So You Want My Job: Veterinarian

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 16, 2009 · 20 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job


Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

When man’s best friend gets sick, veterinarians like Richard McAroy are the ones who are there to get them back on their paws again. Dr. McAroy is a vet in New Hampshire and fixes up dogs and lots of other four (and sometimes eight) legged creatures. Thanks Richard for providing us with this thoroughly interesting and enjoyable interview.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

I’m 41 years old and from Harrah, Oklahoma originally.  I graduated from Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999 and I’ve been in private practice for ten years.  8 years ago I purchased my own small animal hospital in Hudson, New Hampshire.  I’m considered a “solo vet,” meaning I’m the only full-time doctor in the practice (although I have a part-time veterinarian who works one day per week).  I am a small animal/exotic veterinarian… I see mostly dogs and cats, but also turtles, guinea pigs, hamsters, snakes, and the occasional tarantula.  I am not a fan of spiders.  I do the exam wearing latex gloves and use a wooden stick to prod the spider.  If they move, they’re probably healthy.

My professional interests are medicine and diseases specific to English Bulldogs (money pits, don’t buy one… that’s advice everyone should heed), bioterrorism response and training, and ophthalmology.  I am a certified Foreign Animal Disease Response Training Officer and enjoy helping police K9 working dogs.

2. Why did you want to become a veterinarian? When did you know it’s what you wanted to do?

I’ve always felt kind of guilty about this… most of my classmates had always wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as they could remember.  I wanted to be an astronaut.  However, after a short stint in the Air Force I learned that I had asthma and not-so-great eyes and that my chances of going to the moon were slim, so I went to school and studied biochemistry.  I went to work as a State Police dispatcher while I attended class full-time.  I had always thought that being a veterinarian entailed a lot of farm work, but after doing some research, I realized that veterinarians are EVERYWHERE, not just on the farm.  There are military veterinarians who do everything from working dog medicine to meat inspection, all the way up to veterinarians who deploy with the Army Special Forces and help indigenous people with their public health and livestock.  There are federal veterinarians who are at the leading edge of biological terrorism response.  There are also veterinarians who work for NASA, and one veterinarian who is a regular space shuttle mission specialist.  A fellow New Hampshire resident, I might add.

I applied to veterinary school during my senior year of college.  I had basically decided to be either a veterinarian or stay in law enforcement and become a detective.  When I got my letter of acceptance into veterinary school, I sat down with my boss, the Chief, and asked him what he thought I should do.  He said, “Sure, I’ll make you a detective when you graduate, if that’s what you want.  But you know… I’ve always wanted to be a vet.”  I called the school five minutes later and joined the incoming OSU CVM Class of 1999.

3. A lot of men are familiar with the process of becoming a people doctor (college, MCAT, med school, residency…), but don’t know much about what it takes to become a vet. What is involved in the process and how long does it generally take?

Becoming a veterinarian is very similar to becoming a human MD.  First you have 4 years of undergraduate college to complete… although any major can apply, there are a certain number of prerequisite classes you must take as background science studies.  During undergrad, you have to take organic chemistry I and II with lab, biochemistry and lab, and zoology.  Genetics was one of the classes required for applying to Oklahoma State, and that was a seriously hard course that I just barely passed.  By the time you have planned out the prerequisites required, you are very close to having a bachelor’s degree in science.  I took a few extra classes and got my BS in Biochemistry.

Generally you apply to veterinary school during your junior year of college.  The application process consists of school-specific paperwork, interviews, and taking the GRE test as well as the Veterinary School Admission Test.  Generally there are 3 or 4 applicants for every open slot in veterinary school… it’s very competitive.  That’s not to say that only the students with the best grades are accepted… I’m living proof of that.  I had a solid 3.4 GPA going into interviews.  I was going up against 4.0 honor students who already had their degrees when I went to interview.  I went into interviews and presented myself as a well-rounded individual who had good social skills and could carry on an intelligent conversation.  I also stressed that I was an older student (I was 27 when I interviewed) and that this was not my first career.  I had worked in the real world and not just been a professional student.

That reminds me of a specific interview:  The second of 2 interviews at my school took place in the basement of the college.  The first had been very nice, cordial, and I had enjoyed talking to the Dean over coffee.  Then he said, “Oh, by the way… your second interview is right downstairs in 5 minutes.”  I walked into a room with two old doctors sitting behind a desk, with a single chair placed in the middle of the empty room about 10 feet in front of them.  I had no more than sat down when the first interviewer said, looking at my transcript, “It says here you made a B in Microbiology.  What’s wrong with you?  That’s an easy class.”  Taken aback, I smiled and said, “You know, I was a bit of a screw-up when I first started school.  If you look at the rest of the grades, I did a lot better in a lot of the harder classes.”

During veterinary school, you work in both large animal and small animal settings.  Sometimes you work, with no compensation, over weekends.  You do night shifts and are on call to assist the interns and residents at the veterinary school.  After graduation, some veterinarians do an internship.  That is a one-year course of work and study in either a private hospital or veterinary school.  After that, if you wish to become a boarded specialist, you can pursue a residency (which is generally another 3 to 4 years, depending on specialty).  There are veterinary boarded specialists in ophthalmology, surgery, endocrinology, pathology… you name it.  Exactly similar to human medicine.

4. What is the career trajectory of a veterinarian typically like? Do you generally start off working for an established practice and then later on open up your own?

After graduation, the typical veterinarian (who doesn’t go into an internship and pursue postgraduate coursework) typically goes to work for an established practice.  Very few new grads immediately open their own practice, and I wouldn’t recommend it.  In my opinion, it’s better to get some solid “real world” experience working for other doctors.  You can see what works and what doesn’t work, things you never learned in veterinary school and watch how other doctors deal with bad situations, undesirable outcomes, and difficult patients; things you can’t learn in lecture, basically.  I worked for three different practices during school and over summers, and two different practices after I graduated.  I bought the second practice two years later.

5. How competitive is it to get that first job working for an established practice? What kinds of things increase your chances of being hired?

When I first graduated, there was zero competition for your first job.  “You have a degree?  You’re hired.”  Anywhere in the country, basically… although competition for jobs is higher in states that have their own veterinary schools.  In states without veterinary schools, the demand for veterinarians is phenomenal.  You’re guaranteed a job if you are willing to work.

That’s an important point:  Work ethic.  A lot of veterinarians are hard-working people who often put in 50 to 60 hour weeks.  If you’re not motivated, or you require constant supervision, you likely will not be happy as a veterinarian.  I have worked for vets who made me do on call emergencies by myself for days on end; they’re not exactly the norm, but it does happen.

6. I’ve heard that large animal veterinarians are in demand. What are the differences between working with small versus large animals, and why are less people opting to do the latter?

There is a nationwide shortage of large animal veterinarians.  Superficially it’s because they make less money than small animal doctors.  Farmers do not want to spend a lot of money on an animal that may not make a profit when taken to slaughter, so they will not consent to a lot of diagnostics and treatment that they must pay for.  The other reason that large animal veterinarians are in demand is because it’s very demanding work in sometimes adverse conditions.  To complicate matters, our profession is now primarily female.  Female veterinarians are great doctors, but they can’t do many of the physically demanding tasks that a male doctor can.  Also, many female veterinarians are not interested in owning practices and sometimes work fewer hours, especially after they have children.  The remaining male veterinarians make a better living and have better work conditions doing small animal work.

In large animal work, you do a lot of traveling to farms.  You may or may not receive help from workers at the farm in restraining the animal you’re going to be treating.  You’re out in the weather, any kind of weather.  If you work on horses, your malpractice insurance is liable to be higher than the norm.  Also your chance of injury is higher from kicks by horses and cattle alike.  Personally, though, I really enjoyed the physical labor of my Food Animal rotation in veterinary school.

7. What is the best part of your job?

I love anesthesia and surgery.  On any given day, I can be called to perform a caesarian section on an English Bulldog, extract decaying teeth in a debilitated Yorkshire Terrier, remove a malignant tumor from an old German Shepherd, or perform an intestinal resection and anastamosis on an aggressive cat that ate a GI Joe boot.  If the surgery seems too complicated for a general practitioner, I can refer it to a boarded surgeon, but I enjoy doing everything that I feel comfortable pursuing.  I live for surgery!

8. What is the worst part of your job?

In the last ten years I have seen more and more people who demand something for nothing and veterinary care for free.  My student loan debt is $85,000 and I use a large number of expensive human drugs daily.  Although I wish I could provide veterinary care for free, it seems that some people expect not to be charged for services.  The worst part of my job is the people that neglect their animals because they refuse to spend money for their care.  It is a scene that plays out daily.

The grim reality of the job is that the care provided to animals is discretionary income of the owners.  As the economy worsens, there is no money for diagnosis and treatment of more complicated diseases.  When the stock market crashes, folks are more likely to euthanize their pet than spend money treating a problem.

9. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

When I first graduated, it sucked.  I was working 60 hours weekly and had emergency call three nights per week.  I was working in an economically-depressed area and making very little money… we also had a 2 year-old son and lived next door to the practice.  My family was under constant stress.  After changing practices and moving, it’s much more balanced.  I decided not to work any weekends, and there is a local veterinary emergency hospital to take my patients in the middle of the night if needed.

However, as a solo doctor there are no sick days.  Vacation time is entirely dependent upon finding a relief doctor to cover your clinic while you are gone.  But I do hope to hire an associate veterinarian in a couple of years, and that will alleviate a lot of the inconveniences.

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

The biggest misconception about being a veterinarian?  That every day is full of happy and nice animals who are all cuddly, brought in by smiling responsible owners.  When dealing with the public, the next person through your door could be an animal-abuser.  They might not speak English, and that makes the task of explaining their pet’s problem harder.  The dog being brought in might appear nice, but suddenly attempt to bite when its feet are touched.  The friendly cat could suddenly turn on you, and there’s nothing scarier in a veterinary hospital than a fractious cat attacking you in a very small exam room.  In those cases, I believe in “better living through chemistry,” or the judicious application of chemical sedation.  When confronted with a dangerous animal, it keeps you, your staff, the client, and the pet all safe and free from harm.

Thankfully those instances are not common.  It’s depressing when it does happen, though.

11. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

If you’re seriously considering becoming a veterinarian, make sure you understand that your student loan debt will be enormous and difficult to pay.  The salaries for veterinarians are not conducive to paying off large amounts of debt, and this problem is seriously threatening our entire profession.  It’s what forces large animal vets to suddenly only see small animals.  If you ask the average veterinarian for advice, they will often say, “Go to human medical school.  Don’t become a vet.”

On the bright side, compared to human physicians, I am not forced to deal with insurance companies and insurance paperwork.  And although I do pay malpractice insurance, it’s not very expensive.

One of the best parts of being a veterinarian is when your doctor becomes jealous of your ability to be a radiologist, an anesthesiologist, a surgeon, a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, or an endocrinologist all in the same day.  My family doctor refers to veterinarians as “cowboys who can be jack-of-all-trades” without having to refer any non-routine procedure to a specialist.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 chris September 16, 2009 at 8:33 pm

I really love this article. I’m an army animal technician and view my vets as some of the best people around. I’m currently working my way through undergrad with the goal of becoming a vet. Thanks AOM for covering this great profession.

2 Cory September 16, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Great article.

I’m a pre-vet student in CA hoping to become an equine sports medicine veterinarian. I was really encouraged by the paragraph talking about being a well-rounded individual as opposed to the professional student. It’s very disheartening when every student and every professor talk exclusively about grades in regards to vet school. I know acing a series of o-chem is great, but what good is it if one can’t even restrain an unruly dog or a yearling colt?

I’m glad to hear for once that other attributes are considered. Thank you for this interview!

3 Robert September 16, 2009 at 8:52 pm

This article was very informative. My daughter has wanted to be a vet since she was a little girl. I am constantly pointing out reality to my children and they have grown to appreciate that. I’m glad to be armed with a little knowledge to help her pursue her dream with a dose of reality. Thanks for this one.

4 Matt McGee, DVM September 16, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Richard, c’mon dude, I went to school with you for 4 years. Easy on the lady large animal vets, most of the girls in vet school were bigger and stronger than you. Furthermore, you know that if they read that paragraph they would want to take you out behind the woodshed and whip some respect into you. Keep up the good work.

5 Heather Martin September 17, 2009 at 12:58 am

I loved this article! I had considered going to college to become an Animal Health Technology. (I live in Canada, the process is probably different.) Then I decided I would not be strong enough!

In regards to question: 8. What is the worst part of your job? I can definitely relate to being bothered by economic euthanasia. I work at a pet health insurance place as a customer care representative. (I’m not trying to advertise, btw, my company doesn’t insure the states. It’s Canada only.) I’m not sure if there is any system in place like this in the states, but we give participating veterinary practices vouchers to give to their customers: 6 weeks free coverage. So it really is like getting something for nothing.

It is definitely sad to see how many pet owners just don’t care enough to spend money on their pets! In my line of work I have actually heard people say “Pet insurance costs $50 a month, a bullet costs .50 cents.” I have people canceling because they just don’t want to spend the monthly amount! It more or less doesn’t make sense! (I just wish I could tell them that!)

6 Dave September 17, 2009 at 9:24 am

Our 11 year old Weimeraner was recently rather ill.
We woke up at 02h00 to find him sitting down and vomiting in the bedroom.
Sitting down because his hindquarters had become paralysed.
He was in obvious distress and after not being able to calm him down after about 30 minutes, phoned our local vet’s office and got the emergency number.
I phoned, the Dr answered. I described the situation, he asked some questions and said that there isn’t much he can do between that time and 7 in the morning when they open. But he asked us to keep an eye on the dog and to let him know if he got worse, especially if he got diarrhoea. Which he did about 45 minutes later. Pretty uncontrollable and being paralysed, couldn’t even lift himself out of his own waste.

The lad was in a bad way so I phoned the Doc again and he agreed to meet us as their offices.
At 04h00 in the morning this man got out of bed to help us care for our dog.

It was touch and go for a while there but Zeke responded to treatment well within the 48hr window the Doc suggested we observe before sconsidering the unthinkable.

Not quite sure if it’s on topic to post this here but I am absolutely amazed by this man’s dedication.

His name is Johann Viljoen and he is my new hero.


7 tc909 September 17, 2009 at 10:18 am

I don’t know, the vets at the office I take my 4 dogs (& 3 prior ones) and 2 cats in my town work 3 days a week. 1 vet has 3 houses (in 3 different states), 1 has 2 houses, and the other has his own cattle farm, horse ranch, and a hunting cabin in Montana. They appear to be doing quite well and they are all under 50 years old.

Regarding the biggest misconception and worst part of his job: Herriott was writing about dealing with these same things 60 years ago in England, they are nothing new (people who won’t/can’t pay, animal neglect & cruelty etc.)

Best of luck to him.

8 Carrie Burrows September 17, 2009 at 11:58 am

Awesome interview! As a pet owner and wildlife rehabilitator I am grateful for the work that veterinarians do.

9 Mike Hostetler September 17, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Thanks for the informative article.

My girlfriend in college grew up next to her dad’s farm animal vet office. Her stories were a lot like what was described above. What is more interesting is how many free/cheaper drugs and treatments she got. An X-ray machine is an X-ray machine, right? And a dog’s version of Tylenol is still Tylenol, you just have adjust the dosage.

10 Diana September 18, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Great article Richard. You are a huge compliment to your profession. I don’t know if you knew my dad or not, (a human doctor for those reading) but you remind me of him in your dedication to your patients, your compassion to your patients and to those of us who seek your advice.

11 Carl Muthman September 21, 2009 at 4:46 am

I grew up working on farms and ranches and a vet’s job is not glamorous. They may work lousy hours and conditions and the animals owners can be worse than the animals ! They earn their pay, when they get it. But the success brings a warm feeling. I agrre that the small animal vet would be better than large animal vet for many reasons. Just a humorous short story….I took a fella out to watch a vet perform a c-section on a cow in a barn and way before the calf saw light, this fella was almost “lights out” and had to step out for some fresh air . Vet thought we were going to have to do first aid on him. I was working for the county and that fella with me was a young city guy I worked with LOL.

12 Моисей September 23, 2009 at 3:20 am

Thank you! It’s very interesting article.

13 Kristen November 19, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Hi Richard,

I live in NH as well, and my 16-yr-old daughter is passionate about becoming a large animal vet. We found your interview to be very informative and appreciate your candor. Could you possibly recommend a large animal vet, preferably female, that she might secure some type of internship with?

Thanks for your help!

14 Briana January 18, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Great Interview! I really want to be a veterinarian, always wanted to be since i was born, and always worked for it in any volunteer work i could find and sports teams, but as i work on the side i let my grade slip. Is there any possible way to get into pre-vet in college and make up for the horrible high school grades with good grades in college? It was never the misunderstanding in class, more of intentive-ness.

15 Jezyrel Villaruz February 3, 2010 at 9:03 am

I so want your job!

I’m 28, a college grad and working for years at a radio telecom firm. I’m pursuing this long-time dream because this will also allow me to professionally work with animals and I know I will be happier. I’m preparing for NVAT next year here in Philippines.

Thank you so much Dr. McArroy. This interview is giving me a lot of inspiration today.

16 Luka Henderson April 19, 2010 at 11:15 am

Not all large animal veterinarians make a lousy salary…Most large animal vets make less than their small animal colleagues during the first five years of practice but if you can stay the road, develop resiliency along the way, then you’ll be fine especially if you become an owner of your practice. If you’re lousy at business, your salary will reflect that…

Also, there is something to be said for going out to farm calls, getting dirty, and developing a relationship with your clients, they in many ways become your friends for life. Plus, to be a real cowboy, you gotta work with horses and cows, not little scary kitty-cats….haha

all vets know that we large animal vets like to give our small animal friends a hard time…but with that being said, i love being a veterinarian and as a former chemist, nothing rocks more than doing science and thinking analytically outdoors!

17 Nykol January 19, 2013 at 12:25 pm

I’m thinking of becoming a vet when I graduate school. I’m currently in grade 10 (Year 11), doing my IGCSE’s (British system). I’m taking biology, chemistry and physics, what is the appropriate grade to get if you want to be a vet. I’m not exactly good at chemistry, as I score E’s and below on my test.. but I’m not bad in biology either as I score B’s and above. Does it matter which science I pursue for IB? Biology or Chemistry? Thanks.

18 tom February 19, 2013 at 10:43 am

excuse me, if i study vet-med in Philippines, finally i graduate and get a diploma, will i be able to apply to be a vet in the USA? please send me email~thank you for your help.

19 paige June 29, 2013 at 2:00 am

SO…..LOVE…..ANIMALS…..!!! my nan has 2 birds and i used to have 1 bird and 4 dogs but then that was in QLD but now we moved to yamba and its inspired me so much to start my career on a veterinarian.

20 Rachel the Vet Tech July 24, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Great article on vets! I especially like how the guy’s not selling a rose-tinted view of what the profession entails.

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