Work-experience is still the most reliable way of being sure that training to be a vet is what you really want to do, as it lets you see and experience first-hand exactly what you’re letting yourself in for by choosing a veterinary career. In spite of the challenges associated with securing placements, it is a vital part of your vet school application and should be taken as seriously as your academic work. This means careful planning, determination and showing enthusiasm at every stage. If you really have your sights firmly fixed on a place at vet school then you’ll relish the challenges and opportunities presented by work-experience, and have a lot of interesting experiences to discuss at interviews.
Do the vet schools really care?
In a word: Yes. Yes, they do. Training a vet is a lengthy and expensive process, and with the competition for places the vet schools really do have their work cut out differentiating between all those students who eagerly submit applications each year. They need to feel confident that those applying to study veterinary really truly know what it is they are letting themselves in for, as the commitment from both sides is HUGE! Seeing that applicants have completed a broad range of practical experience goes some way to reassuring the admissions tutors that the student they are reviewing has given the idea serious considered thought and knows, to a lesser or greater degree, what being a vet and working within the profession actually entails. Of course there will still be aspects of the job and career that one cannot possibly glean from a relatively short period of time ‘seeing practice,’ but the surprises should be far less marked than if people simply decided to apply to vet school on a whim convinced that the job simply involved petting puppies all day.
So…… What type of Work Experience should you do?
Excellent question. The answer is a broad range of different placements is best as opposed to weeks and weeks of one type. For example, two weeks spent at a small animal practice, a week at a dairy farm, another at a riding stables, and another couple shadowing a large animal vet or doing some lambing will be far more informative and useful experience than spending 8 weeks following around the world’s greatest small animal surgeon. At the end of the day the vet schools are not looking to offer places to students who already know all there is to know about veterinary – there would be little point in trying to educate such accomplished people anyway! Seeing evidence of understanding across a broad spectrum of professional functions is the key, as this will enable applicants to speak about their experiences and lessons learned with conviction.
- First Opinion (small animal, farm, equine) – time spent shadowing and working with both vets and nurses on the frontline of clinical care is an essential. Expect to pitch in with some of the less glamorous jobs such as cleaning kennels in addition to getting the chance to see some very interesting cases.
- Farm placements – whether calving, milking, lambing or working on a pig farm, time spent on the farm is very important. Large animal vets interact with farmers and their livestock on a daily basis and are instrumental in establishing and maintaining long term animal health.
- Stables – shadowing a horse vet will permit some experience of working with horses but the very best way to learn more about their husbandry, health and handling is to spend some time helping out at a stable.
- Kennels & Catteries – again, as far as gaining vital animal handling and husbandry knowledge and skills, both options are fantastic.
- Laboratories – from quality assurance to genuine research and development labs, time spent gaining an understanding of laboratory practices is useful and could certainly help set you apart from others applying at the same time. Vets play a vital role in both disease detection and surveillance, and also in original research, all involving laboratory time.
- Specialist Veterinary Placements – if you fancy getting your teeth a little more into veterinary then there is no better place to look than specialist, or referral, clinics. Vets will be much more specialised and focused on a narrower area of expertise, meaning that time spent at this kind of placement will certainly see you at the cutting edge of the profession.
- Zoo/ Exotic – generally very hard placements to secure but can be fascinating. With more people keeping exotic species the demand for vets with such specialist interests appears set to rise.
- Abattoir – vets play a vital role in ensuring the hygiene and safety of our food, with abattoirs being their stage. Gaining even half a day at one will be viewed favourably as they are important placements but very hard to secure.
- Other/ Non-typical placements – these could be considered as the icing on the work experience cake. The type of placements which will help you really stand out from the crowd but which should not be completed at the expense of satisfying the fundamental basic requirements, such as good quality farm work or time spent in a first opinion practice. The placement that I felt helped me stand out when I was applying was the two weeks I got to spend at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket after completing my GCSEs – fascinating and the kind of placement that had I not taken a chance by writing to them and then benefited from a smattering of luck would not have happened.
How to actually secure a placement
Basically by asking. The overused cliched saying of “If you don’t ask, then you don’t get” is absolutely spot on. Do your research on a particular placement provider, for example by checking out their website, and ideally ascertain who it is you need to write to/ speak with that can make the decision as to whether or not you can do a placement with them. It might be the owner, for example, or maybe a junior member of staff who has been charged with the role of work experience coordinator. Find out who you need to contact and please ensure that you know how to spell their name correctly for the purposes of writing to them. A few rules for securing a work experience placement:
- Do your research – at the very least look at the website and know the basics about who you’re applying for work experience to and which person you specifically need to direct enquiries. If it is not clear from the website then pick up the phone, call and ask who you need to contact.
- Main contact – confirm who it is you should direct your request and ensure you know how to spell their name correctly. A person’s name is a precious thing to them and mis-spelling it can be an easy but sure way to make a poor first impression.
- Write a letter or email – my preference is for a letter as emails are so numerous these days that yours may simply get lost in the avalanche of electronic mail that your addressee has to wade through each day. Nicely written letters are such a rarity these days that I believe they make an impactful and lasting first impression.
- Write/ apply yourself – trust me when I say you get far more respect when you’re the one to actually write in rather than leaving it to mum/ dad/ auntie/ everyone else. For a start it actually proves you’re interested in the first place as opposed to being a vet simply being an idea that your parents think might be a good one. If you’re unsure of what to write or how to write a decent letter/ email then by all means seek some help but dodging the bullet of actually plucking up the courage to put yourself out there will not stand you in good stead for vet school or life in general.
- Follow-up – ok, so you’ve written ten letters and not heard a single reply after a week. Clearly everyone you wrote to is an a*&%hole, right? No, not necessarily. The truth is that they have probably just been so busy with their own jobs and lives to have realised that the nice letter they received from you is yet to be replied to. Do them a favour and remind them, politely of course. There is nothing pushy about follow-up. In fact, it is expected and further demonstrates maturity, pro-activity and a desire to advance. A polite enquiring phone call is usually all that’s necessary, with many placements being booked and confirmed there and then. I would give it at least a week before ringing though as there needs to be some time for your letter to actually arrive, reach the top of the ‘to read’ pile and then have a reasonable chance of being dealt with.
And after placements?
Simple really. Thank them. Again, a well written letter goes a long way to showing your gratitude and is always well received. A decent cake or some biscuits on your last day probably won’t hurt either 🙂 The other key thing to remember to do following your placement is to request a reference to be written, preferably as soon after finishing as possible whilst you’re as fresh in everyone’s minds as possible.
Work Experience is not only an essential part of any serious application to vet school but is also often good fun, so do remember to HAVE FUN and ENJOY YOURSELF.
(Remember to check out Vet School: Part One for an even more extensive look at Work Experience)