Emily Southward, DVM, DACVECC: Battling the debt monster
Graduation year: 1997
Total debt in 1997: $130,000
An internship in anesthesiology followed, with a salary less than $20,000. At the cost of accruing interest, Southward had to defer her loans during the internship. Her understanding of her loans and repayment options were limited at that time. The next two years were spent in private clinical practice and she began to repay some of the debt.
Being set in her professional goals, in 2001 Southward began an emergency and critical care residency with a master's degree. During those four years, she placed her loans on deferment for economic hardship because her salary started at $20,000 and gradually increased to $32,000.
Since completing her training in 2005, Southward has been practicing as a critical-care specialist in Southern California, earning on average $150,000 yearly. While earning what would be considered by most to be a respectable salary, once all loans entered repayment, Southward could barely afford living expenses while making the minimum required payments. She also found that her lenders were inflexible in terms of reducing her monthly payments to a level that would allow a reasonable level of take-home pay.
Things were at least manageable until Southward lost her job and subsequently her home in the midst of the economic downturn. Since regaining full-time employment, she continues to struggle with loan payments—a struggle that extends far into the foreseeable future. Since she's not considered a "new borrower" under Obama's student loan forgiveness program, Southward will be ineligible for forgiveness as well as the newer pay-as-you-earn programs.
As is true for many of us, Southward experienced mixed emotions about her loans and what they represent. The means to fulfilling her goals has become a tiresome burden. "The loans weigh heavily upon me as I got a great education and I am practicing veterinary medicine," she says. "I do not want to be in debt to anyone. I worked and trained hard to be the clinician I am today."
Southward received little to no financial education during the critical time when she was taking on loans to fund her academic and professional goals. While she concedes that she incurred the debt willfully, she urges prospective veterinarians to exercise extreme caution in planning for their financial future. "Have a financial plan ready to go when the loans come due," she says. "Understand interest rates and compounding interest. Get a financial planner to help manage the repayment of loans."
We have to move on from our loans and thrive
I have come to know Southward as a brilliant, progressive practitioner whose immense knowledge and skills are still rare amongst our peers. Quite simply, we need more veterinarians like her. My personal worry is that we will not be able to attract these types of individuals if we are not providing a return on the extreme commitment it takes to reach that level of practice.
It's tough to argue with tradition, and tradition dictates that veterinarians take their financial lumps when pursuing advanced training. However, those first few years after graduation, when this training is most likely to occur, are when student loan interest compounds the most dramatically and rapidly grows to crippling proportions.
Our profession must come to terms with the fact that salaries between $20,000 and $30,000 during those important years of training after veterinary school are unacceptable. This lapse represents a serious setback in our ability to move on from our loans and thrive as happy professionals. Just because we went through it does not mean we should insist that those behind us do the same.
As we invite enthusiastic new students to join our profession, we must find solutions to make sure that they have a brighter future than we did. That is the very principle of nurturing the veterinary profession and securing its future.
Dr. Jeremy Campfield works in emergency and critical care private practice in Southern California.