Is studying veterinary medicine right for me?

A common question I get asked by people that I meet for the first time, when they know I am a vet student, other than ‘are you vegan?‘ is “awww, that is so cute, have you always wanted to be a vet? You know, I wanted to be a vet when I was little too….”

Obviously everybody’s story is different. In this post, I will first explain my story and if you are not interested (I don’t blame you, time is a precious commodity!), you can scroll along until the advice section where I list some tips to help you decide if studying veterinary medicine is for you!

So, how did I know that I wanted to be a vet/ go to vet school?

When I was in my last year of high school (17), I remember my Mandarin teacher talking about careers that can make a meaningful impact on the world, and that got me thinking, how do I want to spend the rest of my life? What kind of working environment do I envision for myself? I knew I didn’t want to work at an office desk my whole life and wanted to incorporate an outdoorsy component to my daily life. And then I realised that I wanted to work in an environment with animals, so I decided to see if maybe, being a veterinarian is what I really want to be.

My second choice of profession was to be a paediatrician. (3rd choice was to be a florist! If anyone was interested) I guess I had a passion to help beings that do not have a voice, fight for their rights and take care of them. I remember googling ‘should I be a paediatrician or a vet‘ in the past and came across an article written by Lee Wei Ling, the daughter of the late Lee Kuan Yew. At first, she was also deciding between being a vet and paediatrician, but decided to become a paediatrician anyway (after her father’s advice). This is quite common in Asian cultures (at least in Malaysia), where most people think that being a human doctor is infinitely more prestigious/ rewarding in terms of monetary gain/ respectable than being a doktor haiwan (translation: animal doctor in Malay, but it is inked with some connotations to being seen as ‘just a livestock vet’ mostly in Malaysia, in my opinion at least). I had to disappoint some relatives who preferred it if I took the human medicine career route, but 17 year old me had this opinion that there were many doctors and just not enough vets at present. I reckoned if most people became doctors, who will step up to save the animals? Not many people have close relationships or know much about what goes on in a vet’s life. This often leads to certain consequences. This TEDx talk by Dr. Melanie Bowden explains some challenges that vets have to go through daily that most clients are unaware of.

So, after having this realisation that I wanted to study veterinary medicine, I decided to do some work experience to prepare for university applications, to make sure that the job environment and lifestyle were suitable for me.

I did a couple of weeks shadowing a (very old fashioned yet kind) vet at a local small animal practice, who allowed me to observe his day to day proceedings. It was only then that I faced my preconceived ‘fears’ of blood and gore by observing a spay operation. If I passed out, that’s it, I thought to myself, I can’t be a vet. Trust me, I was very scared at first, held my breath as the vet made his first incision.. Then, I took a breath. Yay, I didn’t pass out. Jokes aside, it really wasn’t that bad. I was quite glad I did that so when it came to dissections at the vet school I was not fazed too much.

I also spent 40 hours volunteering at the national zoo. The national zoo was situated quite far away from home and I did not want to burden my parents to take me there every day for a week (~1 hour depending on traffic conditions, public transport took 2 hours, these services did not start early enough for me to be at the zoo at 7am). So how did I overcome this? I annoyed my friends and asked them if they wanted to go volunteering at the zoo with me (friends with cars, conveniently). Each day I went with a different friend to volunteer at the zoo and we would rake dried leaves, pick up droppings of weird and wonderful animals together (We even sawed a bunch of logs to build a fence post for the goats😂). We made many fond memories that I have kept in the form of old school Instagram posts. Thank you to my dear seven friends, who made it possible for me to achieve those work experience hours and helped me to be where I am today.

I also did some animal-related charity work to ‘boost’ my CV and clock in more hours of work experience. Volunteering at the local animal shelter PAWS, raising funds for PAWS through the Interact Club at school *link to the 2011 short news article * were one of the things I did back in the day. I realised that I do love working with animals, even if its sweeping animal faecal matter, sweating in the heat, the ‘unbearable’ animal smells- trust me, it really ain’t that bad!! I would always finish work feeling fulfilled. That was how I decided that, yeah, you know what, I think I can/ want to do this.

Wanting to work with animals is great, but oftentimes these jobs do not pay well. Hence I thought that by combining my nerdy side I could become a vet and (hopefully) be paid slightly better. That is pretty much my story on how I decided to study veterinary medicine!

Some tips and advice to help you decide if studying Vet Med is for you!

  1. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! Spend some time at your local animal shelter, local vet practice or local zoo. Email/ ring them/ turn up at their establishment and offer some help. If you can, shadow a vet to see what a day in their lives look like. They may get you to do a lot of cleaning in return, but bear in mind cleaning after your patients is also part of your job in looking after them!
  2. Do some online research! With the internet you can search up pretty much anything these days. I would recommend watching Melanie Bowden’s TEDx talk explaining what being a veterinarian really takes *link*, follow some vets on social media who post about their life (of course exercise caution, not everything you see on social media is real!), or sub to my youtube channel *shameless promo* *link* – where I will be talking about my final year vet school experience when it starts in September.
  3. Read! I read James Herriot’s books and found them really inspiring, I have also listed some links to other blogs and other useful resources here
  4. If you are in the UK, some universities conduct Open days where they take potential applicants on a tour in the vet school and around Cambridge just to see what it is like. Due to the current pandemic they are hosting virtual open days instead *cambridge link* *RVC link*, so you can even view them from the comfort of your own home!
  5. On the academic side of things, I would consider looking at what subjects are you most interested in to help you guide your decision. The subjects you love most tend to be the ones you are better at as well, seeing that you are more likely to spend time revising them! For the vet course, most universities prefer science A level subjects (Chem, Bio, Maths) but I have compiled a table listing them here
  6. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses to see if you would enjoy being a vet. I feel like vet work not only involves scientific and critical thinking when working up cases but it also requires patience, empathy and communication skills when dealing with pet owners. Being on work placements made me realise that managing your client’s (pet owners) expectations is a pretty key part to the job. I used to be one of the people who would jokingly sayoh I dislike dealing with humans, that is why I want to save animals instead. However avoiding owners is not really an option (although it may be different in COVID times) and people skills is something that I am constantly trying to work on! However, it is worth bearing in mind that being a general practice vet is not the only career pathway you can take post-graduation as there are many other alternative career pathways from doing a vet degree!

Finally, I sincerely hope this post has given you some form of direction on deciding whether you want to pursue vet studies. Deciding to commit to 5 or 6 years of veterinary studies at such an early age is daunting and a pretty big deal!! (Looking back, I probably should have given it a little more thought, but I am still enjoying the course thus far so *fingers crossed* no regrets!) This is probably why most universities prefer you to apply with some form of work experience so that you can be sure  (or somewhat sure) that you know what you’re getting yourself into. 

Wishing you guys all the best! If you enjoyed this post or not, or have any questions, don’t hesitate to use the contact form to contact me 😊

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