Combining clinical work as a cattle practitioner with studying
Despite my job title ‘honorary teaching fellow at the University of Bristol’, my job is that of a typical cattle practitioner. I enjoy an eclectic mix of routine fertility work, proactive health planning and emergency work, with a little TB testing and the odd sheep or goat thrown in to keep me on my toes.
Since 2012, however, I have also been studying for a diploma with the European College of Bovine Health Management. This is something that vets can undertake in practice as well as at a university.
It has enormously enriched my career, both in terms of future prospects and interest level in my day-to-day work.
Studying for a qualification involves a lot of work – research projects, reading and writing articles, public speaking and passing on knowledge to undergraduates and colleagues, spending time on externships both at home and abroad. It’s a lot to balance with a busy job and a young family, but it is doable!
After qualifying from Bristol, I worked in mixed practice in Devon and, unusually for a new graduate, I stayed in my first practice for six years!
At the time, I had no plans beyond being good at my job and hopefully one day being a partner in, or owning my own, practice.
For me mixed practice was difficult. My heart was always in farm practice and unless you can devote virtually all of your working time to learning the bit of the job that interests you, you end up struggling to be good at all aspects of it. At least that was my experience.
After six years I moved jobs to a large cattle-only practice. It transformed my career in terms of job satisfaction. Shortly afterwards I took a job working at Bristol vet school; it was there that I became interested in research and teaching and decided to undertake the diploma.
"Don’t assume you’ll be happy to spend your entire career doing one job"
I was lucky to receive an MSD Animal Health Research Bursary, which not only provided me with funding that allowed me to do some research, but I also gained contacts and support from a network of researchers.
This was a massive help – it allowed me to take my first steps towards the diploma, and designing and conducting the project made me realise how interesting research can be. I never enjoyed statistics at university but I do now, and it’s great to be able to critically appraise current literature and adapt it into practice.
A typical working day
I imagine that my day is similar to many other practitioners’. It can get chaotic at busy times of the year. When you’re studying, every spare moment has to be filled with something useful, so getting up early, before my family is up, to work on my diploma is a pretty common occurrence.
One of the many fun aspects of being a farm vet for me was always listening to music between calls. Music is my other great interest alongside cows! These days, though, I’m much more likely to be listening to research papers using a text-to-speech app.
The best bits of my job
We have endless opportunities for learning (you can never know everything as a vet), which in turn makes every case interesting.
Individual animal – medical or surgical – cases used to be more of a chore, but having spent time learning at some leading bovine hospitals, they are now far more fascinating. Likewise, for herd health cases, it’s great to feel you have a good grasp of current knowledge.
Doing the diploma has allowed me to meet some fantastic people who are experts in their field – nutritionists, pathologists, surgeons, researchers and so on.
Best of all, though, is a successful calving. Seeing a live healthy calf being mothered by a cow is to witness one of nature’s miracles.
The less good bits
Being an ambulatory vet is akin to providing a courier service in an ambulance. No matter how well you plan your day, things will change, and the time you have allotted to completing some little project evaporates as soon as the phone rings with an emergency call.
"I have to prioritise what is really important in my personal life and make sure I put that above everything else"
Achieving an acceptable work-life balance is a continuous challenge. Long hours, being on-call, difficulty forgetting about work when trying to spend quality time with friends or family … and then there’s the lack of sleep.
What are the most valuable skills you have acquired?
Communication skills, both when interacting with individual clients and colleagues, and addressing large groups of people. Thinking before you speak is probably the single most important skill for a vet.
What career advice would you give others?
Don’t assume you’ll be happy to spend your entire career doing one job. I know that this is why most of us apply to vet school in the first place – we want the job that predominantly chimes with the public perception of being a vet – treating and helping sick animals.
For me, becoming involved in academia and research has been a massive boost to my career satisfaction. If I were to offer my younger self any advice, it would be to suggest doing a university residency or a PhD early in my career.
Do you achieve work-life balance?
I have to prioritise what is really important in my personal life and make sure I put that above everything else.
Having a heavy workload impacts on social life, which for me is the area of my life that suffers most, so family has become a priority and spending time with them always comes first. Studying has to fit around family, not the other way around. And, of course, I am extremely grateful to my very understanding wife when I don’t manage to balance it all.
Would you recommend your job to a school leaver?
I’m sure there are much less strenuous ways to earn more money, so I think it depends what motivates you. If you want a career that keeps your brain working, I’d say definitely, yes.
What would you be if you weren’t doing what you do now?
If I wasn’t a vet, I’d set a up a commercial brewery and play guitar more often. When I manage some ‘me’ time, I enjoy music, reading and football.
What are your career aspirations?
To pass the diploma and continue to contribute to research while still being involved ‘in the field’ in farm practice. This seems like the perfect mix to me.