Compared to many other professions, veterinary science is not what you would call a high performer on the salary front. Depending on who you ask, vet wages fall somewhere between that of a plumber and a hat rack.
But is this necessarily true? Over the 20-odd years of my career I’ve met a lot of vets. I’m in touch with many of my vet school mates, I’ve worked in three continents, I’m a conference addict, I socialise with vets, I interview experienced vets for the podcast, I mentor less experienced vets. I even married a vet! Now let me tell you a secret: there are a lot of rich vets out there. On the conservative end of the scale, I can say with confidence that I’ve yet to meet a vet who can’t find work and is totally on the skin of their arse. In other words – what we have in spades is financial security through a ready supply of flexible jobs, even though many of those jobs will never turn you into a millionaire. From a personal perspective: for the duration of our careers neither my wife or I have ever been unemployed for any real length of time except when we wanted to be, regardless of where in the world we were.
On the more extreme end of the scale, I also know quite a few seriously wealthy vets. We’re talking fancy sports cars and boats, holiday houses in top-notch locations and early retirement. I know a vet who gets around his helicopter, and I heard a story about a vet who bought a multi-million dollar property on a whim at an auction just to show off to a mate.
Tell me that veterinary salaries are lower than they should be and I’ll agree with you, but don’t tell me there’s no money in vet.
Many of these stories of financial success contain healthy doses of good timing and luck, but I can tell you what NONE of them have in them: someone plugging away in a salaried position for 20 years and complaining about the fact that they don’t get paid enough.
Let’s be clear – if your goal was to have a career where you walk out of your education and into a salaried job where you show up, do your thing, and earn a fantastic wage, then you are categorically in the wrong profession. If you find yourself financially underwhelmed with your veterinary degree in hand and you are surprised by this fact, then perhaps you should have done more research into career choices. Maybe you still have time to retrain as an investment banker.
So what is the secret to going from wage slave to financially successful vet? It’s a question that I’m still working on, but here are a few things that seem to be common trends in those most financially satisfied vets:
They’re not embarrassed to expect to make a good income from their profession, and to actively pursue it. They make this one of their goals. Many of the loudest complainers about low wages are also the first to accuse others of unethical behaviour, gouging, and exploitation. Being a vet does indeed come with the responsibility of balancing ethical concerns with financial incentives. Many of us, myself included, probably err too far towards the side of the ethical, but I have seen time and time again that it is possible to strike a sustainable balance. Our collective attitude as a profession about this becomes very obvious when we encounter a vet who has making money as one of their priorities, or has achieved higher than normal levels of financial success. Just watch how other vets start talking behind their backs and even ostracises them. We’ll take that most infuriating insult that our clients so love to give us and throw it right back at our colleagues: “Oh, that vet! He’s just in it for the money…”
Vets who fall on the right side of the income bell curve never just do what is expected of them. They find ways to add value wherever they are, whether it’s as an employee in their workplace, or to their communities by starting a business to fulfil a need. They provide value to their patients, their clients, or to their bosses.
Consider why other professions pay so much better than ours? Because the work that those professionals do generates much more money. This is a reality that many people in the vet world are working hard to change, but just complaining about it will get us nowhere. It’s very simple: if you want to earn more, then find a way to generate more. Note that more does not have to simply mean more dollars. You can add huge value to a business in ways that don’t directly equate to an immediate increased dollar income. In other words, it’s not just about billing more. Finding ways to increase the efficiency of the business, to save time, to increase staff retention and client retention, bring in more clients with a new service or by up-skilling, or ways to decrease waste are all things that will eventually lead to more dollars. If you’re doing any of these things for someone else’s business, just be sure to find ways to measure your contribution and show it to your employer. And don’t be embarrassed about expecting to be rewarded for the value that you add, whether it’s by your employee, or by your clients if it’s your own business.
It is entirely possible, and likely mostly overlooked as an option, to create a profitable niche for yourself within an employed position. Having said that – most of the high earning vets I know are business owners or partners. It might just be that the type of person who has the drive to take on the challenges of business ownership is inherently more likely to also be more driven to pursue measurable results, like money. Or perhaps it’s the increased feelings of autonomy, of being in charge of your own destiny, and the incentive of ‘work more, earn more” that causes business owners to invest more time and energy into work, which usually equates to higher earnings. Either way, owning your own business certainly seems to be the most common path towards more moolah.
Our wealthy vets put in the work. We mentioned luck before, but even the luckiest ones put themselves in a position where they were ready to be receiver of any good fortune by generous amounts of sacrifice and elbow grease. Even within employed positions the high earning vets will always be the ones who are proactive in looking for the best opportunities where they can put in extra effort for extra rewards.
The good news is that in most of the cases these hard workers are also the ones who eventually end up with more free time after those initial periods of increased effort.
Taking risks and extending themselves
My favourite story that illustrates a willingness to take risks came from one of our podcast guests. (To be fair – I have no insight into his level of wealth, but as an owner of a large group of practices I’m presuming he does ok.) Our guest started his first practice when he was in his twenties with $40 000 borrowed from his gran. This is not some wealthy gran who just pulled 40G out from behind a cushion on her floral couch by the way; that was all of her money! No pressure, right?
It’s that kind of measured risk-taking and a willingness to commit yourself to a journey that will inevitably be fraught with challenges and with very real risks of consequential down-sides, but also with potentially very beneficial up-sides, that paves the way to financial security. While rest of us stick to our risk-free salaried positions where we haggle about pennies and sulk about how bad the pay is in veterinary science, the calculated risk-takers are making decisions that could substantially alter their financial futures.
It’s the eggs-in-one-basket theory: our fiscal achievers have many eggs in multiple baskets. They seldom depend on their income solely from their primary vocation. Here’s a list of income-generating side-gigs that I’ve come across in the vet world (note that all of these people also do clinical vetting and many of them own practices):
Pet food manufacturer, consultant in a pet food company, distributor of medications, surgical equipment company owner, television vet, on-line educator, teacher at an academic institute, cave diver, real estate speculator, podcaster, founder of a shoe company, speculative share trader, social media influencer, career coach, pet crematorium owner, writer, public servant, motivational speaker, founder of a not-for-profit company, tech entrepreneur…
Some of these are hobbies that have the potential to generate income, others have become a primary source of income. Whatever they are – it’s clear that these vets do not live with blinkers, and are not scared to venture outside their traditional roles as ‘vet.’
The beauty of our profession that is often overlooked is that, while it might not be one where the millions just roll in, it can provide a stable, predictable and flexible income stream that allows you to keep your head above water while you dip your toes into the streams adjacent to the familiar clinical practice pond.
So what’s it going to be? Accept the conventional wisdom, do your work and grumble about your pay, or pull your head out and look for opportunities? The money is there for the making, but it’s not going to come looking for you.