Even though veterinarians care for and adore our pets, not all vets realize that helping animals is their destiny from the beginning.
Take Dr. Evan Antin, for example — the Fetch by The Dodo Veterinary Advisory Board member and practicing small animal, exotics and wildlife veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital initially thought he would follow a business career. Now, he has an international career caring for domestic and wildlife animals. But his journey to becoming a veterinarian wasn’t always easy.
Keep reading to learn more about what it takes to become a veterinarian and Dr. Antin’s tips for success.
I think I’m one of the few vets that didn’t realize this profession was my calling at a very young age. I always knew animals would be a significant part of my life, but it wasn’t until college that I decided to become a vet.
I began undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder as a business major, and, at that time, economics courses weren’t captivating me. However, I was taking some other electives, including General Biology I and Evolutionary Biology, and for the first time in my life, I loved learning.
It all clicked with me, and I actually didn’t mind studying. At least not as much as I disliked studying in most high school classes and other college courses so far.
Once the decision was made, I was all in. I pursued extracurriculars, including volunteering at Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center as a lab assistant in the reptile department and shadowing various veterinarians.
I also worked my butt off in school to get the best grades and did well on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) — when I applied to vet school, only about 10% of applicants were accepted.
You need excellent grades in undergrad courses, and sometimes they even look at high school transcripts, I think. You also need to take several prerequisite courses before even applying to vet school, including General Biology I & II, Gen Physics I & II, Gen Chemistry I & II, Organic Chem I & II and Biochemistry. I’m blessed that my brain fairs much better in math-and-science-based courses compared to literary ones.
Vet schools also expect applicants to have 500 to 1000 or more hours of volunteering under other veterinarians and 100 hours or more of volunteering or assisting in a laboratory setting.
After all that, you have to take the GRE, a standardized test required for several higher-learning professional programs. It was basically like that SAT when I took it. You also need three or more letters of recommendation from professors and/or veterinarians or researchers that have gotten to know you.
Then when you get into vet school, expect to study a lot. Clinics usually start in the 3rd year, and you’re full clinics in the 4th and final year. During that time, you’ll study for and take The North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) and state boards exams, potentially depending on where you practice.
In vet school, I personally took every exotic animal elective course, lab and clinical rotation available. I also volunteered at wildlife rescues every time I traveled out of the U.S. before, during and after vet school. Most of my traveling was focused on native wildlife and budget, so lucky for me, a lot of my favorite countries and their wild habitats are in the tropics, and the U.S. dollar fares well abroad.
I just had to save for potentially expensive flights. Then it was hostels and canned or street food so I could spend as much time as possible in various jungles and habitats of Southeast Asia, Central America, Australia, Africa and so many more.
This May 2023 celebrates the 10th year of my degree. So crazy how time flies. I still feel green all the time.
There’s a lot to love about this profession. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say that the actual interactions with animals are definitely one of the best parts. Animals are honest and transparent, and if you can read their body language and behavior, it’s actually pretty straightforward to have an idea of what they’re thinking.
This notion can be especially fun with certain exotic and wildlife species. For example, one of the most special things I’ve ever done is working with (and playing with) baby rhino. Baby and adult elephants, for that matter, are also amazing. I love working with crocodiles and venomous snakes a lot, too. I can’t explain it, but I truly love hands-on working with animals.
Most people probably aren’t aware that there are many challenges in the veterinary profession. Long hours, compassion fatigue, severe student debt, relatively low income compared to other professionals with similar education and experience, staff shortages as of more recently and so on.
I hate to admit this, but after a couple of years working long hours at a busy 24/7 general and emergency small animals hospital, plus overnights every month, I was definitely looking forward to my days off.
It’s pretty exhausting to see dozens of patients, care for inpatients, work in procedures and surgeries into your day, get home late and then wake up early to do it all over again 5 days a week. And this is what many veterinary practitioners do for an entire career.
I immensely respect quality vets that have done this for multiple decades. It’s a very demanding profession. These days I’m part-time at the hospital because I usually have other projects and travel that take up a significant portion of my schedule. I like that though. I really love the variety; it makes it way more enjoyable to work at the hospital when I do.
I can’t fail to mention that the suicide rate is very high among veterinarians and veterinary technicians and often for a combination of the reasons I mentioned before. Our colleagues are two to five times more likely to take their life, which tells us a lot about the profession.
If I’m at the hospital, it’s filled with seeing patients and often working on outpatient procedures, if necessary.
When I’m traveling, that might be working with wildlife or appreciating wild habitats and nature. I do a lot of work from home, administrative business stuff or grinding on projects outside the hospital. For example, in 2020, I released a book, “World Wild Vet.”
I also suffer from a severe woodworking obsession, so I love my time in the shop. I self-diagnosed myself in May of 2020 after buying a table saw. It all went downhill very fast after that, and I am blessed to say I have a full-on workshop in my garage. I even have a welder, a milling machine and a metal-turning lathe. My fascination for fabrication has truly gotten out of hand.
The most humbling and inspiring people I work with in the wildlife conservation world play a big role in that. For example, wildlife park rangers in many African countries. These men and women earn next to nothing for income and put their lives on the line to protect the wildlife in the park they’re employed.
The poaching war is literally a war. Hundreds of people on both sides lose their lives in the field every year. Yes, I work with dangerous animals — and love it — and I’ve worked in some pretty sketchy places, but that’s not my life every day. These people are the real deal, and I couldn’t appreciate or respect them more than I already do.
Honestly, graduating is up there! Vet school was intense. I’m smart enough to get through it, but it was by no means “easy” for me. That was a lot of work, and I’m still proud of my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree.
I had an extremely proud moment just 2 months ago, too. The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) invited me to name one of the 20 wild baby mountain gorillas born last year.
This is a huge honor, and I named this baby “Igichumbe,” which symbolizes “sanctuary” in Rwanda, referencing the importance of their native habitat and my appreciation for Rwanda’s leaders continuing to make such an effort in conserving their beloved primates and wildlife.
Get the best grades possible starting in middle school or freshman year of high school. Be proactive and chase opportunities, especially local ones. Many cities have a wildlife animal rescue near them, so if you want to work with wildlife, I always suggest starting locally.
Even most small towns have veterinary clinics or hospitals, so approach them and seek volunteering opportunities. If and when you volunteer or shadow someone, give it your best. Make an effort to learn and improve and come out of there more educated than when you arrived. This not only serves your character, but it also may serve to benefit your vet-school application when the time comes that you need a letter of recommendation, a referral or perhaps even a job.
If you’re serious about becoming a vet, do yourself a favor and learn about all aspects of the profession. Be cognizant of the debt you’ll likely incur, the income you can expect and the profession’s challenges.
Lots of other professions work with animals, not just vets. These days school debt is pretty outrageous. Not everything is about the money, but it’s ideal to have full clarity of what you’re getting yourself into for any profession. It’s one of the most rewarding professions I know of, and that can be appreciated daily, which is pretty incredible.
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Image source: @drevanantin Instagram