Getting started on your life in practice - Veterinary Practice
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Getting started on your life in practice

CHRIS WHIPP introduces a new series on early postgraduate development

GRADUATION can be both an exhilarating and a daunting time as the graduate gives up an academic existence and replaces it with a commercial existence in the real world of practice.

University may have provided enjoyment, challenge, stress, stability and support in equal measure, the future may be only partially visible, but the graduate’s responsibility both for his or her patients and his or her own future now becomes absolute.

For many, though not all, this is a transformational learning experience (Mezirow, 1981; Mezirow, 1985; Mezirow, 1994) for which they are not prepared and which challenges individuals as their pre-existing perceptions about their world, their profession and indeed their self are given a good shaking.

Transformational learning experiences tend to be big and profound; they are frequently associated with significant psychological discomfort with the individual, to a greater or lesser extent, going through a number of identifiable phases (see diagram).

In day-to-day life they are frequently highly unpleasant, often being associated with events such as serious illness, divorce or unexpected bereavement. However, in the case of graduation, this need not be the case, the change is predictable and, with a little planning and support, can be an exciting and challenging learning opportunity rather than a problem.

The ability to learn and the ability to cope with change are two of the most fundamental skills a graduate needs for a successful career; we never know what might be just around the corner.

Learning at university is largely a passive activity with learning proscribed by others, controlled by others and judged by others. After graduation the learning is much more the responsibility of the individual with only the PDP and 35 hours per year of CPD specified by the RCVS.

This means that self-directed learning (SDL) skills that are suppressed during highly academic courses (O’Kell, 1988) need to be got out, shaken down, and made fit for purpose.

Essentially, the need is for the individual to take responsibility for his or her own development, to identify both human and other resources, to set goals and self-assess achievement. The “Fast Track” CPD available from Paradigm Shift provides an evidence-based solution to this challenge.

Very different

The essence of the issue is that the learning journey after graduation is very different to that which the graduate has previously experienced but it is also very easy for the individual to be swallowed up by other events, to not be aware of the challenges as they arise and to reach a place of disillusionment after 2-3 years.

This is avoidable by taking responsibility for and improving a number of life/learning/professional skills in the early days. Learning and change are inextricably linked and effort expended on one will support the other.

Discussing the many skills development opportunities that exist in the early months and years in practice is beyond the scope of the article but I would be very happy to deal with any questions or queries: just e-mail me at the address below.

Here, I would like to deal with a few basics and to emphasise the absolute requirement to ensure you develop new and adequately strong support networks after graduation.

The early postgraduate development is very much like a journey, the journey from novice veterinary surgeon to skilled and expert practitioner, proficient in his or her chosen field.

We shall touch on the transition and the final product in the next couple of articles, but, staying with the journey analogy a moment: Have you decided on your destination?, Have you planned a route?, Do you have a map?

You need a plan…

Admittedly, identifying the destination may present some difficulties in the early days but it’s worth giving it some thought. After all, would you get in your car for a journey of 1,000 miles with no idea of your destination or how to get there?

The point is that, although it can be flexible, you do need a plan. Because there is always so much more to learn, there is a common tendency to lose sight of how much has been learnt in the early months so it is important to record and celebrate your successes.

Frequently, keeping a learning “diary”, though often difficult to get started with, can do this and help develop the key skill of critical reflection which is so important to the development process.

The ability to self-assess one’s progress is also important and is one that, in general, professionals are very poor at, with over- and more commonly under-estimation of ability a common problem (Eva, 2003; Kruger and Dunning, 1999).

This brings us nicely to the role of support networks for the potentially rocky road of postgraduate development.

The learning that is needed in the early years in practice is not like university learning; it is socially driven and socially situated. It is less about facts, although these are important, and more about the application of knowledge within the workplace in situations that are frequently messy and uncertain.

The support you get from an employer, a colleague, a mentor, a coach, a friend or a family member can be pivotal to success. Frequently there is a strong psychological pressure to pretend to be perfect and infallible, to not ask for help and to soldier on regardless. This is a risky strategy and frequently, if concerns are shared with others, innovative and creative solutions appear.

Build multiple layers of support and invest time and effort in them, they will pay back to you many times over. Support from first employers is generally rated positively amongst new graduates (74.1% – Whipp, 2009) but it is important that this support is properly negotiated to be fair to both parties. Peer support is invaluable, it reminds you that you are not alone in the challenges you face and you can learn from the experiences of others.

Above all else, do not sweat the small stuff and enjoy the journey


Eva, K. W. (2003) On the generality of specificity. Medical Education 37: 587 – 588. Kruger, J. and Dunning, D. (1999) Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated selfassessments. J Pers Soc Psychol. 77: 1,121- 1,134.

Mezirow, J. (1981) A critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult Education 32: 3-27.

Mezirow, J. (1985) How Critical Reflection Triggers Transformative Learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: a guide to transformative and emancipatory learning. San Francisco, Jossey Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1994) Understanding Transformational Theory. Adult Education Quarterly 44: 222-235.

O’Kell, S. P. (1988) A Study of the relationships between learning style, readiness for self-directed learning and teaching preference of learner nurses in one health district. Nurse Education Today 8: 197-204.

Whipp, C. A. (2009) The Transition to Self-Directed Learning in the Veterinary Profession. Centre for Work-based Learning. London, Middlesex University (in preparation).

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