Sheldon Middleton is happy in his first job five years after qualifying from Cambridge, but his route into the profession was not straightforward.
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Why did you want to be a vet?
My inspiration to be a vet came from my uncle's dairy farm in Cheshire. Aged 12, I saw my first caesarean section on a dairy cow and was impressed by the way the vet handled the situation. I liked the idea of working outside and with farmers, and started doing work experience that would either encourage me or put me off. Many farms, abattoirs, veterinary surgeries and laboratories later I still wanted to be a vet, so my school exam choices were built around this aim.
Did your schooling go to plan?
I took physics, chemistry, biology, geography and general studies at A level. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake, as general studies was not considered in any offers from vet schools and neither was a fourth subject. When I first applied for veterinary medicine you could apply to all six universities in one year, which I did. I was interviewed by two and rejected by all six. Also, I did not get the necessary A level grades. I had arranged for my mum to phone my results through to me while I was waiting outside the admissions office of one of the universities, so that I could try to get in through clearing. I went to the office anyway, and was told that I didn't have the grades to get into veterinary medicine, and that I would find it very hard to get in with retakes. It was suggested that I should consider an alternative career. This was definitely a low point.
What spurred you on?
Never one to give up easily (a characteristic that has also been described as ‘impossibly stubborn’), I decided to retake my A levels. I also decided to reapply for veterinary medicine and I got four rejections out of four (you could by now only apply to four veterinary universities). I was also rejected for medicine on the grounds that I obviously wanted to be a vet!
My school was fantastic. I was allowed to wander in and out of lessons, exams were scheduled and invigilated for me alone. The staff were extremely supportive and I achieved the grades I needed. Throughout the year I had visited four of the vet schools for advice, which was invariably ‘find an alternative degree’.
Did you consider another career?
By now, with four A grades at A level and lots of work experience, I believed I was bound to be accepted. I took a year out to earn some money and reapplied for a third time. Yet again, I got four rejections. This time I got the message; I was not destined to be a vet and I would just have to lump it. I didn't want to be a doctor or a dentist and, to be honest, I wasn't really sure what else I wanted to be. I decided to do a generalised degree and postpone my next life decision for three years.
I took up the offer to read zoology at Edinburgh, which was fantastic and I made good friends. I was thoroughly enjoying my studies, bar one thing: I was in halls of residence with vet students. I couldn't see how they had got in and I hadn't. I had the same grades, the same drive and, in most cases, more work experience. I decided to knock on the door of Edinburgh vet school to see how I could go about getting in. Essentially, I had to reapply through UCAS with next year's applicants, otherwise I would be considered after everyone else.
Tell us about your fourth application.
It was a Friday morning in October when I found this out – and the deadline for UCAS veterinary applications was on the Sunday. The UCAS and Cambridge admission forms were half completed by my school and posted to arrive on Saturday morning. I had to complete them and get them back in the noon post on the same day; and my fingers were crossed that they would be accepted a day late. It is ironic that the rejected forms were the ones on which I had spent hours, poring over the phrasing, while the successful forms took less time to complete than the dash to the post office.
Again, I applied for four veterinary courses. This time I got only three rejections. I was relaxed at my interview, because I was happy in Edinburgh: the worst outcome now would be that I would have to carry on there, rather than go through the previous soul-searching.
How did you feel when you were finally accepted?
I finally got my acceptance letter from Cambridge during the Christmas holidays. I wasn't expecting it until I got back to Edinburgh, but the admissions office had obviously realised I wouldn't be at my halls of residence address. I remember that day as a wonderful one, spent visiting my parents at work, my former headmaster and teachers and friends to let them know.
Eighteen applications and 17 rejections later, I finally had my place to read veterinary medicine. I think the fact that I was by then two or three years older than most of the year, and that I had had a rather circuitous application process, gave me a better perspective on the course. I didn't spend every waking moment studying. I got involved with university life and, among other things, became president of the Cambridge University Veterinary Society. I was asked to give the speech at our graduation on behalf of my year and I was awarded the Animalcare prize for ‘consistently outstanding contributions to student and college life’. It was a long way from being told I would never be a vet.
Looking back, I can see why I was discouraged by the universities and agree that sometimes the most helpful advice you get is the advice you don't want to hear. It is almost impossible to differentiate the huge number of exceptional candidates that are presented each year and I don't envy the universities that job. I'm glad my stubbornness paid off though.
▪Sheldon is the editor of the BSAVA's new ‘BSAVA Pocketbook for Vets’.
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