With the half-term break upon us and many of you either busy arranging work experience placements for the next break or currently on one as we speak, I thought I’d delve into the chapter on Work Experience from the brand NEW Vet School book that I am currently finishing, in order to bring you some helpful advice on how to get the very best from your placements…
There is nothing more aggravating to a vet, or any other placement provider, than having students present who clearly do not wish to be there. I have worked in clinics when we have had work experience students who couldn’t be less interested and it ends up being more work trying to enthuse and share insights and knowledge with them. Thankfully, the vast majority of you are not like this as you are genuinely motivated to become vets and learn from your experiences. That would be the key message here: show an interest. Even if you find some aspects of the placement dull, frustrating, or unsavoury – and you will, especially when asked to help with dirty jobs such as cleaning up muck – remember the end goal and show willing. If we can see that you’re keen then we’re far more likely to put in an effort to explain things to you, get you involved in cases and, ultimately, offer you a unique insight into the profession. There are, however, some limits, which it is a good idea to just bear in mind. The following applies specifically to small animal practice, but the same principles can easily be applied to all placements:
- Show willing and enthusiasm – it’s guaranteed to result in a far more enjoyable and interesting placement.
- Ask questions – there is no such thing as a stupid question and if you find yourself wondering about something that you’re watching or have heard, then ask, assuming it is appropriate to do so at the time (see below).
- Listen to instructions and follow them – you will be given a briefing during your placement, including Health & Safety information. Yes, its all achingly dull but is important so take it in, as it is ultimately for your safety and means that the profession can continue to offer work experience. You may not get to do as much animal handling as you’d perhaps expect, mainly due to insurance concerns and the risk of injury such as bites. If you are clearly sensible and build a good level of trust with the vets and nurses, however, then you will be given more opportunities to get involved practically, so be guided by the staff and if in doubt ask before doing something.
- Be polite and your usual charming self – we know you’re a good sort because you took the initiative to organise the placement. Just relax and be yourself. After all, we really don’t bite and the vast majority of us like having students around.
- Ask for a reference either at, or just before, the end of the placement – character references are a good way of keeping a record of your experience, having an official statement of how nice, competent and suitable for vet school you are, and can be useful when it comes to interviews or completing work experience questionnaires. It is always better to ask for this to be done whilst you are still present as whoever writes the reference will a) know who you are, compared to if you ask in six month’s time by which point several other students may have passed through the clinic; b) have formed a good, strong opinion of you and thus be able to write a far more personal and enthusiastic reference than they would if they were having to dredge their memories back up; and c) you will have the reference safely in your possession, avoiding the need to go back round placements trying to collect them up when you suddenly decide you would need them.
- Turn up late or skulk off early – think of yourself as an employee during your time at a placement. An employer wouldn’t be impressed by such practices so don’t think that it’s okay just because it’s work experience.
- Become over-cocky or stray beyond boundaries set – some students are clearly more confident than others, which is no bad thing. The potential issue arises when that confidence strays into the realms of being cocky and too familiar with the placement and staff, resulting in decisions being made which are not sensible or appropriate to make. Remember that as a work-experience student you are a guest of the provider and so wouldn’t be expected to take it upon yourself to get animals out, handle them, walk in on operations or consults, or talk in consults unless invited to do so. That doesn’t mean you can’t be pleasant to clients and greet them when they enter, or respond to questions and conversation that they may direct at you. Rather, it is just a polite reminder to remember that the vet is the one running the show and it can be construed as rude to be seen to over-stepping the line if the vet finds you talking over them, interrupting, or otherwise disrupting their ability to do the job. Its really just a simple case of using your judgement.
- Discuss or disclose any information about clients or their animals outside of the placement – by being invited in to see practice, you are being given privileged access to confidential information about cases, and clients. It should be needless to say that none of this should be discussed outside of the placement, in exactly the same way that you would be really ticked off if you discovered people talking about your private medical history. Again, needless to say but be careful about inadvertently disclosing private information on social networks, blogs and the like. The vet schools take ‘Fitness To Practice’ very seriously and your status as a suitable future veterinary professional would be called into question if it were discovered that you were not shown to be trustworthy.
Its never a bad idea to take in cake on your last day – vets, and indeed any work experience provider, are suckers for such things and you’ll well and truly cement your status as ‘The Best Work Experience Student Ever’ by doing so. Some call it creeping, I just call it a nice thing to do. If that’s not your style then no worries – it’s not compulsory 🙂
The main things to do after a work-experience placement are: a) thank the placement, by sending a card or a letter, for example, and b) remembering to follow-up on a request for a reference, if you were not able to obtain one before the end of the placement. The sooner you can get your hands on a reference then the better, as the longer it is left, the greater the chances are of either not receiving one at all or it being bland, generic and basically written for anyone and everyone.
If you are keen to do further experience at a specific placement, then making them aware of this as soon after finishing as you can is a sensible idea. Many students find themselves able to book further placements or agree a long-term work-experience arrangement, such as coming in to help on Saturdays. This is one of those times when the saying “if you don’t ask, then you don’t get” is very apt.
Keep a good, organised and clear record of the placements that you complete, including dates, locations and the main activities you undertook or interesting things that you saw. Such notes will definately come in handy when it comes to completing your applications and especially the supplementary work-experience documents that many of the vet schools ask applicants to complete.
Enjoy your time on placement and use it to gain as much insight into the veterinary profession as you can. Good luck 🙂
I am currently organising some work experience at the local vets however I know to get into the RVC you need to do other work experience with animals not just at a veterinary practice. What other experience would you recommend getting with animals for someone who unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of spare time?
The key is to focus on breadth of experience, so if you can make sure you do at least get the basic cross-species placements completed (some livestock experience in addition to veterinary clinic work) then that would be the absolute bare minimum. Bear in mind, however, that many of the vet schools do offer some pretty clear guidance on what they consider to be a good minimum to aim for so I would look to certainly try and satisfy the specific requirements of whichever school(s) you are looking to apply to. There is a great chapter on work experience in Vet School: Book 1 so that would be a good place to start as well. Good luck.