What else can you do with your vet degree in government?

Ministry of Defence plaque

Tell us about your current role

I am currently the Head of Scientific Advice at the Ministry of Defence (MOD). I run a team of scientific advisers embedded into the military commands and our central headquarters, who ensure that good science and technology decisions are made across defence. It’s a great job, ensuring that the substantial Defence Science and Technology Enterprise (our technical experts and labs) understand what the front line needs and how they work, and that the front line commands understand what science and technology can do for them and how to get the best results. 

How did you discover that there were roles for vets within government?

I had government vets in the family. My aunt was the deputy chief veterinary officer and my uncle was a Home Office vet, so I’d grown up knowing about roles in government.

What types of roles have you had within government?

I‘ve been in government for seven years and in that time I’ve had three other roles. My first was as a vet in the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) in the Home Office. Then I moved into generalist roles – first in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office where I was the assistant director for strategy and performance. This was all about working out how well prepared we are for civil emergencies, such as a disease outbreak or terror attack. I then moved to the Department for International Development where I led the Heads of Professions Group, responsible for the network of expert advisers throughout the department. 

What attracted you to work within MOD?

I think I’m attracted to complexity! Defence is a completely new area for me, encompassing a massive range of science and technology. Some of those areas are quite familiar (biological sciences) and some are completely new (satellite technology), but I’m compulsively curious, and I’m really enjoying learning about the incredible work our labs and scientists do and passionate about making sure it works for the troops on the ground.

What challenges did you think there would be in transitioning from a government vet role to another type of Civil Service role?

The primary challenges were actually in my head. For a long time I did not realise that the skills I had learnt as a veterinary surgeon were transferable to other roles. I also assumed that people would pigeon-hole vets as having a very narrow skill set. So I had to find a way of identifying the mix of skills that my veterinary career had given me, and communicating them confidently.

What actual challenges were there?

I had to rapidly hone my policy skills! But I had a great team to support me who had loads of policy experience, so I was able to pick that up very quickly.

'The skills I learnt as a veterinary surgeon were transferable to other roles'

What crossover skills do you bring from being a vet and a vet in government to your present role?

There’s lots that I learnt and took for granted during my career as a vet before I joined the Civil Service that’s directly applicable to my present role.

  1. The use of evidence – especially imperfect evidence – and how to make decisions based on often incomplete information very quickly, knowing full well the parameters may change.
  2. The importance of big picture thinking. In clinical practice, you’re often balancing the immediate problem to solve with the need to consider the entire animal, the entire herd or even public or global health. This is a very important skill in policy work.
  3. Real world experience – working in Glasgow or sub-Saharan Africa (as I had done before joining the Civil Service) makes you definitely frame decision making for government funding and saving taxpayers money.
  4. Working with members of the public. This was where I first practised distilling and communicating complex things in a simple way, and being able to tailor messages to different audiences. If you can explain kidney disease or diabetes to someone who has very little understanding of biology, you’re practising these skills.
  5. I learned all about managing stakeholders in the ASRU. There our stakeholders ranged from those who wanted all animal use in science to be banned, to those scientific institutions that saw it as an essential facilitator of medical and scientific progress. Animals in science legislation is also pretty complex, so being in the ASRU was a great way of learning about how legislation works.

All of these skills are really valuable to the Civil Service, and are skills vets learn through their education and in practice.

'There are so many roles out there that are challenging and fascinating'

What skills do you think that vets need to acquire to develop a Civil Service career?

Confidence in your translatability. Do not be apologetic for being a vet, even if you do not want to work in a veterinary role. All of your skills are transferable – but the main thing is having the confidence to acknowledge that and project it onto others.

I would also say ‘open mindedness’. There are so many roles out there that are challenging and fascinating, although they do not necessarily relate directly to animals, and use all of the skills that you already have. You do not need to constrain yourself to the traditional career paths.

This interview originally appeared on the Government Vets blog site.

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