• Question: what advice would you give someone who wants to become a vet?

    Asked by sophiastelling to Nina on 15 Jun 2019.
    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 15 Jun 2019:

      Hi Sophia – thank you for the question; really excited to see that some students are interested in a veterinary career. Without knowing anything about your background or motivations, it’s tricky to pitch this, so my apologies if I’m telling you things you already know. But if I haven’t covered everything you wanted, or if it raises further questions for you, please do feel free to ask more!


      First and foremost, if you think you might be interested in a veterinary career – be fearless! This is an exciting and forever evolving profession; for all the changes and challenges it is facing, it will always provide you with a stimulating working environment in which you can continue to develop and grow, and have a positive influence on the welfare of non-human animals, humans, and biomedical knowledge.


      Contrary to the picture painted by TV and social media, vetting is not a glamorous job in any way, nor is it especially lucrative; most vets do not earn as much as human medics for an equivalent amount of work, stress and responsibility. Most jobs in clinical practice are physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. You need to work well under pressure and be resilient so you must look after yourself – eating well, sleeping well (when you can) and having good quality ‘down time’ is key. This is true throughout vet school and beyond. No matter how hard you work, it is often the case in practice that you will end up spending a disproportionate amount of your time dealing with tricky clients – most animal owners are grateful, engaged, and understanding, but the fact that they are paying the bill for their pet’s healthcare puts them in a position of ‘consumer’ and therefore some of them use this as an excuse to abuse or harass vets. Sometimes people ‘off-load’ and you can end up feeling like a counsellor – but be careful not to give medical advice beyond your level of expertise. Generally speaking, clients expect a higher level of communication with us and more of our time than they would ever expect from their own GP. The vet-client bond is critical however; you cannot do anything for a patient without owner consent so you need to efficiently build rapport with clients and empathise with their needs/financial situation. When a person walks into your consulting room, you never know everything that is going on in their life, so try not take negative attitudes personally. It is easy to get bogged down in admin, and you may have less time than you would like to spend with your patients which can be frustrating at times. If you want a veterinary career that gives you more time with patients on the ground – consider veterinary nursing or animal technician/care assistant training.


      Remember that veterinary medicine is a science, and the vet course will first give you an excellent grounding in the basic biomedical sciences – this is an essential platform on which to build clinical knowledge (you need to know how the healthy body works before you can learn to recognize and fix a sick one). You do need a reasonably high level of academic ability to study veterinary medicine because the course is intense, but you do not need to be a ‘genius’. One reason that the grade entry requirements are so high is that there are so many applicants per place, and vet schools need some way of objectively comparing them. Of course they want to train the brightest students, but as we all know, school exams are limited in how they test for aptitude and suitability for a degree course. Some of the smartest people are not suited to this profession because they lack the essential people skills and other qualities needed to succeed in it. Key subjects you need at A-level are Chemistry, Biology and either Maths or Physics (or both).


      Variety variety variety. At vet school you will be trained as ‘omni-competent’ i.e. on day one, you will have qualified to work with any species. It’s fine to have some bias early on, but do not spend all of your holidays working at the same practice, or even in the same sector – you need to satisfy application reviewers that you have fully explored the different roles that vets play in society and you understand what you are getting yourself into. Consider practices, farms, stables, laboratories (Defra/academic institutions), zoos, kennels, rescue centres rehabilitation centres, the army, charities (e.g. Guide Dogs for the Blind). Students often discard any non-veterinary work experience as ‘not relevant’. This cannot be further from the truth; volunteering or part time jobs in retail/hospitality provide good evidence of your ability to communicate, provide a good service, and work with people – all essential qualities of vetting. Try to think about the skills you have picked up during each placement – what have you learnt, how will this help you in your career, and what aspects did you find most interesting?

      Once at vet school, most courses have set requirements of how many weeks extra mural study time you have to spend in each area, but there are always ‘leftover’ weeks that you can use to focus on those you enjoy the most.


      In a sea of excellent applicants, most of whom will be at the top of their class at school and will have spent most of their school holidays getting work experience, it can be very difficult to stand out. The personal statement is extremely important – get as many people as possible to read it (and not just people that will tell you what you want to hear). It is essential to weave in all of your major accomplishments and work experience, but try not to let this sound like a list. Might seem obvious but do remember to tell them why you are interested in studying veterinary medicine, what you hope to do with the degree, and what you feel you could add to the profession. Often some kind of personal anecdote helps – they want to understand you as a unique individual, not just someone that can ‘tick all the boxes’. Tell them about your interests outside of school, and especially any activities that might be a bit different to others. I feel quite strongly that we are not very good at recruiting students that understand the importance of basic and clinical research to the progression of human and veterinary medicine – if you think you might have any interest in incorporating research into your career, or doing an intercalated year (which is compulsory at Cambridge) say so.


      From recollection I attended interviews at Edinburgh, Liverpool, Cambridge, Bristol, London and Glasgow. Nottingham and Surrey did not exist back then – but that’s two more vet schools you can now apply to! Each of the interviews was different and tested different things, but all of them asked why I wanted a place, and why there – so have slick answers ready for that – and do your homework about each vet school beforehand! They can ask you anything but often squeeze in questions on topical issues – global health, ‘one medicine’, global impact, AI, and climate change are all high on the political agenda – bear this in mind. Be prepared to answer questions that test your basic science knowledge, what you learnt on placement and what you might have observed in terms of common veterinary conditions and challenges e.g. how do you think you will cope with euthanasia?


      First well done! Second, only you can really make that choice, but make sure you visit each school before making it. You may like the city it’s based in, or the academics/students you meet at interview. Wherever you choose you will have a great time and get excellent training. A few things I noticed a few years back (but may not be so true now) – if you are very keen on equine consider Liverpool, if you are very keen on research consider Cambridge, Edinburgh, London. If you want a ‘quieter’ campus consider Bristol. If you want the ‘city life’ consider Glasgow, Edinburgh or London. If you value small group teaching, a collegiate culture, and short but intense terms choose Cambridge (but I am biased)!


      Don’t panic, many excellent and suitable candidates don’t get offers the first time round, or perhaps don’t get their predicted A-level grades to accept an offer. If you can, try to get some feedback on your application (but don’t take it personally if none is offered – vet schools have so many applicants that it may be impossible for them to offer this). If you got your grades but no offers then great – you’ve passed one big hurdle at least, and this puts you in a strong position for trying again the following year – in the interim do whatever you can to build your work experience portfolio. If you need a paid job straight away, there is nothing wrong in doing that – but think about the skills it will help you develop and how they might be useful in a veterinary setting. If you didn’t get your grades you could try resits, or doing another undergraduate degree first – I did one in physiology and it really helped developed my passion for research and clinical academia (it also prepared me well for vet school and meant that I skipped the Cambridge ‘intercalation year’)


      A degree in Veterinary Science/Medicine opens so many doors to careers besides general practice – you might decide to later focus on mixed, farm animal, equine or small animal general practice or do postgrad training to specialize in a particular field such as soft tissue surgery, anaesthesia, imaging neurology etc… You might decide to do a PhD and go into full time biomedical or veterinary clinical research, work in public health, on public policy (e.g. Defra), for the media, in the army, the pharmaceutical industry (e.g. veterinary medicinal products), professional standards (e.g. RCVS), food production and certification. The list goes on.