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Making the most of veterinary student life

Written by: Fergal McDermott
Published on: 26 Mar 2024


Image © serperm73 / Adobe Stock

I am often asked by students rotating through the emergency clinic to fill out feedback forms to give them an assessment and advice for the future. Shifts in the emergency clinic can obviously be a bit hectic, so it is not always possible to get to know students well enough to provide meaningful responses.

I have recently been thinking of what general advice I could give vet students based on my experiences during and since university, and here is what I have come up with. In university, although you have some experiences, you know far less about yourself and life than you realise.

Enjoy lack of responsibilities

Not to minimise the experiences of vet students, but this is one of the last times in your life where you can, theoretically, decide any weekday to stay at home and do nothing. Even towards the end of your time in vet school, this is no longer available and you will soon have a job and responsibilities. Although lots of the clinical lectures are exciting, try not to wish your life away looking forward to the end. The pressure of exams is not the same as the pressure of caring for an animal and its owner.

As a general rule, the grass is not greener in the future. I know that I and several other colleagues have looked back on our time as students, and reflected that we did not know how easy we had it.

Take care of yourself

While I encourage you to enjoy your freedom, be careful with yourself. Vet school is hard and intense in lots of ways. The rest of your life during vet school is also not easy.

Many real dramas and melodramas exist, and you are coming to terms with mature feelings for the first time. Why not be nice to yourself? Be careful when it comes to alcohol and other substances. Self-destructive behaviour will be very socially normal.

Don’t get me wrong, I have many great (non) memories from my times with the Association of Veterinary Students. Nothing is wrong with letting your hair down, but it’s unlikely that people will exist in your life to help you distinguish between the healthy self-destructive behaviour and the unhealthy – especially if your entire class is engaging in both. Try to understand your relationships with alcohol. I can recall that after the hardest exams my class would drink the most. It felt like trauma drinking and other ways exist to cope with difficulties.

Try to nourish your non-vet self

It is one of the superficialities of our time to see in science and in art two opposites. There is more to life than veterinary. It is healthy to be aware of your non-vet self as much as possible. I don’t have many regrets from my college time, but one is that I didn’t draw more. Do not be afraid to be artistic. I think, in general, vets do not explore their artistic sides nearly enough and you can see that it exists by how well classmates or colleagues draw anatomy.

Vet school is long and in spite of what you think, you can easily achieve other things over that period of time. What are you passionate about if you take veterinary away?

My advice is to make very small goals. Draw a doodle every week; play a piano song every three weeks; cook a new recipe every month.

It is hard to envision, but your career is going to be several decades long – longer than the period you have been alive already. Undoubtedly, the people with the healthiest approaches are those with a work-life balance and you need not wait until you are graduated to begin exploring other aspects of life. Ultimately, your non-vet interests will work synergistically with your career as they can be used to help you unwind.

No hierarchy exists in your class

This doesn’t only apply to vet school, but nobody in your class or school is worth more or less than you, and any ideas of this nature are illusions. Aside from a very few circumstances – for example, applying to the Veterinary Internship and Residency Matching Program – your grades don’t matter. If you want to get good grades, great, but very few jobs are unavailable due to your college performance.

Failing an exam or a year is definitely not the end of the world. I am doing a residency and I failed a year, and I know lots of residents and specialists who failed years. If you truly want to specialise, it’s better to identify early in your college years, but regardless of grades, if you persevere, you will get there. If you are going to fail, better to do it nice and early.

Most of my classmates who were near the top of the class are either no longer vets or work in general practice, so being at the top of the class was unnecessary, but it was probably nice for their egos. Also, a lot of working smoothly as a vet involves emotional intelligence and the ability to regurgitate information in an exam says nothing about your quality as a veterinarian.

The same ideas apply to social hierarchy. You are young and in a bit of a vet-cest bubble, but the vast majority of your classmates don’t really matter to your life. Within a few years of graduating, you will have no contact with about 95% of them. For the most part, people with different career plans in veterinary (smalls, farm animals and equine) have quite different personalities.

You don’t need to be friends with or liked by everyone. It is totally okay if you don’t have any friends from your vet school. It is normal to not gel with everyone – try not to worry too much about the opinions of others and definitely don’t waste time trying to be someone you are not. It is good practice for your working life to be able to remain on civil terms with as many people as possible. I recommend sitting at the front of the class – less distractions and less possible gossip filling your brain.

Study little, often and early

Before college, I never stayed up late the night before any exam. That all changed immediately and stress-cramming into the early morning can be a lonely feeling. With the sheer bulk of rubbish you’re asked to study for some subjects, late nights are unavoidable, but it’s best to try to minimise them as much as possible.

Try to avoid waiting until the honeymoon period at the start of a term is over to start because the material adds up before you know it. I was never good at studying early in the academic year, but I can imagine it is a good way to relieve the anxiety of an ever-increasing workload and good practice for self-discipline.

Things to learn in vet school

While you will learn a lot during your degree that is completely irrelevant to your career, some things you will learn where the importance I believe should be more emphasised:

  • How to make and stain a blood smear.
  • How to identify a platelet and thrombocytopaenia on a blood smear.
  • How to identify whether an anaemia is regenerative on a blood smear.
  • How to use a cytospin and identify a septic effusion on a smear.
  • How to compare sample and blood glucose, lactate, creatinine and bilirubin values to diagnose a septic abdomen, uroabdomen and bile peritonitis.
  • How to use a refractometer and to interpret isosthenuria.
  • How to use a capillary tube and how to read total solids on a refractometer.
  • The basics of ultrasound – both abdomen and thoracic.
  • What A-lines and B-lines are on lung ultrasound, and what they mean (use YouTube).
  • How to measure a left atrial-to-aortic ratio would help, but isn’t essential.
  • The broad categories for differentials for anaemia, azotaemia, liver disease and epilepsy.
  • That a lot of your job will be money-related and that it is an art to run only the tests that are truly necessary.
  • That no fixed rules exist in veterinary and lots of diseases can look like many others.
  • In general, how to take care of your physical and mental health, and how to cook. Kildare to Dublin is a short distance, so I went home every weekend, but If I could do it again, I would stay away more weekends to better learn how to live alone.

When I look back at my time in vet school and who I was then, I can’t help but feel sympathy for me and my classmates. We were all just children of the world, trying to cope with the studies while dealing with FOMO and social pressures – all with the assumption that “everyone but me has it all figured out”.

This advice could have helped me in my time as a veterinary student, so I hope that it helps you.