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CAREER PATH

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10 MINUTE READ

When most people think about veterinarians, they tend to imagine veterinary surgeons – the people they take their pets to when they’re sick. To an extent, this is fair – the majority of veterinarians do indeed work in clinical roles, diagnosing and treating individual animals in settings like veterinary clinics, hospitals, farms, zoos, and shelters. 

 

However, there are many other kinds of veterinary careers. For example, many vets work in private industry, research, consulting, and sales for companies who produce products like pharmaceuticals and animal food. Another common path for vets is to conduct academic research and teach at universities, while many others are employed by the government for a range of public service roles. Some veterinarians even work in laboratories, overseeing the use of animals in scientific research. 

 

Our sense is that some of these less obvious paths within veterinary medicine could be a promising route to improving the lives of animals at a large scale. 

 

This profile is primarily aimed at current veterinarians and veterinary students, though it may also be useful for those considering studying veterinary medicine. 


Our confidence in this profile is low, which means we don’t go into as much depth as we do in higher-confidence path profiles, and there are likely to be some gaps in our understanding. As such, this profile should be seen as a platform for further investigation, rather than a comprehensive resource.

Veterinary Medicine

How promising is veterinary medicine? 

 

There are a lot of options if you decide to go into veterinary medicine. But which paths will allow you to improve the lives of animals the most?

 

Within veterinary careers, our impression is that there are likely to be more impactful options than straightforward clinical work. The reasons for this are similar to those we give in our path profile on human medicine, in which we predict that doctors might be able to achieve the most impact outside of clinical-heavy roles. The main reason is a simple one: the more animals you can affect with your job, the more impact you can potentially have. As a veterinary clinician, you’ll be treating whichever animal is in front of you. Of course, this is vital; without clinical veterinarians, there would be no one to treat sick or injured animals. 

 

But imagine being able to help thousands, or even millions of animals at a time – more than you’d be able to treat in a lifetime of clinical work. This might sound unattainable, but some veterinary careers really could allow you to help huge numbers of animals. In our priorities within veterinary medicine section, we'll briefly discuss two paths that might facilitate this: governmental veterinary careers and research careers. It’s possible that the most impactful roles within these paths are competitive with our other recommended career paths in terms of impact.

 

Advantages
 

  • High demand – Vets are in high demand globally, which gives you a lot of choice in deciding where you want to live and work. This also means that a veterinary medicine degree gives you a good fallback option; should you pursue a non-clinical or non-veterinary career path, it’s likely you’ll be able to return to clinical practice if it doesn’t work out. 

  • Fairly high pay – Veterinary surgeons generally earn decent salaries. In the US, the average salary is around $100,000, nearly three times the median income, and in India the average veterinary income also seems to be around 2-3x larger than the average. In the UK, though, vets’ salaries only seem to be around 50% higher than the median. So, though there’s regional variance, veterinary salaries will generally allow for comfortable living standards, as well as income for giving to impactful charities – which is a great way to increase your impact whatever career you choose. However, these salaries may not be quite as high as in other careers you could likely enter if you’re talented enough to get into veterinary school. 

  • Promising options –  There are lots of career options within veterinary medicine, and some of them could potentially allow for a lot of leverage and impact. It’s possible that, if you have a veterinary degree, your comparative advantage for impact could lie in one of these paths.

 

Disadvantages
 

  • High stress and burnout – Clinical veterinary medicine is known for being a high-stress career, and mental health issues are very common among veterinarians. One recent survey of US vets found that over half had “high” levels of burnout. Additionally veterinarians tend to be at higher risk of anxiety and depression than the general population. However, non-clinical roles may be less emotionally taxing.

  • Long and costly qualification – Becoming a qualified veterinarian generally takes upwards of five years (and as many as eight in the US, where undergraduate degrees are a prerequisite). This is a fairly high opportunity cost, and the financial cost can also be high – generally tens of thousands of dollars per year – if you lack access to government subsidies or generous student loans.


 

Priorities within veterinary medicine

 

Here, we’ll discuss two paths within veterinary medicine that might confer good opportunities for impact: government veterinary roles and research. We suspect the most promising roles in each of these paths could be similarly impactful to other career paths we recommend, but we haven’t looked into them in a lot of depth. As such, take them as ideas for further exploration rather than confident recommendations.

 

A note on clinical experience: Though we ultimately think the most promising veterinary paths might involve minimal clinical work, clinical experience can be advantageous (or even essential) for moving into some of these roles – particularly government veterinary roles and areas of research tightly connected to clinical veterinary medicine. As such, if you’re a veterinary student, you may consider working in clinical practice for a few years in order to develop your career capital, even if you ultimately want to move into non-clinical roles. This will likely vary significantly by both discipline and organization, so it’s worth looking into this further if you want to explore non-clinical veterinary paths, for example by checking the requirements of relevant organizations.


 

Government veterinary roles

 

A common route for veterinarians is to work for governments and regulatory bodies focused on animal agriculture. There are (very broadly) three types of governmental veterinary jobs. The first are operational roles that include tasks like auditing farms and slaughterhouses in order to maintain animal welfare and food safety standards. Secondly, there are governmental research roles that involve conducting studies to safeguard animal and human public health, particularly through tracking and studying the spread of diseases. And thirdly, there are policy-related roles that entail advising on, and implementing, various facets of animal and agriculture related policy. 

 

This path – and particularly policy-focused roles within it – could allow you to affect how large numbers of animals are treated at the national (and sometimes international) level from inside the system. We believe factory farming is an incredibly important and promising area to focus on, as we explain in our animal welfare cause area explainer. The public health-related roles, like those that track diseases and enforce food safety standards, can also help humans, too. As such, this path is likely worth exploring further if you think you might be a good fit. However, because government veterinarian jobs can have different goals and responsibilities, it’s worth thinking carefully about which ones will let you do the most good. Not all governmental roles will facilitate improving animal welfare or protecting public health, and as such might not let you do a lot of good. 


Finally, because there’s a range of government role types, it’s hard to give precise advice on who would be a good fit, but it’ll generally be helpful to have strong analytical thinking and communication skills. You’ll also need to be comfortable having much less interaction with animals than in clinical practice.

Resources on government veterinary roles

Research roles

 

Veterinary degrees can allow you to pivot into research careers in veterinary science or in a number of related fields such as biomedical science or various areas in human and veterinary public health. Research careers can be highly impactful in some circumstances, as they carry the possibility of affecting large numbers of animals (or people). 

 

There are quite a few different research domains and types – and therefore potential paths to impact. One possible area is applied veterinary research, working to improve care for animals. A classic example of this is Temple Grandin’s work on cattle slaughter methods, which has likely helped millions of cows in the US and beyond. Another area is developing new drugs and pharmaceuticals. It could be impactful, for example, to develop drugs that don’t cause antimicrobial resistance – a problem that causes hundreds of thousands of fatalities worldwide in both animals and humans. And this report from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) gives some illustrative examples of other kinds of veterinary research. 

 

Research careers can take place in both academia and industry (and government, as mentioned above). It’s also fairly common to engage in research whilst maintaining a clinical role. If you want to maintain direct contact with animals but increase your ability to help animals at scale, then combining research with clinical work could be a great way to do this. You could choose to do this either through working part-time as a clinician and part-time as a researcher, or through participating in a clinical trial in your veterinary practice or hospital.

 

However, it's worth noting that research can have many goals. Some of these are beneficial for animals, but some research might not help them at all, or even cause harm – such as research that helps increase the efficiency of animal agriculture at the expense of welfare. And some research can involve the direct mistreatment of the animals under study. Because of this, it’s really important to carefully identify roles and research areas that will bring about a positive impact, whether for animals or humans. To this end, you might find it helpful to consider the SELF framework developed in our career guide. 

 

Part-time research might also be a good option if you’re concerned about the global shortage of veterinary surgeons. Though our sense is that the negative effects of leaving clinical practice would probably be outweighed by moving into a higher leverage career full-time, this shortage might understandably make you more cautious about stopping your clinical work.


Research careers might be a good fit for you if you can stay motivated for long periods of time on a single project, and have a particularly strong intrinsic interest in a promising research area. These careers often require a master’s degree, particularly in academia, and PhDs are often strongly advantageous for more senior positions. We expect that some of our advice on medical research in our medicine path profile (including personal fit factors) will apply to research in the veterinary research context, too.

Resources on research

 

Finally, while we expect most people interested in this path are excited to help animals – just as we are – you may also choose to work in an entirely different area to pursue a high-impact career. You might, for example, also be excited to work in global health and development, or perhaps combatting catastrophic risks like climate change and pandemics. In fact, most people go into careers unrelated to their degree. If you’re curious about exploring other kinds of high-impact careers, see our full list of career profiles for more impactful career ideas. And for other ideas and resources on how to use your career to help animals, we recommend visiting Animal Advocacy Careers.


 

Acknowledgements


We’d like to thank Jaipal Singh Gill for feedback and advice for this article. Please note that any experts we interview do not necessarily endorse all the views expressed in our content, and all mistakes are our own.

Path overview
Priorities
Gov vet roles
Research roles
Acknowledgements

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