Career Paths for DVMs

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

Veterinary medicine is not limited to caring for cats and dogs in a suburban clinic. There is a vast array of veterinary medicine careers and also a range of postgraduate training programs that confer a veterinary specialty. Familiarizing yourself with these diverse opportunities will give you a better understanding of the specific veterinary career path that best suits your strengths and interests.

Outlined below are some general categories of veterinarian, each of which has numerous specialties and sub-specialties. This list is far from comprehensive and is primary geared towards getting you to think outside the cats-and-dogs box when considering your veterinary career path.

The farm animal veterinarian

Some veterinarians practice exclusively with farm animals, like sheep, cows, and goats (horses and poultry tend to be their own categories). This work can involve treating sick animals and/or ensuring that products from animals raised for human consumption are safe to eat. One of the benefits of working on a farm or in an agricultural environment is the likelihood of spending more dedicated time with individual clients. You may only see 3-4 clients in a day (as opposed to over a dozen in a companion animal private practice), and it isn’t uncommon to spend a whole day with one client.

The researcher

Research veterinarians dedicate their careers to investigating scientific problems. Veterinarian researchers are essential for large-scale study that involves laboratory animals (like rabbits, rats, mice, etc.) to ensure animals receive proper care. Also, veterinarians have long been instrumental in developing, testing, and monitoring the efficacy of new diagnostic tests, vaccines and products that prevent human and animal disease transmissions and enhance food quality. Veterinarian researchers also may oversee programs that study communicable diseases that have an animal vector, like West Nile virus, rabies, and avian flu.

The conservationist

If you care far more for wildlife and conservation than you do for domesticated animals, zoological medicine could be the best fit for you. Zoological medicine goes by several different names and will have a different focus depending on where you study and practice. But in essence, this field integrates and applies principles of ecology, conservation, and veterinary medicine for the welfare of wild animals in natural and artificial environments. Veterinary medicine programs with a strong focus in conservation and/or free-living wildlife will be your ticket to working with diverse animals in settings such as international and national parks, ocean conservation areas, zoos, and aquariums.

The teacher

According to AAVMC, 40 percent of veterinary faculty in academia are eligible for retirement in the next 10 years. Projections indicate that there is an urgent need for qualified academics across all disciplines of veterinary medicine. So, if you love teaching as much as you love animal health and science, the timing could not be better for pursuing a career in higher education as a veterinarian.

The board-certified veterinary specialist

Veterinarians can complete additional training in a specific area. They can then complete an examination that evaluates their knowledge and skills this area. There are currently 22 AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizationTM representing 46 distinct specialties. Veterinarians can be specialists in many areas, including behavior, ophthalmology, orthopedics, dermatology, cardiology, large animal internal medicine, neurology, nutrition, surgery, dentistry, and more.
It is important to note that you may be able to practice in a specialist field without being a “board-certified veterinary specialist”. However, depending on the location and the setting (an animal hospital for example), a formal specialty may be a job requirement.

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