How to Become a Veterinarian: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a veterinarian. Research the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in veterinary medicine.

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Education Requirements to Become a Veterinarian

Veterinarians prevent and treat illnesses and injuries in animals. They might specialize in a type of veterinary medicine, such as surgery, and/or a group of animals, such as equines or wildlife. Duties include diagnosing patients, prescribing medications, performing surgery, giving vaccinations, and providing health care recommendations to pet owners. Veterinarians may also conduct research in areas such as biomedical sciences.

To enter the field, one must usually earn a bachelor's degree and then complete a four-year veterinary medicine program. After earning a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.), one may work at a small animal clinic, farm, or zoo. The following table lists the basic education and skill requirements for becoming a veterinarian:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Doctorate required*
Degree Field Veterinary medicine*
Licensure Must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam to earn licensure; there may be additional licensure requirements specific to each state*
Experience Varies widely with each employer and field of practice**
Key Skills Critical thinking, complex problem solving, decision making, speaking, active listening, and reading skills***
Computer Skills Knowledge of software used to record information and communicate with others (e.g. Microsoft Access, Outlook, Office, and Excel) and scientific software specific to the veterinary field***
Technical Skills Experience with x-ray, surgical, and laboratory equipment***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Veterinary Medical Association job postings (August 2012), ***O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

Most schools of veterinary medicine require or prefer applicants to have a bachelor's degree. While many students earn their degree in a biological science, most veterinary schools don't have a preferred major as long as certain science courses are taken. These courses typically include general biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Some schools may require some more advanced science courses, such as mammalogy, biochemistry, or animal behavior.

Success Tips:

  • Participate in volunteer programs or internships in the veterinary field. Volunteering or interning at veterinary clinics or other animal care facilities can give students an idea of what the job of a veterinarian is really like. Many veterinary programs require some experience working with animals, and volunteering can fulfill this requirement or make a student more competitive when applying. Students can use these experiences to show their dedication to the field of animal care, as well gain professional references.
  • Join a pre-veterinary club. Pre-professional clubs that focus on veterinary medicine are available at many schools. These clubs may have meetings where members discuss career topics, shadowing programs, and resources for volunteer or internship experience. Some also offer the chance to apply for scholarships that are only offered to members.
  • Take the GRE. Many schools of veterinary medicine require applicants to submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. This exam measures a person's readiness for graduate-level studies.

Step 2: Earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

Each successive year in a program of veterinary medicine builds upon the previous year's curriculum. The first year or two may focus on science subjects like animal anatomy and physiology, nutrition, and virology. These and related courses lay the basic framework for understanding veterinary medicine. Some courses might be specific to an animal group. The third year may focus on clinical studies in which students come in contact with living animals and practice using the knowledge and skills they've gained in the previous two years to make diagnoses and recommend possible treatments. The fourth year is usually spent participating in applied experiences, such as practicums or externships.

Success Tip:

  • Get involved in research projects. Some programs offer students the opportunity to be involved in research while they are studying for their degree. This experience may be helpful in understanding certain aspects of the veterinary field and can open up opportunities to work in research rather than a clinical setting.

Step 3: Become Licensed

Graduates of accredited programs of veterinary medicine must be licensed to practice in the field. All states require that graduates successfully pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam; additional state-specific exams may also be required.

Step 4: Gain Experience

After becoming licensed, one might choose to gain further practical and specialized experience in the field by interning for a year before applying for a more permanent position. The majority of veterinarians work with small companion animals in private clinics. A smaller percentage of veterinarians choose to specialize in working with equines or other large animals, exotic animals, or zoo animals.

Success Tips:

  • Become certified in a specialty. To be eligible for certification in a specialty field such as internal medicine or surgery, veterinarians must have completed either a residency or additional education. Residency programs usually involve multiple years working at a specified location where a veterinarian receives supervised training in his or her chosen specialty.
  • Join a professional association. National and state associations exist for veterinarians. Membership benefits may include access to newsletters, professional connections, published literature on the latest veterinary topic, and resources for continuing education.
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