How I Became a Vet—Part III: The Private Practice Years

Be sure to read part 1 and part 2 first!

Still Not There Yet

Becoming a practicing veterinarian takes a long time and hard work—not to mention a significant financial investment—but graduating with a DVM (or VMD) is just part of it. In this installment, I reminisce about all the steps involved in “hanging out your shingle.”

Back in the day, November or December of senior year was when nearly every veterinary student in America sat for the dreaded “boards.” Actually two tests—the National Board Examination (NBE) and the Clinical Competency Test (CCT)—these were on paper, on one day, in one room, together with the entire class. Now, however, they have been merged into one test called the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam or NAVLE and students can take them at a computerized testing center anywhere in the country either in November-December. Just like when I graduated, if you don’t pass in the fall you can take the test again in the spring, but that’s getting awfully close to graduation.

Also in the spring, a representative from the USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) came to each veterinary school to introduce us to the National Veterinary Accreditation Program (NVAP) and certify us with this federal animal health monitoring system. This is the step that allows vets to draw Coggins tests and write health certificates (Certificate of Veterinary Inspection or CVI).

By this time, most senior vet students had begun interviewing for positions. Twenty years ago, “interviewing” to be an associate veterinarian at an established practice meant spending the day with the owner going on farm calls, assisting with in-clinic exams, and even scrubbing into surgery! Being an employee at a private practice wasn’t for everyone though. Some classmates went into business for themselves, some went right into internships and residencies to become board-certified, and some took a break to travel the world.

But Practicing Veterinary Medicine Isn’t Enough

For those of us that did enter practice, it was very important to our mentor Dr. Erwin Small that we were “joiners,” that is, that we become members in our state veterinary medical association as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the AVMA. I also chose to join the American Association of Equine Practitioners, known as the AAEP. For me it went beyond just sending in my dues though. For me it was important to “give back” by serving on committees, task forces, boards, etc. I became only the second female president (and the youngest ever) of the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association after serving in these areas: Public Relations, Membership, Public Education, Human-Animal Bond, Legislative, Animal Welfare, and Education Program (the group that plans the annual convention). I participated in similar roles with the AVMA and AAEP. Service to my alma mater included interviewing applicants, participating in strategic planning sessions, and acting as mentor to current veterinary students.

My first job out of veterinary school was at a two-man mixed practice. This meant the boss and I attended to nearly every species out there. While I concentrated on horses, I saw plenty of dogs and cats, cattle and hogs, and even exotics such as hedge hogs and turtles. Our clinic had two exam rooms for those busy Saturday mornings filled with puppy and kitten visits, vaccinations and toenail trims, and heartworm tests. But I spent a lot of hours in my truck with its Bowie unit in the back, driving to horse farms for routine work and emergency care.

I stayed with this clinic for five years, building a general and reproductive equine clientele in a six-county area; updating the practice’s “look” with a new logo, tagline, and mission statement; and researching and acquiring new equipment such as dental tools and an ultrasound. I spent weekends as the veterinary control for such competitions as the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the North American Young Riders Championships, and even the Atlanta Olympic Preparation Three-Day Event in Georgia. In addition, I “vetted” countless endurance rides and competitive trail rides. I also found time to obtain a master’s degree in interpersonal and organization communication, work part-time for the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine as a program coordinator, and also work part-time for the AAEP as Director of Owner Education.

Next time: How I Became a Vet—Part IV: After Private Practice