Vet students and 'digital professionalism' – lessons to be learned for all

Written by: Zamantha Marshall, Jennifer Hammond and Fiona Dowell
Published on: 14 Oct 2019

eye social mediaSocial media is omnipresent – the number of people with online digital profiles is now in its billions. Every tweet, post, like or tag produces a digital footprint that can be connected perpetually to your digital identity.

Many students will have started their digital footprint before they have even started their university experience, but do our students know what they should – or shouldn’t – post on social media, and the consequences any ill-considered posts may have on their future employability?

Professional bodies publish guidelines for social media use and misuse – including the RCVS, which provides supporting guidance for veterinary surgeons on “Social media and online networking forums”. But how do our students actually feel about the advice or apply the guidance provided to them?


The University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine conducted a needs analysis survey, which identified key areas of digital identity, well-being and professionalism that concerned undergraduate veterinary students. Various issues were identified – including how to maintain appropriate privacy settings, uncertainty about what is acceptable (for example, opinions/lifestyle choices; a glass of wine versus a shot of tequila; and tattoos and piercings).

Another issue that concerned students, which was also identified in Jordan Sinclair’s Vet Times blog, “Social media – a blessing or a curse?”, was the issue of client friend requests – some will advise a blanket ban on accepting such requests; however, this is not always feasible, especially where you live and work in the same community.

Digital professionalism

At Glasgow, we went on to develop resources to support students in recognising the impact of their online presence and introduced these into our curriculum. The “Digital professionalism and your online presence” activity was integrated as a required activity in the professional and legal responsibilities section of the professional and clinical experience programme, in the third and fourth year of the Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery programme.

Students were required to review online resources designed to enhance their awareness of their own online presence, and understand the privacy settings on various social media accounts. They were then tasked with viewing their own online self from the point of view of an employer, and reporting and reflecting on their findings.

Web stats

Submissions were obtained from 93% of our third-year and fourth-year students. Of these, 31% reported they would make edits to one or more of their social media accounts.

Facebook (51%), Twitter (25%) and Instagram (11%) accounted for the majority of social media usage among students. LinkedIn had a relatively low usage profile (6%).

One-fifth of students reported no online presence. In some cases, this was due to other high-profile individuals with a similar name – hard to find yourself among the thousands of articles on Andy Murray’s latest tennis accomplishments.

Somewhat concerning was that some students were impressed by their own lack of online presence; however, for an individual about to enter the professional workplace, no positive online presence may raise as many red flags with potential employers as a negative one.

Common themes

The reflections identified some common themes among students, in terms of what they found when searching for themselves – as illustrated in a few quotes from their reflections.

Some of these were quite positive:

  • “I can only find things about myself from my wedding and when I was in high school. I definitely need to have more of a presence.”
  • “My online presence shows I have a competitive edge and interests outside of veterinary medicine.”

Others less so:

  • “I look like an alcoholic on Facebook, and Twitter makes me sound like an angry and cynical person.”
  • “Found a post from four years ago, ranting about customer service. I wrote it in anger and it reflects poorly on my character.”
  • “I did not know my profile picture was viewable to the public – not at all professional.”

These self-directed online tasks were well received by students and provoked some interesting discussions. They were simple to introduce and required relatively low staff input to run.

Future plans

Going forwards, we are continuing to develop resources and activities – this year (2018-19), we will be supporting our students in creating a positive online presence through an activity, which requires them to create a LinkedIn profile, and providing further guidance on ensuring their other social media activities are appropriate for their imminent entry into the professional work environment.

Maintaining privacy settings is a big challenge – the social media providers are constantly changing and updating the settings, making it harder to keep track; as often reported in the media, the length and language of the associated terms and conditions makes them difficult to comprehend.

Furthermore, even with all appropriate privacy settings, sites such as Facebook will still display your top five photos and profile picture if someone searches your name.

The lessons learned by our students in undertaking these activities are easily transferable to the wider profession – try having a look to see what you look like to the outside world.

  • This article first appeared in Veterinary Times issue 49.41 (14 October issue).