Professional veterinary medical education in the United States is facing several major challenges at the beginning of the 21st Century. The role of the modern veterinarian has shifted significantly, since the origin of the profession, from supporting the use of horses and agricultural livestock, to a focus on the human-animal bond. Recently there has been much discussion in the profession about a further shift towards the need for veterinarians in less traditional, “One Health” areas of practice, in collaboration with other health professionals.
In the meantime, the demographics of the profession have undergone a profound shift, from a male-dominated profession in the 1970’s, when women made up only 6% of new graduates, to a newly feminized profession with women now making up over 80% of new graduates. Currently these graduates tend to choose careers in species-specific, usually small animal, private practice, with an increasing number entering specialist training programs after graduation. However, those career aspirations appear to be a mismatch for the projected veterinary careers of the future. In the current context of greater accountability in higher education, through outcomes assessment, it is important, therefore, for educators to understand how veterinary students make career choices, in order to inform practice to prepare graduates better for future career opportunities in the profession.
This research examines how veterinary students make career decisions, through the narratives that they construct about their career pathways. Data was collected from twenty men and women who are senior veterinary students at a veterinary college at a large, Midwestern, state university, using semi-structured interviews. The data was coded and analyzed, using an interpretivist methodology, in order to examine students’ career narratives. Particular attention was paid to the influence of gender on students’ career choices.
Results of the study provided important insight into the typical career pathways of veterinary students, and the influences on the career choices that they made once in the profession. Three main career pathways to choosing veterinary medicine emerged from the participants’ narratives. Furthermore, there was evidence of the strong influence of socialization, both external and internal to the profession, on students’ perceptions, terminology and preferences with regards to veterinary medical careers. These findings should lead to greater insight into how to recruit and train veterinary students, and sets the groundwork for future research.
This study is the first phase of a larger mixed methods research project whose purpose is to develop a theoretical framework for veterinary career choice across a larger population. The next step will be to use the results of this study to develop and validate a survey questionnaire that can be disseminated to veterinary students nationally.