After working in mixed and then small animal practice, Catriona Curtis decided to switch to industry, joining Virbac Animal Health as a technical adviser
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WHEN I graduated in 2004, like most of my fellow graduates, I thought I would be a mixed practitioner for much of my veterinary career. After a couple of years in mixed practice, I realised that the dream was not always the reality. Eight years on, I look at my close university friends and not one of us has remained in mixed practice. Some are small animal assistants; others have started their own practices or have become joint venture partners; one works for Defra as a lay TB tester; one is a physics teacher and another is studying for an MBA. Some are still travelling the world searching for their ideal career path. Last year, I made the move to industry, and became a technical adviser with Virbac Animal Health. Doing a degree in veterinary medicine opens many doors, and not all of them are to practice.
After qualifying, I spent three years in mixed practice in the south Lake District. I loved it there and made many lifelong friends. I learned how to calve cows and carried out my first caesarean, lambed hundreds of sheep (in the rain and wind), honed my routine neutering skills, fixed my first cruciate and experienced the highs and lows of being on call.
I then felt the travel bug calling and went to New Zealand for six months, and combined working as a locum with travelling. This was a fantastic experience, but it also made me realise that my future no longer lay in mixed practice.
After returning home, I became a small animal vet. I worked in a large, progressive practice for four years. During this time, I was invited to join the council of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons . This was something that I considered to be an honour, as I had attended the Lancaster final-year student seminar many years previously. I believed, and still do, that SPVS represents and understands the needs of general practitioners. Serving on the SPVS council also opened my eyes to the vast number of opportunities that a veterinary degree offers. After seven years, I began to question where I was going with my career. I felt strongly that I was ready to challenge and develop myself in other ways, but I wasn't sure whether this was going to happen in or outside practice. I then started to look seriously at whether a career in industry might be right for me.⇓
After some research, I decided that working in industry would be varied and fulfilling, and that it would suit my professional and personal strengths. I wanted to work for a company with a portfolio of products, one that was innovative, and showed commitment to research and development. I saw an advertisement for a veterinary adviser for Virbac, and, reading through the job requirements, I realised that the role played to my strengths. I had often been told I had excellent communication skills; in addition, I loved presenting, and I felt I had always worked well within a team.
I felt strongly that this role would be a fantastic opportunity for me to start my career in industry, and the company had an excellent reputation. I applied for the position and, after a two-stage interview process, was successful.
Working in industry – ‘just as varied as working in practice’
For Cat, working in industry has been a great move professionally and personally: ‘Just like working in general practice, my day-to-day work is very varied.’
Her average week consists of two days working from home and three days out in the field, when she might be delivering lunchtime meetings; providing territory managers with technical support for their day-to-day calls; developing relationships with key opinion leaders; or talking at regional CPD meetings in the evening. ‘One day I could be in Northern Ireland and the next in Aberdeen. Travelling is an essential part of the job. It can't be underestimated,’ she says.
Daily office life includes answering technical queries from vets in practice, dealing with and following up suspected adverse reactions, writing clinical articles for the veterinary press, and maintaining and developing internal technical training. A part of the veterinary adviser's role is providing technical support not just for vets, but also to the sales and marketing team.
It is essential to have exemplary product knowledge, not just about your company's products, but also those of the competitors, she says. Also, you need to understand and have an in-depth knowledge of the diseases concerned with your product range and the pharmacology of the drugs, as well as being aware of the important published material relating to your products and associated diseases.
‘I thought when I started with the company that I had a reasonably good knowledge base, but I quickly realised that what I knew was just the tip of the iceberg,’ Cat says. ‘Virbac has a vast range of products; we cover everything, from vaccines, dermatology ranges, antibiotics, reproductive drugs, in-house laboratory tests and much more. I now spend much of my day thinking “Wow, I wish I'd known that when I was in practice.”
‘The job also offers the opportunity to attend conferences such as BSAVA congress and the London Vet Show. These are great fun and offer an opportunity to meet and interact with vets in practice. They're not always so easy on the feet though – just ask anyone who works in industry.’
There is, perhaps, a perception that life in industry is easier than in general practice. Cat says: ‘I can honestly say that I don't think that's right. The work is different, but in no way easier. I work more at home in the evenings now than I ever did when I was in practice. The work is fulfilling, although it can be challenging. Dealing with suspected adverse reactions is difficult to start with, as you feel personally responsible. However, you quickly realise that reactions do occur (albeit rarely), in veterinary and human medicine.’
A proportion of the sales team originally started working in the human field. She says it has been satisfying to watch them grow and develop on the veterinary side of the business. ‘When you speak to them, they confirm that the veterinary world is a large family. This reaffirms my belief that we are all best off working together, as we have similar aims and beliefs – ultimately we want to help pets live longer, healthier and happier lives. We are also all in business.
‘Practices invest their profit into buildings, staff and equipment to help provide a better service for their clients and pets, and, in the same way, companies invest in research and development, which means that they can continue to develop products that make a difference to pets and livestock.’
Advice to others
My advice to vets or nurses looking to make a move into industry is to prepare, prepare and prepare. Interviews tend to be more structured than those held in general practice, and they may involve specific competency questions, staged interview processes, delivering a presentation, or attending an assessment centre. It is essential that you research the company and are aware of its general strategies and products, as well as the attributes it looks for in its employees. This can go a long way in helping make your interview a success. Six months on, I know the move into industry has been the right one for me. It has been an exciting, challenging and enjoyable few months so far.
I can't wait to see what the future brings and hope that I can continue to play a role in helping to build bridges between practice and industry to help everyone work together for mutual benefit.