severe roller coaster in income.

Today new graduates have too much debt to start or buy a practice. To help you comprehend this, you need to know that unlike an MD, veterinarians create a facility with the medical equipment available to you and other MDs for no debt, because they are located in hospitals. To start a veterinary practice takes so much more money than an MD needs to start. These new graduates have far fewer choices upon graduation than we had. Their choices are restricted most of all by debt. They can no longer work for slave wages like we did. Add to that that, many older practitioners cannot (and some just will not) pay enough for new graduates to pay student debt and live a middle class existence.

The new graduates I have worked with have all been terrific. They are extremely smart and self-starters, not the self-centered millennials you believe them to be. They thirst for more knowledge and appreciate hearing what I have done that has either worked and most importantly, failed or contributed to a patient's demise. Veterinary medicine gets the cream of the crop. I have heard from people who really wanted to go into veterinary medicine, but had to go to medical school because they could not get into veterinary school.

Dr. Tom, look on your shelves. Do you have only books from the decade of your graduation? Do you attend educational events only when you get CE credit for licensure? How may professional publications do you subscribe to? Do you get on the internet multiple times a day to consult on cases? If any of the answers embarrass you, then don't look over your shoulder. The millennials who do will soon be way ahead of us.

I have mixed feelings about Dr. Pol, but the fact that you find nothing wrong with his way of practicing says to me that either you practice with the same standard or your opinion of DVMs is lower than your opinion of MDs. If all he has to do in practice is pull calves or treat abomasal displacement, he is pretty good. On every episode I cringe at least once over something I see which is below our standard of care. It usually equates to the standard of care seen prior to 1960. He gets away with it for several reasons. Just like human patients, our animal patients often get well despite what we do, not because of what we do. He started his practice to treat dairy cows, so small animal practice seems like an afterthought. His mistake is hiring 2 additional LARGE animal practitioners instead of 1 good small animal practitioner. He was forced by his licensing board to take CE in small animals in a state where NO CE is required to renew a license. Naturally his standard of care has not moved along with the practice act. Like most veterinarians, he probably did not even have a current copy of the practice act until reported to his licensing board. He, and I surmise possibly you, function under the "good ol' boy" system. If he has practiced in the community longer than most residents have lived there and he is also active in the community, he is more likely to be a well respected individual with less tendency to be challenged about his standard of care. If I recall, it was not one of his clients that turned him in, but instead another veterinarian (and likely to have graduated within the last 15 years).

I remember the first two years of veterinary school being filled with fear and anxiety. We had a teacher who considered himself an admission committee of one, and we had him for those two years. Once we began clinics, the teachers were more supportive. Most of them had practiced. I agree with those who say today's teachers are isolated in their castles of academia. It gives students unrealistic expectations. There is one expectation that is correct. They will never receive the salaries they deserve. That is why there are more women than men entering the profession. There has to be another pay-off. That pay-off is the belief that they can do something that makes a difference in the world. So when they do their best, sacrifice their personal well being and relationships, and are met with anger and threats and with restriction on what they can do, it can be extremely difficult. They feel like failures, worthless and not fulfilling their moral obligations. A person can tolerate quite a lot until s/he is forced to work against her/ her moral standards. We live in a litigious environment, and clients have no qualms about following through on a perceived slight or injustice.

I have no solutions for the current predicament of our profession. I used to think that the animal rights movement with its stance against owning pets and eating meat, was the worst enemy. Now I believe we are more threatened from within. It will never get better if the only advice given to hurting practitioners is to find an outlet for frustration or just endure it. People are dying because of it. We have become competitors for income instead of comrades to help the needy animals around us.

OK. I have my armor on now for attacks.


Thank you for your response, your words, and your stories. I truly appreciate your defense of the much-maligned "millennial"--as one of the same, I think your interpretation is right (with the obvious caveat that there are bad apples in every generation).

I am the author of the article, and hearing agreement from someone several generations removed is relieving. I have posted a standalone comment elsewhere that includes the unedited version of my open letter (before it was trimmed considerably for publication), but it sounds like you already "get" the message, and for that, I thank you (as I'm sure the young vets you've mentored also have).

No attack from me!

You are right on the money. I never considered that there are more women than men entering vet because the money is lousy. I do know, however of lots of lousy vets who have become human doctors, earn 5 times what I do and are lazy as hell.

DrTom is a dinosaur and we all know what happened to the dinosaurs. I think things are getting better, but it will take generational change. I think vet practice also suffers from the fact that it is essentially a small business and as such the margins we are forced to work under are incredibly small. Having said that, there are a lot of practice owners who are doing very well for themselves without compensating their vets and nurses/technicians with generous remuneration. The large corporate vet conglomerates are the worst for this and they are the ones making the biggest profits. We always go on about how it is a team effort so how about rewarding the best all veterinary employees with the most generous wages affordable.

Problem is partly higher ed and not all specific to vet school

I hate to say it but higher education in general has an awful lot of abusive, spiteful, egotists who get their jollies kicking Phd, med and vet students. This is not how it should be but unfortunately there is little an individual student can do to change that. As a student there were times I had to repeat to myself, "There are good reasons why I wanted to do this. The fact that I can't think of any of them right now is not good enough reason to quit."

Sometimes you just have to power through the negative and keep your eye on the outcome you want (e.g. get done, get your degree, pass the exam and get a job/start or buy a practice). It shouldn't have to be like this and there are lucky souls who have a wonderful experience and don't get bullied (because quite honestly that is what I think this kind of treatment is), but there are also many who are mistreated, some horrifically so.

I can't offer much advice about how to cope because that is so individual. I know when I was in school we'd band together as students, cheer up the current target(s) knowing our time would come too, and did our best to help each other get out in one piece. Unfortunately faculty, etc. have significant power over students and as students we blow them off at our own risk since we need their references, assistance in job placement via their networks...and so it is usually counterproductive to tell them off (although it was a relief when a senior faculty took my side and protected me for the year I worked for him as a grad assistant, helped me win a grievance against one of the student abusers and used his political power to oust worst abusive faculty from his department chair job - usually though it is more dangerous to try to get justice as a single voice than if just about everyone complains as one voice. I was just plain lucky).

Good luck to all of you in the trench suffering though being abused. Don't let the bastards win by dropping out.


I agree with your interpretation of higher ed, though it's probably not "just" higher ed. It's human nature, and surely permeates into the corporate world and likely all aspects of life to some degree. Thankfully there are usually a handful of truly good, honest, caring people in each department who do their best to minimize the abuse and keep the onslaught at bay, and that's how people are able to keep trucking through. It's a sad state of affairs. I'm grateful to those who do their part to "fight back against the negativity," as it were--that's the only way I managed to survive my experience.

Reply to open letter

I feel very fortunate that I didn't have anything that this student had to put up with. But, if I disagreed with something in Vet School the clinician was going to do then I voiced my opinion and I was lucky with the clinicians I worked under that they explained what they were doing and why. I may not always have agreed with them but at least there was a discussion and they knew that I was paying attention to my cases. I also was lucky enough to have landed a job when I graduated that allowed me to practice the type of medicine I learned in college making a decent salary. Lastly, I did not listen to the "experts" telling me all the negative things about becoming a vet. I always felt it is up to me to make my life better and prove the nay sayers wrong.
But, I feel, it is important for every student to question why something is being done, what the protocols are and understand it. If you disagree with it, then speak up. If you don't voice your opinion then you are saying to the world that you agree with something you disapprove of, that your opinion doesn't matter and you will go along with anything. Nor should you allow someone to yell at your or abuse you verbally. That is not what you are in college for. As far as the reams of reports you write in college that no one reads - that is a learning experience for yourself, not others. If it is that important to you then consider going into research.

Hello from the other side

Thank you for posting the students perspective of what is often a very misunderstood and heated topic. I think this post opens up an issue of generational miscommunication that we can only repair through respectful, open, dialogue.

I am a "recent grad" in the grand scheme of things of the class of 2009. I have seen all aspects of veterinary medicine - internship (private specialty practice), residency (university), private practice (as a GP/specialist), and now as junior faculty at a major big 10 veterinary school. I think it is important that you (the recent grad) understand as well what we (as clinicians) go through on a daily basis.

Please note I am not at all trying to discredit your points. Some are excellent and I have experienced the same frustrations as a vet student myself, however until you have been in the "real world" for a period of time it is difficult to truly appreciate everything you have gone through to get where you are. Allow me to explain through your clinicians point of view...

I think most students do not understand the amount of blood, sweat, and literal tears we go through to provide you with the best education possible. Our job is far from easy as we have to juggle family life, grueling on call schedules, lack of technical support, and the day to day heartbreak of case management of the average practitioner, with the scrutiny and expectation of providing a superior education for our students. Most of us truly LOVE teaching. It's why we are here. Believe me we could make a lot more in private practice, but yet we do this because we want a better future for YOU. Every aspect of our job is evaluated under a microscope. The student evaluations you provide directly impact whether or not we get a contract for the next year... translation, whether or not I can feed my family depends on my ability to provide you with excellent instruction as well as the normal case management expected if a veterinary practitioner. Not only that, but I am expected to provide CE, lecture, laboratory, research, serve on university committees, as well as have some semblance of a social life. It's a balance act that we only do because of love of the job and love for the students. It is FAR from easy.

Your comment about your "clinicians disappearing to their office" struck a chord with me. It made me realize how little students truly understand what we do. While on clinics, we are expected to teach anywhere from 1-7 (or more) lectures a week. Do you realize how long it takes to prepare a lecture? If we are doing this from scratch you are looking at anywhere from 4-15 hrs of prep time per hour of lecture. Not including labs, paperwork, IACUC protocols, and trying to juggle how to provide hands on learning with increasing class size and lack of teaching resources. Often my lecture prep is done during these brief breaks where the resident can provide a moment of reprieve, otherwise evenings and weekends are all I have. Just like you, we also have to work weekends. It's just a different kind. Just because you don't see us does not mean we are not working.

We are expected like you to be on call, and we like you,, have to manage 50 cases or more a week, only we are where the buck stops. It is our fault if medical errors occur or if paperwork isn't filled out correctly as we are the top of the clinical food chain. This is why we have to be strict with our expectations. We are directly responsible for not only the cases directly, but the job performance of 5-15 other individuals.. We have to mentor residents. Interns, and students and we are constantly being judged on our performance. I can't tell you how many nights I've cried actual tears over oheartbreaking evaluations received from students that are just frankly
Mean and not constructive in any way. We are trying to manage expectations of classes of students who often have no concept of what to expect in practice and truly you don't realize what a luxury vet school is until you enter the trenches. And I am speaking from experience not as an "ivory tower" clinician.

So my purpose of this is just this: communicate. Your professors and clinicians truly do care about your education and emotional wellbeing. We were in your same shoes not long ago. While there are clinicians that act in the way you describe, in my experience they are the exception and not the rule. If you have an issue with the way something is being taught or how a case is being managed, talk to them. Ask questions. Understand their reason why. If you need a break because you are going to snap, ask for one. We don't read minds and often are so up to our proverbial rear ends in alligators that we need to be reminded that other people do need to eat (something I gave up long ago during clinics and often forgot). Respect is earned, not given and that is a two way street. At the end of the day we both want the same thing, for you to become an exceptional veterinarian. Let's work together as a team. Because believe me, if I didn't care, there are a lot of other things that I could use my degree for that would make my life easier. But I choose to educate for better or for worse. I do hope in time you will learn to find the joy in your work and remember those clinicians who helped you along the way because we will remember you. And please take some time to thank them. Suicide is just as prevalent with us as it is with you.

points noted, but....

I agree with both of you to a considerable extent (the original comment and the reply). I am the author of the article, and I posted a standalone comment last night which provides the unedited version of my open letter, before important bits were trimmed by the dvm360 staff. Hopefully that original document makes it more clear that I am not trying to vilify clinicians. In actuality, I was asked to write the letter by a resident (who had previously served as a faculty member at several other universities). This resident and I had both suffered from the attitudes and behaviors I outlined above, and we knew many others who had experienced the same. After writing, I showed it to a trusted faculty member at the university (someone in a position of significant influence), and this person also heavily concurred, and lamented that I wrote the truth. There ARE good people in academia. There ARE people who truly care about the students, and the patients, and the clients. Most people probably DO start out with good intentions. But my experience was that the machine hardened the good ones and made them bitter, and the bad ones were turned free to get worse and worse, ever feeding their own egos and insecurities. It's an institutional problem, but the hatefulness is also propagated by individuals, perhaps broken by the system. I fled academia for this reason, although I've since discovered that these same attitudes can permeate private practice just as much. It's a sad state of affairs.

K9obgyn, As a recent graduate

As a recent graduate (2012), and one currently in the field of education, teaching in a local veterinary technician program, I appreciated your comments. However, thinking back to my days in school I can't say I disagree with the author's comments. Yes, I had the fantastic instructors who were willing to discuss treatment protocols and seemed to love their job, but then I also had the ones who didn't seem like they could be bothered. Unfortunately, the bad *seemed* to outnumber the good. I would be in the ICU all night taking care of patients. The poor technicians at the school would be slammed with patients. It wasn't because cases came in overnight; it was because they currently had 24-25 patients in house. I would get REAMED OUT if my orders weren't signed by 8 am. The reason my orders weren't signed by 8 am? The intern or resident who was supposed to sign them was nowhere to be found. Who got the brunt of the punishment? The poor 4th year vet student who had spent the last 12 hours in ICU getting TPRs every 4 hours and walking dogs every hour. And the intern? Well, they got to do all the things that would have benefited my education as well, such as placing urinary catheters, scrubbing in on surgeries and the like.

I wish I could say there was a simple solution. But I also have to ask, why do you find it acceptable that you're expected to juggle 15 hospitalized patients, prepare lectures and work every weekend? Why is it OK for administration to increase the class size, cut faculty and not pay decent wages? Why do we convince ourselves it's normal to have to work 50-60 hours a week? Why is every comment I read attacking this student for speaking her mind, calling her a whiny millennial? I'm sorry, but I don't think clinicians should have to "cram" lecture preparing into short breaks, while working on clinics. It suggests that we don't value education, our students, or the clinicians. I don't think veterinarians should be EXPECTED to have to "pay our dues" and suck up working 15 hour days. I don't think it's right or normal that the culture punishes students for trying to speak their mind, or that when we voice our concerns we're called "naive."

I left private practice for a variety of reasons, and to be completely honest, I've never been happier in my life. I battled depression through all of vet school and my first 4 years in private practice. I almost committed suicide my first year out in the "trenches." And I'm going to be honest, it wasn't because it didn't live up to my expectations. It's because I was working 80-100 hours every week. And I was told "that's the way it is." Note: this was NOT an internship or a residency. This was general private practice. I had no time for a life, and certainly didn't have time to exercise or eat healthy. I now actually have time to have a life for the first time in almost 10 years. I do still occasionally miss the world of private practice, but I to be honest I feel like the profession is breaking, and it's not worth my mental health or sanity. And after reading most of these comments, I can't say that I'm terribly upset that I left.

One more note...

To "throwawayaccount":

My advice to get exercise and work hard is heartfelt. If you read the entire statement my intent was to emphasize obtaining a balanced life.

I am a hard worker. I do get out to do a multiplicity of activities outside of my practice, and volunteer in my community. I constantly remind all of my employees that we work so that we can go have a life - we do not live to come to work. Through years of experience, I have found that everyone needs to develop mechanisms for coping.

My personal philosophy is to let imagined or real slights go unless they will change the course of my life in 14 days. I sincerely hope that everyone, especially veterinary students, technicians, office staff and veterinarians will find their own ways to cope with the stressors in life.

As for me, this thread becomes another thing of which I will be letting go - with every good wish for all readers.