This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
“I shouldn’t have gone to vet school. Don’t do this—you’ll regret it.”
A harrowing warning from a jaded student? Sound advice from a seasoned mentor? An eerie premonition of my professional career yet to come?
As a sophomore pre-vet prepping for a long career in veterinary medicine, I was often asked to assist fourth year veterinary students, but I hadn’t been trained for this part.
I didn’t know what to make of the warning—an unsolicited manifesto of student debt and burnout at that point in my career was puzzling and above my pay grade. I mumbled some sort of apology in response and assured the student that I would be just fine. Whatever the true meaning of her words were, I chalked it up to the intense workload of fourth year and followed my youthful optimism all the way to a professional degree program in veterinary medicine.
Four years later, after logging into the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) for the first time, I was less sure of myself. Staring at six figures of my own student debt dragged me back to those exasperated warnings of vet students past. I’d spent my life chasing a career as a veterinarian, but I’d taken much less time to question the financial implications of that choice.
I’d joined an eight-year-long DVM-PhD program to learn how to become the best doctor I could be, but I’d completely lost sight of how to be an even passably functioning adult. Budgeting? Retirement savings? Student loan repayment strategies? I just didn’t think I had time.
My dual degree program has a two-four-two structure, meaning we spend two years in veterinary school, four years working on a PhD, and then another two years completing veterinary school. When I finished my first two years and started working on my PhD, I finally had the mental and emotional stamina to start dealing with my student debt, but I had no clue where to start. As the first person in my family to attend graduate school, I knew very little how to manage graduate school debt.
Thanks to the NIH, my thesis mentor, and my program, the rest of my training is fully funded, so I’ll get to spend most of my days for the next four years getting paid to try to cure blindness. It’s a dream. But that six-figure student debt I racked up in my first two years as an out-of-state veterinary student isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and I’m still wrapping my head around how to handle it.
Here’s the thing, though: I really, really like learning. I like it so much that I’ll be chasing my eight year DVM-PhD program with an internship, residency in veterinary ophthalmology, and postdoc. I have a cousin who started kindergarten when I started college, and I joke with my family that I’ll be finished with my post-secondary training when he graduates from high school. I’m only kidding by a few months—I’ll likely finish a year after he does.
It took me a while, but I realized that managing my student debt is just another, albeit expensive, opportunity to learn. When I tackled my student loans with the same intensity I put into getting into veterinary school, I learned that there are more options than a quick Google search over a glass of wine initially led me to believe.
In the early days of putting the pieces together, I took financial advice anywhere I could get it. While all of it was well-intentioned, nearly all of it turned out to be wrong. Here are some of the student loan myths I came across in my first few years:
1. You’re never going to get out of debt from veterinary school.
The debt-to-income ratio for most veterinarians is far higher than the average healthcare professional, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Nearly all veterinarians qualify for income driven repayment (IDR), meaning many of us have a viable path to loan forgiveness in 10-25 years. The nights of sleep I lost to this myth were a waste, and my new loan mantra is “consolidate and enroll in IDR.”
Research training has also significantly reduced my loan burden. My total cost of veterinary school was essentially cut in half because I chose to pursue a PhD at the same time. The Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) specifically funds training for dual degree veterinary students, which provides tuition support and a stipend for up to six years of training.
I know several people who have used loan repayment programs for postdoctoral researchers to get some of their veterinary student loans forgiven. If research is something you’re already considering, there are many paths to reducing your educational costs and loan burden through NIH and USDA-funded programs, and they’re worth looking into.
2. Veterinarians don’t qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and it’s going to get repealed anyway.
Although people (often fairly) harp on the lack of PSLF qualifying positions available for veterinarians, those of us who plan to specialize and eventually work at a university do have the potential to qualify for PSLF and get a substantial share of our loans forgiven tax-free. It’s not for everyone, but for those of us already planning to stay in academia, working toward PSLF is a no-brainer.
Those who plan to specialize stand to benefit tremendously from PSLF, and I wish it were more widely shared among vets in training. Tax-free forgiveness!
Who doesn’t want that?
If writing an NIH fellowship proposal taught me anything, it’s that worrying over what the federal government will or will not do in the future is not worth a single second of your life. All you can do in any given year is take the best option currently available to you based on the information you have at the time and hope for the best.
PSLF is currently available to student loan borrowers like myself, and with the calculations I’ve been able to run (thanks to Student Loan Planner), I stand to have up to half of my student loan balance forgiven tax-free.
I’m planning to save enough money to cover my remaining student loan balance in case I decide to leave PSLF-qualifying employment early, but I’m planning to ride that PSLF train as far as it’ll take me.
3. You should make payments on your student loan interest while you’re in school to keep your balance down, and put any extra money toward paying off your student loans.
While this might be great advice for someone with undergraduate student loans or lower balances, it’s paralyzing to most professional students and flat-out wrong for most people working toward loan forgiveness.
My student loans accumulate 20% of my annual graduate stipend in interest each year, and as someone planning to work toward PSLF after graduation, I would essentially cut my income by 20% each year I’m in school just to give the federal government free money by making those payments.
If you’ll be working toward loan forgiveness, monthly payments just to cover interest during school are just a black hole in your budget that doesn’t need to be there.
4. You can’t start saving for retirement until you pay off your student loans.
I was convinced for a long time that I needed to pay off my entire student loan balance before I could start saving for retirement. It was depressing. After doing the math, I realized I’d be losing out on years of savings while I’m in a lower tax bracket than I expect to be when I retire (and as I mentioned above, putting that extra money toward my student loans wasn’t going to benefit me in the long run).
Everyone’s situation is different, but in many cases it’s possible to be smart about student loans while also putting away extra money for retirement.
Fellowships can complicate this a little bit (they don’t generate W-2s and aren’t considered taxable compensation), but there are still plenty of ways to save for the future outside of traditional retirement accounts.
I’m currently sorting through those options for the rest of my time in professional school, but knowing more about how retirement savings works would have drastically changed my savings strategy in the first four years of my program.
My student loan balance and myths about repayment came dangerously close to making me think veterinary school was a mistake. For a while, I lost sight of the reasons I was drawn to veterinary medicine in the first place. I was paralyzed and overwhelmed by my student loans.
Tackling my student debt and taking the time to understand my options has given me the confidence to say with 100% certainty that choosing veterinary medicine was, personally and professionally, the right move for me.
I wouldn’t have it any other way—loans and all—and I hope that my experiences might help other veterinary students and recent grads reclaim a little bit of that love for veterinary medicine as well.
By Allison Ludwig, DVM/PhD Student