Should I get my master’s degree before veterinary school?

If you had asked me during my junior or most of my senior year if I wanted to get my master’s degree before starting veterinary school, you probably would have received a severely judgmental eyebrow raise. All I could think about was finishing my last semester of chemistry and making sure the registrar signed the transcript for my double major in blood. But now I have such whimsical perspective!

paige studying
The joy of learning! (Photo credit: Anh-Viet Dinh, Trinity University)

The answer to this question is not a straightforward one. For many people – read: those with solid GPA’s, finished prerequisites, little to no doubt about their professional goals and adequate time to complete an application during their junior year – going straight into vet school makes a good deal of sense. There is certainly something to be said for heading straight into professional school rather than worrying about how to fill the limbo years between college and, well, more college.

But this post isn’t geared toward such respectable and organized undergrads; it’s geared toward people like me who had a slightly less linear route. See, I was not 100 percent sure about vet school by the time I got to senior year. My ego had been knocked around in some challenging science classes and by an overcommitted schedule.

I was afraid of the advice that undergrads are too scared of the real world so they blindly apply to graduate or doctoral programs because that’s all they know. I also, frankly, feared rejection and figured I should play to my strengths so I started applying to jobs.

Employment out of undergrad was not a pretty prospect and one day, in April (yes you read that right), I saw an advertisement outside my research lab for a professional science master’s program. The program was flexible but challenging, at a credible institution with lots of professional networking opportunities, and it would allow me to take Ph.D.-level science classes in addition to some business classes to boost my GPA, confidence and business sense. I applied the next day.

I am unusual in that I only applied to one program, I applied late and I got in. But I can tell you, it’s been well worth it. I should add that I do have a full time job on the side, where I have gained important professional perspective, but this grad program has done wonders for my confidence and renewed my enthusiasm for science.

I have talked to several career advisors who echo the sentiment that completion of a master’s program can significantly improve your chances of admission, especially for borderline undergraduate candidates. Essentially, vet schools see that you can handle the rigor of graduate coursework, are (hopefully) performing at a higher level in your classes and that you are truly driven to get to vet school.

Even if you aren’t sure you want to apply to veterinary school after graduate school, it’s a great way to network and gain marketable skills while you sort out your professional interests.

Research Experience for Vet School: Why Bother?

Somewhere down on the laundry list of admissions wishes for the perfect veterinary applicant you will often see “research experience.” Not necessarily veterinary-specific research, just plain “research.” You may be thinking, “Of course. Let me just tack on a research intensive honors thesis that requires 20 plus hours a week in some laboratory to my 20 plus weekly clinical hours and my sixteen credit course load and additional extra curriculars (that make me look like a socially functional person). I’m on it.”

I totally get it. I never thought research would be for me and never thought I could find the time, but it ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate career. In fact, I wrote a whole other blog about it.

If you are someone, like me, who struggled to find work at a vet clinic for an 8-10 week summer stint, but still wants to find a productive, vet-school-relevant way to spend a summer and make some money, research is your answer.

My research had nothing to do with vet school (or even mammals). I studied cucumbers. But, not only did I make a respectable summer income, I also developed a fabulous relationship with my research advisor who provided incredible support throughout my undergraduate career.

Paige first research conference
Yours truly at her first research conference!

As someone who was admittedly anxious about my science capabilities, research was a great way for me to learn a lot without the pressure of tests or competitive classmates. The key with research is, theoretically, no one knows more about your topic than you do, so when you go to a conference, you are automatically the expert. That’s a great feeling.

Research also requires that you stick to a project, navigate challenges and ultimately present your findings in a compelling way to experts in the field. If that doesn’t teach you perseverance and confidence, I don’t know what does.

John and Paige at research conference
Research conferences make great date nights (just ask John). If you aren’t into plant biology, you can at least count on free food.

Even if it’s a tight squeeze in your schedule, I recommend making time for at least one semester or summer of research. I truly believe it provides new scientists with the confidence and drive to pursue ambitious futures in science and medicine.

If you are interested in learning more about my trying and often humorous transition into the life of a science student and researcher, read my essay “Counting Cucumber Hairs” here.

Should I take a gap year before vet school?

Yes. Actually, I’m kidding but I did so I can shed some light on the pros and cons. Gap years get a bad rap because they have become synonymous with backpacking across Europe on daddy’s dime. Here, I’m defining gap year as time between undergrad and vet school that can be filled in a variety of ways. My gap years (plural) involve working, getting my masters degree and obtaining clinical experience.

My gap year was less intentional than it sounds. I have friends who have known since sophomore year that they wanted to take a gap year to make money and take a breather before medical school. I was not so sure. I had many competing interests throughout undergrad and generally thought professional experience would be the best game plan to try the adult world on for size and figure out what I wanted to go back to school for.

Instead, I saw an advertisement outside my lab (learn about my undergraduate research life here) for a master’s program that combined business and Ph.D. level biology courses and I applied. In April. One month before graduation. Once I was accepted I almost immediately found a full time job as an editor at a think tank on campus, the stars aligned and I found myself with both a job and a graduate plan. Not my original plan, but so far so good. Here are the pros.

As someone who was nervous about my science background (even though I’m a biology major) and who could definitely beef up here science GPA, taking more graduate level science courses was a really good call. I am much more confident in my classes and know it means I will have a stronger application and will feel more comfortable in the heavy hitting veterinary courses.

By now I have had several internships and a full time job. Most of my professional experience has been in writing, social media, marketing and biology research. See something missing? Nonetheless, it has really helped me determine what I don’t want to do and given me a lot of conviction heading in a very challenging direction. I also have those adult skills like networking, navigating office politics, and getting up and showing up every morning, which will certainly be helpful in the professional vet world.

Ok, let’s talk about money for a second. I had no sense of how much the real world cost as a senior in college. I worked three jobs in college and saved money for things like food and plane tickets, but I was clueless. Let’s be honest. I know you can rely heavily on student loans to cover living expenses in veterinary school, but as a graduate student with similar loans, I can tell you – it would be tight. I didn’t expect I would be so grateful to have a nest egg going into five more years of school. It may just save me a few nights of eating Ramen.

I’m gently dipping my toes into adulthood rather than plunging head on into the real world and the most difficult educational years of my life.

I have learned things like how to pay rent, taxes, maintain a decent standard of living, manage stress, and begin to build a social life beyond the confines of a dorm room. And I think that practice will make the transition easier when I’m pulling my first series of all-nighters.

I have time to devote to clinical hours. Like I’ve said before, I don’t know how people find the time to get clinical experience in undergrad. I wasn’t lucky enough to find a vet to work with my schedule (believe me, I tried) and I now have a full year carved out where I have more time to dedicate to clinical experience than I did in undergrad. Not to mention, I can catch my breath before starting in on my application.

Though I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had greased the tracks to head straight into vet school, I am living proof of the benefit of taking time to get to know yourself, learn to adult, and make a little money before starting my DVM program.

The GRE: What you need to know about taking (and retaking) the test

Veterinary schools require the GRE as part of your application. I, frankly, had now idea what to expect from the test and assumed it was something akin to the dreaded MCAT. Not so, my friends. Not so.

I have taken the GRE once for my graduate school application, so I now know the drill. The test contains five sections– two quantitative sections, two language sections and one analytical writing section (two essays). Most GRE’s are now entirely online and you can take them almost any day of the week (unlike the MCAT). You have to go to a very official testing center, scan your finger print, be on your best behavior, etc., so get there early (I missed that memo…).

While the test is certainly not the gauntlet med students face, it is trickier than I anticipated and I strongly recommend a good test prep book (or two). My friend and I actually compared two prep books side-by-side, ETS and Kaplan. I recommend both for different purposes. The ETS book is best for practice tests because they actually make the exam and we found the Kaplan tests were not representative of how hard the questions actually were. The Kaplan book is better for test prep strategy (it seems like the ETS folks don’t want to share their secrets and the Kaplan team tells all).

I studied for about two months (a few times a week) before the exam and felt confident. I didn’t feel like I needed a test prep course, but I am also fairly disciplined when it comes to studying – call it a masochistic streak. If you are someone who benefits from someone forcing you to sit your butt in a chair and study the material, definitely take a course.

My main advice is to understand how the test works and familiarize yourself with some of the tricks test makers play – the test required more strategy than I thought.

Keep a little cheat sheet with tips you learn along the way. The test recycles the same types of questions each year and you will do much better if you know what to look out for.

One tip a friend of mine, who scored very highly on his MCAT, offered for studying was to take practice tests with a timer at the same time of day you will actually be taking the exam. That way you can condition your mind to focus at a time of day you might typically spend daydreaming or even sleeping.

Before I started studying, I had no idea what a “good” GRE score was. For vet school purposes it seems that anywhere in the mid to upper 150s is respectable and higher is even better (obviously this varies by school). My scores were within range for my graduate program and average for the vet schools I’m interested in, but I decided to retake the exam this coming summer to see if I can improve to be a bit more competitive. Note: many schools super-score GRE scores, meaning they take your highest scores even if it’s from an old exam, so retaking the test won’t hurt anything but your bank account and your social life! Woo!

I know test prep isn’t the sexiest topic, but it’s something that raised a lot of unanswered questions for me. Bottom line: do not fear the GRE, mere mortals (like me) have conquered it and lived to tell the tale.

Why Vet School? A Personal Statement

*Note: This is not actually my personal statement, just reflections on the question that governs the entire application process.

I pride myself on being quick on my feet, thoughtful and clear. But this question has always been an embarrassing challenge. How do you say, “Because I feel it in my bones that I want to be a vet,” without sounding like every little girl that’s ever loved a litter of golden retriever puppies? You have to convey an appreciation and love of science, a deep and broad understanding of a field comprising a good chunk of the tree of life, reasonable hands on experience, a smattering of research ability, a life changing moment when you truly “knew,” and all the warm fuzzy stuff you think about the profession in a way that demonstrates enthusiasm not total blissful ignorance.

And while I will do all of that in my personal statement (to the best of my abilities), I thought I would take the time to write the real answer I give myself when even the idea of owning scrubs seems like finding life on Jupiter (I really have considered just buying them and wearing them alone in my apartment like an old prom dress). Here it goes.

I want to be a vet because I have never felt more myself than when I was standing next to a horse. Whether I was freezing cold chiseling ice out of a water trough, changing a bandage or galloping bareback in the summer (yes that really happened in my childhood, thanks mom and dad), I loved knowing I was the first line of defense for this 1200 lb animal and I loved it even more when I knew that animal trusted me.

I know I need a job that is active. I have enough professional experience to understand what it means to sit still at a desk and stare at a screen and that experience was important to validating what kind of job and lifestyle I need. I’m excited by the idea of working outdoors or in a fast paced clinic where I get to think on my feet and only part of my time is spent filling out charts or reading current literature (which I love).

I never thought I could truly say it, but I do love science. It is unusual to say you love something that you aren’t very good at (or people have rarely told you you were good at), but I do. I enjoyed the challenge of learning how our bodies work. I can read through a complex scientific article and distill it down to a few key points. For me, science always seemed like this thing I could never understand, and now that I’ve scratched the surface, I only want to learn more.

I get bored easily. Once I feel I understand a job or a course, I’m usually on to the next big thing. But as a vet, there is always a new challenge or a new case. If not in practice, you can always teach, mentor, advise or write.

One of my bucket list items is to be an expert in something and this is the one I’ve chosen.

I don’t know how many of these reasons resonate with you, but I have done my best to articulate some of the intangible things that motivate us aspiring vets to keep walking down this uncertain path. And I hope you know now that there is someone else out there who doesn’t have a textbook answer to vet school’s most important question.