The current trend in veterinary medicine is for increasing student debt without proportional increases in postgraduation income, which imparts a heavy economic burden on students and recently graduated veterinarians.1,2 Educational debt increased 12.0% from 2007 to 2008, with a mean indebtedness for 2008 graduates of $119,803 and > 80% of all graduates having at least $60,000 of educational debt.3 A wide variety of lifestyles, economic circumstances, and career objectives exist within the veterinary student population, and each individual must consider the potential monetary rewards of various career tracks when planning for a career in veterinary medicine. Although money should not be the only basis for career decisions, the impending economic circumstances within the veterinary profession should prompt students and young veterinarians to evaluate how to optimize the return on their investment—an investment of time and money in a veterinary education. Required investments, career options, and expected outcomes are unique to the veterinary medical profession, as are the accompanying career decisions.
The traditional model of the lone practitioner-owner with a mixed-animal practice located some-where in the countryside is quickly fading as the most popular and most economically viable way to practice veterinary medicine. Instead, 35.6% of 2008 veterinary medical graduates from US schools indicated that they intended to seek postgraduate education or board certification in a specialty field.3 This typically requires 3 to 4 additional years of training and, therefore, a delay of 3 to 4 years in debt repayment as well as a delay before earning higher wages. Because of the low salaries offered to veterinarians in internship and residency programs in the United States, many veterinarians are forced to take on additional debt during these 3 to 4 years. In return, once the training is completed, these veterinarians typically have the opportunity to practice in a specialty field and to earn substantially higher incomes for the remainder of their careers.
Another popular career track is through ownership of a general practice. A few bold graduates begin buying into a practice their first year after graduation from veterinary school. However, a more typical scenario might be one in which graduates would practice as an associate veterinarian for up to 10 years before buying into a practice. Many young veterinarians spend much of their first 10 years of practice considering when and if to buy in.
Yet another trend in veterinary medicine relates to demographics because 76.9% of 2008 graduates were females.4 As the majority of the graduating veterinary student population has shifted from males to females, the demand for flexibility of scheduling and reduced hours has become more important. Many young women want to dovetail their veterinary career with starting a family; thus, they seek a way to maintain earning power and still have free time available for home life.
Of course, the most obvious career track is still that of being a GP and working full-time as an associate in a private practice. Most new graduate veterinarians still choose this career track. The complex interaction of economic and personal factors makes it difficult to choose the optimal career track. Furthermore, knowing which factors to prioritize and which to compromise is so daunting that many veterinarians never consider all of the career options.
One useful tool to evaluate the economics of these career tracks is a model that considers expected income streams, accommodates various debt repayment scenarios, and directly compares career tracks and their relative financial values over time. Our objective was to build such a model and to use it to compare the present value of expected income streams for 5 broad career categories and to assess the sensitivity of results to adjustments in input variables. These results can be used to compare the relative earning power of various career choices and to identify economic factors that should influence decisions the most. Although similar models have been developed for other careers and professions, our required investments, career options, and expected outcomes are unique to the veterinary medical profession and thereby require a stand-alone analysis.
Career present value
Practice owner buying into practice after 10 years
Board-certified specialist working three-fourths time
American Association of Veterinary Clinicians. Veterinary internship residency matching program statistical update through 2008. Columbus, Ohio: Unpublished data, 2008.
Fiala J. Economic emergency: crisis looms as debt-to-salary statistics paint bleak outlook for veterinary medicine's future, experts say. DVM Newsmagazine 2008;39:1,18–20.
Chieffo C, Kelly AM, Ferguson J. Trends in gender, employment, salary, and debt of graduates of US veterinary medical schools and colleges. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:910–917.
Shepherd AJ. Employment, starting salaries, and educational indebtedness of year-2008 graduates of US veterinary medical schools and colleges. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:1067–1070.
Shepherd AJ. Employment of female and male graduates of US veterinary medical schools and colleges, 2008. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:1238–1240.
Shepherd AJ. Employment, starting salaries, and educational indebtedness of year-2005 graduates of US veterinary medical colleges. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2005;227:1084–1086.
Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants and Advisors. The no-lo practice. Clermont, Fla: Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants and Advisors, 2008;12.