Pipelines and pathways
Veterinary professionals can do more inside and outside of the practice to expose young people to potential careers in animal health and plug the leakage of talented students to other industries.
Annual studies conducted by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges find that prospective veterinary students routinely express interest in the profession before age 10. In those 10 short years, they develop a love of animals and a desire to help them. The profession, however, can seem one dimensional to young people: Veterinarians take care of companion animals and wildlife. What many of them didn’t receive was a broad view of the profession and its involvement in food production, public and global health, and research.
While most of the veterinary school applicants surveyed had at least another decade to learn about the profession outside of companion animal and wildlife care, the data reveal early opportunities for developing and maintaining the veterinary school pipeline.
Pipeline metaphors are used to characterize the journey to professional education. Numerous presenters talk about how interest in professions like veterinary medicine can be sustained through middle school, high school and undergraduate education. The goal of our profession’s pipeline should be to keep students who are looking at veterinary medicine interested in veterinary medicine.
Leaks in the pipeline are indicative of several possibilities:
- Interested students might have limited access to the profession. They are unable to gain experience, they have difficulty finding mentors, and they can’t afford summer programs. These individuals leak from the pipeline into more accessible academic programs that present fewer barriers to sustaining interest.
- Prospective students might find that while they love the profession, they have been exposed to other professions that also offer a compelling narrative for a successful career. These young people might find that after careful, comparative consideration, veterinary medicine is simply not for them.
- Word travels. Episodes of racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of intolerance and discrimination, whether in school or small practice, can leave an impression that the veterinary profession is inhospitable. This can result in the leakage of more diverse candidates in particular.
How do you know when someone fell out of the veterinary medicine pipeline? Consider individuals who declare they had always wanted to be a veterinarian but then ended up on a different path.
Alternatively, we know that many individuals come to veterinary medicine through less traditional routes. Some dropped out of the pipeline early in life but choose later to pursue their veterinary medical dream. AAVMC data suggest that young men are more likely to develop interest in the profession later than their peers, typically in their early to middle teen years. Still others learn more about the diversity of career paths within veterinary medicine and develop an interest in their late teens to early 20s.
Although many pre-veterinary students pursue undergraduate degrees in the biological or agricultural sciences, many more students who major in all matter of subjects become interested in the profession and manage to complete the prerequisite coursework and other requirements to become successful students and veterinarians.
All these groups find different ways into the veterinary pipeline.
What should interest all of us is the need to develop the pipeline through robust opportunities for sustaining career interest. We need to stop the leaks and create pathways. This is what makes recruiting so important; the future of the profession and its ability to meet the needs of an ever-changing society demand it.
Sustaining Early Interest
Because the average prospective student expresses early interest in the profession, it is incumbent on all of us to consider ways to sustain that interest through the application process. For young students struggling with limited access to the profession, veterinarians should seek out and participate in K-12 programming that includes guest speaking opportunities, collaborative classroom relationships and early shadowing. These activities keep the profession visible and build relationships with you and your colleagues, resulting in more intentional mentoring in later years.
Working with summer and after-school programs, exploratory or demonstration career fairs, and even programs offered by your alma mater provide opportunities for veterinary professionals to increase their visibility, share the breadth and scope of the veterinary profession, and feed the interest of young students.
Be deliberate about situating these activities in diverse, low-income or rural communities whenever possible. This is critical to ensuring that young people in these communities do not leak from the pipeline due to a lack of exposure and access. AAVMC data consistently show that in terms of early interest, applicants from these backgrounds are no different from their peers — they all have early interest in the veterinary profession. Young people from these marginalized backgrounds who lack sustained encouragement have a harder time overcoming the barriers and applying to veterinary school.
Generating New Interest
I engage in a lot of recruiting during the academic year, primarily with students less likely to have expressed an interest in the veterinary profession. I rarely ask them what they know about veterinary medicine. Instead, I ask what they see themselves doing professionally. These students often tell me they are interested in cancer research, toxicology or maybe neurology, among countless other answers. They never considered veterinary medicine; no one mentioned it to them. I take time to talk about how veterinary medicine might be a path to do all the things they want to do. I present it as another option, another path.
Recruiting is not about sustaining pipeline interest in veterinary medicine. That work is critically important, but true recruitment is about generating new interest in the profession. Many talented students will never know that veterinary medicine could have been the right fit for them if we fail to tell them and show them.
This is why programs like Purdue University’s This Is How We Role is so important. The program uses veterinarians and veterinary students to deliver a science and math curriculum to kindergarten through fourth-grade students. It introduces the profession to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and provides important early exposure and role modeling. Currently, 18 U.S. colleges of veterinary medicine participate in This is How We Role. Students young and old need your presence at these kinds of STEM programs to help them see veterinary medicine as an opportunity.
We have an opportunity to shape the veterinary medicine profession, but it will take a bit of work from all of us. There is a serious need to care and feed the young people who know very early on that they want to be veterinarians. We need to ensure they have what they need to be successful. We also need to consider all the talented students who have not considered the profession due to a lack of exposure and opportunity.
Even if you are unable to foster a long-term mentoring relationship, your participation in an afternoon or weekend exposure program can make a difference in spreading the good word about veterinary medicine. Reach out to your alma mater to learn more about This is How We Role or a similar program that might be offered. Your one afternoon spent could change a young person’s career path.
Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at http://bit.ly/2APLtk4.