Happy New Year!

Confused student in the university library

Yes, you read that right… and no I haven’t lost the plot, and nor has the website run amok. I’m sure that some of my readers in academia and education will have already sussed out where I’m going… September is the Academic New Year in the UK! And this is something I wanted to talk about, because whether or not you realise it, this has a major impact on what’s happening in many veterinary practices up and down the country.


I have a confession to make…

Much of my time, nowadays, is taken up with academic work. I work at a College that provides Further (diplomas and other vocational qualifications) and Higher Education (degree-level) training courses for student veterinary nurses. So I am very much in tune with the rhythm of the academic year; and, like many of my colleagues across the country, in colleges and Universities, I love this start of the year. All the new students arriving, so enthusiastic and excited to be starting their new courses, and on their way to achieving what is for many of them a life’s ambition – working in a veterinary practice. Some as nurses, some as vets, but all starting out down that road.


It’s hard, no hiding that.

I know that many of our students, by next spring, will look back at these next few weeks and wonder why they ever started on their courses. There’s huge amounts to learn – book-learning and practical skills – but even more daunting, they will have to learn to think differently about what they do, how, and even about how they think. A few will leave their courses, sadly. But most will grit their teeth and struggle on… and then, maybe next summer, maybe in a few years’ time, there comes a time when it all just seems to “click”. That’s when they make the transition to being a professional-in-training, not “just” a student.


And it’s not all in the classroom, either!

One unusual feature of the veterinary and veterinary nursing courses is that, like medicine or human nursing, much of the training takes place “for real” in veterinary practices. Vet students spend the equivalent of a whole extra year crammed into their five or six year programme (over holidays and between exam sessions) working on their practical skills. In the first few years, they’ll mainly be in farms, kennels and catteries, but as they progress they will be spending more and more time in practices, shadowing the vets and learning on the job.

For the nurses, it’s an even higher percentage of their (generally) 3-4 year courses (a minimum of 1800 hours working in practices – that’s 225 full-time days, and most do even more than that). Some degree programmes (on “block release”) cram that into one year in the middle of the course; for the diplomas and some other degrees, a “day release” is used with the students spending 2, 3 or 4 days a week in practice, returning to College on the other days for their theory work.


Why does this matter to me?

Because for both vet and vet nurse students, you’ll be meeting them in practice. In most vet practices, student nurses wear green and white stripes (to the great relief of the male students, tights and dresses are now out, tunics and trousers are the current fashion); student vets wear scrubs or tunics, but will usually have a name-badge from their university to let you know they’re students. And both of them will be helping to treat your pets when they go in!


What do students do?

Anything that they’re competent to! In many practices, senior student nurses will be doing much the same duties as a qualified nurse – admitting patients, carrying out blood tests and lab work, monitoring anaesthesia, administering medication and caring for inpatients, among many, many other roles (you can read more about what Vet Nurses do on my colleague Sirena’s blog here). The most important difference between a student and a qualified nurse, however, is that they will be being supervised, either by a vet or (more often) a more senior and experienced veterinary nurse. That doesn’t mean that there’s someone leaning over their shoulders all the time – building independence is a vital part of education after all! – but there will be someone around to advise, help, or generally back them up if needed.

The vet students, likewise, will be doing many of the same roles as the nurses (personally, I think if you don’t appreciate what the nurses do, you shouldn’t be practicing!), but will also be learning hands-on from the vets. They’ll be watching and assisting in consults (I love having students in a consult or on a visit because there’s always someone to wipe down the table or open the gate…!). Then, as they become more experienced, the vets will allow them to carry out some consultations (while hiding outside the door biting their nails remaining on hand to give advice if needed). In many cases, students will scrub in to assist with, or even perform, surgery (again, under close supervision). It’s a big jump from the classroom to the practice, but most students manage it with distinction (you can read our student blogger Joe’s post about vet school here).


So why is this important?

Because sadly too many animal owners get very worried about their animal being under the care of students. In fact, some people will even prohibit students from helping to care for their pets. While that is their right, of course, I would urge you please, please don’t. The students need all the help they can get – the veterinary and veterinary nurse professions require an incredible amount of our students, and the foundation of learning to be a good vet or a good vet nurse is getting hands on with real people, real animals, and real cases.


My colleagues and I were lucky enough to have people generous enough to let us learn on their beloved pets, and we learnt to respect them and their animals for that. Now we promise we’ll be teaching the next generation to the best of our ability, and we’ll be supervising them in practice too – so give them a chance to grow and develop as we did.


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