If you want to make a living helping whales, dolphins, fish and other water-dwelling critters, a career as a marine-life veterinarian is an option. The marine subspecialty is relatively new to veterinary medicine, however,so programs that provide in-depth training are hard to find. What's more, the field has few positions. Aspiring marine vets should begin with an undergraduate degree in a related science. Ultimately, they will have to earn a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine. Volunteer work and residencies with aquariums and marine researchers can give a marine veterinarian hopeful a hiring edge.
Veterinarians typically need a bachelor’s degree to qualify for veterinary medical school. Though most vet schools don’t require a specific major, students who want to work with marine animals should choose one that lays the foundation for additional education. Any life science-related major, including biomedical science, animal science, zoology or molecular biology, is acceptable. A degree in marine biology works for admission to veterinary school, however, and can give you a head start on the physiology of water-dwelling animals. Regardless of major, be sure your transcript includes a year each of biology, chemistry and physics, as well as calculus, statistics, biochemistry and English.
Marine veterinarians need a four-year degree from one of 30 U.S. schools accredited in veterinary medicine. The curriculum is similar to the program medical doctors take. Studies begin with two years of classroom work in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and pathology. Two years of clinical work in animal hospitals follow. Some schools require third- or fourth-year students to pick a focus, such as zoologic medicine. Few veterinary medical schools have a concentration in marine animals, but most programs offer electives that introduce students to aquatic medicine. Schools in coastal states may offer the best shot at aquatic studies. The University of Florida, for example, offers 15 credits in marine animal studies, including diseases of warm-water fish and sea-vet clinical training.
All vets need a state license to practice. In addition to earning a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, vets have to pass the North American veterinary licensing examination, a six-hour exam with 360 multiple-choice questions covering all animal species, including fish. Credentials in marine medicine can also burnish your resume. The American College of Zoological Medicine Board offers a certificate in aquatic medicine, while the American Fisheries Association certifies vets in fish pathology. To qualify, applicants must be licensed vets and have several years of experience. They also typically need to pass a test. The American College of Zoological Medicine exam, for example, is a two-part test that covers all species.
Most marine vets don’t land a job as an aquarium doctor or marine vet right out of veterinary school. Rather, they work their way into the field through significant hands-on training. Possibilities include care and training internships with dolphins and sea lions through marine mammal foundations, as well as clerkships of 2-10 weeks assisting aquatic pathologists who treat marine animals inside labs at universities or aquariums. Students can also complete internships in marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation. Some schools offer postgraduate internships in aquaculture, or growing fish for food. Get a head start by volunteering at an aquarium, oceanarium or zoo during high school, college or veterinary school.