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Are we selecting the best undergraduates?

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We hear a lot these days about the alarming drop-out rate in the profession, and there seems to be much soul-searching as to what can be done to make things better for vets, in particular younger graduates.

I confess, I have a personal interest in this; my daughter has been offered a place at vet school, and while it has brought back many memories of my days as a vet student in the 1980s, it also makes me wonder what the future holds for her.

First, I, like many others, tend to look back at my undergraduate years through rose-tinted spectacles; the facilities were sometimes basic, but learning was fun and we tackled everything with a mixture of enthusiasm, energy and blissful ignorance. The words ‘health and safety’ were rarely heard, and our tutors gave us a degree of freedom that would be frowned upon nowadays.

Of course, student life had its ups and downs, and we found the same after we graduated. Although we came out into the world thinking we knew everything, we soon realised that we didn’t, but we still got by. We took the rough with the smooth, and had both successes and failures, but, in general, vet school managed to turn us into reasonable vets. Notably, some 30 years on, most of my classmates are still in practice, and still seem to be enjoying it.

However, I find myself pondering; what will my daughter experience, both as a student and as a new vet? Interestingly, and perhaps inevitably these days, even before she starts her course, the social media circus is in full swing. There is an unofficial ‘offer holders’ Facebook page for each vet school, where aspiring students can share hopes and fears, advice and comments. Some of the comments are predictably facile (I saw one post along the lines ‘Which is the best vet school for parties?’, suggesting the student was less than totally focused on the scholarly aspects of university), but some of the more candid posts did leave me open-mouthed. ‘I didn’t realise cows were so big’ and ‘Will we really need to visit an abattoir?’ being two examples. Then there are the threads about which specialism to enter (‘First-opinion practice seems to be one long mission’), and the queries that seem to suggest a less-then-well-researched career approach (‘Do we need to learn much about farm animals on the course?’). But, the most puzzling post I read went along the lines ‘I really want to go to vet school but I don’t want to be a vet’.

These comments leave me concerned. Going by many of these posts it would seem that there is a large cohort of soon-to-be vet students who are woefully unprepared for what the undergraduate degree course will be like and what the veterinary profession involves. This combination of an alarming display of emotional concerns and a lack of basic knowledge about veterinary life begs the question; is this entirely unrelated to the drop-out rate among young graduates? I suspect not.

Not for one minute do I decry the efforts of various bodies to support vets in their professional and private lives, but one could ask – should the vet schools be taking a more stringent look at who is being considered for the undergraduate course in the first place?

If you would like to contribute to ‘A practitioner ponders’, please e-mail vet.inpractice@bmj.com for further information. We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.

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