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Gaining experience abroad
  1. Zoe Belshaw

Abstract

There are many reasons why people think about working abroad, and many achieve this goal, but the logistics can put others off. Zoe Belshaw offers some advice, based on her own travel experiences

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DECIDING why you want to work abroad is a great place to start; you may want to experience specific types of work, such as a thoroughbred stud season, or with exotic species or conducting some research. Think about what you aim to get from the experience before you start looking at travel guides. For example, small animal medicine is more likely to be practised to a high standard in a country where the standard of living is good and pets are an affordable luxury.

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Time of year

Overseas work is open to undergraduates seeing practice as well as to vets. The time of year – if you have the luxury of choice – needs consideration, especially if you are planning a holiday at the same time. Checking when the monsoon/hurricane season generally falls, if appropriate, is sensible.

Increasingly, practices will consider offering employees an unpaid sabbatical break so that they can travel or work overseas, with the agreement that they will return to the practice at the end of the trip. There are advantages for both parties – you get the wanderlust out of your system, and return refreshed ready to work in a job you know. Even if this hasn't happened in your practice before, it is worth discussing.

Memorable experience

In the summer of 2000, as third-year vet students, John Harvey (Glasgow) and I (Cambridge) organised and led a small summer expedition to Cajamarca in the Peruvian Andes to assess the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in mastitis bacteria in the dairy cow population. We had been inspired by the development fund of the International Veterinary Students' Association, which had donated a large shipment of much-needed equipment to the Cajamarca faculty. With the help of two recent graduates and some vet students from Cajamarca, we formed teams to survey the local campesino farmers on milking practice, and set up and ran a laboratory to culture the milk and identify the bacteria. The average herd size was five to six cows; all were hand-milked (except one, locally famous, farm, which had a milking-bale). There was a free market in antibiotic use and udder cloths were the teat cleaner of choice; unsurprisingly, mastitis was rife.

It was a brilliant experience, but was not without problems: I was almost prevented from travelling out of the UK when my luggage was found to contain hundreds of glass petri dishes and a small centrifuge; one of the students received a nasty nip on the calf from a dog of unknown rabies-carrying potential (after which we took to squatting on the back of motorbikes with our polystyrene sample boxes); power cuts necessitated some ingenious wiring of a borrowed generator; and, while by the end of the trip we were fluent in Latin American Spanish for all things cattle- related, socialising provided some amusing misunderstandings on both sides! I am still in touch with most of the students we worked with in Peru, and it was a great introduction to how (and how not) to perform field research in foreign climes.

Types of work

Veterinary work abroad can be on a voluntary basis, as locum work, or a permanent job, as well as an externship or seeing practice.

Volunteering through charities such as the Worldwide Veterinary Service (www.wvs.org.uk) or SPANA (working equids, www.spana.org/you-can-help) is becoming an increasingly popular way of enjoying a working holiday, and volunteer vets are always needed. You will typically need to pay travel costs and for basic accommodation, but will get a lot from the experience, and many volunteers go back on repeated breaks.

Many charities, large and small, as well as companies, offer overseas experiences for veterinarians. Ideally, try to get in touch with someone who has spent time overseas with the organisation, so that you can get an idea of what you are letting yourself in for. Good charities will provide the e-mail addresses of past volunteers, but bear in mind that things might have changed and check the information out for yourself.

Some people are inspired by reading a scientific paper or watching a television programme. There is nothing to lose by contacting the author or researcher; this got me to the Tibetan border chasing around after rare monkeys, and I know several others who have had incredible experiences this way.

As a student, you are much less useful than a vet. Check the local agreements and laws; your hosts should be able to provide this information.

Conventional locum work is most easily available in Australia and New Zealand (see the overseas section of the BVA's website, www.bva.co.uk/overseas/BVA_overseas.aspx), but typically requires at least two years' postgraduate clinical experience.

Externships are best arranged by contacting the relevant institution, although the popular ones may have a long waiting list.

Where to go?

You've negotiated a sabbatical, and the Lonely Planet selection stretches for miles in front of you. However, once you have taken the time of year and the time you have available into account, your choices will begin to limit themselves.

The Foreign Office website (www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad) gives the latest travel advice on where is safe to go. A natural disaster or military uprising can rapidly turn a ‘safe’ country into one to get out of. Registering with the local British Embassy when you arrive ensures that the relevant authorities know that you are there.

Do not underestimate how long visas can take to process, and check the expiry date of your passport; many countries request a minimum of six months before expiry at the point of entry. Be sure to get the necessary vaccines and anti-malarial drugs; your local GP can offer advice. Be aware of the risk of rabies in a significant number of countries, even in Europe.

The BVA Overseas Group has produced guidance on carrying medicines overseas. Taking donated anaesthetic drugs in your luggage to help out a charity could land you in prison; do not underestimate the potential seriousness of getting caught.

You may need to register to practise, in which case you will need to take the correct documents, which may include original degree certificates. The RCVS Register includes details of some overseas veterinary organisations – take careful advice from your host or contact the BVA Overseas Group for advice.

Who will pay?

Funding for overseas work is limited, although the BVA's website includes a list of grants that are available to students and practising veterinarians; these are provided by a variety of organisations.

Commercial sponsors may provide support, but will want something in return. Several years ago, a chocolate manufacturer sponsored us to go to China. In return we lugged tens of bars up a very steep mountain for photo shoots, but at least had the chocolate to eat as a reward!

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