Many of us have literally worked thousands of unpaid hours as pre-vets, which was certainly a major source of experiences, skill building, and networking that significantly helped us get into veterinary school in one way or another. For me, approximately 60% of all of my veterinary, animal, and research experience hours were unpaid, and many of my best pre-veterinary experiences came from unpaid work- volunteering at a TNR clinic, volunteering at wildlife rescues, interning at the Oakland Zoo, interning in research labs, and more.
However, the fact is that many of us were heavily conditioned as pre-vets to be more accepting of unpaid work compared to a member of the general public, i.e. to someone who is not working towards entering professional school. Obviously, it means pre-veterinary students who graduate from college are start out with a more negative financial balance compared to a typical non-pre-professional college graduate who worked a paid job at a coffee shop, for example. However, I feel that there's more to it than compiling a little bit of debt: I believe that the conditioning for little to no compensation is related to being okay with improper compensation in our professional career, and is a factor in the low-self worth that contributes to unhappiness in the veterinary profession. It makes it harder to manage the two sides of the coin where vet med is both a passion and a mean of financial livelihood. I think it is related to feeling compelled to give services and products away for free and being afraid to charge appropriately for our skills in the future. We tell ourselves that we're doing a good thing, and often it is for the patient - but collectively it reduces the value that clients sees when we stand in front of them.
While I think the amount of volunteering we do reflects how amazingly and characteristically selfless the veterinary community is, I also think that the start of veterinary school is a great time to start prioritizing opportunities that compensate us for the skills we have amassed from all our pre-vet experiences. Because we can still get amazing new experiences, build skills, network, AND help animals and people while getting paid for it!
This article is about assessing the value of opportunities (regardless of compensation) in order to help you prioritize them.
There are many job opportunities for vet students at your veterinary school. Most campus vet student jobs are completely understanding of the vet student schedule, and schedule shifts accordingly-- I work in veterinary care at the UC Davis-CA National Primate Research Center, and my shifts (6-8am or 5-8pm) do not conflict with class. With a job, you get to regularly practice skills, allowing you to actually become proficient at the skill, unlike in many volunteer opportunities which are infrequent or one-time and don't get to practice the skill repetitively. The regularity that employment offers also allows your supervisors, DVMs, and RVTs to get to know you better as a worker and as a person, and can then advocate on your behalf better than someone who only mentored you for a few days could.
I am not saying you should never do anything unpaid/voluntarily/pro bono. What I do recommend is getting paid for what your skills are worth and choosing volunteer activities carefully, ones that are closest to your heart and goals. Don't forget, you can use the money you make from your JOB to pay for non-veterinary related activities that are dear to your heart and promote your growth. For example, I saved up a lot of my primate center paychecks to pay my way on a volunteer veterinary trip to Nicaragua over the summer. To me, that experience was not only worth the zero monetary compensation, but it was worth me paying for the experience. And at the same time, I much prefer to work at a private veterinary clinic for an hourly wage instead of volunteering at the free/public clinics that many of my classmates volunteer at. So, I challenge you to think about what YOU're worth, and what you think is worthwhile use of YOUR valuable time, when making decisions about work vs. volunteer involvement during vet school.
Examples of on-campus veterinary student jobs:
Other jobs, not on campus:
Getting experiences without having to pay for it:
Remember during undergrad when you paid to go on the international volunteer experience and commuted 45 minutes all summer to and from your unpaid internship? I sure do!
Luckily, when you are in veterinary school, there are a lot more opportunities to actually get funding for professional development so that you no longer have to lose money to get valuable experiences:
Assessing the value of paid opportunities:
-is it in line with my career goals/will it help further my career goals?
-if it is not in line with my career goals, is it interesting and will it make me a better doctor?
-can this job, boss, or co-workers help open doors to other jobs, internships, or residencies?
-what is the shift/time commitment? (make sure it doesn't interfere with school; make sure you can handle the minimum hours)
-is the pay worth it to me?
-is the commute worth it to me?
-what kind of experience/skills/learning opportunities will I get from this job?
-are there DVM or RVT/AHT mentors that will be working at the same time as me?
-can I study during my shift? (this is totally acceptable for some jobs, like graveyard shifts at the pharmacy or being an on-call tech, for example)
-will the job impact my life when I'm not at work or actively working?
-what have currently employed or previously employed students said about this position?
Assessing the value of a volunteer experience:
-will you enjoy it?
-what are the learning opportunities, skill-building or skill-practicing opportunities? what exactly will you be doing? For example, one volunteer position might involve you folding T-shirts (been there)... and another position might let you give vaccines or practice your physical exams (been there).
-what is the impact of the volunteering? Some organizations or events have a greater impact than others on their target audience.
-how will you benefit/how will this experience forward your goals?
-how will you benefit the recipients? (are you helping pets or people? what is the impact of the organization you will be volunteering for or with?)
-can working with this organization help open doors to jobs, internships, or residencies?
If you didn't read any of the above, here's the distilled version:
1) Will it help me become a better doctor?
2) Will it help me become a better person?
3) Will I enjoy it?
4) Will it improve my life, whether the improvement is now or down the road?
5) How much will I regret doing it (or not doing it) later?
These simple questions can help you prioritize any activity for inclusion or exclusion in your life. That goes for non-veterinary, non-job related activities too, like working out, dating, and taking vacation!