A Veterinary Science degree slingshots students between lecture theatres and operating theatres alike, swapping hospital scrubs for welly boots on the farm.
It's a career variety that most workers can only dream of. But a five-year course is a big commitment for an 18 year old. If you’re eager to leave school, how can you be sure that veterinary science is the right course, or even the right vocation, for you?
To get a first-hand account of the qualification, we spoke to Dr. Faheem Ilyas, a small animal practice veterinary surgeon who studied at the University of Liverpool, to achieve his Bachelor of Veterinary Science degree.
Inspired at a young age by David Attenborough, he was driven by his love of wildlife and drawn to problem solving, two themes that have shaped his education and career and motivated him to achieve his degree.
Tell me a bit about your career now. What do you do and what you love about it?
I work in a small animal practice, mainly treating pets, like cats, dogs, and rabbits, as well as pigeons, hedgehogs and even some tortoises over the last couple of days. I do a mixture of operating, consulting, dentistry and pharmacy. And everything else in between!
Wow! It's such a big role. You have to have so much knowledge of all different areas of animal health?
Yes absolutely, that is probably the thing that I like most about my career. I can dip into a little bit of everything. I really love surgery and operating. That’s what got me into the veterinary profession in the first place. But it’s so nice to have client contact as well, to talk to people and understand what their pets mean to them, as well as the consulting side of things. Then there’s also time to test your knowledge with medicine, and pharmacy as well.
Did you always want to be a vet?
No, I always liked animals though. I would watch David Attenborough documentaries and I was so invested in wildlife and the environment. It was a passion for me. I decided I wanted to be a vet much later when I was in year 9 or 10. However my family say they always knew I was destined to be a vet.
For a long time, the thought of having an animal’s life in my hands was scary, and very daunting. But as I was making my decision, I spoke about my aspirations, choices and fears with my teachers and family - the people who knew me and my abilities the best – they gave me the reassurance I needed. Giving me confidence that by the end of my studies, I would be qualified to handle the responsibility.
In year 11, when I picked my A Levels, I was sure I wanted to be a vet. I did some work experience to see if my interests could be a vocation. It was my first exposure to veterinary care and I loved it.
When you were at school, what subjects were you passionate about?
I was always more of a Maths and Chemistry person, than an English and History person. I ended up taking Biology, Chemistry, and Geography A Levels.
I had to do Biology to get a place at university, but it definitely wasn’t my favourite subject. I wasn’t a big fan of Physics either!
The only university asking for all three sciences at A Level was Cambridge, so when I was weighing up my options, I chose to study a blend of what I needed, what I enjoyed, and to work with the teachers I liked.
That’s why I picked up Geography instead of Physics. I had always been interested and passionate about wildlife, so Geography was a good fit. I was good at it and found the nature and environment part of the syllabus very interesting. I studied this alongside the sciences I needed for my uni application.
I loved the problem solving element of Chemistry. It gave you the opportunity to look at a question, take some time to try and work out what was going on, and apply critical thinking to solve it. I think puzzle-solving has transferred to my day-to-day practice caring for pets.
To become a vet, is university the only way to get the qualification, or could you take up an apprenticeship, or a traineeship?
There are a few different roots to get onto a veterinary university course, but to become a veterinary surgeon, you must go to university. It’s slightly different if you wanted to be a veterinary nurse, there are other educational pathways you can follow.
How long does it take to qualify to become a vet at university?
All the veterinary science degrees are five years long, but there are six year courses available if you don’t have the right A Levels, these include a foundation year. That extra first year is in place to help you cover all the essentials you need before starting the five year degree. The five year course is broken down into three years of theory and two years of practical application, where you spend a lot of time on placement. This differs slightly between all the universities.
When you arrived at Liverpool Uni, did everyone on your university course have the same qualifications?
Most students had Biology and Chemistry A levels, as these were requirements if you came straight onto the five year programme from school.
Interestingly, there were around 180 kids in my year and about 50% of them were postgrads, having done another degree first. Some came from bio-sciences and zoology backgrounds, but others had done completely random things - one was a tree surgeon who had previously studied English! There were also around 30% who had taken a year out (some had a five or six year gap!) before coming to uni to get some practical work experience with animals in farm and equine settings to make sure it was what they really wanted to do.
But even though our backgrounds were diverse, it felt like a level playing field. You couldn’t tell you were rubbing shoulders with postgraduates - except perhaps that they were a little more focused. I felt really proud of my ability to go straight from school and begin to learn incredible things alongside this skilled group of people.
Was the university teaching style similar to school, or was there a lot of self-directed learning?
At Liverpool, the course content was taught mostly in large lectures (the whole year group in attendance) with regular small group seminars and practicals as well.
In the first three years, there are a lot of lectures!
Revision is self-directed, but the lecturers were there if you needed help. It was your responsibility to make sure you understood the content before the summer exams at the end of each year.
That was the biggest difference between school and university. At school, you might have a unit test every couple of weeks, but at uni, the lecturers don’t test your abilities regularly. You have to be self motivated and proactive to make sure you’re ready for exams.
How did you feel at the three year mark, when your peers on other courses were graduating? Did you feel the pressure of comparison?
I think I did feel it initially, watching my friends from school achieve their degrees and start working. But, I think if you asked them the same question, they would say: ‘It wasn't long enough! I want to go back to university!”
At the beginning of fourth year, before the clinical work started, we were in the middle of lockdown and I was remote learning, spending six hours a day, and more, in front of a laptop. It was exhausting and I was ready to start working.
Part way through year four, I had finally finished all the theoretical study and was jumping into clinical practical learning at the hospital. It was a completely new phase of the course, with a different set of challenges.
It must have been a shock to the system transferring from theory to clinical practice?
Yes, 100%. You could learn a million things in theory, but it all changes when you’re working on animals - they don’t read the textbooks! That practical experience taught you to tailor the theoretical learning to each individual animal.
What was it like learning at the hospital?
I was in a small group on rotation, moving between departments. We treated animals across a variety of specialisms under the supervision of highly qualified vets. It puts everything we had discussed and studied during lectures in context. I thought: “This is why I am doing this” and it reignited my passion.
Did you have a personal mentor in the hospital who supported you?
Yes, I had a supervising vet in every ward. You might spend a week in cardiology, for example, then a week in surgery, and another week in dermatology. Everyone got to know you, it was a big support network.
Likewise you rotate between the animal groups, spending a few months on farms treating cows and sheep, a few months with cats and dogs and a further rotation in the equine hospital. Not forgetting the exotics placement we had – snakes anyone?!
There is one rotation lead per specialism overseeing the group, who monitored your progress and offered help when you needed it.
How did they give you feedback about your progress?
They have iPads with our details on (and a photo!) so they knew who you were and could record feedback as you were working.
I could log in and access those notes at any time to see feedback and progress too! There were recommendations about what you could do to improve, and praise for your achievements as well. It was specific to your tasks, for example, if your blood work wasn’t up to standard they would record that feedback and I had the opportunity to respond and say: “I really struggled with that.” Then the rotation lead would create opportunities for me to practice.
That’s a great way to build your confidence. What was your favourite rotation?
I very much enjoyed being in theatre, watching operations! It's brilliant because every graduating vet is qualified to do both surgery and medicine. I love all the other aspects of the job, but since I qualified, surgery is still my passion.
While you were studying, did you have access to any funding or financial support, or did you take on part-time work to help cover the costs of student living?
I was very, very fortunate that my family could provide support for me throughout university.
Some of my cohort were awarded bursaries from the university to run alongside their student loans as an extra support.
The vet schools across the country offer different types of financial support, at Liverpool for example, there was a bursary to help students with funding if they needed to travel for placements.
The course is demanding and most days you’re studying full time. It would be very hard to work part time and study - although some did, and I have huge respect for them because I was always so tired after lectures and assignments!
Do you have to be a practicing vet once you graduate?
Not at all! You can work in research, for the government in various roles and there are even vets that work in vaccine development. It’s a respectable degree and you can go on to do almost anything you want! Clinical practice definitely isn’t the only option.
What advice would you give to young people who want to study veterinary science and medicine?
If you’ve decided it’s the profession for you, don’t let anything stop you. Go ahead and pursue it!
I didn't know any vets before I went to vet school, and not very many vets looked like me. I think that was something that could have easily stopped me, but I’m so thankful that it didn’t! When I speak to other young adults from a city background they often express that they too wanted to become vets. Sadly, family expectations, a lack of opportunity and a misunderstanding of the profession stopped them.
If you want to do it, you should. Do your research, get some work experience, and if you like it - go for it!
Open your mind to new experiences with different types of animals. When I got to vet school I had the expectation that I would specialise in cats and dogs. I had never worked with horses before, or farm animals, but when we got to the hospital in the equine rotation, I loved it! It’s fine to have a preference, of course, but you might have a career defining moment on the farm that completely transforms your views.
Strike a balance of working hard and enjoying yourself. You’re at uni to study, graduate and get to work. But it’s also a great opportunity to grow and develop, and make friends, whether you’re living away from home or not. Enjoy it, because five years sounds like a long time but it goes by in a flash.
And, stick it out until you get to your clinical years. Lectures are tough and can sometimes be a little boring, but those clinical years will reignite your motivation and passion, trust me!
Dr. Faheem is a contributor to the ManyPets 'Vet In A Box' lesson plan, giving Year 9 children the chance to work through a scenario involving a vet team, a farmer and their herd of cows. It provides students with an insight into the different roles involved when working in the Veterinary industry, including veterinary scientists and nurses.