I was having lunch with a colleague of mine a while ago and we were discussing vet students. They were lamenting about one student who was really struggling. They said, “We need to stop telling kids they can be anything they want to be. Some are just not smart enough to get through vet school.” I mostly agree with the sentiment, but there’s some nuance here we should unpack.
First, I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion about nature vs. nurture. Suffice to say that there may be some traits with which we are born which will make it harder (but not impossible) to achieve certain life goals. I am reminded of a friend of mine who LOVES football. One night he said to me, “Have you ever thought about doing a walk-on tryout? I would love to be your size. I bet you could get some position on a team.” Now, I have 12 years of higher education in my brain. I need my hands for highly technical work. I don’t want my brain rattled around or my hands injured. So of course I didn’t try out. But this friend of mine clearly lamented that he wasn’t big enough to play professional football. Similarly, at 6’6” tall, I’m never going to be a gymnast. There are some things people can or can’t do based on their genetics.
Now that that’s out of the way, CAN you do anything you want? I see this message dozens of times a month in various pre-vetmed groups. Many people cheering each other on and saying, “You can do it!” On many levels, I think this is great. More positivity is needed in the world. But I also think it may be doing a disservice to some people.
If you struggle with academics, is being a veterinarian really the best fit for you? Doctorate-level professionals learn a lot of material. Is it fair for you to get into vet school, struggle, and have to drop out in your third or fourth year? Wouldn’t it be better to realize that before the expense and years of lost time? Maybe you would be better suited to being a veterinary technician. There is a horrible shortage of technicians in the US. You get to help animals, you work a lot more directly with the animals, and it doesn’t require as long or as expensive of schooling. If you struggle with academics, there are other routes to happiness.
If you struggle with motivation and showing up, it’s going to be difficult to get hours of veterinary and animal contact time for your application. Is being a veterinarian the best fit for you? Veterinarians are professionals; they are leaders. You can’t phone it in during vet school and expect to pass. The students I have seen who end up failing out during their senior year of vet school aren’t necessarily the ones who struggled with academics (although that often plays a part). They’re the ones who are late to rounds, who don’t help their classmates, and who don’t take care of their patients. I always feel terrible for those students. I think, “Someone should have told you before you spent 3.5 years of your life and untold thousands of dollars that being a veterinarian is not for you.”
If all you’re focused on is the Next Step, or that ONE single goal, or believe you will FINALLY be happy once you get this ONE THING, I don’t think you will be. I had one student tell me, “I don’t really care about this topic, I just want to be done.” I can understand that sentiment- it’s a lot of school and some people don’t care for school. But you’re learning what you need to be a veterinarian! Isn’t that the most amazing thing? What do you plan to do when you have a patient who comes to you and the client expects that you learned how to be a veterinarian but… you didn’t. You just got the degree and ran. No one outcome is going to solve your problems. No one thing is going to make you happy. I believe only focusing on the outcome, and not the process, will lead to chronic unhappiness. The solution isn’t “Getting into vet school” or “Getting into a zoo med residency.” The solution is to find contentment and happiness where and when you can.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t try hard. I’m not saying you should let failure get you down or that you should stop working if you don’t succeed. I am saying you should be realistic and honest with yourself. If you do an internship, then a surgery internship, then another surgery internship, then ANOTHER surgery internship… are you ever really going to get a residency? Maybe after not getting the residency the first time you should look at other specialties which may be fulfilling. Heck, I did and I have an incredible life!
Can you get any professional position you want to? I don’t think so. Too many things are outside your circle of control. Can you find happiness and fulfillment and create a good life for yourself? Abso-freaking-lutely. Don’t get so focused on a single goal that you lose sight of what would really make you happy and what you can really accomplish. It’s good to be driven. It’s good to want something more. But you HAVE to be honest with yourself, or I believe you WON’T be happy even if you achieve that goal.