What would you give as a definition of veterinary medicine? Perhaps, “Entertain the client until the dog heals itself naturally”? A previous student of mine gave me that entertaining statement, summarising what she felt she had done in the 15 years since she left vet school. And the vet who first got me interested in ophthalmology told me that for the vast majority of conditions, you should be able, with a bit of practice, to get the diagnosis within the first minute of the consult. But the owners are paying for at least 5 or 10 minutes of your time. The key thing was to keep them chatting for the requisite time until they felt they had their money’s worth. The whole of veterinary life is just as much about dealing with people as their pets, isn’t it?
It won’t be very long before we interview applicants for next year’s veterinary intake. Sadly, this is still being done via Zoom, though I think everyone benefits more from a face-to-face interaction. What I’m looking for is someone who, even at 17 or 18, has, on the one hand, a real vibrancy and excitement about the potential of being a vet and, on the other, some inkling of empathy when given a situation you might encounter in veterinary practice.
The whole of veterinary life is just as much about dealing with people as their pets, isn’t it?
You might say this is quite a challenge for someone who hasn’t had the chance to see much in the way of veterinary work, but what I’m looking for is what you might call character rather than knowledge – I’m looking for how someone thinks rather than what they know.
Let’s face it – we will be teaching them what they need to know throughout the six years of our veterinary course, but quite how much you can teach someone character is a whole different ball game. True, communication skills workshops can give you ideas of how to cope with specific situations or even a model of how to structure a consultation. But really, being a vet is so much more than coping with a specific situation, isn’t it? It’s a way of being, far more than a way of doing. Thinking about it, that goes for life itself, doesn’t it? How we interact in any environment really is linked with being much more than doing.
What I’m looking for is what you might call character rather than knowledge – I’m looking for how someone thinks rather than what they know
Yet when I meet someone, the first question I ask is often, “What do you do?” Though I must admit that more recently, I tend to ask, “What excites you in life?” Maybe that would be a good starter question for an interview, though perhaps a little unfair on a teenager who will be frightened anyway at the start of an interview for Cambridge. But that’s why I think a face-to-face interview is so much better.
It’s so much easier with a warm handshake and a smile as you sit down to welcome the applicant than it is over a Zoom screen – to reassure them that there won’t be any trick questions or complicated calculations that will send them down an intellectual rabbit hole. They aren’t being interviewed for a place to read neurophysiology or astrophysics, though even if they were, I’d still be more interested in what made them tick and what drew them to the subject than how they perform in some intellectual high-wire act designed to make them trip up.
To fail is just to be given the opportunity to retake and know the information better for having learned it twice
The course is tough, it has to be said, and people do fail exams. But to fail is just to be given the opportunity to retake and know the information better for having learned it twice. And how much better to have learned the art of failing and recovering when it’s only a silly written exam than to have sailed through all your exams at vet school only to have an animal die in your first week on the job!
But coping with failure is so important that I think it is worth repeating. It’s something rather like resilience that we don’t, or maybe can’t, teach in a didactic manner. It’s something you can only learn by doing. But really, that is so true of everything in the course, isn’t it? You can read a textbook on a surgery and watch someone else doing it, but it’s not until you do it yourself that you really grasp how to do it.
[Coping with failure is] something rather like resilience that we don’t, or maybe can’t, teach in a didactic manner. It’s something you can only learn by doing
Indeed, it may even be more than that. John Dewey, the principal American educator in the early 20th century, said it was not just doing something that was vital in understanding it – it was reflecting on doing it that was key. This is why in our CPD these days we have to reflect on what we’ve learned after we have done it, not just file the notes away and tick the box for another hour’s worth of study.
What have you done today? Have you reflected on how well you did it and how you might do it better? Maybe it’s something we should do at the end of every day? Perhaps that can be my New Year’s resolution at the beginning of the new academic year!