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Should student debt influence your career decisions?

INSTAGRAM @meghan.ocallaghan   
Meghan O'Callaghan is currently a senior veterinary student at Iowa State University. She has also recently completed her Master of Business Administration from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. She originates from the home place of Kool-Aid, also known as Hastings, Nebraska. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her blue heelers, Doc and Sam, working on furniture restoration projects, and just enjoying the few months left until graduation. Following graduation, she is excited to return to rural Nebraska to practice mixed animal veterinary medicine with an emphasis in cow-calf production medicine.

My father once told me, “There’s no shame in being broke, it’s just damn inconvenient.” To be broke doing something you love—now that’s a life worth living.

With the crippling student debt new graduates carry today, they are focused more than ever on the dollars and cents of their first employment contract. I am incredibly proud to be from Nebraska and I am proud to return to our rural communities to practice. Those communities need our help the most. Veterinary school has continued to instill in me the value of hard work, the discipline needed to make a dream come true and just how far a dollar bill can stretch. This can be coupled with the one piece of advice I have for incoming and current veterinary students. Your intelligence and your commitment to your future are what got you into veterinary school and your discipline will get you through it. Especially when it gets tough (which can seem like 24/7 sometimes), put your head down, put your shoulder into it, and keep pushing.

To me, the perception of the role we play as veterinarians in our communities extends way beyond whether or not we can diagnose a disease or build a successful practice. We need integrity to build a foundation of trust. To have trust is to have the ability to be a leader. I think particularly in rural practice, as veterinarians we have this incredibly unique opportunity to integrate ourselves into the community. We can build relationships with our clients and help make a difference. We can help make our community and the lives we live better. That’s not to say there won’t be hardships. Our clients and communities give everything to create a sustainable way of agriculture for many generations to come and that comes with its challenges. In working together, whether that’s from a business perspective, a veterinary perspective, or just a plain lending a hand perspective, we can help to provide value to this way of life that has been present for hundreds of years.

Everyone talks about this idea of a veterinarian shortage in these areas and the bigger question isn’t whether or not there are enough veterinarians, it is why aren’t veterinarians returning to these rural areas? Is it because no one wants to be the only doctor in a one-doctor practice, on-call 24/7, unable to find work-life balance? Is it because those salaries are “guaranteed to be higher in the city”? Or is it because those farmers and ranchers, “don’t even utilize a vet anymore and do it all themselves”? To top it off, these fears are then coupled with the ever-growing tuition rates, and amount of student debt necessary to become a veterinarian. Facing that, it’s almost a no-brainer why so many of these soon-to-be rural mixed-animal veterinarians sign with a large small-animal practice.

With student debt comes the panic of repaying it as each minute ticks closer and closer to graduation day. What will your student loan payments be? What is your student loan amount? Sometimes it’s easier to just avoid looking at the sticker shock of a total rather than facing it head on. I’m here to tell you, the sooner you sit down and look at your debt amount, the more comfortable and more confident you’ll be when it comes to handling your finances after graduation. Let’s talk numbers. The average student debt load for a veterinary student, based on numbers from the AVMA, totals just under $150,000.00. That’s a lot of zeros. At that average with a standard 10-year repayment plan and 5.0 percent interest, you’re looking at just under $1600 per month in payments.

Long story short, I definitely was one of those students. Do I take the higher-paying small animal job in place of my dream of being a food-animal rural veterinarian? You can drive yourself crazy trying to decide the foundation of your career solely based on numbers (and believe me, I am definitely a numbers person).

So, let’s talk about salaries. I think the dollar signs become the center of attention and a lot of crucial components fall to the wayside. Outside of salary, what is your cost of living? Are you living in a rural or urban area? What is your benefits package? Do they offer the opportunity to become a business partner? All of these aspects can hugely dictate what your overall expenses are, which will have an impact on what your expendable income is. That being said, I think this pulls at the deeper question of what determines your success? Is it your salary? Is it ending up in your dream town or dream state? Is it being close to home? Paying off your loans as soon as possible? Flexible hours? Paid time off? The answer to this is different for everyone and it’s important to take time to figure out the answer for you.

If you want advice from someone who was in your shoes not all that long ago: take the job that makes your heart sing. I will be returning to rural Nebraska to work at a mixed animal practice doing what I love and being incredibly excited for the transition from school into practice. These rural communities are what make me happy. So my advice for you is to dig deep and find what brings you joy. That being said, the answer is still yes. Yes, you need to be able to pay your bills. So don’t follow up several years of post-high school education to work for free. Also, don’t get caught up in all the hub of everyone choosing a job and so-and-so making more or less money than you. Focus on choosing the job that will set the foundation for you to be the veterinarian and practice the quality of veterinary medicine you want to perform. Veterinary medicine is one of the most diverse industries on the planet and nothing is ever set in stone. Enjoy this wild ride—you’re going to miss it when it’s all over and done.

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