Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On becoming a vet student: career changes

A few weeks ago, I was in line for free food before a lunchtime talk, and I overheard the woman in line behind me saying “Yeah, I wish I could go to school here, but it’s kind of late now.” Because I am no good at keeping my mouth shut, I turned around and told her, “I did that. I was a medievalist in college and an online publishing programmer for twelve years after that, and then I went to vet school. I had to go back and take all my basic science prerequisites, so it took me two and a half years of night classes before I could apply. But here I am.” She was intrigued and asked for my email address, but today I realized I never heard from her. So I figured this would make a good blog post for anyone out there who is thinking it’s too late to become a vet.

How did it work? Vet schools tend to require more pre-requisites than medical schools. The basic sciences that everyone has to take to apply to one of these programs are: two semesters of inorganic chemistry; two semesters of organic chemistry; two semesters of biology; two semesters of physics; two semesters of mathematics. The schools I were interested in also required a semester of biochemistry and a semester of genetics, although my biology class had enough genetics in it that I got that requirement waived. It is my understanding that medical schools don’t require the biochemistry and genetics, although they do require that you pass the GMAT, which is a much harder test than the one I had to take, the GRE.

There are plenty of extension schools out there which let post-baccelaureate (post-college) students take classes of all sorts. There are lots of people who go back to do pre-med programs, or finish up the last of their pre-med requirements after college graduation. At age 31, I was on the older side, but there were a few other students in my age bracket. It is definitely tough to afford your mortgage when you are working part-time in order to take two classes at once and get your volunteer experience in, but I was in a hurry to get through the pre-reqs. I could certainly have done fewer at a time and had more time to work; my friend LPK worked full time and took only one class a semester. It is, of course, easier if you have a partner who will support you while you go to school, but I am proof that you can do it while single.

I'd like to put in a particular plug for Harvard Extension School, here, for anyone in the area. That was a very well organized program for post-bac students. Classes were held in the evenings, just once or twice a week (longer at a time, of course). This structure was convenient for people like me who were trying to work during the day. I also took some classes at a school which just dumped me in with the undergraduates. This was socially awkward, of course, but additionally, their schedules meshed poorly with mine. Classes met three times a week, during the day, so that I had to take time off work, and commute much more often. They have intensive classes over the summer; I completed a year’s worth of physics in just seven weeks (I am a “pull the Band-Aid off fast” type of girl). Of course, I did not work during those seven weeks!

I started with inorganic chemistry, and it was overwhelming for someone who had basically never been really introduced to hard science before. (As an undergrad I took a history of astronomy class and an evolutionary biology class to satisfy my requirements. The biology class was responsible for the lowest grade on my college transcript.) I have since heard of The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, which I really wish I had read before taking that class. It would have been a gentler introduction. I remember being bewildered at this substance, NaCl, which apparently liked to split into Na+ and Cl- — no one ever explained to me why it did that. I was coming from the land of complete ignorance of chemistry and it was a rough transition.

One of my semesters of math was biostatistics. I took it at the graduate level, and was as a result actually able to place out of biostats in my second year of vet school. I am so glad that I did that.

One thing that I figured out for myself, and wish to suggest to other people, is: you can take electives during your pre-vet time, even if you are taking night classes. Electives fit in well in your final semester, after you have completed most of your pre-reqs and your application is pending. I took some classes which I thought would be helpful for my planned career in animal behavior (neurobiology and psychology). I also took one class because I didn’t know if I would ever have the chance to take a class like that again. (The Cognitive Dog. This class is still on offer and can be taken remotely, so you don’t have to live in the Boston area to take it. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in dog cognition. It was just fascinating. It requires no science background at all, though it should not annoy people who do have a science background.)

In addition to academic pre-requisites, veterinary schools require that you have some hands-on experience with animals, particularly of a medical nature. It is nice for this experience to be varied. I found that shelters are eager for volunteers; find a shelter of a large enough size to have a vet on staff, and make it clear that you are interested in shadowing the vet, not just cleaning cages. Some shelters have large animals, as well; getting large animal experience can be difficult. I also simply approached some veterinarians and asked if I could regularly shadow them. The worst they can say is no.

One of the best volunteer experiences I had was at the wildlife clinic at the vet school that was my first choice (and where I am now enrolled). I was not specially interested in wildlife, but I got to interact with students and see what life was like on campus. That was invaluable. If you have a vet school near you, I recommend you call them up and ask to speak to their volunteer coordinator, who can help you find something.

It is never too late to make this career change. My school recently graduated someone who is in her fifties. If you want it enough, the resources are there to help you do it. I am always happy to answer questions from people who are considering becoming veterinarians but not sure how to start. It is doable!

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