So you want to be vet? The realities of this difficult career path
By Dr James Blanshard
Becoming a vet is something lots of people dream of, but exotic animal specialist Dr James Blanshard talks about the realities of life in his chosen career … No one likes to think about the downside, but you need to consider it if you are serious about working with animals
If you are considering a career in veterinary medicine, you are probably fairly academic - and you'd need to be. Most vet schools require top academic grades to even get a foot in the door. It is very competitive, and even with these strict academic requirements met, there are not enough places for everyone who "qualifies on paper".
Once you get to vet school, you will be surrounded by smart and capable students. Throughout my school life, I had always been one of the top achievers. When I got to university, I remember being quite shocked by just how many "special ones" there were. I had always worked very hard, but a lot of my new classmates were able to get the grades with very little effort and very little study. I remember finding this both very humbling and worrying. Be prepared for this feeling and remember to stay true to yourself. Try not to compare yourself with those around you.
Money money money!
Most vet schools, at least in Britain, are in large cities, where the cost of living is high. The combined costs of tuition and board can be huge. Just the course alone can cost up to HK$300,000 per year as an international student, depending on where you study. Be sure that you can deal with these costs and do not underestimate them. Many university students on non-veterinary courses are able to get paying jobs during the long university holidays to help offset debts. In the veterinary course, you are expected to spend 90 per cent of your holidays gaining extra experience on farms, in stables, veterinary clinics and elsewhere - and in most cases this will not be paid work.
To pay fees, many students resort to taking out student loans and piling up credit card debts. Some are lucky to have significant financial backing from family, but if you are not so lucky, be sure to plan your finances carefully. Look for scholarships; many are available nowadays. Try to resist the temptation to borrow from banks. They are very keen to issue credit cards to students who are struggling, but it is extremely easy to get into a lot of trouble like this. I learned this the hard way.
On graduating, the salary may not be what you are expecting with a job that is otherwise held in high regard and in the same ranks as a lawyer or human doctor. Many new graduates that come back home to Hong Kong can expect to earn only HK$20,000 to HK$40,000 per month. Some are on even less. With the saturation of the job market in Hong Kong, this salary may even decrease in the coming years, because as clinics make less and less, they can afford to pay staff less and less.
I left university with approximately HK$350,000 worth of debt. For me that was a lot, and I am still paying this back today. There are many reasons to want to be a vet. Financial reward is not very high up that list.
I remember leaving university on graduation day and feeling that I could finally reap the rewards of all my hard work and commitment … But it's not quite like that.
A veterinary education is amazingly in depth and comprehensive but is merely a strong foundation to be built on. All that theory needs to be applied in the correct way, and it is often more of an art than a science. It is initially quite daunting, and for the first few years, you will often feel lost.
I went straight in to private practice, starting my first job just two weeks after graduating. My job was in a mixed practice. I worked with production animals (cows, sheep, pigs, llamas, etc.) as well as family pets and horses. Like many vet jobs in rural Britain, the practice consisted of only my boss and me. I worked long days, travelling between farms and the clinic, and I was on emergency call every second night and every second weekend. This was exhausting. Even with the best willpower in the world, working from 8am to 7pm followed by taking emergency calls all night is hard. I have spoken to many new graduates who have felt helpless and under-supported in this respect.
How best to prepare yourself
To get a place at university …
You need to present yourself as a suitable and rounded candidate. You will need a lot of pre-application experience in places such as horse stables, farms, dog kennels and vet clinics. (It doesn't necessarily need to be anywhere exotic like a safari in Africa.) Do not expect to be performing surgery on day one, though; to start with, you are just there to absorb everything around you. You will likely be cleaning and performing manual labour chores. Later, once trust is established, you might get to do more focused and relevant tasks.
On top of this, don't lose sight of non-academic pursuits. Universities want students who can contribute to the university family. Having a sporting or musical background can help (as well as also helping you personally to relax and unwind).
This application package should be enough to get you shortlisted for an interview. Of those interviewed, approximately one in three will be offered a place (though this varies depending on the university and the quality of other applicants).
Plan your future before you graduate.
Decide which field of veterinary medicine you wish to work in. The veterinary degree is made up of varied and comprehensive training with the first couple of years focusing on preclinical fields - biochemistry, pharmacology, anatomy, etc. This is followed by three years of clinical training in the art and science of medicine and surgery. Along the way it ventures into other subjects that you might not expect (public health, meat hygiene, laboratory medicine, etc).
As a result, a qualified vet is not limited to working only in a private veterinary clinic. There are laboratory-based job opportunities, jobs with the government, or wildlife and zoo work. And veterinarians are increasingly focusing on a specific species. Maybe you want to be an exotic animal specialist, or specialise in eye problems. As you move along with your training, it is a good idea to think about your goal and to structure and plan your path towards achieving it.
I find myself nowadays working mostly with exotic species. This essentially includes anything that is not a dog or a cat (although I do see plenty of these, too). In my career I have undertaken postgraduate training (that saw me and my family leave Hong Kong for a whole year and move to Canada) in this field and been fortunate enough to work in zoos, wildlife centres and private clinics in four countries. I have treated species from bats to elephants and have performed surgical procedures as varied as stitching up an injured reindeer (outdoors in minus 40 degrees Celsius) to removing fractured teeth from a lion). I can't think of any other profession that could provide me with such a startling variety of possibilities. I do feel, though, that, with guidance early in my career, I could have perhaps structured my rise in the veterinary profession more easily. As the field becomes more and more competitive and infinitely more advanced, it is increasingly important to be focused on your goal.
Emotional preparation for the career
Your first job is a really important choice, and if I had to do it again, I would perhaps look for a larger clinic with a strong history of nurturing new graduates. In this way the support system is in place: you will not only learn what you need to learn faster from experienced clinicians, but you will also have the emotional support from the work family around you. This is crucial but often overlooked.
As a vet, you will wear many metaphorical hats. You are a medic, a surgeon, a nutritionist, a family doctor and a bereavement counsellor (and so much more). You are also offering a service and running a business. You need to be prepared to switch among these roles quickly. By definition you are frequently dealing with sick animals with a loving family in tow. Emotions often run high, and pressure can be great. When you factor in the "business" side of being in private practice and the often large bills associated with any medical procedure, one has the perfect storm of stress. You need to be able to deal with this, manage it, learn from it and move forward. If you cannot do this, you will struggle and your own health will suffer, as will your work.
Medicine is not 100 per cent predictable. Unfortunately there will be bad days mixed in among the many good ones. There will be animals you cannot save and people you cannot please. You need to be able to deal with this and offer your clients and patients your best in a professional manner. It is not always easy, and you will not always succeed.
For every bad day, you will have a whole bunch of fantastic ones. There's nothing more rewarding than knowing that you have saved a life or helped improve the quality of life for both patient and client.
Being a vet is not easy. It is emotional, humbling, challenging, and you will probably not make a fortune. You will, however, belong to a group of highly trained professionals that have the ability to make a real difference in the lives of animals and people.