College of Veterinary Medicine

Pre-Veterinary Experience

Recommendations for your Pre-Veterinary Experience


Selecting a career path is one of the most important decisions an individual can make in life. Among the many possible career options is that of becoming a veterinarian. Veterinarians participate in a number of key aspects of our day-to-day lives, including (but not limited to) advancing knowledge through biomedical research; providing services for industry; engaging in regulatory oversight via state and federal agencies; promoting public health, e.g., ensuring the safety of the food supply; delivering medical care to individual and populations of animals; providing health care for animals specifically affiliated with the armed forces, and promotion of all aspects of the human-animal bond.

They are members of a time-honored and noble profession that is held in high regard by the public. Personal and job satisfaction tend to be very high among veterinarians.

The actual pursuit a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree is not a trivial matter, however. It requires a substantial personal investment. As you can imagine, it would be a tragedy for a student to invest tremendous amounts of time, physical and emotional energy, and financial resources toward an occupation (s)he ultimately did not enjoy. We want to be sure that our prospective students have a clear picture of the career they are envisioning. The admissions committee tends to look for evidence of a broad exposure in the pre-veterinary experience and animal experience sections of the veterinary school application

Veterinary medicine is an animal health and production-oriented profession. The Admissions Committee considers animal experience to be an important preparation for the curriculum. Animal experience includes such things as breeding, rearing, feeding, and showing various species of companion animals, livestock, laboratory animals, zoo animals, or wildlife. A basic knowledge of the veterinary profession is best gained by closely observing the role of the various members of the health care team in a traditional practice setting. Participating in biomedical research, public health, academic medicine, regulatory medicine, or industry can enhance an applicant's appreciation for the breadth of the veterinary profession. The committee also takes involvement in seminars, practica, and other veterinary professional activities into account.

Broad exposure can be acquired in a variety of ways so we hope this information will be useful in structuring pre-veterinary experiences, as well as providing a framework of questions to ask and areas of experience to target.

1. Private-Practice Experience

Acquiring an appreciation for the veterinary profession has been termed "pre-veterinary experience." Typically the process begins by contacting a local or recommended veterinarian, expressing an interest in pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, and asking for permission to spend time in his/her practice. More often than not, the veterinarian will invite you to "shadow" them. In order to benefit as much as possible from your "shadowing" experience and to discover what it's like to be a veterinarian, you need to learn not only what the professional with whom you'll be spending time does all day, but also how (s)he puts the day together, allows time for the unexpected, stays current in the profession, addresses uncertainties, strikes a balance between personal and professional lives, all while deriving satisfaction from what (s)he is doing. There's a lot to learn. By the way, being paid for what you bring to the practice speaks to a higher level of commitment (beyond a "shadowing" relationship) on the part of the veterinarian. Therefore, it is in your best interest to be hired. The following are some things to note and some questions you might pose as a typical day unfolds.

Basic aspects of a practice

  • What are some medical problems seen in a traditional practice?
  • What are some vaccines that comprise a preventative medicine program?
  • What are some common de-wormers that comprise a preventative medicine program?
  • Not in great detail, but what antibiotics might a veterinarian use during a typical day? What are the responsibilities associated with their use?
  • What are some surgical problems seen in a traditional practice?
  • Why is it important to maintain sterility during surgery and what steps are taken to assure cleanliness?
  • What equipment do you tend to find in a surgical suite and for what might they be used?
  • For example, why would it not be a great idea to heat your TV dinner in an autoclave?
  • Not in great detail, but what sorts of instruments do you tend to find in a surgical suite and for what are they used?
  • What is the relationship between the veterinarian and the clients? How important are good "people skills" for the veterinarian?

The functionality of the practice

  • What is the role of the receptionist in a successful veterinary practice?
  • What is the role of the veterinary technician?
  • What is the role of the kennel cleaners/animal caretakers/housekeeping staff?
  • What is the role of the veterinarian(s) both in the practice and in the community at large?
  • What can each member of the health care team do to foster the most modern, exciting practice or (conversely) a stagnant, depressing endeavor?
  • What types of case discussions occur between veterinarians in a practice?
  • What resources are available to the veterinarian outside of the practice (e.g. veterinary specialists in ophthalmology, cardiology, surgery, et al., colleges of veterinary medicine, imaging centers, diagnostic laboratories, veterinary journals, etc.).

Some overarching questions

  • What was the veterinarian's motivation for becoming a veterinarian?
  • How did the veterinarian manage time during veterinary school (studying, extracurricular and/or job-related activities)?
  • How did indebtedness factor into career choices (before/during/after veterinary school)?
  • What has the veterinarian learned about the profession that wasn't known before veterinary school, but would have been valuable to have known before?
  • What is different about the practice of veterinary medicine today compared to when they started their clinic?
  • In his/her estimation(s), what are some key challenges that are facing the veterinary profession today?
  • What are the realistic (hourly, weekly, monthly, annual) professional time demands?
  • How much does a private practice veterinarian earn?
  • What are the non-monetary rewards for the veterinarian?
  • How many veterinarians are there in the US, what is the range of their professional activities, how are veterinarians distributed among those activities, and how are veterinarians distributed geographically?
  • How many career-emphasis changes has the veterinarian made since becoming a veterinarian?
  • How easily, and how frequently does the veterinarian deal with serious ethical questions?  [based upon examples from the veterinarian's own experiences]
  • What is, in the veterinarian's opinion, the economic outlook for the profession?
  • What are the advantages of belonging to a state organization?
  • Why might it be important to belong to a national organization, such as the AVMA?
  • How difficult is it for the veterinarian to remain current in their knowledge?
  • Would the veterinarian "do it all again?"

2. Public Practice Experience

Veterinarians work in a number of "public practice" areas. Many veterinarians involved in public veterinary practice work for federal, state or local governmental agencies involved in animal health and animal disease control. Examples are the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. military, state departments of agriculture, state, county and city departments of public health, and municipal zoos. In addition, there are numerous international organizations involved in animal health and disease control. Many public practice positions utilize the clinical skills of the veterinarian, whereas others focus on the animal disease control and prevention expertise of veterinarians. Such activities include disease surveillance, disease outbreak investigation, regulatory medicine, epidemiologic studies of disease, prevention of food-borne disease due to foods of animal origin, and community education for animal disease prevention and prevention of diseases transmitted from animals to people.

Basic aspects of public veterinary practice

  • What is the agency/organization the veterinarian works for? What is its mission and how does it relate to other public and private agencies and the community?
  • What is the role of the veterinarian in this agency and how does this role relate to other health professionals in the agency?
  • Does the veterinarian work primarily alone or on a team? What skills does the veterinarian bring to the agency/team?
  • Does the veterinarian do the same kinds of things every day or does the job keep changing? If the job varies from time to time, what is the range of the activities of the veterinarian?
  • Does the veterinarian have an advanced degree in addition to the DVM degree? Examples may include a Masters of Public Health or an advanced degree in epidemiology (MS or PhD).
  • What are the opportunities for career advancement in this area?

Some overarching questions

  • What made the veterinarian decide to pursue a public practice career?
  • What credentials did the veterinarian need beyond the DVM to obtain his/her current position? How long did it take to get these credentials? If advanced degrees beyond the DVM were required, were they paid for by stipends, training grants, etc.?
  • What is the veterinarian's motivation for continuing in a public practice career?
  • What does the veterinarian like most about his/her job? What does the veterinarian like least about his/her job?
  • Where does the veterinarian see him/herself in 5 years?
  • How many positions arise each year in the U.S. for these kinds of jobs?
  • What are the average salaries for veterinarians in various public practice jobs?
  • What non-monetary rewards are associated with a public practice career?
  • In the veterinarian's estimation, what are some key challenges facing the veterinary public practice sector today (depending on the veterinarian's area of expertise).
  • What are the realistic time demands for the job?
  • If the veterinarian had it to do over again, what would they do differently in regard to their career?

3. Research Experience

Biomedical research is an important underpinning for veterinary medicine. Exposure to the workings of a research laboratory can help prepare students for our veterinary curriculum, which is steeped in basic and applied science in the form of evidenced-based medicine. Depending upon their level of participation in a research project, students may have the opportunity to acquire useful techniques, gain animal experience, learn a great deal about a particular subject area, and see how research questions are generated and investigated. The more fully students invest themselves in research projects, the better their appreciation will be for how advances in science are actually made. In addition, pre-veterinary research experience can afford the opportunity to explore veterinary career options in biomedical research.

Research experience can be gained by participating in a research laboratory as part of one's undergraduate education. At some universities, course credit is awarded for participating in a research project as part of an undergraduate degree. To explore a research option, we encourage you to identify a subject area that really interests you and talk to the person who taught you this material. If the subject is not his/her area of expertise, your teacher might be willing to introduce you to a professor(s) who is actively researching that topic. A polite inquiry might be all you need to pique the interest of a research scientist and away you go! Note also that you might be able to engage in research activities as part of your private practice experience. Not all researchers are directly affiliated with universities. Research projects that involve interactions with live animals would be more preparatory for the veterinary curriculum than those that do not. Applicants whose research experience does not involve live animals may wish to expand their animal experiences in other ways (see below.) The following are things you might notice while engaged in a research project:

Basic aspects of the research environment

  • What is a hypothesis and how is it generated?
  • How does a hypothesis result in an experimental design?
  • How does the primary literature contribute to an experimental design?
  • How does an experimental design result in a protocol?
  • What is a control group?
  • What is a variable?
  • Why is it important to always do things the same way every time?
  • How can you relate what you learned in Statistics to a research project?
  • How does what you are doing (have done) contribute to the research project?

Some overarching questions

  • What made the researcher decide to pursue an advanced degree (DVM, PhD, or both)?
  • How long does it typically take a veterinarian to become a research scientist?
  • What does the researcher see as his/her motivation for continuing to engage in research?
  • How satisfying is an academic (research) career?
  • What are the realistic (daily, weekly, monthly, annually) time demands for a research scientist?
  • How many research positions arise in the US each year?
  • How much money does a successful primary researcher earn?
  • What non-monetary rewards are associated with a research career?
  • What, in the doctor's opinion, is the long and short-term economic outlook for funded research?
  • What is different about conducting research today compared to when (s)he embarked on earning an advanced degree?
  • In the veterinary researcher's estimation, what are some key challenges that are facing the research sector today? (An example might be the future of stem cell research.)
  • How easily and how frequently does the researcher deal with serious ethical questions?  [based upon examples from the researcher's own experiences]
  • What are the advantages of belonging to a professional organization?
  • What was seeing his/her first manuscript in print like for the researcher?

4. Animal Experience

Most people harbor deep-seated respect, admiration, and affection for wild and domesticated animals. At the same time, a fair number of people are frightened of animals. At least some of this fear can be traced to a lack of familiarity. For example, fear (ill ease) of traditional farm species is becoming more prevalent as we move steadily away from a predominantly agrarian society. In addition, the care of these creatures, i.e., feeding, watering, restraining, and treating (including potential euthanasia) them, does not appeal to everyone and could pose genuine challenges for some.

Discovering one's abilities and level(s) of comfort in caring for and interacting with a variety of domestic species is an essential first step along the path toward becoming a veterinarian. Students who have cared for and interacted with a range of animal species are best prepared for what they will encounter in our professional program. There are a variety ways to acquire basic animal husbandry skills. For example, companion animal experience can be gained by volunteering at a humane society shelter or animal control facility. In a similar fashion, agricultural animal and equine experience can be acquired at local farms or stables. Plenty of other opportunities exist as well, including the care of your own animals.

5. Leadership & Community Service Experience

Achievements, leadership ability, and participation in academic and other activities will be evaluated carefully. Community service activities are viewed as an indication of an applicant's desire to contribute to society. These activities need not be directly affiliated with veterinary medicine. The applicant should clearly and succinctly describe their level of participation in these activities.

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