Veterinary degrees and careers explained

Domestic cat - careers as a vet
Becoming a vet requires a veterinary medicine university degree plus some further learning. Once you’ve qualified there’s a range of career options, including treating wild animals or working animals.

A career as a vet could involve anything from keeping pets healthy to advising government on farm animal welfare, caring for military animals or working with zoos. You’ll need to commit to five or six years at university studying for a veterinary medicine degree, including getting work experience during the vacations, so only apply if you’re a genuine animal lover and are motivated to learn much more about them.

Getting into a UK vet school

To become a vet, the first step is to get a place at university to study veterinary medicine. To do this you need to:

  • Get good grades in your GCSEs or National 5s – especially English, maths and science subjects.
  • Choose appropriate subjects for your A levels, Highers/Advanced Highers or IB. Requirements for universities’ veterinary medicine courses vary, but you’re likely to need biology and/or chemistry, and sometimes physics or maths too.
  • Get plenty of animal-related work experience. Some veterinary science degrees are very specific about how much experience you need. For example, the University of Bristol states: ‘Applicants must have at least one week’s (40 hours) work experience in veterinary practice and one week’s (40 hours) work experience in animal-related settings for their application to be considered.’ Some ask for more – for example the University of Liverpool asks for five weeks’ experience.
  • Study hard for your A levels. The grades you’ll need vary, but are high.
    • If you’re taking A levels, AAA is a typical offer. Some universities offer AAB; Cambridge typically asks for A*AA.
    • If you’re taking Scottish Highers, AAAAB is typical, though some offers are a bit lower. Almost all universities want Advanced Highers too, usually at AA or BB grade and often specifying that these are in biology and chemistry.
    • If you’re taking the IB, offers tend to be around 36 points (40–42 for Cambridge). Universities tend to ask for 6s in relevant subjects. Some ask for one or more 7s.
    • Some universities may make you a lower offer (known as a contextual offer) if certain conditions apply, for example you’ve attended a school with lower than average academic results or are from an area where not that many people go to university.
  • Apply for veterinary medicine degrees by the October UCAS deadline. For 2019 university entry, the deadline is 6.00 pm on 15 October 2018, well before the deadline for most other courses.
  • Prepare for vet school interviews. These can cover topics such as your work experience and procedures you’ve observed, your attitudes to animal welfare and the ethics of veterinary work, your knowledge of the veterinary profession, and science topics related to veterinary medicine. There might also be case studies to consider, role plays to act out or numeracy (maths-based) questions to answer.

Once you’re at vet school

Veterinary medicine is longer than most degrees and includes plenty of practical experience.

  • Veterinary medicine degrees typically last five years – sometimes six.
  • You’ll usually start out by learning lots of theory in an academic setting, then get the chance to put this into practice in the later years of your degree – typically working in a vet’s clinic, animal hospital or on a farm owned by the university.
  • You’ll also need to complete at least 38 weeks of extramural studies while you are a student. Extramural studies are work experience placements in different settings where vets work and need to be taken during university vacations.

Continuing learning after your veterinary degree

There are still some study requirements for vets after you’ve completed your degree and started work.

  • Newly qualified vets are required to complete a structured self-assessment process when they first start work. This is known as the professional development phase (PDP) and is set by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). It involves keeping a record of the cases you’ve worked on, reflecting on these and ideally discussing them with your employer. The process takes about 18 months to complete.
  • Vets of all levels of experience are required to carry on learning throughout their careers. This is known as continuing professional development (CPD) and you’ll need to do at least 105 hours of relevant study every three years.
  • Some vets choose to go back to university to study longer, specialist courses in areas that will help their careers, such as a masters degree* in wild animal health or applied animal behaviour and welfare, though this isn’t essential.

*A masters degree in a higher level qualification taken by someone who already has a degree.

Your career as a vet

Career options as a vet include:

  • Working in private practice at a first opinion vets’ surgery. These are typical vets’ surgeries that are privately owned by a group of experienced vets, known as partners, and are the first port of call for animal owners. Some surgeries deal with a wide range of animal types; others specialise in a particular group, such as companion animals (eg cats and dogs), farm animals, equine (horses) or exotics (which are often also companion animals, eg snakes, lizards, tortoises and technically also rabbits and rodents). If you stay in this field long-term, you’ll probably aim to become a partner.
  • Working at an animal referral hospital. These are centres providing more specialist treatment then a local vets’ surgery may be able to provide. Vets surgeries can refer pets to animal hospitals in a similar way to a GP surgery referring a human patient to hospital for specialist treatment. Some are privately owned; others are owned by universities as part of their vet school.
  • Working for an animal charity. Various animal charities employ vets to treat pets owned by people who are unable to afford the fees at a private practice, either for free or at a reduced rate. Examples include the PDSA, Blue Cross and RSPCA (which also treats wildlife).
  • Working for the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. Vets can join the army as veterinary officers to care for military working animals. If you decide that this is the career for you while you’re still at school, the army runs a bursary scheme that will help with the costs of your veterinary degree if you commit to becoming an army vet afterwards.
  • Working as a zoo vet. Zoo vets help prevent disease in zoo animals, treat them when they are unwell and may also get involved in conservation or research work.
  • Working as a vet in the public sector. For example, you could work for the Animal and Plant Health Agency or the Food Standards Agency. The roles of public sector vets vary but often focus on farm animals and can include ensuring animal welfare and food safety, preventing or controlling outbreaks of disease, or developing government policy.
  • Working as a researcher and/or university lecturer. Some vets carry out research into animal health topics, working for universities, businesses or the government. If you work for a university, you’re also likely to teach students.

A typical career path after university would be to get a job with a vets’ surgery offering a broad variety of work, then either climb the career ladder in this setting or go into a more specialist job role.

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