December 14, 2016

Why I Gave Up My Dream to Become a Veterinarian

A question that I've been asked repeatedly this past semester was "why did you transfer?". 
My reply: "It's a long story, but in short, I chose the pre-dietetics path instead of the pre-vet path."

The follow up question? "Why did you give up veterinary medicine, then?" ;)

2 months ago, I posted a link to a project for my communications class, titled #HannahsCornellStory. While this story was meant to recount how I ended up at Cornell, this story would fall flat without my decision to pursue nutrition instead of veterinary medicine. I briefly touched upon my reasons for transferring and wanting to change my career path, but I wanted to take the time to break that decision down in greater detail. I hope that this post helps anyone out there who's considering either of the two paths, and I certainly hope that you're able to know me better by the end of this post.

Anyone who's known me for at least 3 years will know that I was beyond passionate about becoming a veterinarian. I have wanted to be a vet since I was 9, but wasn't met with much support at all. This made me even more stubborn and determined to accomplish this dream ;)

I will defend myself by saying that I really did do a lot of research about the career path over the years. I knew how difficult it would be, both financially and academically. I knew that acceptance into vet school is even more difficult than acceptance into med school.

So why did I change my mind?
It's one thing to know about the career path, but it's another to fully understand the sacrifices and reality of it all. The latter comes with maturity.

Here's a brief breakdown of the realities that I was aware of, and the understanding that came a bit later:
1. The academic commitment/sacrifice: I do not enjoy the structure of school. That realization became much more apparent to me towards the end of my senior year in high school, for reasons that I prefer to keep private. I began to dread the idea of 8+ years of schooling even more, and there is no point in wasting precious time doing something that you don't enjoy.

2. The financial commitment/sacrifice: Academic and financial commitments go hand in hand. I wasn't interested in extra schooling, and the immense debt that I'd find myself in after vet school undeniably discouraged me. There's no point in investing in an education, let alone anything, if the return wasn't enough to make it all worthwhile. More generally, though doctors make very similar financial commitments, they're able to climb that ladder and end with a salary that will help them exceed their debts much more quickly. Vets don't have that opportunity, and it's unfair. (Generally speaking, people will invest in their own health more than that of animals.)

I don't know why I didn't come across these vet forums earlier, but God placed them in my life at a very interesting time - after I had already committed to a school with very limited majors (it had biology, though, which would suit a pre-vet student well). 

Many of these forum participants were actual veterinarians, and unfortunately, many of them spoke negatively of the occupation. Topics about finances and debt were everywhere; one veterinarian shared that she couldn't even afford surgery for her own dog - her office didn't offer this procedure, and she couldn't afford the procedure elsewhere. It broke my heart to hear this, and while I reminded myself that these are individual cases, they all started to pile up. 

If I could barely take care of myself and an animal, how would I be able to care for a future family, my parents, and still live comfortably? 

It's selfish to a degree, but unfortunately, it was (and is) my reality. I favored family over a career, particularly so because my grandfather had just died that same month. This was my first experience with death, and it was with someone I was incredibly close to. I was late to acknowledge how much I valued my family, and this experience shaped how I understood the financial commitment. 

Another veterinarian, one whom I shadowed (I'll talk about that later), also emphasized to me, repeatedly, that unless I open up my own practice, finances will be an unbearable burden. One of his hired veterinarians came to him crying the day before, because the debt was that stressful. 

I'll touch upon this in a future post (how I chose nutrition), but I also started working a lot more during the second half of my high school career. After lifeguarding, I got a job as a freelance writer, and the reality of earning money and supporting yourself hit me! There really is no better way to understand how hard you have to work to make a living than to get a job and be as financially independent as possible. 

The government offers a few scholarships/financial support to veterinarians who will later work for the government, in the agriculture industry - these veterinarians aren't able to heal sick and suffering animals; they simply treat them with prescriptions and send them back off to the factory farms and feedlots. Not being able to heal animals after spending so much time/money learning how to? That's some cruel irony right there, and I wasn't going to sign myself up for that.

3. The job itself didn't live up to my expectations: Getting animal-related experiences is rare if not nearly impossible for anyone under the age of 18. It's unfortunate, but liabilities are part of reality.

There's no better way to understand a career than to shadow someone or to expose yourself to the environment, but when you can't do any of these things, then it's difficult to develop that understanding. I volunteered at a horse stable my junior year, and that in fact reinforced my love for animals - but it wasn't a clinical experience, so I lacked that up-close and personal exposure to the actual career.

Finally, after graduating from high school (when I was already slightly hesitant about this path), I was able to shadow a local veterinarian at a well-known hospital. The head veterinarian/owner looked at my skeptically at first, and warned me that nobody would catch me if I fainted during surgery. 

To his surprise, I didn't flinch at all as he removed cancerous tumors from a dog - he even let me help him during a later surgery! I was fascinated by surgery; it was thrilling and everything I wanted it to be.

But unless I was willing to work at a 24/7 emergency hospital, which would limit my time for a family, I wouldn't expect back to back surgeries. Most of the veterinarians sat in their offices doing paperwork; the people who interacted the most with the animals were the veterinary technicians and assistants. I found myself preferring those jobs over that of a veterinarian because I didn't want to do administrative work after all those years of school. At the same time, the realities of finances hit me again - it's unfortunate, but vet techs and assistants don't make much, and it didn't make sense to attend a 4 year, private university with an outrageous price tag to become a vet tech. 

4. The path and job aren't as flexible as I'd like it to be:  Though many of the undergrad classes between the pre-health/-med/-vet tracks overlap, simply taking the classes aren't going to get someone very far - you have to commit to outside experiences as well to demonstrate your pre-professional interest and competitive edge. There's more overlap between the human health sciences in this case, than there is between human health sciences and veterinary medicine. 

Finding a non-health back-up plan was challenging, too: agriculture and plain old biology/ecology didn't interest me, either. If I couldn't get into vet school, what would I do with a biology degree? I didn't want to get a PhD or go into research, and I didn't want to go to med school either. The only major that made sense to me at the time was biology - only because it would prepare me for vet school.

Vets work long hours, and with the debt that they're paying back, it's not easy to juggle work, debt, and a family. You're not going to find very many "part-time" vets out there, and you're definitely not going to find many places that want to hire part-time vets.

The field is also rather restrictive - if you don't work in a clinical setting, you'll be teaching, doing research, or working in agriculture (for the government, and again, I didn't want to become a vet that prescribes medicine to animals suffering in factory farms). 


Unfortunately, that's the bulk of the reasons that deterred me from this path. It all came down to the fact that it wasn't the right path for me. 

I remember crying to one of my mentors (a former teacher of mine, who's like a big sister to me) the first time I began to doubt my pre-vet dreams. For nine years, people had been criticizing me for wanting to dedicate my life to veterinary medicine, and I had every answer in the book to defend my choice. That day was the first that I couldn't find a good reason to justify my dream and overcome the odds.

Since then, my level of respect for veterinarians (and many others who have to sacrifice so much to pursue their career) has skyrocketed. If there are any pre-vet students reading this, I hope that I am not the only account that you'll base your understandings off of (I urge you to speak with others and seek experiences to form your own opinions). I did, however, want to put these reasons out there, because I think it's important to be very honest with the realities.

This post was rather negative, but in my next post, one where I'll discuss why I chose nutrition, I'll tie in how I don't have to give up my love for animals by giving up the pre-vet path :) 

Thanks for reading if you made it all the way to this point!


  1. So cool Hannah! Interesting to see a perspective where your original goals changed. -Alex

    1. Aw, Alex, thank you so much for commenting and for reading! It means so much to me <3

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