“You just need one – one offer, one opportunity, one person to take a chance on you, to launch your career”. The advice that Royal Veterinary College student, Beth Davies has kept close to her heart as she’s gone from a 4 year old in love with animals, to a 23 year old nearly-qualified Vet. Getting into this industry can be tough, even with an undeniable passion for the work but the journey to becoming certified is extremely rewarding and full of variety. We catch up with Beth to discuss her personal journey to graduation and the advice she’d give to up-coming Veterinarians.
Why did you choose to pursue a career as a Veterinarian?
I had always known since the age of 3 that I wanted to be a Vet. I had always loved animals and was pony-obsessed. It was just luck that I was any good as science!
I completed by first official work experience at 15, which gave me a real insight into daily life as a Vet. I had never dealt with surgery, but it fascinated me. At this point I was hooked and I knew this was all I wanted to do.
Once you know that you want to become a Vet, how do you get started?
It’s all about work experience! Start as early as you can, ideally before the age of 14. You have to know that this is 100% what you want to do, as 5 years of studying is a big commitment. You have to have a real passion and determined mindset to succeed in this industry, as you do have to work extremely hard. Someone people change their mind halfway through their degree, and instead swap to complete lab work or research. You have to be fully committed from a young age.
The universities love work experience. It is a huge part of you being accepted. I had 15 weeks of work experience in total, and one University said it wasn’t enough. The more you do, the better chance you have of being accepted.
Variety is key – from working on a farm, a wildlife centre, a dairy, a surgery or the stables. You need a real range to show your commitment.
How do you find work experience placements?
A lot of it is word of mouth – it’s all about your network. I did repeated placements at my local vet, and often they would refer me to others when they needed help. I would go lambing with people in my village with some of my friends, who would then let me know about places they were working. Your previous experience can help you get the next one.
If you don’t have a network, just phone and ask. People are very open to having work experience students as they have been in your position before. As long as you’re willing to help out with cleaning and coffee runs! At 15, there isn’t much hands-on work you can do, so you have to be willing to muck out and get involved. Sometimes during the lambing season, farms will feed you and give you a place to stay, as they love having the help.
Make sure you keep a diary of all of your work experience placements so it’s easy to remember at a University or Job interview!
What academic achievements do you need to become a Vet?
You do need to go to University and complete 5 years of studying. Once you have done this, you are a qualified Vet. You can either jump straight into starting a Bachelor Degree of Veterinary Medicine, which is the official Veterinary course, or if you haven’t done the science A Levels required, you could start on a Bachelor Degree of Biological Sciences which is a stepping stone onto the Veterinary course.
There are only 8 universities in the UK which offer these courses, so competition is fierce. Each of them have their own criteria and rules on acceptance and expect interviews. It can become disheartening to get rejected, and when you’re 17 the UCAS process seems like the end of the world. But the best piece of advice I ever received was “You only need one interview and one offer. That’s all that matters to get where you want to go.” I had to keep that with me to stay positive. You forget about the rejected universities as soon as you are at the one who accepted you, and you will always love where you end up.
You do need good grades. I was predicted 3 A’s and still faced rejection as I didn’t have enough hours of work experience. At GCSE’s you can do any subjects, but a decent grade in Maths, English and Science will be important. For A Levels you do need Biology and Chemistry, but do something you enjoy for your third subject.
You also need extra-curricular activities and achievements. What can you do outside of school to contribute to your profile? I had a lady at an Open Day say to me “everyone does Duke of Edinburgh and Grade 8 Piano – find something that makes you stand out.” I enrolled in a sailing course instead, which showed that I have dexterity required for surgery. Think outside the box.
Tell us a little bit about your time at University
I was lucky to be accepted into the Royal Veterinary College which is part of the University of London and one of the Top 3 Veterinary schools in the world. We spend 2 years in London, which are “pre-clinical” and lecture focused, before moving to Hertfordshire for our final 3 years. It’s a big difference going from the centre of London to the middle of nowhere, but by year 3 I loved getting the more hands-on learning.
In your first 2 years they teach you “what is normal” with a lot of physiology and anatomy courses. If you know what is normal, you can figure out what is abnormal. There are a lot of lectures, group activities and practical sessions in the lab with microscopes and dissections. Occasionally we went to the farms and animal labs to get more hands on experience.
In third year, we moved to Hertfordshire and go over everything we’ve already learnt but in a clinical sense, focusing on what can go wrong, treatments and how to investigate diseases. The work becomes more full on, but I felt ready for the jump. In the first 2 years you can forget that you’re doing a vet course, and by 3rd year you feel ready to get to the next level. However you suddenly realise that these are things you really need to know! You need to really knuckle down and make sure you learn it.
In fourth and fifth year I started doing rotations, with 2 week placements at either the university, hospitals or farms which puts everything you have learnt into real life. You have no lectures at all, just placements, which is a great experience and I learnt so much. I got thrown into new things like surgery, which they can’t just provide for you in a lecture hall. At this point I really started to feel like a vet. Then at the end of fifth year, you come back to University to complete your dissertation and final exams.
What happens after Graduation?
As soon as I graduate I am officially a vet! Woohoo! I become registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
At this point I am free to do whatever I like, a there are lots of different routes to choose from including graduate programmes, hospital work, farm life and specialisms from medicine to equestrian hospitals.
Most graduates start at vet surgeries, which are the equivalent of your local Doctors Surgery! A more intense route is to go to the hospitals, where you have to start getting internships and specialise in a particular area for example medicine, surgery or ophthalmology.
There are lots of graduate schemes with corporations who manage lots of different vet surgeries, who will provide you with a designated mentor to learn from, and let you travel across the country. In the south of the UK we have lots of specialised small animal vets, farm animal vets, exotic vets and equestrian vets. But further up north you have more mixed practices which do a little bit of everything.
You do have to complete CPD (continued professional development) throughout your career to keep your registration. This ensures that you are constantly learning and developing your skills. A lot of people complete specific courses or certificates to specialise in certain areas, but this isn’t compulsory.
What advice would you give your 18 year old self?
I had always been told that you have to work really hard at Vet school, but I actually wish I had managed my work-life balance a bit better in the first 2 years. It gets a lot harder in year 3, and that’s when you really need to get your head down. I wish that I had spent the first 2 years enjoying student life, meeting people and going out more. 5 years of studying is a long time, and you need to look after yourself and take the time to be 18 at University!
What advice would you give to a young girl looking to become a Vet?
Probably the advice given to me when applying to universities. You only need one interview and one offer. It doesn’t matter how you get there, there is always another way. One of my friends didn’t get into Vet school, and did a foundation degree first, before starting her course a few years later. You always end up with the same degree. You will be the same as every other vet.
See as much as you can, do as much as you can do, in as many different areas as you can. You will be given so many opportunities do explore and do things that other people will never get to do!
Has there ever been a point where you struggled to keep motivated? What did you do to break through this?
Yes, in my second year I had that lull. I was doing a degree and but didn’t feel like I was a vet, as I was just sat in lecture halls. I started to feel bored and like I wasn’t going anywhere. Being a vet seemed so far away. I needed to reevaluate my long-term goal, and reduce it to the short term, individual achievements. I just needed to get through the next few months, and I would be on the next year and doing more hands-on work. I was working towards the next step, and knew that my current position would change. I needed to stay positive.
A very topical debate is whether or not young people should go to London to develop their careers in their twenties. With your experience of studying in and outside of London after University what are your thoughts on this?
I think I’m really lucky with the Veterinary industry, as wherever I go in the country, someone will need a vet! Even the highest mountains of Scotland. I did study in London but I wouldn’t go back to live. I’m a complete country bumpkin. It doesn’t matter where I go, I have the same opportunities anywhere. Most of my friends have gone. It’s great fun, but so expensive that they’re all struggling to pay the rent so can’t do exciting things. I loved it as a student but I couldn’t start my career there.