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Embarking on an internship
  1. Hannah Stephenson


An internship can be the springboard from which to launch your career

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WHEN I started my internship at the Royal Veterinary College in 2007, I think it's probably true to say that I wasn't quite sure what I was getting myself into, but, without a doubt, the year was one of the best (and hardest) of my life. I had just finished a thoroughly enjoyable two years in mixed practice in the north of England, and was starting to feel that being a general practitioner was not what I wanted to do forever.

Internships are becoming much more widely available as more and more large referral practices need to expand their veterinary team. This is great for those who are keen to embrace the opportunity to work in referral practice, but many people do not realise the variation between individual internships that might affect their enjoyment of the position, or their future career decisions and prospects.

Interns in universities and private practice usually have similar job descriptions. While all positions give you the opportunity to be involved in more complicated referral cases, the role of the intern usually extends to covering night duty in the hospital on a rota system. The hours are long and hard, and notoriously not very well paid. Nevertheless, they provide a tremendous opportunity to learn.

Most people do an internship with the intention of applying for a residency and then to specialise in a particular area of veterinary medicine or surgery. However, an internship can provide valuable training for any veterinary surgeon, including those who then wish to enter or return to first-opinion practice. In a way, an internship is like a very intensive extra year of vet school – where you actually get to make a lot of the decisions, but there is help available to guide you and, on occasion, overrule you! Hannah Stephenson moved to Liverpool as a research assistant in 2008 and became a resident in veterinary cardiology in 2009

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University or private practice?

One of the benefits of a university internship may be the reputation of the institution and its staff, which may attract the attention of future employers, particularly when accompanied by a good reference. Many excellent private referral centres can boast similar benefits. A little research can determine the success of interns from various institutions in gaining residencies or other positions later in life – this might be an important factor when thinking of where to apply. Most of the time, however, candidates are just thankful to be offered a position, as applications are extremely competitive. If you intend to pursue a residency after your internship, then applying to an institution that offers residencies in your chosen field is a good idea (provided you make a good impression).

A further benefit of a university position is the potential to become involved in non-clinical research projects within the faculty and even beyond. The majority of clinicians in university positions are highly skilled researchers who are actively involved in national and international projects, and as an intern you will have the opportunity to participate in these, albeit most likely in a small way. Certainly, if you hope to pursue a career in academia, then a university internship (and residency) may be of more benefit.

In many universities, interns are expected to participate in some first-opinion work. This may be something you want to research when applying for different internships, as the amount varies widely between institutions, as does the type of work (emergency versus routine). In almost all situations you will also be expected to get involved with teaching students, which can be a very rewarding experience.

Student teaching is an important part of university-based residencies, so having some teaching experience can be valuable. You will also usually be invited to attend clubs, sem-inars and lectures provided by residents and lecturers within the university, further adding to the learning experience.


One of the most frequent questions that people ask when considering an internship is whether to apply as a new graduate or gain experience of first-opinion practice first. This has to be an individual decision, but my years in practice were incredibly valuable in preparing me for the internship and for my future residency, in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding of common veterinary problems. Conversely, an internship as a new graduate can provide a supportive learning environment, allowing you to develop your skills under the supervision of specialists.

No-one goes in to an internship thinking that the pay will be great, that the hours will be nine to five, or that you'll have plenty of time for extracurricular activities. The job is challenging, often exhausting and occasionally emotionally draining, but ultimately most interns find the experience very rewarding.

Whether you wish to pursue a residency, or simply prepare yourself for top-quality first-opinion practice, an internship can provide the springboard from which to launch your career.

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