To specialize or not to specialize, that is the question.
Veterinary specialists (veterinarians who have obtained further qualifications and specialize in an area of medicine or a specific animal species) are in high demand nowadays1. Having expertise within the veterinary field can be a huge advantage for practicing vets, both professionally and personally.
But choosing a specialty in itself can be an enormous task, given how many options veterinarians have.
This article looks at the process of specialization, the veterinary specialties available for candidates, and how vets should choose the best specialty for them.
How Do I Specialise?
Specialising (also known as ‘getting boarded’ in North America) is a lengthy process.
There are several ways to specialize in a subject depending on what organization you go through.
Veterinarians can become a specialist by either attaining a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) diploma, completing a European College of Veterinary Surgeons (ECVS) diploma or bypassing an AVMA-Recognized veterinary specialty organization (RVSO) exam.
There is typically an application deadline for each organization (which can be found on their websites) annually. The training itself can take 3-5 years and requires several assessments and a placement year (although this varies depending on the organization an individual trains with, their previous experience, etc).
What Veterinary Specialties Are There?
Veterinarians can specialize in an array of areas, depending on where they do their training. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has a range of specialties veterinarians can go into, including Anesthesia and analgesia, Animal welfare, Behavior, Dentistry, Dermatology, and Emergency and critical care (to name just a few).
For a comprehensive list of specialties, click the links below.
Is Specialising For Me?
There are several benefits to specializing. First, specializing can be an incredibly engaging and rewarding experience for vets with a particular interest in a veterinary discipline.
Second, specializing puts vets at the forefront of veterinary medicine (in terms of recent innovations) and can lead to exciting employment opportunities elsewhere, in sectors such as education, specialty practice, or veterinary consultancy.
Third, the financial benefits can be quite substantial. Whilst the medium veterinarian wage in the US is around $95,4602, private specialists earn a mean income of $180,000, whereas specialists at universities earn a mean income of about $150,0003.
The drawbacks of specializing are that it is a lengthy and financially taxing process. Many vets accumulate a lot of debt from school (see here how to manage it) and further training can add to those costs. Additionally, examinations and training can take up a huge amount of effort, eating into a veterinarian’s time.
Unless a veterinarian has a genuine interest in the field they are applying to, it may not be worth the effort. Non-monetary (intrinsic) benefits are some of the biggest drivers of workplace motivation and not having those in place may ultimately result in career dissatisfaction, irrespective of paycheck4. Purpose and work satisfaction are two major factors that influence workplace happiness, and simply having financial motivations may not satisfy such needs5.
How Do I Choose What to Specialise in?
For veterinarians with a field in mind, reaching out to existing specialists can be a useful and insightful experience. After all, qualified veterinary specialists have first-hand experience in their field and therefore can give helpful advice for prospective students.
For those in the UK not ready to specialize, but keen to build further expertise as a vet, there is the option to gain recognition for a sub-specialized level of knowledge within a specific discipline as an advanced practitioner6.
To become an advanced practitioner, vets must complete postgraduate training and pass exams that demonstrate they are up to date with veterinary advancements within the field.
This can be a good ‘halfway house’ for those who are not quite ready for the commitments that come with specializing and wish to remain in general practice.
Whilst specialization isn’t for everyone, it can be a deeply rewarding and gratifying experience.
Deciding what veterinary specialty to choose shouldn’t be taken lightly, and speaking to a mentor (especially if they are a specialist themselves) is advisable. It’s a good idea to explore as much veterinary medicine as possible before settling on an area of expertise, to find out which subdiscipline seems the best fit skills and temperament fit.
It may also be beneficial to check out this career roadmap. The roadmap outlines the seven steps every veterinarian needs to take to have a successful career in veterinary medicine. To get a complimentary copy, click here.
1- “Specialists in short supply | American Veterinary Medical Association.” 26 Sept. 2018, https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2018-10-15/specialists-short-supply. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
2- “Veterinarian Salary | US News Best Jobs – US News Money.” https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/veterinarian/salary. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
3- “Specialists in short supply | American Veterinary Medical Association.” 26 Sept. 2018, https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2018-10-15/specialists-short-supply. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
4- “JOB SATISFACTION AND MOTIVATION: PREDICTORS OF ….” http://www.modern-journals.com/index.php/ijma/article/download/725/621. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
5- “Exploring the Factors that Affect the Happiness of South African ….” 3 Mar. 2021, https://jvme.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/jvme-2020-0033. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
6- “Advanced Practitioner status – Professionals – RCVS.” https://www.rcvs.org.uk/lifelong-learning/professional-accreditation/advanced-practitioner-status/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.