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“How do we choose from the plethora of keen teens wanting to be vets?”

02 November 2020, at 8:00am

What a nightmare! Broken down in the middle of nowhere… Thank goodness for the breakdown services! Twenty minutes after my call along came the van and the guy who got out was so helpful. Not only did he fix the problem but was so friendly and empathetic. I asked him if his company gave lessons to get them to be so caring. “Nope,” came the reply. Did they ask about customer relations at interview? Not at all – they just wanted to know if he was a good mechanic.

Then how is it that every engineer I’ve ever come across has been so helpful? “Well,” said Matt (for that was my automobile angel’s name) after a moment or two’s thought, “if I wasn’t interested in helping people but just wanted to mend cars I’d be working in a garage and keeping out of the rain.” Empathetic car repairers seemed to be auto-selected (if you’ll pardon the pun) by the nature of the job.

That got me thinking. How do we choose from the plethora of keen teens wanting to be vets? How do we ensure that those we choose will be empathetic vets – indeed can we? Should we? Or is it up to us to train them (no that’s the wrong word) – to mould them (that’s still not quite right) – to encourage them (that’ll have to do for now!) to have the owner as well as the animal in their hearts as they care for them? To be concerned about how they feel rather than just the numbers on the blood results or dare I say the pounds in the till? Can empathy be taught or is it something inbuilt, something innate? And if it is the latter can you see it in an 18-year-old at interview or on a personal statement?

At this time of year many thousands of sixth formers must be hunched over their screens working out what to say. “I want to be a vet because I love animals and I’m interested in science… or should the science come first and the love second? Or do I need to put down something else – will everybody be writing that? I know, I’ll go with what my school suggests.” My advice to students who ask me for my help is “it’s your personal statement not your school’s generic product – put what shows your passion and your enthusiasm”.

Anyway, back to the choosing stakes – how do we sort out who to take? Not just on their exam results for sure. Not even to my mind on a set of mini-tests that seem too much like a speed dating session. Now I grant you, there may well be advantages in organising such a selection scheme. More opportunities for students to show different skills, more people to decide on who to choose, a far more defined and objective set of criteria perhaps.

At St John’s we give them three 20-minute chats with a couple of lecturers each time, both scientists and vets. As far as I can see, that helps us to get some sort of an idea of what character is sitting in front of us: how they think, what their other interests are in life, how they cope in a stressful situation... Not of course that I’m trying to make it stressful – it’s as relaxed as it can be. And anyway, as in Hogwarts where the wand choses the magician, so in veterinary medicine the very nature of the job hopefully chooses the student keen not only to apply science, not just to love animals, but to care for that strange beast which is the animal-owner interaction, be it a pensioner and her equally elderly cat, a farmer and his stock or the lab technician and the rodents they tend.

FELLOW AND DIRECTOR OF STUDIES at UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at the vet school in Cambridge.

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