A Career as a Veterinary Surgeon

Quicklook at Vets by Bob Lehner MRCVSThis site is for veterinary surgeons, veterinary students and other members of the profession only, and we are unable to offer career advice. However, one of our members has written a book, Quicklook at Vets, all about the veterinary profession, an extract of which we are delighted to reproduce here.

If, having read the extract, you are still considering a career in the veterinary profession, I thoroughly recommend you buy the book. It really is an excellent primer for anyone planning to work in the profession, whether as a surgeon, a nurse or in industry.

Quicklook at Vets is available as a download from Quicklook books, for only £7.99. Click here for more information.

Arlo Guthrie
Editor www.vetsurgeon.org

Quicklook at Vets. Chapter Five: Training to be a Vet

Applying to veterinary school

The six established universities in the UK offering veterinary degrees are Glasgow, Edinburgh,  Liverpool, Cambridge, London (Royal Veterinary College) and Bristol. A new veterinary school was set up by the University of Nottingham in 2006 and expects to produce its first graduates in 2011.

Compared to many other professions the number of places available to study veterinary medicine in the UK is rather small. Around 810 students entered the first year of the course and 115 entered the second year in 2008/9. The demand for places at veterinary school has increased greatly over the past 25 years or so. It may seem far-fetched, but the enormous popularity of the James Herriot books, TV series and films produced in the 1970s, which showed a somewhat romanticised version of veterinary life in the 1930s, sparked a huge amount of interest in the profession. This lead to a surge in applicants to the veterinary schools: something that has been maintained to the present day. On-going popular TV series such as Animal Hospital and Vets in Practice maintained the high and generally favourable profile of the profession with the wider public.

Bob Lehner MRCVSStiff competition means that candidates must achieve very good A-level results if they are to have any hope of gaining a place at veterinary school. Grades AAB at A level would generally be the minimum expected. Suitable A-level subjects would normally be science-based and include biology, chemistry, physics or maths. However it may be possible to offer certain other subjects. 22% of entrants to veterinary school in 2008/9 already held a degree.

The veterinary course takes five years, except at Cambridge where it is six years. In addition to attending lectures, tutorials, demonstrations and practical classes veterinary students have to work during many of the university vacations. In the early years they have to gain experience in aspects of animal care such as lambing, whilst later on they are required to undertake six months of extra-mural studies or 'seeing practice', where they are attached to a veterinary practice, shadowing and learning from practitioners.

Veterinary schools normally interview candidates before offering a place and it is very important that in addition to excellent academic record candidates are able to show that they are very motivated to study veterinary medicine and have undertaken suitable work experience to support their application. Ideally candidates will have worked with a wide range of species including domestic pets, farm animals and horses as well as in a veterinary practice during their school holidays. Local kennels and catteries, farmers, riding schools, livery yards or zoos as well as veterinary practices should be approached for work experience by older children who are thinking of entering the veterinary profession. Clearly candidates who have owned and cared for their own animals, learnt to ride or engaged in other activities with animals will also be at an advantage at the interview.

Who is entering the profession?

As a result of the methods recent governments have chosen to fund university education, many undergraduates incur very substantial debts during the course of their higher education. Sadly, veterinary students fare worse than most, in that their course is longer and the pressures of their studies and requirements to 'see practice' during the vacations means that they have limited opportunities to earn any money during their time at university. Some students rely on financial support from their families, whilst others graduate with debts, which may run into tens of thousands of pounds. This is a heavy burden for the new graduate entering veterinary practice, where the financial rewards in the early years are not great.

Quicklook at Vets ContentsIt appears that this deters students from poorer backgrounds from applying to read veterinary medicine. Surveys have shown that veterinary undergraduates come from higher socio-economic groups than most others. The typical veterinary graduate is a white female from a relatively affluent middle class background. Only a few come from ethnic minorities or very low-income families.

One of the major changes seen in the last 20 years or so has been the enormous increase in women entering the profession, which historically was the preserve of men. The first woman was admitted to the RCVS only in 1922. Even in the 1970s 80% of veterinary graduates were male. This has now totally reversed and current statistics show that some 80% are female. There are probably various reasons for this. Statistically girls achieve better A-level results than boys and nowadays universities are not allowed to discriminate as to whom they admit on the basis of gender, as certainly happened in the past.

The traditional image of a veterinary surgeon was perhaps of a somewhat 'macho' individual who spent a lot of time wrestling with unruly cattle and horses and this may have deterred girls from entering the profession. The development of effective methods of chemically sedating large animals means that pure physical strength is no longer a pre-requisite for veterinary work. Furthermore the rapid evolution of small animal practice in the last 30 years or so may have acted as a further attraction for girls (whilst the increasing 'fluffy bunny' image of small animal practice may be deterring some boys from becoming vets).

It is worth noting that women have now risen to the very top of the profession in many areas. There have been women presidents of the RCVS, the BVA and other veterinary organisations, a female Government Chief Veterinary Officer and many senior academics and professors, as well as successful practitioners.

Another change has been the increasing tendency for some veterinary schools to admit foreign students. These are required to pay hefty tuition fees and act as a good source of revenue to the schools. Figures for 2008-9 show that 12% of entrants came from foreign (non EU) countries.

The undergraduate veterinary course

The traditional undergraduate course is divided into pre-clinical, para-clinical and then clinical sections, spread over five or six years. There is a massive amount of information to be learnt and as the sum of knowledge increases so the pressures on the veterinary curriculum grows ever-more.

Pre-clinical subjects include anatomy, biochemistry and physiology: subjects which teach the nuts and bolts of how living creatures are put together and function. It is necessary to know how a normal healthy animal works before one can understand and treat the same animal when it is afflicted with a disease. One of the striking differences between the student of human medicine and the student of veterinary medicine is that the latter has to study a range of species, which may have many fundamental differences in terms of anatomy and physiology. For example, the digestive system of the dog is very different from that of the cow.

Para-clinical subjects include pathology, bacteriology, virology and parasitology -in other words looking at how diseases are caused, spread and inflict damage on the host species. Other topics include pharmacology (the study of medical drugs), animal husbandry, nutrition and genetics.

Clinical years are spent learning about medicine, anaesthesia, radiology, surgery and animal reproduction. During this time students will spend much time shadowing clinicians in the various clinical departments of the veterinary school, to which animals are referred by veterinary surgeons in general practice for specialist investigation and treatment.

The new veterinary course offered by Nottingham University is aiming to offer a more integrated form of teaching with the introduction of clinical material early on the course. 

Veterinary medicine is potentially concerned with the health of the entire range of living creatures, with the exception of humans. Clearly it would be impossible to cover such a wide diversity of species in an undergraduate course. Thus the veterinary student learns almost entirely about the common domestic species such as dogs, cats, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry and only touches on less commonly encountered species such as fish, reptiles, zoo or other exotic animals. In recent years it has become common for people to keep rabbits, guinea pigs and other small mammals as household pets and to expect these creatures to have access to quality veterinary care. The veterinary schools are somewhat belatedly beginning to recognise this and improve the quality of teaching in these areas, which formerly were largely ignored.

In some countries veterinary undergraduates are allowed to begin to specialise in certain species or groups of species, but in the UK there is still a desire to produce the 'omni-competent' graduate. Clearly as the volume of knowledge expands this is not really possible and most veterinary surgeons now working in general practice confine their interests to either small animal, equine or farm animal work.

There is concern that the very high academic grades needed to gain a place on the veterinary course may not be needed for work in general practice, which does not really require an intellectual high-flyer. Indeed a lot of the work is mundane, routine and repetitive. Many well-respected senior members of the profession, who have had highly successful careers in practice, would be the first to admit that they would have had little chance of gaining a place at veterinary school today. There is a risk that very highly academic graduates may be rapidly disillusioned by the realities of life in practice after the initial burst of enthusiasm on graduating and there are fears that there will be a significant wastage as these people either move into other more academic areas or leave the profession altogether.

To buy Quicklook at Vets and read the other 13 chapters about the veterinary profession, and working within it, please click here »