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Animal lovers can find a rewarding career in veterinary medicine, from becoming a veterinarian to being a veterinarian assistant.

How to Become a Veterinarian

Step 1. Get a Bachelor of Science Degree

The first thing to realize about becoming a veterinarian is that a veterinarian is a medical practitioner on animals. Just as you likely would not want a doctor who did not, in addition to having a four-year undergraduate degree from an accredited college, go to medical school, you would not want, as a pet owner, to bring your pet to someone lacking in education specific to practicing medicine on animals. So the first step toward becoming a veterinarian is to recognize that you will need more than a bachelor's degree to practice veterinary medicine. In other words, if you sincerely want to become a veterinarian, you must first graduate high school with enough academic credentials to get into a four-year college undergraduate (bachelor's) degree program, with good grades in science, math and language arts.

Step 2. Work and Talk With Veterinarians, Students and Staff

The best way to get a clearer picture of the profession, according to the Veterinarian Information Network, is to work and talk with veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinarian technicians and staff. Becoming a veterinarian is a major commitment, to education and personal time. If you're just about to enter college for the first time, you should do your best to prove yourself a good student with strong science, math and communications courses. You must have compassion not only for animals, but also people, and enjoy working with people as well as animals. That's also where strong communications skills come into the picture. Remember that, unless you're practicing on wild animals, every animal comes with a human. You have to be willing and able to advise clients - owners - on decisions that may have major impacts on their finances as well as emotions.

Step 3. Apply to Graduate Schools That Specialize in Training Veterinarians

Once you've obtained a bachelor's degree from a reputable and accredited four-year institution of higher learning, the next step is to apply to schools that specialize in training veterinarians. According to the Veterinarian Information Network, each veterinary school's website will detail its application process and prerequisites.

You will have to take a number of classes including biology, math, English (language arts), chemistry and physics as an undergraduate to apply. Veterinary schools will consider anyone with a bachelor's degree who has taken the courses required by that particular school. However, as you'll be studying for a graduate degree, most veterinary schools also require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), obtain recommendation letters, and write a personal statement. While no specific experience is generally required, potential veterinary students should gain experience with animals by working for or shadowing a veterinarian in private practice, research, at a zoo, on a farm, or in an animal shelter.

Step 4. Consider the Cost of a Four-Year Graduate Degree

Obtaining a veterinary education is similar to that of a physician in terms of intensity, time and cost. But veterinary salaries are typically far lower than in other medical and advanced degree-related professions. When you embark upon this path, consider first the cost of your undergraduate education.

Veterinary school costs, like undergraduate degree costs, vary depending on whether you attend a private or a public school, and if you are a resident of that school's state. As with undergraduate education, the cost of veterinary school has risen far beyond increases in the cost of living in the past 30 years.

For those who entered veterinary school in the U.S. in the fall of 2018, the estimated total cost of attendance (tuition, fees and average living expenses), for four years ranges from $148,807 to $407,983. Your own cost will depend on where you live, and if you want to pursue a private veterinary school education. To compare costs at schools you're considering, visit VINFoundation.org/CostofEducation.

Scholarships can help, but most veterinary students finance their education through loans. If you have student loans, the interest accrued during another four years of school will further increase the total cost.

Step 5. Develop a Realistic Picture of the Profession

A veterinarian's day is not always filled continually with adorable animals. Before choosing to become a veterinarian, you must develop a realistic picture of the profession.

Veterinarians have to handle failure, loss, grieving and angry clients, and sometimes deal with animals that have been neglected or abused. The majority of veterinarians work in private practice in the U.S. While they are licensed to care for a wide variety of animals, most limit their practice to medical specialties or certain animals. In the U.S., as you might expect, most veterinarians provide care for pets, like dogs and cats.

Step 6. Consider All the Organizations That Need Veterinarians 

Veterinarians also teach, research, or work in private industry and even government. Just about any organization that houses or uses animals have need of veterinary services, from zoos and animal parks to racetracks, circuses, animal shelters, the space program, meat production and inspection, the military, and law enforcement.

3 Jobs That Let You Work With Animals Without a College Degree

If you don't want or can't afford graduate school, there are a number of related fields - some of which require at least a bachelor's degree, and some of which don't.

1. Veterinary Assistant

No state in the U.S. currently requires veterinarian assistants to be licensed or credentialed. Veterinarian assistants work with veterinarians to provide care to animals. While states don't require a license or credential to work in the field, it is necessary to complete an accredited program that may be offered as part of an associate or bachelor's degree at a college or community college.

2. Veterinary Technician

If you're looking for a job with a little more responsibility than a veterinary assistant, you could get an associate degree to work as a veterinary technician. Associate degree programs usually take two years or less to complete. With a formal education and professional certification, vet techs are able to do more advanced clinical tasks than vet assistants, who usually learn on the job. Also, because it requires more education, a vet tech usually is paid more than a vet assistant.

3. Veterinary Technologist

Veterinary technologists usually have a bachelor's degree. In most states you can't become credentialed without graduating from an accredited veterinary technology program.

However, if you can't physically get to a college that offers such a program, there are five Distance Learning Programs accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which can be taken online.

How Much Can You Earn as a Veterinarian?

Estimates vary, but most newly-graduated veterinarians in full-time positions earned between $59,900 and $93,500 in 2017, and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, veterinarians earned a median salary of $88,770. The best-paid veterinarians earned $161,070, while the lowest-paid earned $52,470. Veterinarians in their first year of practice, according to the BLS, can expect to earn a salary of about $60,000.

So, as you can see, the cost of education has far outpaced starting salaries for veterinarians.

Veterinary graduates can expect to be repaying student loans over a 10- to 25-year period, depending on their repayment plan, income, and family situation.

But as long as there are animals, veterinarians will be needed to care for them.