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Becoming a veterinarian is an extraordinarily rewarding experience, though the road to getting there can be difficult. Veterinarians love animals and want to help keep them healthy and safe. If you’re considering a career as a veterinarian, here are six steps you should take to do so.

1. Start Getting Ready As Soon As Possible

You should start preparing for a potential veterinary career as soon as you know you’re serious about it. The sooner you start, the better prepared you’ll be. Most people begin to form solid ideas about their future career paths in high school, but you may not know for sure until you’re already enrolled in college. Whenever you make your decision, start researching the career path and good schools to apply for. Then you can begin enrolling in suitable STEM courses and getting involved in animal-related volunteer opportunities.

2. Apply To the Most Suitable Educational Programs

Choose undergraduate schools with good biological and physical science programs or pre-vet programs. Start looking at veterinary medicine programs at the same time so you have more time to prepare. Because veterinarians are required to graduate from veterinary programs, it can be even more expensive and time-consuming to become a veterinarian than it would be to stop after getting your bachelor’s degree. Don’t let this stop you; you have options for support. If you’re concerned about paying for veterinary programs, for example, you can seek student loan refinance or grant programs.

3. Consider What You Want To Specialize In

All veterinarians study to specialize in a certain area of veterinary medicine, much the same way medical doctors for humans do. Even veterinarians who focus on providing routine medical care such as checkups must have a specialty, typically falling under the umbrella of general pet care. Depending on what you choose to specialize in, you may have more or fewer options for educational programs, certifications and job opportunities. For example, equine science careers are most viable in regions where there are large numbers of horses, while animal anesthesiology programs may only be offered in a select number of schools.

4. Enroll in Any Necessary Or Desired Extra Training And Additional Requirements

Depending on your specialty and what you want to be able to do as a veterinarian, you may need to or desire to enroll in extra training or certification programs or strive to meet additional requirements. Certain specialties, such as zoological medicine, may require you to also be certified in exotic mammal or reptile and amphibian medicine, for example. You may also be required to meet certain additional requirements if you plan to study or practice internationally.

5. Prepare for Graduate Programs And Licensing Exams

When you plan to become a veterinarian, you need to apply to and be accepted into a DVM, or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, program. After completing that program, you’ll need to successfully pass any licensing exams required to legally practice veterinary medicine, such as the NAVLE, or North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. It’s important you strive to succeed in these endeavors as much as you do passing your undergraduate program. Choose graduate programs that suit your desired specialty and have a proven track record of providing students with positive clinical and practical experiences. Look into preparatory courses and practice tests for licensing exams.

6. Seek Opportunities To Network And Build Experience

Your schooling is not the only important aspect of your journey to becoming a veterinarian. You also need to network and build experience with animals and other related programs. Try to find opportunities to shadow people currently working in the field. Seek ways to volunteer to work with animals. Join organizations focused on animal welfare and health.

Because a career as a veterinarian requires as much medical knowledge as a career as a doctor plus additional training such as caring for specific species and breeds, it requires just as much schooling and preparation to become one as it does to become a doctor. Be prepared to work hard and consider your options carefully.

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