Postgraduate study is a logical career step for many vets, but there’s a lot to consider before you decide to go back to university. By Angela Tufvesson
There’s a lot to like about postgraduate study. Delving deep into a subject area that’s captured your interest, studying alongside like-minded souls and the sense of accomplishment that comes with earning an advanced degree are just some of the potential benefits.
But what does postgraduate study mean in nitty-gritty practical terms for your career—and your hip pocket? Will you get promoted or move into the specialty you’ve lusted over for years? Can you command a higher salary? Are you more employable over your career? Quite possibly, but only if you make sensible, well-informed choices.
Keeping your options open
For mid-career vets who undertake further study at university level, there are three main options: a clinically based master’s degree, a research-based PhD or a business degree. “There’s a fair bit of diversity in postgraduate education for veterinarians,” says Kristopher Hughes, course and subject coordinator for the Doctorate of Veterinary Studies and Master of Veterinary Studies programs at Charles Sturt University.
“Often veterinarians seek to either develop or upskill their clinical skills so they have capacity to work at a higher clinical level or become a veterinary specialist, or they want to develop research skills in veterinary fields,” he says. “The third dimension, particularly with people who have their own practice, is postgraduate training in business—for example, a Master of Business (MBA).”
While not technically a university qualification, Membership of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) in a specific field of veterinary science like small animal medicine or epidemiology is another popular avenue of further study for vets.
Membership is not a specialist qualification, but it is professional recognition of a high standard of clinical knowledge in a chosen discipline.
Plus, the study requirements are often less rigorous than the two or more years of study usually required to earn a postgraduate qualification. “Membership study is great,” says Dr Gerardo Poli, an emergency and critical care veterinarian and clinical training coordinator. “A lot of it is self-directed and all you have is an exam midway through the year.”
Pathways to success
For many vets, postgraduate study is the next logical step in their career, says Dr Emma Davis, a veterinary and business career coach. “The degree that allows you to become a registered veterinarian covers a very wide topic base across all animals, all species and all diseases,” she says. “So after working for a few years, many vets start to get a feel for what interests them within that big wide field. Then they might choose to do some further study in that area.”
Studying a master’s degree provides capacity to work at a higher clinical level and sets interested graduates on a clear, albeit intensive, path to a career as a specialist. A PhD opens the door to a career in research or academia. And an MBA offers obvious advantages for business-minded veterinarians who’ve only received clinical training. Dr Poli says further study is correlated with higher earning potential. “Generally, the more you learn, the better you are, the more skills you have and the more clinically competent and confident you are, the more you can leverage all of that to negotiate higher wages,” he says.
Indeed, A/Professor Hughes says everyone from vets with Membership of the ANZCVS to specialists have more opportunities to command higher salaries over the course of their career.
But there are no guarantees—and a postgraduate degree doesn’t come cheap at around $20,000 per year. Not to mention it’s a significant, and likely stressful, undertaking. “You need to factor in both the time that you’re giving up earning money and the cost of the course,” says Dr Davis. “You’re not going to see that come back immediately in terms of a pay rise.”
What’s more, she says pay rises and career earnings depend on a lot more than university degrees. “You can get a pay rise now with the right personal skills and mindset around the value you’re providing to the business,” says Dr Davis. “A postgraduate degree doesn’t necessarily come with self-belief in your value. You need to develop confidence in the value you have, and you need to learn how to negotiate in order to earn more.”
The study trap
Let it be said that postgraduate study is not an effective strategy to help get your career back on track or a solution to professional malaise. “If they lose direction, a lot of vets just think they need to be clinically better,” says Dr Poli. “Then the most common pathway is to study something. But vets really have to consider how much value it’s going to bring them.”
Dr Davis agrees: “If you find yourself thinking that life will be better, you’ll be happier and you’ll be clearer on what you want if you get a postgrad course under your belt, it’s not recommended because it’s an expensive and time intensive way of investigating a possible route”.
Before deciding to pursue postgraduate study, both experts recommend researching the impact of the course on your career. Talk to a career coach, do a short course in the subject area or connect with a mentor.
“Ask yourself: is it going to add more income to your baseline?” says Dr Poli. “Is it going to demonstrate more value to your clients? Is there a need for this particular skill set where you are? Asking these questions is really important to make sure you really get to use and capitalise on your investment.”
And Dr Davis says it’s also crucial to examine the effect postgraduate study will have on the rest of your life. “I wouldn’t recommend doing study until you know you’ve got everything else in balance, including your health and your finances. But if you’ve got all your ducks in a row and you’ve looked at all the options, then go for it.”