Eleanor Ferguson has dreamt of becoming a vet for as long as she can remember. It was work experience at her local veterinary surgery that helped to turn her dreams into reality. Eleanor has just graduated in veterinary medicine and surgery and is about to start her first job.
Eleanor talked to UTC Hub about her work experience and the crucial role it played in helping her realise her ambitions.
“As a very young child,” says Eleanor “I loved animals and always wanted a dog. I settled with two hamsters, and then when I was eight my mum and I visited the local RSPCA rescue centre. She agreed that we would re-home a three-legged cat that had lost a limb in a car accident. Over the years we became regulars at the local vets (Alcombe Veterinary Surgery in Ealing, West London), where our cat went for regular check-ups. I was really curious and asked lots of questions and also loved listening to the discussions with the vets and veterinary nurses.”
When she was 14 Eleanor went to the same veterinary practice with her mum to ask about the possibility of work experience. She found the staff very encouraging and supportive, and they suggested she write a letter to demonstrate her interest and determination.
“I did a trial day,” says Eleanor “and after that I was really excited about the work. I got to see what happens behind the doors in a veterinary surgery, and it was fascinating. Being only 14 I was naturally quite nervous, but all the staff including the nurses and receptionists made me feel comfortable and at home.”
Eleanor initially did work experience for two nights a week after school, from 5pm to 8pm. This involved cleaning the kennels and learning how to handle the animals. “Because I was keen and eager,” Eleanor explains “the staff trusted me and I was able to do things like holding the animals while the nurses took blood samples. I was gradually given more responsibility. The staff there became my second family.”
I gained even more varied experience and learnt things like how to position animals during X-rays and ultrasound. I sat in on consultations… and watched surgical procedures.
When she was 15 Alcombe’s offered Eleanor paid work on Saturdays and after school, where she helped the vets and nurses and also worked on reception. “I gained even more varied experience”, says Eleanor “and learnt things like how to position animals during X-rays and ultrasound. I also sat in on consultations with the vet and watched surgical procedures. Luckily I wasn’t at all squeamish.”
Visiting the vets can be a stressful experience for an animal, and helping to keep them calm is vital. “It’s important to notice when an animal is getting anxious,” says Eleanor “and then you can decide on appropriate action. You might decide to wait a few minutes before you do a procedure, or even ask their owner to bring them in the following day.”
Eleanor also did a formal week of work experience at Alcombe’s during year 10, where she saw lots of operations and sat in on consultations. This gave Eleanor even more opportunity to develop her communication skills, which are vital in veterinary medicine. “Communicating effectively with the whole team as well as pet owners is so important” says Eleanor. “You have to build rapport with everyone, and learn how to listen effectively. Work experience really helped to build my confidence in this area, and in all aspects of the work.”
Having someone who can advise you about the requirements of applying for a university place in veterinary medicine can make all the difference. In Eleanor’s case she was able to make contact with someone who was studying veterinary medicine at university. “I was advised,” explains Eleanor “that everyone applying for the course ideally needs a wide range of experience including both small domestic and farm animals.”
“Because I lived in a city I realised it was more difficult to get experience of farm animals” says Eleanor. “My contact was really useful as she gave me the details of places that she had been before. I then made contact with two farms out of London – a pig farm and a dairy farm. At the pig farm I learnt a range of things from mucking out to feeding the pigs and helping to care for piglets. It was great to see farm animals looking so happy.” In each case Eleanor lived at the farm as part of the family, which was quite an adventure for a 16 year-old.
On the dairy farm Eleanor observed how cows are milked and was also able to shadow a vet. “I was able to observe a hernia operation on a young calf and also learnt about cattle health issues that can have an impact on farming economy” says Eleanor. “Seeing how a farm vet works was a real eye-opener. Again I found that the more enthusiastic I was, the more the vets helped me and enabled me to learn.”
By the time Eleanor applied for veterinary medicine via UCAS she had extensive experience of working with animals. However, she was unsuccessful the first time around. “I made a big mistake on my initial personal statement,” Eleanor says “and more or less just listed all the experience I had done, rather than commenting on it in a more interesting way. As it worked out, I dropped one grade in my Biology A-level and so didn’t have the high grades I needed. So, I took a year out, applied to UCAS again, re-sat my Biology and gained even more experience of working with animals, including horses.”
Most importantly, Eleanor talked to as many vets as possible about what to include on her second UCAS personal statement, to ensure that her application really stood out from the others. This is vital, given the intense competition for veterinary medicine. “You need to write things that the interviewers can ask questions about,” reflects Eleanor “and really say why you found a particular thing interesting.” Eleanor had three interviews the second time around and was delighted to be offered a place at Nottingham University, which was her first choice.
It’s worth remembering that work experience prior to veterinary medicine isn’t just the icing on the cake for your application. You won’t be accepted without it. It will also prepare you for a course, which as well as being highly academic, has lots of practical placements built in. It’s also important to research each university’s individual requirements. Nottingham University needed a minimum of six weeks’ work experience.
Eleanor is now greatly looking forward to starting her first job. “My degree has been the best five years of my life so far,” says Eleanor “and has prepared me so well for my future career.”