Helping the next generation of veterinary surgeons... - Veterinary Practice
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Helping the next generation of veterinary surgeons…

GRAHAM DUNCANSON discusses the help that veterinary surgeons can give to young people who are considering going to veterinary school – and the ‘seriously uphill struggle’ that many of them face

THIS article, I hope, will not only be read by Veterinary Practice readers but also be cut out and adapted by readers to give to young people wanting to become veterinary surgeons.

I am sure that, like me, readers have masses of requests from young people to “see practice”. Being a “farm vet”, I feel I am particularly targeted but this may well be an illusion as I am sure small animal practices get many requests from small pet-loving young people as do equine practices from “horsey girls”.

There is a great temptation just to say “no”. In fact, what I used to say was “I am sorry but I have so many actual veterinary students seeing practice that I do not have any vacancies.”

Historically that was almost correct when I was working at Westover in Norfolk. We had a very efficient EMS programme organised by one of our large animal receptionists (LARs), Liz Coller. All applications to the vets were referred to her, then vetted.

She organised them so that we never had more than two students at any one time. She made sure that we did not have students who were more than just friends at the same time. She made sure they read the health and safety bumph. She also made 100% certain that they would be looked after by a vet each day so they were not left at the surgery with nothing worthwhile to do or see.

We as vets tried as best we could to give the students as much hands-on experience as possible. Hopefully, the students enjoyed their stay. I certainly have always enjoyed having students. My own daughter has been through the EMS process and has now qualified.

Helping young people trying to get into college

The main thrust of this article, however, is on the young people who are trying to get into veterinary college. They have a seriously uphill struggle. How can we as practitioners help them to achieve their goal?

You need a filter system. You have to be cruel to be kind. Here are some of the pitfalls to avoid.

  1. Make sure they really want to be a vet and that they are not being pushed into it by a pushy parent. A good test is if the young person makes the approach him or herself. If a parent approaches me I make sure that the young person is given my e-mail address and then takes over the arrangements.
  2. Make sure you are not bullied into taking the young person by relatives or close friends.
  3. Make sure they are mature enough to realise what is involved. Ideally they should be in their A/S year or older; however, all children mature at different rates so there is no hard and fast rule.
  4. It is really hard but you must make sure the person is actually capable of attaining the grades at ‘A’ level to be considered by the veterinary colleges. So often I have been contacted regarding a farmer’s son (remember I am one and only got into veterinary school by the skin of my teeth 53 years ago when competition was not so intense) with the words, “He would make a marvellous vet!” Who am I to judge but sadly unless he has the brains he won’t make it.

Is it really fair to let him see practice and jump through all the hoops, raise his hopes, only to have them dashed at the final hurdle when he only gets two ‘C’s at ‘A’ levels. Please don’t think that I consider farmers’ sons to be dim. That is far from the case. It is that they are normally very practical and not necessarily very academic.

There is now an excellent career structure for veterinary nurses. It would be so much better for him to go down that route. Sadly, nursing is still perceived by the world as a girl’s job so you are unlikely to persuade a boy to apply. It is ironic that in fact now being a veterinary surgeon is very much a girl’s job!

The hoops they have to jump through…

Here are the sort of attributes the colleges require apart from the high grades at ‘A’ level: (1) to have worked on a dairy farm; (2) to have worked at lambing time with a shepherd; (3) to have worked in a small animal practice, ideally on a regular basis, e.g. every Saturday morning; (4) to have done some voluntary work; (5) to have been to an abattoir; (6) to have spent time with a farm animal practitioner.

It is not by chance that I put (6) on the bottom of the list as I suspect that the veterinary schools do the same when they read through prospective students’ personal statements. I therefore advise many young people to try to achieve the first five attributes before they spend time with me.

I feel sorry for young people regarding obtaining transport to carry out these tasks. There are not many buses at 5am to get them to a farm. Also, distances may be long and cycling may be out of the question.

Long forgotten farming relatives may save the day. Certainly parents and older siblings will have a role to play. I have had many young people arrive on a 50cc moped. I admire their resourcefulness but I am terrified that they will get hurt on the roads.

I also feel sorry for young people trying to get to an abattoir. Abattoir managers are very reluctant to take any unknown people into their abattoirs after all the recent scandals. One answer may be to go to a hunt kennels or a knackers yard for a day. This would, in many instances, be more educational anyway.

Careers advice

It is kind if you can give them careers advice which may be lacking or biased at their schools. I normally advise them to concentrate on getting the top grades in chemistry, biology and either physics or maths. Many will be urged by their schools to take two maths ‘A’ levels. I am sure this is fine as maths is not really a subject which can be readily revised. It would appear that you can either understand it or you can’t.

On the other hand, I do not advise them to take other subjects at ‘A’ level which may mean that they spend less time on chemistry and biology and therefore obtain poorer grades in these two core subjects.

Naturally my daughter proved my theory wrong by getting an A grade at geography. I admired her argument when she was only 17. “Well Dad, if I can’t get into veterinary college, I can always become a ‘weather girl’.” I am sure she would be earning considerably more as a weather girl now eight years on than she is as a vet. However, I have bored readers in a previous article on what I consider is the poor remuneration obtained by young vets in practice.

It is advisable to recommend that six-form students sit the BTEC examination as this is required by some veterinary schools. If they have not passed this examination they will be limited in the number of schools they can apply to. It is also a good idea for young people to attend some of the veterinary schools’ open days as they can then see what the campuses are like and also obtain up-to-date prospectuses. These can be obtained on line but they are rather daunting and not very user-friendly.

Young people at school may be put under pressure by the schools themselves. Schools want to have good results in obtaining university places, particularly to Oxbridge, to show prospective future parents. Therefore, if they have a bright pupil they will want that pupil to get to Oxbridge. There is no veterinary school at Oxford so Cambridge is the only option.

Teachers will be well aware of the high standards required by veterinary schools and therefore may well pressure pupils to apply to do medicine or dentistry. When one looks at old school magazines, dare I suggest that a pupil who ends up getting a double first in mathematics at Oxford is given a higher accolade than a pupil who graduates as a veterinary surgeon at the RVC. I wonder who is more useful in society?

In conclusion…

All of us in the profession should be looking to the future. Our profession will be judged in the future not by the exploits of old buffers like me (thank goodness, as I suspect I walk a tightrope avoiding bringing the profession into disrepute: “Oh yes I will have another glass of wine before I walk home!”) but by the younger members.

We therefore have a duty to help to select the best candidates. I suppose on reflection we can now call ourselves ‘Doctor’.

I smile to myself as I had to rewrite 30,000 words of my first 120,000 word submission to obtain my doctorate. At least I could call myself Doctor 10 years before the rest of you. However, I never did as I am a veterinary surgeon!

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