Veterinary starting salaries rise in 2023, educational debt holds steady
Once again, mentorship cited as the biggest factor in where new graduates choose their first job
R. Scott Nolen
Class of 2023 veterinary graduates appeared well positioned to start their careers, as starting salaries continue to increase and educational debt levels are holding steady, leading to a debt-to-income ratio not seen since 2004. Further, this year’s graduates received offers at near record-high levels.
The mean debt-to-income ratio for new veterinarians fell a third straight year to 1.3-to-1, indicating a debt that is 1.3 times the amount of the graduating veterinarian's income. The change was also helped by tuition freezes during the COVID-19 pandemic and higher rates of family assistance in covering tuition, said Dr. Chris Doherty, AVMA’s assistant director for strategic business research and outreach.
He spoke on “The Next Generation of Veterinary Professionals” during the AVMA Business and Economic Forum, held virtually October 24-25. Much of the findings he discussed came from the 2023 AVMA Graduating Senior Survey, which will be made available in the 2024 State of the Profession Report.
“Student debt has been a big topic of discussion over recent years,” Dr. Doherty said. “We can see that from 2001 through to about 2020, student debt has been on a pretty relentless upwards march, growing up to the high in 2020 before starting to level out and come back down a little bit in the past few years.”
According to the senior survey, the mean educational debt was $154,451 for all 31 U.S. and two Caribbean veterinary college graduates in 2023. Among only veterinary graduates with debt in 2023, that figure was $185,486. These figures account for debt incurred during veterinary college only.
Two-thirds of graduating veterinarians reported having less than $200,000 in debt in 2023, Dr. Doherty said, adding that just under 17% said they had no debt at all. However, approximately one in three of this year’s veterinary graduates have debt greater than $200,000.
Compensation and benefits
The percentage of veterinary graduates receiving offers of employment or for a position in advanced education remains near record highs (95.7%) with the vast majority (68.9%) opting to work in private practice, followed by internships (24.6%), then public practice (2.4%). Of those opting to work in private practice, most accepted job offers in a companion animal practice (56%), followed by mixed animal practice (9%), food animal practice (2%), and equine practice (1%).
The mean starting compensation in 2023 was $124,295 for graduates of U.S. and Caribbean veterinary colleges entering full-time employment.
The mean starting incomes in 2023 for the following areas was:
$125,416 for private practice
$87,417 for public practice
$46,186 for residencies
$53,266 for internships
Looking at compensation by species focus, companion animal exclusive or predominant had the highest incomes at an average of approximately $133,000. Compensation for those newly graduated veterinarians entering equine practice, however, was rapidly closing the gap, with average incomes in this field climbing sharply from 2021 to 2023.
“This is fantastic for those veterinarians who want to pursue equine medicine. It's making it more financially viable for them to do so because that pay gap is being closed,” Dr. Doherty said.
The most common method of paying new veterinary graduates is a combination of base salary plus a production bonus, also known as ProSal. Of those veterinarians paid only a guaranteed salary, they reported an average salary of $104,148. Those paid through a ProSal method had an average base salary of $112,383 and an average anticipated bonus of $21,000.
Many veterinary graduates are also receiving additional forms of compensation, according to Dr. Doherty.
“It was pretty common, with over 60% of new graduates indicating that when they entered employment, they were provided with a signing bonus. Others were provided with moving allowances, and student loan repayments,” he said, adding that housing allowances were less common, but that, overall, many of those entering employment were provided with some additional form of compensation.
These additional benefits averaged $19,777 for signing bonuses (64% of respondents), $5,688 for moving allowances (37%), $15,628 for student loan repayments (16%), and $11,464 for housing allowances (3%).
“These are things to keep in mind for some new veterinarians. These are amounts that could move the needle for them as to where they want to go into work,” Dr. Doherty said.
For the past five years, senior survey participants have been asked why they chose the job offer they did.
“Each year without fail, the top answer has been mentorship,” Dr. Doherty said. “It stands to reason, right? When finishing veterinary college, many of us still feel like we have a lot to learn. And so unsurprisingly about 85% of newly graduated veterinarians said the reason that they selected the offer that they did was mentorship.”
Following that, location, people, and compensation, respectively, were the next most commonly cited reasons for selecting an offer of employment.
“The main thing I want to highlight is how crucial mentorship is to new grads,” he said. “Put this in your job ad. Not every clinic has the time and resources to provide mentorship, but for those seeking to hire a new grad, make sure you commit to mentorship.”
A version of this story appears in the December 2023 print issue of JAVMA.