Philip Robinson, who gained a MSc in Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health while working in the government veterinary service, extols the benefits of distance learning
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AFTER graduating in 1996 from Glasgow, I worked in mixed practice – mostly large animal – in Northern Ireland and Scotland for just over two years. I then applied for a job with the Veterinary Service of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) in Northern Ireland, and started work as a veterinary officer (VO) in the summer of 1999.
My first eight years as a VO were based in a divisional field office, with the main focus being disease control on farms, especially bovine TB and, in the early days, BSE. I also carried out animal welfare inspections on farms and other animal establishments such as riding stables, pet shops and boarding kennels. I was trained as an Official Veterinarian (OV), and worked in cattle, pig and poultry slaughter plants as part of DARD's fully integrated Veterinary Service.
One of the primary functions of a government veterinary service is to deal with outbreaks of epizootic disease. This was to become a very present reality in 2001 when foot-and-mouth disease occurred in all parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, and this was an extremely busy time for all of us in DARD.
During my time as a field VO, I studied for the RCVS Certificate and then the Diploma in State Veterinary Medicine, and although it was difficult to study while maintaining a full-time job, I found a great sense of satisfaction and achievement in gaining these qualifications. It takes a high degree of self-motivation to come home and study after a day's work, but I found that I enjoyed the learning experience.⇓
In 2007, I transferred from the divisional field office to DARD's Veterinary Epidemiology Unit. This was a change of direction in my career, albeit still within the government veterinary service. As training for the new post, I decided to take up the MSc distance learning course in veterinary epidemiology and public health offered by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). A colleague had already studied with the RVC and recommended it, and I felt that the course was well suited to my needs. The great benefit was that I could continue with my full-time job while studying for the degree. So, within three months of taking up the post I started studying once again.
My target was to complete the degree in three years, and to do so I had to complete seven modules. The core modules – veterinary epidemiology and animal health economics, veterinary public health and statistical methods in veterinary epidemiology – were compulsory. I was also required to choose four other courses – my choices were economics for livestock development and policy; management of infectious disease outbreaks in animal populations; research design, management and grant application writing; and advanced statistical methods in veterinary epidemiology. All the course materials, including extensive notes, course textbooks and CD-Roms, were sent to me, and were of a high standard. There was online support from the tutors as well as an online discussion forum where students from all over the world could interact. The academic year began in February, when I began working on assignments, and I submitted them throughout the summer. The year then finished in October with written examinations.
I was honoured (and surprised) to graduate with distinction and to gain a University of London Distance Learning 150th anniversary prize for the highest overall marks. I had the privilege of meeting HRH the Princess Royal, Chancellor of the University of London, at a reception after graduation. This capped a day to remember, and was a wonderful way to celebrate the conclusion of three years of study. I have been putting the knowledge and skills gained through the Masters into practice in my research, and, in fact, I couldn't do my current job without having done it.
Distance learning is a brilliant way to study, but it takes discipline and hard work. I continually had to juggle the demands of work and family life, but I managed with a lot of support from my wife. One of our four children was born just before I started the course, and another was born just after I finished. There were times when I had to write an assignment with a baby on my knee, but spending time with the children helped to keep me sane, especially during revision periods.
I have had an extremely enjoyable and fulfilling career as a government veterinarian. Although I miss calving cows and lambing sheep, I have developed new skills and a very different knowledge base from my days in practice, and have never regretted the change in direction into the state veterinary sector. I have devoted a lot of time and effort to develop myself professionally, and this has really enriched my day-to-day work and given me new interests and experience. I can thoroughly recommend distance learning as a way to achieve further veterinary qualifications, and would encourage vets who want a challenge to seriously consider the benefits of postgraduate study. It could open up a whole new world of opportunity.