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Interested in a veterinary career? Why work experience is vital

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We are frequently approached by students at school and college looking for work experience at our practice.

I feel that whatever profession or career a young person aspires to, work experience is an invaluable process to start this journey. Not only do they get a feel for the industry and work place, but as competition for places at universities is so intense a student with lots of varied work experience in the industry as well as good exam results will be more likely to secure a place.

We have had many work experience students continue on to university and ultimately qualify as veterinary surgeons, (with several more currently in the middle of their studies), as well has helped inspire others to become veterinary nurses.

Equally valuable, we have had some realise that the environment and job are not for them after a week or two of work experience, and they shift their focus on to other avenues before having committed to a course that ultimately may not get them to a job they want.

Added to this is the increased costs of university education, leaving students with a large debt that obviously needs to feel justified.

I always wanted to be a vet, for as long as I can remember. Unlike the modern world of reality TV covering medical cases, operations and client interactions at busy practices, I grew up inspired by James Herriott novels and my involvement with my family’s pets and our veterinary practice in South Africa.

We had no formal work experience at school and when I started my veterinary studies it became clear going into third year that a large percentage of the students in my class no longer felt the traditional veterinary surgeon career path was for them.

Many dropped out, having no portable credits that would apply to other courses, and took up careers in a wide range of industries. These days, both in South Africa and the UK, it is possible to obtain a degree or take a year out to do an honours course halfway through the veterinary course, allowing people who have decided to move away from veterinary to take some value from their years of hard work into a different stream.

But back to work experience – I feel that a lot of my peers back in South Africa would have had their eyes opened to the reality of veterinary practice through work experience as school children, and may not have lost three years of studies later in life.

It is very easy to romanticise our job, with images of cute and fluffy pets, adoring owners and successful outcomes. And don’t get me wrong, it is a fantastic and rewarding career, with new challenges every day and the respect and gratitude of the thousands of owners and families we have helped over the years.

But it can also be hard, dealing with long hours, the high expectations and difficult outcomes. And having an awareness of the challenges of veterinary medicine will stand our young students in good stead as they advance in their studies.

If you or a friend or family member are considering a career in veterinary practice, and are looking for work experience here are a few words of advice.

Not all schools still offer a dedicated week for work experience, so often you will need to arrange this during the school holidays. This means that like our surgery, all veterinary practices are inundated with requests for the same weeks.

To improve your chances of securing a placement you need to write to several practices with details about yourself, your ambitions and the weeks you are looking at doing the work experience.

You need to apply at least six months ahead of the period, and sometimes we have filled placement weeks nine to 12 months ahead.

It is also a good idea to show some diversity in work experience, volunteering at animal rescues, seeing farm work and trying to see practice at both companion animal and large animal practices.

Michael Morrow owns and runs St Vincents Veterinary Surgery, an independent practice providing personal care for pets in and around Wokingham since 2005.

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