Q&A: Joanna Hedley on specialising in zoological medicine
© Royal Veterinary College (RVC)
As part of a series of articles on veterinary specialisms, My Vet Future is talking to vets about their route to specialisation, with the aim of helping vets better understand how they can become specialists.
Name: Joanna Hedley
Job title: Senior lecturer in exotic species and small mammal medicine and surgery, Royal veterinary college (RVC)
- 2003: Qualified from The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (R(D)SVS)
- 2003: Volunteer placements with the Society for The Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA) in Morocco and at Johannesburg Zoo
- 2004-2008: Worked in mixed, small animal, exotic pet and wildlife practice
- 2009-2011: Completed exotic animal and wildlife residency at R(D)SVS
- 2011-2013: Exotics clinician at R(D)SVS
- 2012: Gained RCVS Diploma in zoological medicine (reptilian)
- 2014: Became RCVS recognised specialist in zoological medicine and European specialist in zoological medicine (herpetology)
- 2014-present: Joined the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and established the exotics service
Did you have a career plan upon graduating?
In order to gain a good grounding in all species and before making any firm career decisions, I knew that I wanted to gain experience from spending a couple of years in mixed practice after graduation. Undertaking a residency and becoming a specialist were definitely not on my agenda at that stage, but as my interest in exotic animals grew, specialising became the logical next step to develop my skills and knowledge.
Why did you decide to become a zoological medicine specialist?
At vet school I was interested in both wildlife medicine and equine. However, it was my time in mixed practice where I found myself more and more fascinated by the exotic pets I was seeing. I loved the fact that there was so much to learn about them, with every consult presenting a new challenge. It’s definitely not a speciality where you can ever rest in your comfort zone!
How did you become a specialist?
I began to split my time between a small animal and exotic pet practice alongside part-time work at a wildlife hospital. Around the same time, I began my RCVS Certificate in zoological medicine and built up my exotics caseload. I was then fortunate enough to be offered the residency position at R(D)SVS.
"It’s definitely not a speciality where you can ever rest in your comfort zone!"
How long did it take you to specialise?
In total 10 years - I completed five years in practice before progressing to my residency, RCVS certificate and then diploma exams over another five-year period. Although it is possible to specialise more quickly, I really valued my time in general practice as it gave me the opportunity to gain confidence and build on my communication and practical skills.
Can you describe the commitment involved?
Building up experience with exotics, progressing through a residency and studying for my diploma exams were all intense processes. My working hours were long and sometimes my workload could seem overwhelming, especially throughout my residency. I found that having a set goal in mind kept me focused.
How do you maintain your specialist status?
Maintaining my RCVS and European specialist statuses involves being reaccredited every five years by proving that I am actively promoting my speciality. This can be shown through giving CPD lectures, publishing papers, attending conferences or training residents.
What’s it like working in academia?
Certain aspects of my job in academia are very similar to my time in practice; I still see first opinion clients and complex referral cases, with the added benefit of being able to collaborate with a range of other specialists to provide the most up to date clinical care. However, for me I love the fact that teaching is such a major part of my role. Each day we have vet students on rotation with us and I teach in every year of the BVetMed and veterinary nurse courses. I have established an exotics internship and a residency program. I also have the opportunity to be part of clinical research and I get to supervise a number of undergraduate and postgraduate projects every year. There’s never a dull moment!
"Over time I’ve learnt to manage my non-clinical workload and not to over-commit to too many interesting projects"
How do you maintain a good work-life balance as a specialist?
It can be a struggle! Some days are long and unpredictable, especially as most exotic pets will hide signs of illness until disease is advanced, and often end up presenting as emergencies. However, I’m lucky to work with a great team – we support each other and make sure that no one is under too much pressure or is staying too late. I found that my passion for exotics means that a I am often temped to be involved in everything, but over time I’ve learnt to manage my non-clinical workload and not to over-commit to too many interesting projects. For me, it’s really important to take a complete break on the weekends I’m not working or during holidays.