How to become a veterinarian: detailed steps

Last updated: July 23, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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How to become a veterinarian: detailed steps
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If you love animals and would like to work with them, becoming a veterinarian is a great career choice.

Whether you work with pets, livestock, or even wild animals, you’ll have a fulfilling job knowing you’re helping creatures who can’t help themselves.

There’s currently a vet shortage in the US and other countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the UK.

There are roughly 116,000 practicing vets in the US, but that’s not enough to keep up with the demand. This is largely due to the ever-growing pet ownership in this country. Estimates vary, but by 2030, the projected vet shortage will reach 15,000!

So how do you become a veterinarian? What does it take to get a job as a vet? In this post, you’ll learn the steps involved in becoming a vet, from the education requirements to licensing to finding work.

What is a veterinarian?

Everyone knows that when you have a sick pet, you take it to the vet.

Veterinarians are doctors dedicated to the health and welfare of animals — lots of which, including dogs, cats, turtles, and birds, are our beloved pets.

But examining and treating people’s pets is not all that veterinarians do. These professionals work with all types of animals, including farm, zoo, and wild animals. They can be hands-on doctors or work in labs and research settings.

In short, veterinarians have a wide variety of job avenues available to them. If you are considering this career path, it’s important to become familiar with these possibilities early.

So how do you become a vet, and what options do you have? This article maps it all out!

Educational prerequisites

Veterinarians are trained in specialized medical schools called veterinary schools — or vet schools for short.

There are 32 accredited colleges and schools of veterinary medicine in the US. All of them are members of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).

You’ll need a minimum of two years in college before you’re ready to apply to vet school. Those years are critical to getting the prerequisite coursework out of the way.

All vet schools require a strong foundation in science courses, so you’ll have to be comfortable with the scientific side of vet training. Think of subjects such as:

  • Biology

  • Zoology

  • Organic and inorganic chemistry

  • Physics

  • Mathematics

Some schools may also require coursework in subjects like the humanities and social sciences.

Requirements vary by school, so be sure to review and meet the educational requirements for your chosen school(s) before applying.

Volunteer and work experience

Vet schools in the US receive numerous applications every year. However, because there are so few of these schools in the country, they are very selective in who they accept into their programs.

The average acceptance rate in the US is around 10 to 15%.

So how can you get a headstart? Well, in addition to prerequisite coursework, most veterinary schools require applicants to have some documented experience working with animals.

It’s beneficial to start accumulating experience while in your early college years — or even while you’re still in high school.

Scope out the opportunities for working with animals in your local area. Ask if you can volunteer or take a weekend or summer job at some of those places.

Consider the following avenues for your work or volunteer experience:

  • Veterinary clinics or animal hospitals

  • Animal shelters

  • Pet stores

  • Farms and ranches

  • Dog kennels

  • Horse boarding stables or riding centers

  • Zoos or petting zoos

  • Aquariums

  • Wildlife preserves

Note that vet schools may require a certain number of hours of experience, so be sure to check out what your schools of choice are asking for.

Applying to vet school

Once you have the educational prerequisites under your belt, it’s time to find a vet school you like and apply to one of its graduate programs.

Here’s a quick overview of the application process:

Take the GRE or other required tests. Many vet schools require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Others accept the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or Veterinary College Admission Test (VCAT). Check your preferred school’s or schools’ requirements to ensure that you prepare for the appropriate test.

Request letters of recommendation. Most veterinary schools require letters of recommendation from professors, veterinarians, or other professionals who can speak to your abilities and potential. Request these letters well in advance of your application deadlines.

Register with the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS). VMCAS is a centralized application service used by most veterinary schools in the United States and Canada. Register with VMCAS and begin completing your application, which typically includes biographical information, transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

Write a compelling personal statement. Your personal statement should explain your motivation for pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, your experience with animals, and your long-term goals. Be genuine, engaging, and concise.

Submit your VMCAS application. Complete and submit your VMCAS application by the designated deadline. Keep in mind that some schools may have supplemental applications or fees that must be submitted separately.

Prepare for interviews. If you are invited for an interview, research the school’s interview format and prepare by practicing common questions and discussing your experiences and goals. Be professional, confident, and authentic during the interview.

Wait for decisions. The decision process can take up to several months, so be patient.

Getting your DVM and passing your licensing exam

Once you’re accepted into a vet school, you’re looking at a four-year program to earn your Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree.

The curriculum is an exciting mix of classroom learning, laboratory work, and clinical experience. Subjects include the following:

  • Anatomy

  • Physiology

  • Pharmacology

  • Epidemiology

  • Microbiology

  • Biochemistry

  • Pathology

  • Toxicology

  • Surgical techniques

Vet students also receive a lot of hands-on training to prepare them for their careers.

They become familiar with the basics of animal care, such as drawing blood, inserting microchips, and administering medications and vaccinations. Their training also includes rotations in various specialties, such as small animal medicine, equine medicine, and surgery.

Graduates must then pass a national licensing exam, such as the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE), to practice veterinary medicine professionally.

The NAVLE is a comprehensive test that covers various species and disciplines to assess your competency in veterinary medicine. It is administered by the International Council for Veterinary Assessment (ICVA).

Applying for a license

Once you’ve passed the national licensing exam, you’ll be ready to work as a veterinarian.

That means determining where you’d like to practice — an important decision because you’ll have to apply for a license in that state.

Each state has its own licensing requirements. These may include additional exams, such as jurisprudence or clinical competency exams, or fulfilling a specified number of continuing education (CE) hours.

You’ll have to submit a completed application, including the required documentation and fees, to the respective state veterinary licensing board.

Some jurisdictions also require a background check to ensure the applicant has no criminal history or past disciplinary actions that would disqualify them from obtaining a license.

Upon completion of all requirements, the licensing board will issue you a veterinary license. This grants you the legal authority to practice veterinary medicine within that jurisdiction.

Finishing these steps will enable you to start your career.

Note that, like many professionals, veterinarians must regularly complete CE requirements and renew their licenses according to the regulations set by their licensing board to maintain their professional standing.

Pursuing a veterinary specialization

Many veterinarians work as general practitioners in animal clinics and hospitals. But, like physicians in the human world, veterinarians can choose to specialize in a particular area.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes no less than 41 specializations and subspecialties within veterinary medicine.

These can be medical specializations, such as the following:

  • Internal medicine

  • Dermatology

  • Pathology

  • Pathobiology

  • Radiology

  • Surgery

  • Anesthesia and analgesia

  • Toxicology

  • Dentistry

  • Nutrition

  • Parasitology

  • Ophthalmology

  • Pharmacology

  • Epidemiology

  • Preventive medicine

  • Emergency and critical care

  • Sports medicine and rehabilitation

Veterinary practitioners can also specialize in particular animal groups, such as the following:

  • Dogs and cats

  • Horses and donkeys

  • Cattle

  • Swine

  • Birds

  • Poultry

  • Reptiles and amphibians

  • Small/companion animals

  • Large animals/food animals

  • Wild animals

  • Exotic animals

  • Zoo animals

A specialization can take an additional two to three years after obtaining your DVM. Many vets pursue specializations after gaining experience in a general practice.

Veterinary specialization includes the following steps:

  1. Choose a specialty. Select a specialization within the veterinary field.

  2. Complete your residency. Enroll in an accredited residency program in your chosen specialty. Residencies typically last two to four years and involve advanced clinical training, research, and mentorship under the guidance of experienced specialists.

  3. Fulfill the requirements. Meet the specialty board’s requirements, which may include case reports, publications, or research projects that demonstrate your expertise in the specific field.

  4. Get board certification. Pass the board certification examination. This is a comprehensive test administered by the respective veterinary specialty organization, such as the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) or the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology (ABVT). These exams assess your in-depth knowledge and skills in your chosen specialty.

  5. Establish a practice. If you’re pursuing a hands-on career in veterinary medicine rather than a research or lab role, at this point, you’ll establish a practice focused on your chosen specialty. A specialty practice includes providing advanced care and consultation to patients and referring veterinarians.

  6. Maintain your certification. Pursue CE and adhere to the specialty organization’s recertification requirements — usually every 5 to 10 years — to maintain your board-certified status.

Finding employment as a vet

Given the projected vet shortage in the coming decade, you’ll likely have no problem finding a job. In fact, it’s estimated that about 4,800 veterinarian jobs will open up every year!

Your employment as a vet may well start with an internship. A year or so as an intern at an established vet practice or clinic will help you gain practical experience and start networking with fellow vets.

An internship will also give you exposure to the ins and outs of running your own vet business. In short, it’s a great springboard for starting your own veterinary practice.

Good avenues for finding internships and other vet positions include specialized job boards. Here are a few to check out:

Don’t forget to check general job boards such as Jobcase for veterinary positions as well. You can find both internships and vet jobs all over the country.

When it’s time to apply for a job, make sure you prepare yourself by reading our post on interview tips.

You’ll also benefit from our suggestions on how to show your passion for the job you are interviewing for.

What does a veterinarian earn?

The current average US salary for general practitioner veterinarians hovers at around $100,000.

However, vet salaries vary by state. They range from about $75,000 to $95,000 in states in the central U.S. and Midwest to more than $120,000 in California, New York, and Maryland.

When veterinarians specialize in medical specialties, their salaries increase significantly.

For instance, at the low end of the range, you find specializations such as radiologists, who earn around $121,000 yearly. Pathologists and lab animal specialists earn from $157,000 to $169,000.

The highest-paid specialty is ophthalmology (the diagnosis and treatment of eye problems). Veterinary ophthalmologists reportedly draw salaries of $199,000 or more.

Next steps to becoming a veterinarian

Becoming a vet takes time, but it’s well worth the effort in terms of job prospects and having a fulfilling career, with many options to choose from to suit your interests.

Now that you know how to become a veterinarian, you may want to dive more deeply into the resources mentioned in this post. The AVMA is a great place to start checking out available programs and options in the veterinary field.

And if you want to explore some other career options, visit our Resources page for some helpful ideas and inspiration!



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