Name: Mila Christen
College & major: SUNY Geneseo, BS in Business Administration and Psychology
Graduate school & concentration (if applicable):
Cornell University, MS in Animal Science, concentration in Reproductive Physiology
Cornell University, DVM. As a veterinarian I am licensed to practice with any species, but I focused on small animals and exotics.
Previous jobs: My first job was at McDonald’s, and I actually loved working there and making my own money when I was 16. I also worked as a bank teller, a medical office assistant, served food in my college cafeteria, volunteered for a zoo, recruited people to inspect homes, led boat tours for Project Puffin, and had a few summer internships/fellowships during all my years of school.
Current occupation: Veterinarian. I work full time as a laboratory animal vet and when I’m not on call, I work some weekends at vaccine clinics for dogs and cats.
Why did you choose a career in veterinary medicine? Like most veterinarians, I simply love animals.
What was your college experience like, and how did it prepare you for your career? When I was in high school, I didn’t do well in my science classes, so even though I wanted to work with animals, I believed it would be in a non-scientific capacity. I majored in business and psychology expecting to someday find a job at a non-profit like a zoo or other animal-centric organization. So to answer the question, it did not prepare me much in terms of academics. I had to take two science courses and I chose Biology for non-majors and Astronomy… neither of which helped when I later decided to pursue vet school, which required 10 pre-requisite science courses.
That being said, having a background in business is a huge advantage in a veterinary career, especially if you go on to own your own business. I made a lot of presentations and participated in countless group projects, which really do translate into situations such as talking to coworkers or clients in order to educate them on a certain treatment or procedure.
What steps do you have to take to become a veterinarian? A LOT of education and experience with animals… and student loans. Getting into vet school is competitive because there aren’t many schools, and all of them have different requirements, so there’s a lot to keep track of. Most require a Bachelor’s degree before admission, a good score on the GRE, and many hours of animal experience, with at least three strong reference letters. You apply to all of the schools through an online submission, with additional supplemental applications for the individual schools that are variable in length and intensity (some have many additional essays). Many of the schools have an in-person interview as part of the process.
Vet school is 4 years, and the coursework can be different between schools. Cornell had a unique set-up, referred to as “problem-based learning”, so you spend time working through hypothetical cases with your classmates as a significant portion of your early coursework, and you also start learning through hands-on courses with dogs, cats, horses, and cows the first week. In addition to 3 years of classes and one year of clinical rotations, you must pass the national boards examination before you can apply for a license in the state of your choice, some of which require an additional state boards examination.
You predominantly work as a vet for a research facility. Can you explain a little about how you ended up in this particular role, and what your day-to-day is? I initially entered vet school planning to go into private practice, working with companion animals. But while I was in vet school I met some laboratory animal veterinarians that really loved their jobs and had made the switch from private practice to lab animal medicine, and their stories inspired me to pursue that field. I was drawn to the diversity in species that I could work with and even more to the idea that I could make a difference in the lives of both animals and humans. After vet school I completed a residency, since this is a specialty field, and my current role is a staff veterinarian. Animals used in research need veterinary care as much as any other animals, so as a clinical veterinarian I have cases similar to what you would see in a regular hospital: diarrhea, itchy skin, obesity, allergic reactions, and wounds. Each day is different, but I do lot of physical examinations of species including rats, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, monkeys, and even fish, making sure that they are healthy. I also look at bloodwork, ECG readings, and I perform ophthalmology examinations. Another part of the job is paperwork: writing SOPs and reading protocols. The paperwork and regulatory work are aspects I didn’t realize would be such a large part of my job. The USDA, FDA, AAALAC (an accreditation group), and internal groups perform audits and inspections, and there are a lot of regulations and rules to follow, which ensure proper care of animals used in research at any facility in the US (which I am very grateful for). My favorite part of the job is re-homing research animals as pets and also choosing enrichment for my patients. I’ve learned so much about nesting material that mice prefer, what the best toys are to give monkeys to encourage foraging, that rats love to be tickled, and I even found fish huts to put in our aquariums.
Are women under-represented in your field? If so, why do you think this is? If not, why is it a popular field for women? Current classes in veterinary medicine are primarily women (~75% now; >50% for past 30 years), which has been a fairly rapid transition since the 1950s and 1960s when there was only a couple of women in each class. Although there is such a large proportion of female veterinarians, the leadership roles are still primarily held by men. Additionally, after accounting for relevant variables, the 2015 gender wage gap was 8.6% for female veterinarians.
There has been a lot of speculation about why the field is becoming dominated by women, and in broad terms, I think it is because women are drawn to the caring and nurturing aspect of the job. Conversely, the question of why there are fewer males interested in pursuing vet med is thought to be sue to the relatively lower pay for the years and cost of education in comparison to similar science or medical fields.
What do you love most about your profession? The versatility. While most of my classmates pursued a career in small animal general practice, a veterinarian can pursue a residency in almost as many specialties as a human medical doctor, while also having opportunities to work for the government, in higher education, in research, or in comparative medicine (like myself).
What advice would you give to girls considering a career in the sciences? If you are passionate about science, don’t be scared off by the coursework and please don’t be too hard on yourself because of one bad grade. If you are considering the sciences at all, do look into all of the career options- there are so many other jobs besides a science teacher, a doctor, or a veterinarian. I have a friend who got a PhD in conservation and works with endangered species, another friend who was a dolphin trainer for a while and now works at an aquarium, and another who is a physician’s assistant and is in human cardiothoracic surgeries every day.
What would you wear to a job interview? For my current job, I had three 30-60 minute phone interviews prior to my full day in-person interview, at which I wore a skirt suit, tights, and flats.
Any favorite websites particular to your field (or ones you just love for fun)? A still-in-progress website for an organization that is committed to re-homing research animals.
A cool organization that trains rats to detect land mines and tuberculosis.
Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? Stop worrying about the future. Which honestly would be good advice to my current self 🙂
Any other words of wisdom? Never tell yourself that it’s too late to do something. I’ve met a lot of people that are now on their second career. You may change your mind several times when you’re in high school/college/a job, but it’s your life and you can do anything you want to, as long as you’re willing to put in the time and work hard.
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