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Preparing for Pre-Professional Programs: Pre-Veterinary, Pre-Animal

“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” -Anatole France

Veterinarian surgeon doctor making a checkup of a begle puppy dog

Your high school student has always talked about someday becoming a vet. What guidance can you offer to help  your teen prepare for an undergraduate pre-veterinary track or the diverse array of other animal-related programs?  This post is part of a series about majors and pre-professional programs. Below, I offer suggestions for clarifying what your student’s interest is and where it may be leading; then how to further explore it, research it, and find a field of study and career in which it can be nurtured, expressed, and grown into a way to contribute to the world.

1. Clarify the interest. Your student has always loved animals. Is this interest personal (e.g., a pet), recreational  (e.g., equestrian sports), or is it truly vocational (e.g., veterinarian) ? If so, what kind of animal-related career should your son or daughter pursue? This question can be broken down in three different ways.

man looking overseas - french riviera, mediterranean sea - adobe RGB

First, does your student want to work directly with animals or do work that is simply “about” animals? Working directly with animals suggests a wide spectrum of careers, ranging from veterinarian, to zookeeper, to animal trainer. But many professionals do work that relates to animals without direct interaction. Examples include: marine biologist, marine ecologist, or animal scientist (specializing in genetics, breeding, nutrition, agribusiness, behavior, or biotechnology). These professionals are research scientists who happen to focus on living things, from microscopic to gargantuan. Is your student enthusiastic about hands-on interaction with animals, or does he or she get turned on by investigating research questions?

3054099698_5c5417b943.jpg (JPEG Image, 500x481 pixels)Second, what kind of animal populations are of interest to your student? Children and teens are highly specific about their target animal interest areas, some only interested in companions like dogs and cats, others focused in large domestic animals such as horses, others passionate about birds or wild animals, and still others crazy about whales, dolphins or manatees. As a practical parent, if you are wondering which field is most in demand today, it is large animal vets, since so many vets choose to pursue lucrative small animal residential practices.

willybytankThird, what kind of function and setting appeals to your student? Your student may wish to deliver medical services in a hospital setting (e.g., veterinarian, vet technician), conduct laboratory research (e.g., geneticist, molecular biologist, food scientist, biotechnologist), or carry out research in nature (e.g., field biologist). Your student might want to care for animals in an outdoor/natural setting (e.g., zookeeper, wildlife rehab worker, farrier), manage an animal-related business (e.g., manager of a barn, kennel, or shelter; dairy farmer; pet product retail manager or headquarters marketer; dog walker or bather/groomer), train animals or humans that interact with them (e.g., equestrian trainer or riding instructorpet or service animal trainer, marine mammal trainer), or create animal-related art or communications (e.g., wildlife photographer, equine artist, writer, journalist).

cowdoctor12. Evaluate the skill set. Does your student excel in math and life science? You would be surprised at how many kids say, “I want to be a vet,” but struggle with chemistry and biology. Children grow up reading James Herriott‘s beloved classic, All Creatures Great and Small and are exposed to veterinarians early in life while taking Fluffy in for a shot. A parent can offer a gentle reality check for an animal lover who cannot comprehend what is required to undertake a veterinary career. Help your son or daughter make the connections. If a student doesn’t thrive in math and science, he or she will not survive (or enjoy) the road to vet school, one of the most difficult medical routes  due to the relative supply of vet schools versus demand (number of applicants). If your student does have what it takes for vet school, there will be further decisions down the road, such as specialty (e.g., animal dentist, radiologist, ophthalmologist, oncologist, cardiologist, surgeon).

What if your adolescent is above-average at math and life science, but not geared for a decade competing in an intense, debt-accumulating academic environment, yet still passionate about working directly with animals? There are many rewarding careers that may fit his or her aspirations (e.g., vet technician, wildlife rehab worker, zookeeper, hippotherapistequine massage therapist, canine physical therapist).

dolphinfacecomingStudents who desire animal interaction, but who possess non-medical skill sets, can also find careers working with creatures great and small. A student majoring in psychology or animal behavior can become an animal trainer (i.e., equestrian trainersea mammal trainer, service dog or dog obedience instructor, TV/ film animal trainer). An equestrian with an animal science background and business acumen can become a riding instructor and barn manager. A shutterbug can specialize in wildlife photography, an illustrator can focus on animals, and an aesthetically talented animal-lover can become a dog groomer.

vetkitty3. Create opportunities to explore animal career interest areas. Pre-college programs offer  opportunities for academic exploration, although these expensive programs are not necessary for gaining admission to elite colleges. Here is a sampling of pre-college programs worth checking out: Tufts: “Adventures in Veterinary Medicine,” Cornell:  “Animal Science: Sustainable Animal Husbandry” “Conservation Medicine: A Veterinary Approach,” U Penn: “VETS: Veterinary Exploration Through Science,”and U Mass Amherst: “Equine Management Program.”

manateecaropetsSummer enrichment camps and trips offer opportunities to see what it is like working with animals as a scientist, trainer or conservationist. Marine programs include: Go BroadreachSail CaribbeanOdyssey Expeditions; Florida’s Dolphin Research CenterDolphins PlusSeacamp, or American Pro Diving Manatee Camp; Maine’s Arcadia Institute of Oceanography; Whale Camp in the Bay of Fundy; Texas A&M Galveston’s Sea Camp; California’s SEA Lab or Seacamp San Diego;  Hawaii’s Teen Seacamp; and Seaworld Camps in Orlando, San Diego or San Antonio. Earthwatch Institute Expeditions, NatGeo, and Sierra Club organize trips for volunteers to support research and conservation involving animals on land and sea worldwide. For horse lovers, local equestrian camps offer opportunities to not only improve horsemanship, but also to learn more about horse care and barn management.

tigerliesdownVolunteerism is one of the best ways to explore animal careers and to gain the critical hands-on experience that vet schools, marine biology programs, and animal-related employers want to see. Your teen can serve at local animal shelters, wildlife rescue facilities and state parks. Your student can apprentice equine management by assisting his or her own barn manager, or learn about hippotherapy by helping out at a therapeutic riding camp. There are also myriad programs that seek volunteer interns from around the country. Examples include: California’s Gibbon Conservation Center, Utah’s Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Florida’s Big Cat Rescue, New Mexico’s Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Minnesota’s International Wolf Center, Tennessee’s Elephant Sanctuary, North Carolina’s Noah’s Landing Zoo, Georgia’s Caretta Loggerhead Turtle Research Project, NJ’s Raptor Trust and Save Barnegat Bay, and the National Audubon Society.

doctoryoung4. Research colleges and universities offering pre-veterinary programs. I have not found rankings of pre-vet programs, but I suggest reviewing US News & World Report’s 2015 Veterinary School Rankings, presuming that a university with an excellent vet school will offer strong undergraduate pre-vet training and facilities, as well as the opportunity to do research with faculty leaders in the field.  The top twenty veterinary schools are: UC Davis, Cornell, North Carolina State, Colorado State, Ohio State, U Wisconsin Madison, U Penn, Texas A&M, U Minnesota Twin Cities, U Georgia, Tufts, Michigan State, Iowa State, Washington State, U Florida, Purdue, Kansas State, Auburn, Virginia Tech-Maryland, and Illinois Urbana-Champagne.

vetgirlFor exceptional students who are able to commit to a specific veterinary school at the beginning of their college career, it may be worthwhile to consider a combined BS/DVM degree. Examples include: Purdue’s Vet Scholars Program, Tufts’ Early Acceptance Program (for undergraduates enrolled at Tufts, U Mass Amherst, Worcester Tech, U Vermont), U Georgia, and U Florida. Since there are only twenty-eight veterinary schools in the U.S., some students may consider doing their graduate training at AAVMC accredited schools in Canada, the Caribbean, the U.K., or Australia. St. George’s in Grenada and Ross University in St. Kitt’s were accredited in 2011. StudentDoctor.Net forums offer discussions of pros and cons of studying outside the States.

Female Vet Examining Horse In Field With Owner5. Encourage your student to explore long term career trajectories. Suggest informational interviewing with family friends who work in the field. What are the rewards and frustrations of careers with animals? Is getting into vet school really possible? How difficult is it to find employment in high supply-low demand fields, such as marine mammal trainer positions? How does an animal worker in a low compensation category make ends meet? Encourage your son or daughter to try to shadow a veterinarian, biologist, animal trainer, barn manager, or any other professional whose career with animals appeals to your teen.

Related reading: Vetting: The Making of a Veterinarian by Dr. Pete Freyburger,  Careers with Horses: by Vicki Hogue-Davies, Opportunities in Marine Science and Maritime Careers by William Ray Heitzman, Starting Your Career as a Marine Mammal Trainer by Terry S. Samansky, and Great Jobs for Biology Majors by Blythe Camenson. Related posts: Preparing for Pre-Professional Programs: Pre-Medicine and Pre-Dentistry, Preparing for a Major in…Marine Science.