Why Vet School? Why Not Veterinary Nursing?

We have a serious shortage of veterinary nurses in veterinary medicine.  And we have an overabundance of applicants to vet school.  I often wonder why it is that more people are not interested in a career as a veterinary nurse.  Why do so many people apply to vet school (particularly if they go $300k in debt to do so) rather than enjoy a pleasant life doing something that doesn’t require years of schooling and tons of debt- i.e., being a nurse?  I have several theories to share.

Societal expectations.  

In the US, there is generally an expectation that, if you’re middle-class or want to “get ahead”, you will go to college.  The assumption is that college will open doors to future career prospects.  While I always wanted to go to college, when I was growing up, my parents did a good job telling me “Trade schools are a terrific way to train for a profession.  You could work for the post office right out of high school and be quite happy.”  Therefore, I’ve always had the idea that other routes to a career are perfectly viable and- for the right person- far superior to college.  

Plumbers make an average salary in the $50k range- which is about the median income for the US.  And they don’t need to go into hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to do it.  But I think that many people in the US don’t think about trade school or other alternatives to a happy, successful career.  The default is college.  

If you’re interested in veterinary medicine and go to a traditional college, you usually can’t get a degree in veterinary technology.  Most people major in Biology, Chemistry, Animal Science, etc. which doesn’t necessarily prepare you to do anything other than get more education (i.e. go to vet school).  

Heck, my own BS is in “Veterinary Science”.  What in the world does one do with that degree besides become a veterinarian?  So traditional colleges really only set people up for more education if they are interested in veterinary medicine, rather than provide a practical skill- i.e. being a nurse.

Role Models

So many people decide to become a veterinarian when they are young.  Why a veterinarian and not a veterinary nurse?  I think because they see the veterinarian as the one who heals animals.  But veterinary nurses are tremendously important in the animal healthcare process.  They typically have more contact with the actual animals and spend more time caring for them.  But the young kid with the sick dog doesn’t see that- they only see the vet who supposedly healed their pet.  They don’t see all the incredibly important support staff who were the ones who probably ACTUALLY healed their pet (placed catheter, gave medications, etc.).

Salary

I don’t think many people talk about the salary differential, but I wonder if this is also a source of motivation.  To be fair, we pay veterinary nurses an atrociously low salary for what they know and do.  To me this seems to be a clear failure of capitalism.  

Since there is a shortage, veterinary nurse salaries SHOULD go up.  But they don’t.  I have no idea why.  In universities it’s because the institution-wide policies about qualifications, etc. dictate salary, as opposed to salary being dictated by the actual reality of the job market.  But in private practice, I don’t understand why they don’t offer more money if they have a hard time finding a nurse.

For better or worse, we have a consumer mentality in the US, which leads people to believe they need to make more money to be happy.  So maybe people see the salary nurses make and decide they won’t be happy in life as a result.  I can understand this- making less than the median salary in the US would be a lot less fun than making six figures as a veterinarian.  In my opinion, the solution to this problem is to pay veterinary nurses more.  Maybe that would make it more attractive to people who want to be in veterinary medicine in some capacity.

Leadership

This somewhat goes back to societal expectations.  We have a narrative in the US that the doctor is the “important” person and the nurses are less important.  We tend to ascribe value based on salary, which is messed up.  Everyone has value as a person, and I think veterinary nurses provide at least as much- if not more- value to the patients than the veterinarian.  Nonetheless, I can see people thinking, “I want to be the one telling others what to do rather than being the one told what to do.”

But… do you really?  I often envy the janitor.  They show up, they clean things, they go home.  I worked cleaning the ORs during a summer in college and I loved it.  It was very meditative and I could enter a nice flow state.  Having responsibility in your job is not always sunshine and rainbows.  I sometimes have a fantasy of being a veterinary anesthesia nurse at some foreign institution.  Just show up, take care of patients, and go home?  Sounds nice.  I see a fair number of senior veterinary students who DON’T want to be leaders.  But every veterinarian is a leader.  So there is clearly some disconnect between expectations and reality for some people.

Those are the reasons I can come up with for why we have so many applicants to vet school and not enough veterinary nurses.  What others can you think of?

2 comments on “Why Vet School? Why Not Veterinary Nursing?

  1. -

    I’ve recently began researching into what it would take for me (at 34) to become a veterinarian, starting with 160 credits at a school having studied neuroscience, physiology, and a bit of computer science, yet having no formal degree yet.

    I was recommended to follow your blog by somebody on Reddit, who was a former student (I think?) of yours, and this post is very helpful, and while I always want to aim high because I wouldn’t forgive myself if I did not try with everything I had, there are other reasons I want to be a veterinarian, and not a nurse, or technologist.

    For me it has nothing to do with societal expectations. I’ve worked in a warehouse, I’ve worked in a junked car insurance auction lot cleaning grit and grime from everything, I’ve been in a zebrafish research lab (for a brief period), and had some experience in a clinical pathology lab working as an assistant between the gross room and histology department. My point being I have no problem doing any job, and I agree with you that some of them are more therapeutic than others. You don’t have all that weight and emotional exhaust on you.

    That being said, I am somebody who has already dealt with emotional and physical exhaust since I was young, and I feel it has only sculpted and shaped my character more so that I am hardy and durable enough to be capable of dealing with it. I don’t care much about money. I want to live debt free and modestly. I grew up with grandparents who had a yacht, and then went through financial troubles and lost it all. I see all the problems money can bring, and that extravagant life doesn’t interest me. What always interested me was medicine, and caring for others – humans and non-humans alike.

    In becoming a veterinarian, I feel I would be able to do the MOST good, because I have generally always fell into a leadership role among peers, or coworkers. It is something that comes naturally to me, and I say that with a good sense of humility that I’ve had to learn over the years. I don’t NEED to be a leader, but I’m comfortable being one. I’ve been told what to do, and I have no problem falling in line, but at the same time I think being in a position where I can make careful, logical, and as close to ideal or optimal decisions for the care of the patient and their caregivers is one that I would fill nicely. That role is something that comes with a heavy burden, and maybe I won’t make it there, but I can’t NOT try.

    I think I covered the reasons you did in your blog post, and I’m sorry if this is long and a bit of a rant. I always had trouble being confident in myself because I don’t want to let my ego get the best of me, but at the same time I know what I am capable of if I remain diligent with studies and consistent efforts. I know there is a LOT that is required of veterinarians, and the candidates for vet school. I only hope I can tackle all of those bases, being late into the game at 34. Thank you for reading this far.

    • - Post author

      Hello Tom, terrific thoughts, thank you so much for sharing! It sounds like you are in a great position to make the best decision for your life. I worry that some applicants do not have your mature, experienced perspective when making important lifelong decisions. Thank you for reading the blog and I hope you get something out of it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.