She has been a veterinary technician for more than 14 years, but Megan Brashear, CVT, VTS (ECC) — who was also selected as Petplan’s Pet Insurance vet tech of the year earlier in 2014 — has a variety of educational and career tips for vet techs interested either in starting a career or who may even already be employed. As with many students in college, it wasn’t always clear to Megan what degree subject might be the most rewarding – in fact, she thought it might be history. But as Megan’s academic path indicates, the paths of college students sometimes change, even from the liberal arts to the clinical sciences. Megan is employed with DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, Oregon, and often travels across the country to speak and train other vet techs at conferences or in hospitals. She said she was “thrilled” to be recognized by Petplan in February, including selection from among a candidate pool of 250 nominees. “It does mean a lot to me to win that award,” she said. “Vet techs have a really hard job. It’s hard physically; it’s hard emotionally. We don’t make a lot of money for it, so to be recognized for the specific job that I do, it was important.”
10 Vet Tech Education and Career Tips
1. Be flexible. While in high school and even in college, look for signs of the career that might be right – or not right — for you. Megan was initially a history degree major at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, and planned on teaching history in high school, but began to question this career path while taking her classes. “I felt like I was writing papers all the time,” she said. “I wasn’t enjoying it.” She happened to wander into the school’s animal science department and signed up for a couple of biology classes. She was soon hooked and subsequently switched her education path to an Animal Science degree, with an emphasis in Veterinary Technology, at BYU.
2. Have a little bit of experience in the field. Certainly, you will gain experience while completing any vet tech degree program, but it never hurts to have experience working with animals beforehand, even if it’s cleaning their cages, cleaning up poop, or taking animals on a walk. Megan started working with animals the summer between her junior and senior year in high school. Even though this was in a boarding kennel, it gave her a job experience with animals that allowed her to recognize the field as a potential career once in college.
3. Find a program accredited through the American Veterinary Medical Association. If there are several vet tech degree programs available in your area, talk to veterinarians, vet techs and others you may know to see what they may recommend and also do a side-by-side comparison in terms of classes and curriculum. “It’s not worth going to if it’s not accredited by the AVMA,” Megan said. That’s because graduation from an accredited program is required to take the Veterinary Technician National Exam, which is necessary to seek licensing in many states. However, be aware that new vet tech programs do take a year to receive accreditation, so even if they aren’t accredited that first year they may be so by the end of the year. The AVMA provides a full list of vet tech programs that it accredits on its website.
4. Be open to both associate and bachelor’s degrees. Some 217 degree programs are accredited through the AVMA and available in the U.S., including mostly associate degrees, but also some bachelor’s-based programs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Megan ended up completing an animal science degree with a concentration in vet tech, a process that took her just 4.5 years, given her switch from a history teaching degree. “Most of the programs are two year associate degrees. That qualifies you to take the VTNE and become a certified vet technician,” she said. A four-year degree can provide you with more leadership and elective opportunities and may better prepare you to take on management responsibilities, she said.
5. Study hard to take the VTNE. Most students know that passing the VTNE is necessary to seeking licensing or registration in many states. Look for review books in areas that may be hard for you or find a colleague with whom you can study. In Megan’s case, a colleague was planning to test for the VTNE, which was then offered just twice a year, at the same time as she was. They held some study sessions together. Also working to her advantage was that she actually started working in a veterinary hospital before she could take the VTNE, and said that that short amount of time on the job better prepared her for the test. “I took it as soon as I could, and I passed it the first time,” she said. Much to their surprise, candidates can and do fail the VTNE, so it’s worth it to make a plan of study beforehand and to assiduously prepare. “It’s a hard test,” Megan said.
6. Be realistic about job opportunities. Job opportunities for vet techs are expected to grow by 30 percent nationwide from 2012 to 2022, which is much faster that average, according to the BLS. Your vet tech program may post information about job openings, but talking to friends or colleagues in the field may also clue you in to available job opportunities. In Megan’s case, she went to visit a friend who was doing an externship at a hospital. As it turns out, “they were desperate for technicians,” she said. Six months before completing her degree, she had a job offer and future employment. Fourteen years later, she is still employed with the hospital, DoveLewis, and she describes the job market in the Portland area as strong for vet techs. “The rural areas are a little harder to find jobs in, I think, but in most of the big cities there is a big need for them,” she said.
7. Consider a specialization. Five years after Megan began her vet tech career, she became certified as a veterinary technician specialist in emergency and critical care. The steps were hard and the application process itself took her an entire year, she said. For one year, she had to keep track of the patients she worked on, writing down what she did for each patient ranging from monitoring their anesthesia to placing catheters, or writing about why certain medications were selected. But the hard work paid off. “Technicians who want to specialize really have to be motivated,” she said. She passed the exam and, soon after, began taking one management responsibilities in the hospital, including making up schedules and providing new hires with training. Having a specialization has also given her the opportunity to connect with others on a niche level and to exchange stories and techniques about what works on the job. “For me, it’s kind of enabled me to travel and speak and teach and I really enjoy that as well,” she said.
8. Work hard and show an interest in training and education. Don’t be afraid to be that person who steps in when someone calls in sick or to help when an extra person is needed on staff. Take on opportunities that can help you learn more about the career, and even consider becoming involved in training if that interests you. Megan began training vet techs in the field, heading out to different schools’ clinics to teach others during their lunch breaks. She has used that experience along with her specialized certification to speak at events about vet tech issues and critical care. In fact, she just recently finished a speaking event at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, and said she travels up to two times a month for her career. “I had no idea there could be so much travel,” she said. “I am usually kind of a shy, quiet person and the thought of standing up in front of a room of people just seemed insane, but when I’m talking about what I do for a living it’s just really fun.” Next year, her vet tech interests take her out of the country for the first time: She’ll travel to England in April to lecture at the British Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress and in July will speak in Calgary, Canada. In addition, Megan is education manager and a leading contributor to DoveLewis’ online veterinary training resource, On the Floor @Dove, helping current and aspiring veterinary professionals across the globe learn valuable skills.
9. Join your state and national vet tech associations. There’s a reason why your involvement in these vet tech association is so important: it shows you care about quality education in the field and that standardization of certification procedures and titles across states is important. In some states, a vet tech may be called a certified veterinary technician, or CVT, but in other states may be licensed (LVT) or registered (RVT), for example. “We don’t even know what to call ourselves,” Megan said. By joining an association, you can also advocate for better education of the public, as many people do not know that there is a difference between a veterinary assistant and vet technician. The knowledge and training required of veterinary technicians is comparable to that of a human nurse, and the profession is working towards similar awareness from the public. Megan is a member several organizations, including the Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians, the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, and the Oregon Veterinary Technician and Assistant Association.
10. Realize the occupation has changed over the years and be sure you love the job for what it is. Megan said vet techs are now being utilized more than ever before for their nursing skills and their ability to interpret vital signs and make suggestions about what may be going on with a patient or what could be used for treatment. “It’s more of a collaborative effort as opposed to just doing what you are told to do and going home at the end of the day,” she said. Also, like most careers in veterinary medicine, be sure to select the career because it is what you love, not because you are expecting a high pay or continual promotions. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics places the average mean wage of vet techs at $31,760, for Megan a significant part of her job satisfaction comes from training and outreach. After all, education was an early interest of hers, but one that she just ended up steering in another direction. “Education is important,” she said. “It’s not OK just to do what you were told just because you were told to do it, but to do it because you understand why.”