Top 14 Reasons Academia is Awesome

I am obviously biased, but I think working in veterinary academia is the best thing since sliced bread.  I gather other areas of academia are a dumpster fire, so if you have a PhD in English or Philosophy, I am sorry.  But I feel clinical veterinary academia is a great place to be.  I’ve been there my whole professional life- except for a private practice internship- so let me tell you why.

1) By my personal definition, I work 6 months a year.  Most tenure-track faculty do 50% clinic time, so they are on clinics 6 months a year.  The rest of the time, we are teaching and doing research.  Now, I can’t lay around at home during my off-clinic time, but I can spend my time more-or-less how I like.  I don’t consider teaching and research “work” since it’s legitimately fun for me to do that.

2) The salary is plenty generous.  Most specialty faculty earn a six-figure salary. They don’t make as much as private practice vets, but I think it’s still a pretty strong salary, given the median salary in the United States is ~$60,000. Also, the “as much” is relative. If you can make $140k in academia and $160k in private practice, is it really THAT different? I expect the benefits MORE than make up for the difference.

3) The environment is intellectually stimulating.  You’re always teaching students and residents (who are challenging your knowledge), you’re working with other clever specialists in a cooperative fashion, and you have access to the latest toys and innovation.

4) The benefits are incredible.  Usually very good health insurance, good retirement options (including pensions at many institutions), and minor-but-nice benefits like free tuition for you and family and having a human medical clinic on campus to which you can go for inexpensive routine care. Not a lot of jobs offer pensions these days- it’s money FOR LIFE once you retire. A very good pillar of retirement planning.

5) Different tasks.  There’s always something new and different and interesting in my days.  If I get burned out on clinics, I have some off-clinic time to do some reading.  If I get sick of reading, I can do some research.  If I get sick of research, I can get into my teaching.  There’s always something new and different to try.  It’s not the same grind day after day.

6) Down time.  Academia encourages you to spend time just… thinking.  I sometimes stare off into space or go for walks and just Think About Things.  This time has led to dozens of research projects and different teaching approaches.  If it was go-go-go all the time, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try out different new ideas.

7) Encourages experimentation.  I’ve always felt like I’ve had a high degree of academic freedom.  I could teach how I want to teach and pursue the research I want to pursue.  If I worked for industry, I would have to research what THEY want me to research.  In academia, I get to try out a lot of different things.  Some work and I keep them, some don’t and get discarded.

8) Rank-ordered system.  I have always been attracted to rank-ordered systems.  Martial arts and boy scouts both fit this model, with clear advancement paths, and were highly formative for me growing up.  It’s nice to have something to work towards.  First internship, then residency, then Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, then full Professor.  It makes for a very tidy, clear professional path.

9) Young people.  Maybe having a revolving door of veterinary assistants or vet-school aspirants could achieve this in private practice, but being in a college town around young people is invigorating.  You get to stay at least a little more in touch with the zeitgeist and there’s always new enthusiastic people who lend a certain energy to a place.

10) Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  If you have a debt:income ratio greater than 2:1, paying that off will be nearly impossible.  But if you work for an academic institution, you can enter PSLF, which forgives ALL your federal student loan debt after 10 years AND you don’t have to pay taxes on that benefit.  If you went to a private school, this should be near the top of your list for strategies to effectively manage your debt.

11) Low cost-of-living area.  Not only are the salaries reasonable, but most vet schools are in rural areas with a relatively low cost of living.  There are some exceptions (Davis, Madison, Philadelphia, and Fort Collins come to mind) but, for the most part, you can live somewhere without paying an arm and a leg for a house or having to sell your car to pay for a pint of good beer.  Good luck finding that in San Diego, Chicago, or most cities with large referral hospitals which employ veterinary specialists.

12) Cultural opportunities.  Even though most vet schools are in rural areas, they are large state institutions with an energetic student body.  There are often great (and inexpensive) cultural opportunities, ranging from the student theatre company to traveling Broadway shows.  College towns are often a great combination of low cost-of-living but good exposure to culture.

13) More sources of fulfillment.  In private practice, you are probably appreciated by your clients and, possibly, your staff.  In academia, your students (which become alumni) and research colleagues also often express appreciation.  It’s great to meet a student several years after graduation who tells you how much you helped them become the vet they are today.

14) Less flash.  It’s understood that academics earn less than those in private practice, so I think there’s more acceptance of a more simple (some might say grungy) lifestyle.  I remember being over at a fellow academic’s house and noticing he had holes in his socks, too!  I think those in private practice feel more compelled to Keep up with the Joneses.  I feel most academics are more basic in their material needs, so get to focus on what matters in life.

Not everyone in academia has my experience or shares my perspective.  Some of us work very hard, with long days and thankless administration.  Private practice has its good parts, too.  But I often feel that people neglect all the great things that working in academia can bring.

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