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All career options great and small

News from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

Dispelling misconceptions and explaining the breadth of veterinary careers available - those were the twin aims of a Careers Afternoon held at the RCVS in London recently (5 July 2006), according to RCVS Head of Education Freda Andrews. Over 70 delegates, including school students, parents, careers advisors and some would-be mature students, heard from a range of speakers that spanned all aspects of veterinary medicine and practice, from looking after dogs on the frontline in Afghanistan to anaesthetising giraffes in London Zoo.

Mrs Andrews kicked off proceedings with an introduction to the veterinary degree and life in practice. The steep entry requirements to the degree are relevant, she explained, due to the complex nature of the undergraduate syllabus. “There are a lot of ‘ologies’ on the syllabus, many of which are degree subjects in their own right,” she explained.

She went on to stress that although the entry requirements are high, those with a strong desire to pursue a career in veterinary medicines should not be put off - particularly as the number of applicants per veterinary school place is falling, from 2.1 in 2003 to 1.8 in 2006.

This application ratio makes a place in veterinary school easier to achieve than one on an English or History degree, in many cases.

The rigorous nature of the veterinary degree puts a graduate in an excellent position to work in research, particularly in this ‘post-genome’ age, was the view of Professor Tim Skerry, Professor of Orthopaedic Biology at the University of Sheffield.

Whether in biomedical, veterinary or basic science research, there many opportunities for veterinary graduates to go on their own voyages of discovery, and whilst research pay may be quite low, the opportunity to be your own boss and follow lines of enquiry that interest you are a real benefit, he said.

Miss Carol Gray, until recently Admissions Sub-Dean at Liverpool University's Veterinary School, dispelled some of the myths surrounding applications.

Her recommendations were simple: don't leave any blank spaces on your UCAS form, veterinary schools won’t be put off if you have provided yourself with a back-up plan; your personal statement must be personal - don't be tempted to follow a template or crib from someone else; and make sure you understand the specific work experience requirements of the universities to which you apply.

The preparation pays off and you win a place a veterinary school: what’s life like? Hard work, an excellent social life and plenty of sport, was the answer from Miss Heather Niman, Junior Vice-President of the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) and currently studying at Bristol Veterinary School.

Miss Niman gave some useful tips on tackling work experience, including the option of a Nuffield Bursary, which she was lucky enough to have been awarded, allowing her to undertake a six-week laboratory-based project.

Inevitably student debt was raised, with Miss Niman stating that, according to an AVS survey, debt levels had gone up by 147% in six years. “With such a heavy work load it is just not possible to have a job whilst you are at college, and Extra-mural Studies requirements make it unfeasible during holiday time too,” she highlighted. “But there are excellent support structures - both emotional and financial - for undergraduates to take advantage of.”

According to Captain Ann O'Flynn, joining the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) gives veterinary graduates one of the only opportunities to deal largely with healthy animals, with preventative medicine being a key component of the role.

Vets are also often involved with humanitarian work: “When we are trying to engage hearts and minds, dogs are often brought into use,” she explained. Other unique benefits include a high level of management responsibly from an early age, good salaries (approximately two thirds higher than that of colleagues in private practice), excellent travel opportunities, a sporting focus and personal and professional development that is second to none.

Mrs Laura Holm, also of the RAVC, explained how personal development is put into practice during a graduate’s early years, through working with local PDSA practices to increase the range of cases seen. This forms part of the RCVS’s Professional Development Phase.

What's worse than a giraffe with a sore throat? Probably trying to anaesthetise one… at least that's what you might think after hearing from Mr Wayne Boardman, Head of Veterinary Services at the Zoological Society of London. He used the example of doing just that to explain how a zoo vet constantly has to learn new techniques on the job.

With patients ranging from a dormouse to an elephant, it is certainly a field that would suit those seeking variety: “Zoo veterinary work is different every day,” confirmed Mr Boardman.

It is a crowded field, with few opportunities and lots of applicants. But although he conceded that a degree of luck was required in order to be successful, Mr Boardman counselled students to be determined, try to gain relevant work experience, volunteer for conservation or overseas wildlife projects…. and persevere!

Lastly, Mr Stephen Ware, RCVS past-President and recently-retired practitioner, gave the audience some insights into life in practice. He discussed trends in practice life, such as the rise of the corporate practice and the move towards specialisation.

Is mixed practice now dead, he challenged? Although it is an area that many new graduates would like to explore, the opportunities are decreasing, he said, going on to explain the many other different practice types available.

Turning to the skills required by a veterinary surgeon, he stressed the importance of commitment to working long hours (although a recent RCVS survey has shown that working days for vets are getting shorter, which is positive), developing good communication skills and being resourceful and practical: “If you are good at DIY you would probably make a good vet!” he said.

In conclusion, Mr Ware stressed that, at approximately £15-18K, the average starting salary for a vet in practice may not look huge, but it is important for new graduates to remember that this is only one part of a package that often includes a car and accommodation, bringing the total equivalent remuneration to a very healthy £30-35K. “The average veterinary commute to work is generally very small too,” he highlighted.

For more information about veterinary careers visit RCVS online: www.rcvs.org.uk/careers