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Work as a Government vet

Published on: 30 Jan 2015

Coat of Arms of the British Government

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More than 600 vets work for the British Government and those jobs fall into three categories. Broadly: operational, research and policy – all providing a wide variety to those looking for a different kind of career challenge.

“There are 600 vets employed by the Government and three-quarters of those are employed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Defra and in Northern Ireland,” said Richard Irvine (pictured), who heads up the National Reference Laboratory for viral poultry disease at APHA.

Richard Irvine, APHA

“Hopefully, with the breadth of disciplines in Government work, people will realise it’s not just about bovine TB or testing; there are a lot of different opportunities in research, laboratory work or in more core Government policy roles.

“There are the entry level jobs, such as veterinary officer and veterinary investigation officer, so there is plenty to interest people who might be thinking about moving into Government veterinary work.”

After graduating from the RVC in 1997, Richard worked for four years in mixed practice – primarily in dairy herd and flock planning – before joining the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) as a veterinary investigation officer in 2001.

“One of the primary reasons for making that shift was wanting to understand diagnoses and why things were happening in terms of pathology and microbiology.

“In practice, I had found I was hitting constants in terms of how far I was able to get with diagnoses and push getting to the bottom of things. Also, dealing at a different scale, my interests were definitely moving into preventive medicine and population medicine, which in some contexts in practice can be constrained.”

Richard has certainly made good progress over the past 14 years and recently took up the role of head of scanning surveillance at the APHA.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s clearly more appealing to Richard than the rigours of daily private practice. “I have two kids and the decision to join the VLA was largely borne out of my need to have a life and see my children,” he added.

“This was brought home to me when I was in practice by my senior partner, who had teenage children and said to me ‘make sure you see your children grow up, as I didn’t and I regret it’. That was a big factor for me, especially as I was under a bit of pressure from the other half because I was in practice, working a one-in-two rota and basically being flat out when I was on duty. She said I either change my job or we change our family arrangement. Now I have a much better work-life balance.”

Table: Veterinary posts pay rangeRichard is based at Weybridge, home of the APHA and a national and international reference laboratory for a great many notifiable diseases.

He said: “A large part of what we do is surveillance – either in this country or horizon scanning for overseas threats.

“The major policy and funding customers we have basically relate to the different parts of Government in Great Britain and other agencies such as the Food Standards Agency and VMD. We also do a lot of work with and for the European Commission and other European member states and that also links into our international reference laboratory status and research projects across Europe.”

APHA is a multidisciplinary agency spread across approximately 60 sites where vets can find work in a range of roles.

Richard added: “I think that is a real strength from the point of view of opportunities that come up working as a Government vet. It is not necessarily a linear career path – you can change direction a lot doing this job.”

Candidates for Government jobs should have at least four years’ experience in private practice, but there are plenty of vets who have made the shift far later in their careers.

“This is not just for the newer graduates; it’s a route also open to ‘old farts’ as well,” added APHA vet Gareth Hateley.

“I had worked for 20 years in cattle practice before joining the then VLA. I worked for nine years as a veterinary investigation officer and I am now a senior planning advisor.

“So there are opportunities for people with more and different kinds of experience. I work with three senior veterinary inspectors – one is from a meat hygiene background, one is from a practice background and the other is from an academic background. Once you are in, there are lots of opportunities to do lots of different things.”