Seeing as how my first two posts were about writing, I figured it’s time to share something about vet school. Before I get into the specifics of my time at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, I should cover the basics of vet med.
So, what does it take to become a veterinarian? Usually, it takes 8 years of schooling after high school. Nearly everyone in vet school has an undergraduate degree in some sort of science concentration. We’ve all had to take classes such as organic chemistry, animal genetics, and microbiology. Once you’re in your final year of undergrad you can apply to vet school.
This is hard.
Some veterinarians will tell you that vet school is straight up harder than med school and, therefore, each individual vet school is harder to get into than a medical school. I’ve never bought into this philosophy. What is undoubtedly true is that it is extremely hard to get into vet school simply because there are so few of them. While there are currently 141 medical schools in the United States, there are only 30 veterinary schools. With far less options, it’s far more likely that an applicant is not going to get in anywhere.
Number of schools aside, vet school is hard to get into for other reasons. As I’ve stated, the undergraduate course load is quite demanding. The average undergraduate GPA for an incoming vet school student is roughly 3.5, which means you need to average between a B+ and an A- for all of your classes. In addition, vet school requires hundreds of hours of practical experience. That means during at least one summer of undergrad you should be volunteering or working at a vet clinic getting hands on experience in the field. This is what I did, and most of my classmates did way more than this. We’re talking working at a vet clinic for years or dealing with animals since they were a kid.
Vet school applicants also have to take the GREs, which are basically a super version of the SATs. You’ll want to study for this for a few months beforehand during your junior year of undergrad.
So that covers what you need to do to get into vet school. How about once you’re there?
In just 2.5 more years you’ll be doing this!
Vet school is hard, but not as impossible and soul-crushing as some would tell you. At least not until fifth semester. I heard horror stories about staying up until midnight every single night studying and never having a single moment to yourself. In my experience, that’s just not true. (Again, not until fifth semester. I’ve never hated anything more.)
First, the overall curriculum. I’m sure each vet school is a little different, but they all last four years which are split up into normal classes and working in the school’s teaching hospital. At MSU, our first 5 semesters (2.5 years) are normal classes and labs. Our last 3 semesters (1.5 years) are spent in the school’s hospital or at other approved facilities where we gain practical experience. So let’s break this down further. And please remember, this is all based on my personal experience at my vet school. Everyone studies and learns differently; we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I’m able to study classroom stuff easier than a lot of my classmates and therefore spend less time on it, but it takes me longer to learn practical stuff like surgical techniques.
So, first year is spent studying how the body normally works. This is where you’ll study how immune systems function, animal nutrition, and anatomy & physiology. There’s also some lighter, more fun classes about veterinary ethics and the business aspects of the profession. We spent 3 – 4 hours everyday in a classroom, and then a few days a week we would spend another 2 – 3 hours in an anatomy or histology (microscopes!) lab.
Overall, I think there are two big challenges first year. The first is figuring out how to study. Even in my last years of undergrad, I barely studied for my exams; probably just a couple hours the night before a test. I remember after our very first exam in vet school the professors gave our entire class a big speech because we all pretty much failed. So that was fun. Basically, the subjects are so dense in vet school and we go over so much information that you can’t just skim through the book for a couple hours the night before a test. Most people would go over their notes for a couple hours each day and then even more in the days leading up to an exam. Almost always, I would just stay up all night and study for 8 – 10 hours the night before exams. During my first and second years of vet school, I was working hard on my novel and scripts, so I didn’t study nearly as much as my classmates. My super awesome innate study skills helped make up for this, but I’m still nowhere near the top of my class. (Seriously, nowhere near it.)
The second challenge that first year, especially first semester, was anatomy. First semester anatomy was the hardest class I ever had in vet school, and it’s the first thing you take. You’ve got a couple hours of lectures and then you’re spending another 6 – 9 hours in the lab every week. And that’s not counting any additional time you want to spend in there to study. This is one class where the horror stories I heard were true: we literally went over every muscle, bone, and organ in the body. We needed to know what they did, what they connected to, and how they functioned. For our exams, we walked around the anatomy lab where they would have random bones and muscles on each table. Then they asked us things like, “What is the origin of this muscle? What is this part of the humerus called?” So yeah, that sucked. Big time. Also, you smell like formaldehyde a lot.
The coolest parts of first year were feeling like you were actually learning something and the sense of camaraderie among the class. I started out the year very shy and kept mostly to myself, but by summer break I couldn’t help but feel a big connection to many of my classmates. You spend so many hours together worrying about the same stuff that you can’t help but grow closer.
One last thing about first year you should know is that there are different types of vet students you’ll be working with. There’s the Gunners, the super-dedicated people who spend every minute studying. These guys are extremely talented, incredibly intelligent, and usually abrasive. They’re the ones who won’t vote for a group anatomy final exam even though there are literally 110 votes for it and one against it and you need 100% agreement for the measure to pass! I”m still mad about that!
I will find you one day, Student X. And I will not cover you in rounds.
There’s also the Houdinis, the students who you never ever see. These guys never go to class, instead watching the lecture recordings online. If they’re not in one of your lab groups, they’ll only show up once every week or two for exams. You’ll constantly wonder if they’re really in your class or are just some crazy person who wandered off the street and wanted to see what vet school was like.
Lastly, the Good Guys make up the majority of the class. These are the ones who will quiz you before an exam, who will offer you a hug when you’re dead tired from staying up all night studying, the ones who’ll grab a beer with you on Friday night after an excruciating week. These are your friends and the ones you’ll always love.
So that’s first year. Second year gets even harder. Whereas I thought that first semester Anatomy was the only real tough class first year, second year everything gets turned up a notch. They weren’t all as hard as Anatomy was, but the combined difficulty made up for it. This is the year where you learn how things go wrong in the body. We dove deep into pharmacology, toxicology, and pathology. We had courses on respiratory, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal diseases. So yeah, lots of studying. I still stuck with my “night before cramming”, but it wasn’t fun.
The cool thing about second year is the Principles of Anesthesia & Surgery class we had fourth semester. This was where we learned the basics of, you guessed it, surgery and anesthesia. We had a hands on lab every week where we learned how to work the anesthesia machine, gown up and put our gloves on, drape our patients, how to suture, and lots more. We didn’t learn how to do any specific surgeries, but we had a basic set of information on how to prep for it and close up after. It was a lot of fun.
A block of fake skin and subcutaneous tissue, aka a suture pad. Many tranquil hours are spent running a needle and suture through this thing.
So second year was hard, but by the end of it I thought I had a good grasp on vet school. I’d even heard that second year was the hardest, and I’d actually improved my grades a bit from the year before and learned things I’d never thought I’d be able to do, like prep for surgery and tie surgical knots. So when I came back from summer and started third year, I thought things would be pretty easy.
That didn’t last long.
Third year breaks you. We had nine classes, which was more than ever before. As usual, the course load was intense with classes such as Theriogenology, Neurology, & Endocrine Disease. The real killer, though, was our Operative Surgery course. Let’s talk about that.
Second year’s Principles of Anesthesia & Surgery was easy. You reviewed what we would be doing in each lab over lunch, showed up for a couple hours, and spent a an hour or two over the weekend practicing knots or suture patterns with the TV on in the background. I actually found the course rather relaxing. Not so with freaking Operative Surgery. This time, we needed to memorize how to perform a new surgery each week. They started us off small with abdominal explorations and skin reconstruction, but soon we had to learn 3 eye surgeries for a single lab or completely insane knee repairs. (I should note that these surgeries were all done on cadavers from shelters or the hospital; no animals were killed or hurt just for these operations.) This would have been tough but manageable, but sprinkled throughout the semester were 3 live spays and neuters.
Spays and neuters are the backbone of any small animal veterinary practice. They’re an incredibly common, safe, and even easy procedure. A skilled vet can do a neuter in five minutes, a spay may take 10 – 15. Even for us newbies, learning the mechanics of these procedures wasn’t a terrible challenge. What was challenging was coming to the terms with the fact that, for the first time, we would be cutting into a living, breathing animal. Even worse, in our surgical groups of 3, each person had a different job for each of the 3 surgeries. This meant that we had to know every detail about 3 different aspects of surgery. Once I was the anesthetist, so I needed to make sure I completely knew how to operate the anesthesia machine, monitor patients, fill out the anesthesia chart, prep the patient for surgery, and wake them up. Another time I was the surgeon, which meant I needed to memorize every detail about the procedure down to what type and size of suture had to be used and what pattern to place it in. We also had to learn to be surgical assistants. That was actually easy and basically amounted to handing instruments to the surgeon. That I could do!
Somehow even worse, these labs were all scheduled at the worst times. They were usually one or two nights before big exams. Considering we usually finished surgery around 5pm and had to come back to check on patients later that night, this wasn’t conducive to studying. One lab was smack dab in the middle of a 3 week period where we had 6 exams, so yeah. There were lots of tears from all of us.
Then, at the very end of fifth semester, they decided to give 7 exams in 9 days. (Exams on Thursday & Friday, weekend off, then one exam each day next week.) We’d never experienced anything like this. All 4 previous semesters had 2 days of finals, a study day, and then 2 more days of finals for a total of 4 tests. Why remove our study day in the middle and throw in another 3 exams? Because why not! Oh, and of course the class worth the least credits, right in the middle of these exams, was made cumulative.
So in summation, fifth semester of vet school is the worst thing in the world.
A rare happy moment in fifth semester. The weary smile is because live surgeries were finally over.
Tomorrow I start the final phase of vet school; my clinical rotations. Over the next 18 months we have over twenty 3-week rotations where we’ll actually put everything we’ve learned into practice. Half of these rotations are required for all of us no matter what type of vet we want to be. We all have to take a large animal rotation, a small animal rotation, an emergency medicine rotation, etc. But we also get to choose a lot of them. I’m lucky and got into a lot of the popular ones I wanted, like ultrasonography and dermatology. During these three-week blocks we’ll work with the doctors, care for patients, do surgeries, and talk to clients. This is where we stop being veterinary students and start being student vets.
I’m sure it’s going to be tough, but my friends and I have somehow gotten through everything MSU has thrown at us so far. I’m confident we’ll all make it out of this place with diplomas 18 months from now and be full fledged doctors. And I’ll be here to tell you guys about every step on the way.