EMS as an international student – woes and how to get around it

EMS = placements at vet practices/ animal-establishments for 2 weeks to learn/practice skills animal handling and seeing clinical work.

Before vet school, I had no idea that EMS placements would take up a lot of time and money. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love being on placements, it is one of the only times where I feel like I get to do some clinical work (under vet’s supervision), interact with the clients, puppers and actually feel like I’m closer to being a ‘proper’ vet!

In this post, I will talk about my struggles, how I overcame them and how despite the little challenges, I am grateful and privilege to learn and grow through many placements. Before I begin, just putting a disclaimer out there saying that everyone’s experience is different and that this is what has worked for me (so far!)

My struggles

1. No car 

Not having a car can be a bit of a hassle depending on where your uni is located and what type of placements you have to carry out. In my case, I found finding farm placements the trickiest because A: there are very few farm places around Cambridge (East Anglia), B: they are usually located in secluded areas only or most easily accessible by car (in comparison to small animal practices, stables located near areas with good public transport access) And if they are easily accessible, you’d have to find accommodation nearby (either walking distance or have access to public transport, more on that in point 2) and hope that they are willing to take you. 

Hence, I’d feel envious knowing my friends have the freedom of choice to drive wherever they want to and stick all of their stuff in the car boot and not worry about lugging all their equipment across many train platforms and buses to get to the placement. Oh and at Cambridge you can claim money for mileage expenses too.

“so why don’t you just get a car then?” well that costs money. Not only would I need to pay for the actual car (buy or rent one £300), I would have to pay for driving lessons and take a test to get a provisional drivers license which costs a lot of money (£150-250) (Singaporeans get a free pass at this since their existing driver’s license is recognised in the UK) ☹️ Since I didn’t fancy putting in effort/ money to get a car, what did I do instead?

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public transport – very obvious answer, i know! Tips include: get a 16-25 railcard, it saves you so much money (1/3 off your ticket price), link your railcard to your oyster card too. When finding placements, I always email/ check where the nearest train station is and work from there if its feasible (walking distance, etc). I also email the placement provider to tell them I am an international student without a car to check if its feasible to do the placement. This is more for farm/equine vet practices, as may limit what ambulatory cases you can see (eg., some vets prefer you to drive and tag along behind them to see cases, whereas some have space in their car to take you while they are out on calls). Get a pair of comfy shoes, pack light and your enthusiasm to brave the journey.

carpool with friends – I was immensely lucky to have support from my friends. They were really kind to let me carpool with them to certain placements (it was on their way, or we would be going to the same placement we had organised together), and in return I would either compensate in terms of costs, cooking/ baking for them or be the road trip DJ etc. This is harder to emulate, since everyone’s situation may be different, all I can say is if you can organise to do a placement with a friend, do it, its a lot of fun, but if you cannot, don’t worry, public transport is always an option.

Other tips: when emailing for placements, mention to them that you don’t have access to a car- they might be able to pick you up from the train station (but don’t take it for granted- remember that the practices do not owe you anything so don’t be an entitled brat)

2. Lack of accommodation

On the topic of organising farm placements (again, I know), since they are the trickiest to arrange in my opinion, whenever someone said “oh I have grandparents up in the Lakes” or “oh yea I will be staying with relatives in Yorkshire”, a pang of jealousy would hit me and I would think ‘oh, how nice for some‘. It doesn’t make sense to me to complain that it is unfair or anything, since I made the decision to come to the UK to study and really love it, so I don’t really have the right to moan. (well, let me just be salty for a little, haha) Without making a big deal out of this issue any further, here are some options that I have taken in the past that has helped me get around this situation. (Oh and this is after I have exhausted the vet school’s database for placements that provide accommodation)

  • when applying, I ask the placement if they provide/ have staff that are able to offer a room to rent (I have paid about £10-20/ night for these rooms in the past)
  • hostels – some places are located near hostels which are about £15-20/night 
  • airBnB – the price range for this varies tremendously since it depends on the location (if it is a touristy area expect higher prices, if it is a working area they may offer discounts for long-term stays of 14 days) 
  • friend’s house – free! + sell your soul (I kid, but you can try to ask friends if they are willing to rent a room to you, or do a placement with you, or offer to house-sit/ cat-sit/ dog-sit/ baby-sit in exchange) I have been so lucky in the past (thank u friends and my Da Yee (aunty)) for being so generous to host me/ feed me during placements!!!!map

So far in pre-clinical years I managed to stay with friends for 4 placements, my aunt’s for 1 placement, at the farm for lambing (usually they offer you accom) for 1 placement. In clinical years I have done 4 placements at home in Cambridge and MY (ideal situation), stayed with practice staff for 2, stayed at an airBnB for 1, and was set to stay in a hostel in Orkney for 1 but got cancelled due to COVID-19 (yes, I was willing to travel far and wide just so I can go to a farm placement that had accom nearby!)

3. Finances 

Using simple maths, (simple because maths is not my strong suit, only got A instead of an A* in A levels sadly) a typical placement costed me £260.

expenses example

Things that I could have done to reduce the cost: book train tickets earlier, or look for bus options, reduce the cost of my groceries by cooking cheap and easy meals (which I might write about in the future).

The RCVS requires us to carry out 12 weeks of pre-clinical EMS and 26 weeks of clinical EMS (pre-COVID days), so I would have to repeat this whole process of finding placement + accommodation + transport + money 19 times (assuming each placement duration is 2 weeks). 

Although it can sound a little overwhelming, and at times I was pretty stressed out when I kept getting rejections/ places getting booked up/ not meeting my species minima requirements… in the end it was still doable for me because..

  • It was a total of 38 weeks of placements spread over 6 years (12 weeks in 1st to 3rd year, 26 weeks in 4th to 6th year), so there is enough time for you to do your planning 
  • I got support from the vet school (you get £10/day allowance for placements in clinical years which helps)
  • I worked part time at my college library, cat-sitted to cover some costs 
  • College has an academic fund to which you can claim your EMS expenses (only started this year but better late than never!!)

If you have read until the end of this post, I hope you found this info useful and relevant! I feel like the ‘struggles’ of a vet student’s life is rarely spoken outside of vet circles, and prospective students should go into this knowing what lies ahead. I hope this doesn’t intimidate you about the admin work involved in organising EMS (in other uni’s it can be a different process, some organise them for you, some don’t. Personally I like the freedom of deciding which placements to go to and love being at Cambridge so yeah), instead I hope this post reassures you that regardless of how overwhelming it may seem at first, it can be done with support and determination. 😊

Final few tips

  • get looking early! ask seniors in advance, book places early and send out loads of emails because if you need a place that provides accommodation and is close to the train station, you have fewer options compared to others who don’t have any conditions
  • try not to feel demoralised with your situation and think of it as a way to be inventive and able to save money at the same time!
  • ask for help if you need. Seek help from your vet school to work things out. Besides that, I am more than happy to share with you which placements I have been to, just message me!

Mind set(s) to have on the first day of EMS

  • It is okay to feel nervous, you are entering a new environment and meeting new people. I always found it awkward as you are not sure where to place yourself. But a wise friend once told me ‘it is only awkward if you think it is‘. Sometimes we have to tell that inner voice that everything is fine and that everything will be fine.
  • Familiarise yourself with your surroundings and equipment – this will come in handy when it gets busy and the vet says ‘could you grab the otoscope/slide/ xxx from the other room’ and you can be helpful and resourceful/ impress the vet (and yourself) with how quickly you are able to adapt to a new place. 😎
  • SMILE ! Be kind to vet nurses and other staff. Remember, the vet student is at the very bottom of the food chain. 😂
  • Be curious and don’t be afraid to ask questions- BUT make sure you ask them at the right time (ie. not during a busy consult, in front of pet owner (discuss with vet beforehand if it is ok for you to do so)
  • be PROACTIVE- most vets love it when students want to learn, ask questions and engage with them! Don’t just sit and scroll on your phone/ quietly when in the car with the vets out on a call.
  • Be genuinely interested to help the staff, they would really appreciate it, and are more likely to let you know when interesting cases/ procedures are booked in for the week!
  • BACK YOURSELF – when you are asked to do a task you are not confident in doing (ie. putting an IV catheter for the 2nd time in your life), you can tell the vet what you’ve done in the past in vet school, and would like some guidance/ appreciate if they talk you through this. Remember the only way to get better at something is to actively do it!
  • Don’t be taken aback or go into defensive mode if/when they ask you to help do clean up work.
    • Context: You have done 5 years of vet school, only to be asked to clean up after a dog that peed all over the consult room/ clean the litter box of the practice resident cat. It takes a hit to your ego and you don’t want to do it in the slightest. (trust me we have all been there) Take a breath and remember that helping the vet/ vet nurse/ staff will help them help you in the future. After all, you want to get the most out of your time while at placement, so don’t sulk about it and lend a helping hand.
    • Obviously if they keep asking you to clean stuff and you miss out on the consults etc try and have a chat with them and politely ask if you could help them clean after you’ve observed in a procedure/ consult. Or if the vet/ vet nurse has time, try and ask them to go over bandaging or suturing patterns with you (if you find yourself hanging around with nothing much to do on a quiet day)
    • I personally would try and stick it out until the end as leaving the placement halfway would mean rescheduling and going through the hassle of booking more EMS. But if its reaaallly bad then you know..
  • You may meet some ‘mean’ vets – the ones who avoid the EMS student at all costs, do not acknowledge your existence etc.. Try not to resent them, I feel like everyone has their own reasons (busy day/ point in their lives) and we should respect their choices if they want to interact with us or not.
  • Similarly, you may meet some really great vets! In that case, thank them and show appreciation and gratitude for their teachings. ❤️