You might have pets of your own, grown up around animals or been inspired to become a vet after watching The Supervet, 24/7 Pet Hospital or other TV programmes! But as you’ll read in this article, there’s more to being a vet than you might think.
Veterinary surgeons – commonly known as ‘vets’ – help animals lead healthy lives and treat them when they are unwell or injured. Although most vets work with animals, there are other career options.
In this article we’ll outline the sort of work you could do as a vet, look at the skills you need and examine what it takes to get into vet school. Holly works at Kelston Vets, an independent practice based just outside Bath. She was good enough to tell us a little about her background and provide a few useful words of advice.
What does being a vet involve?
Vets diagnose animals with diseases or injuries and use medicine and surgery to treat them. They advise owners on how to care for their animals on a day-to-day basis and when they are sick or injured. Vets have an important role in preventing ill health and may also advise on breeding.
Some vets carry out research, give expert advice or have other specific roles, depending on where they are employed.
Where could I work as a vet?
Many vets work in small animal practices where they mainly care for pets. Especially in rural areas, practices may specialise in horses or livestock. There are also practices that treat exotic animals or that undertake complex treatments. Some practices are very small, but others are large veterinary care groups. If you work in a veterinary practice, you may be employed or be a partner.
Holly told us, “After qualifying I worked in a small animal practice for several years and also gained experience working with the PDSA and in a busy hospital setting. I’m now working for a new veterinary practice where we specialise in caring for dogs, cats and other small animals.”
The Government Veterinary Service (GVS) promotes veterinary policy and supports vets in the Civil Service. GVS vets work in organisations including the Animal & Plant Health Agency and the Food Standards Agency. Vets have an important role in controlling disease, and ensuring animal health and welfare. You could be involved in inspection, advisory work or research. Vets who work for the Veterinary Medicines Directorate make sure that animal medicines are safe and effective.
There are also opportunities for vets to work in research within various research institutes, at universities/vet schools (where you may also teach), and in companies involved in developing drugs or producing animal feed, for example.
TIP: When choosing a career area, think about such things as how much direct contact you want with animals, what hours you want to work and whether or not you would be happy being self-employed or working on short-term contracts.
Would I suit being a vet?
Being a vet requires a wide range of skills – it’s not enough just to love animals. Ask yourself…
- Am I sufficiently motivated to cope with the training and work?
- Am I good at science?
- Do I care about animal welfare without being too sentimental?
- Am I confident handling animals?
- Am I a clear communicator and do I have empathy? You need to explain how owners should care for their animals and deal with people who are upset.
- Do I work well in a team?
- Am I observant? You have to be alert to signs of animal cruelty or early stages of disease.
- Am I squeamish? You may come across all sorts of distressing cases.
- Do I have plenty of stamina and am I strong enough to treat large animals?
If you have a disability, allergy or another health problem that may have an impact on your ability to do the work, discuss this with vet schools.
There are other things to think about too. For instance, some jobs involve a lot of travelling, so you may need a driving licence. Also, if you run your own veterinary practice, business skills are important.
How do I become a vet?
To work as a vet in the UK you have to be registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). This involves gaining an RCVS-approved degree in veterinary medicine/science. Courses are available at: Bristol, Cambridge, Central Lancashire, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Harper and Keele, Liverpool, the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), Nottingham and Surrey. It’s also possible to study for the first two years at Aberystwyth and complete your training at the RVC.
Approved degrees take five or six years and include a significant amount of clinical experience –called ‘extra-mural studies’. Holly said, “As part of my course I did all sorts of placements ranging from working at a smart equine stables to lambing on a farm.”
Applying to vet school
- You apply through UCAS, but you can only choose four veterinary medicine/science courses. It makes sense to use your fifth choice for a different subject.
- The deadline for applications is 15th October – that’s almost a year before you will (hopefully) start your studies.
- A number of vet schools ask you to complete a supplementary form or questionnaire to explain more about your motivation, relevant experience etc. You may be expected to take a test.
- Vet schools usually interview applicants who meet their criteria. These vary in format; some involve a number of mini-interviews and there may be other assessments, such as group tasks.
TIP: The Veterinary Schools Council website has detailed information on applying to vet school including a downloadable admissions guide. It’s also important to do your own research as entry requirements vary. You can find lots of useful information on individual vet school websites.
Academic entry requirements
You should already have (or be on track to get) good grades in your GCSEs/Nationals, particularly in maths and the sciences. Vet schools also look for high grades in your A levels/Highers. Check the subject requirements – biology and chemistry are needed for many courses. Alternative qualifications, such as a relevant BTEC Level 3 National, may be considered by a few vet schools.
If you are a graduate of a relevant subject, you may be accepted on a veterinary medicine/science degree course. A few vet schools offer accelerated programmes for graduates. Check the entry criteria and funding arrangements.
Gaining relevant experience
Vet schools will expect you to have some relevant experience so that you understand the breadth of the profession, have learned the basics of animal care and are clear that a veterinary career would suit you. However, they are aware that placements aren’t always easy to find and may incur costs.
Work experience requirements vary. Some vet schools are specific about the number of days’ experience required and whether this needs to be a working alongside a vet and/or experience in animal husbandry; this could be paid or voluntary work at a farm, animal rescue centre, wildlife park, stables or boarding kennel, for instance.
The University of Nottingham has developed a virtual work experience programme through FutureLearn.
The Veterinary Schools Council provides advice on work experience and – very importantly – how to get the most out of it.
Holly’s TIP: “Rather than just writing to a vet, make a personal call as this will demonstrate your enthusiasm. Apart from shadowing a vet, you could see whether they want help on reception; this would give you a valuable insight into the work. Also think broadly about how you can gain animal husbandry experience. Along with watching my dad, who was a vet at a mixed practice in South Devon, I worked on farms and volunteered at Paignton Zoo as part of my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award; mucking out the elephants was one of my tasks!”
Vet schools have taken a range of measures to ensure that the right applicants secure places regardless of their background. These include funding for travel to interviews, reduced requirements for work experience, lower conditional officers and the use of contextual information (whereby account is taken of educational opportunities). If you gain a place at a vet school, bursaries and other financial support may be available.
A number of vet schools offer programmes to prepare students who don’t have the necessary academic requirements for direct entry to a degree in veterinary medicine/science. These are often aimed at students from non-traditional groups. Programmes may be called ‘gateway’, ‘year 0’, ‘preliminary’ or ‘extended’ courses.
Deciding on a vet school
All vet schools will ensure that you have the understanding and skills to become a vet, but courses do differ, so it’s important to find the right course for you.
TIP: Find out about the structure of the programme (e.g. whether they integrate practical experience from the start), areas of expertise, teaching and assessment methods, the facilities available, the support provided and even whether the course qualifies you to work overseas. At some vet schools you can take an intercalated degree over an additional year.
Holly explained, “When I was applying to vet school there were only six in the country and it was extremely competitive. I was offered a place at the RVC. It was relatively large compared with some schools so provided more opportunities. I spent the first couple of years studying in London and the rest of my time at the RVC campus in Hertfordshire.”
What opportunities are there to develop your career as a vet?
We’ve already looked at the various career areas open to veterinary graduates. How your career might progress depends to a large extent on your employer. The RCVS Veterinary Graduate Development Programme provides support in your first role.
You have to undertake continuing professional development and some vets study for postgraduate qualifications. The RCVS Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice, for instance, allows you to choose modules relevant to your interests.
Holly told us, “One of the good things about being a vet is the flexibility it can offer. It was easy for me to find part-time work after a career break. Qualified vets are in demand.”
How can I find out more about veterinary careers?
For the right person, a veterinary career can be hugely rewarding. But if you decide that it isn’t for you, or if you’re not successful, there are alternative careers. If you are interested in research, for example, you could take a degree in veterinary biosciences. If you still want to work with animals, there are all sorts of practical and welfare jobs, or you could train as a veterinary nurse. There are also many careers where you care for humans rather than animals. Think about where your interests lie.
Debbie Steel, August 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.