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Life beyond the stethoscope
  1. Kate Richards


Kate Richards is Deputy Director of Strategic Business Planning at the Ministry of Justice. She explains how she has used the skills honed as a vet in non-veterinary roles within the Civil Service

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MY veterinary degree is the foundation of my career. It has been an interesting, fascinating and varied career, comprising a number of different roles working with animals and politicians, in farmyards, fields and the boardroom, wearing wellies and heels. It has been quite a journey, one that I had not anticipated when I graduated from the Dick Vet with a burning desire to be a farm animal vet.

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I spent 14 years in large animal practice. I was a partner in a mixed practice in the north east of Scotland and enjoyed the rural life, developing my skills and experience in predominantly dairy, beef and sheep work. During this time I became interested in marketing and initiated farmers' meetings and newsletters to grow the business. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in practice but felt constrained by the lack of opportunity to develop my career.

I left practice to join a major pharmaceutical company, based in its UK headquarters in west London, propelled by the desire to have a more normal working pattern and join a hockey club, so I could train each week and play every weekend as one of the team. The rationale for this move was a mystery to many of my farm clients, one of whom cried out at my leaving party: ‘Bit Kate, there's nae coos in Lindin ye ken’ [sic], translated as ‘But Kate, there are no cows in London you know’.

As a veterinary adviser in a major pharmaceutical company I worked with farmers and vets across the UK, rather than at a local, practice level, and with colleagues in sales and marketing, and in production sites across the world. I did a great deal of travelling and, at the end of three years, I had refined my packing technique. I followed up my marketing interest by studying for a diploma in marketing and secured a post as a brand manager with the company. Responsible for a portfolio of livestock products, I developed marketing strategies and campaigns for the sales team, supporting them with regular visits, giving presentations at farmers' meetings and veterinary practices the length and breadth of the UK. I launched new products onto the UK market, which was really exciting and a great opportunity to work with experts and opinion leaders in the field.

From pharma to the Civil Service

I have spent the past 10 years in the Civil Service, which I would not have predicted when I qualified. The Civil Service is a vast organisation spanning 17 main departments and, as such, presents an enormous range of opportunities, including leadership and management roles and working in policy, research and delivery.

I have had a number of non-veterinary roles that have been demanding and fulfilling, broadening my experience and expertise way beyond veterinary horizons. In all of these roles I have drawn on the skills I honed as a practising vet: gathering evidence, collating and analysing facts and figures, making decisions, financial and resource management, strategic planning, collaborating, team working, listening, influencing, negotiating and communicating. I have never lost sight of the veterinary profession though and have kept my hand in. I served on the British Cattle Veterinary Association council for six years, where I was programme secretary, developing the content of the scientific programme for the annual congress, and I am currently a BVA Young Vet Network facilitator.

I took the opportunity to join Defra as a veterinary adviser in London in 2003, working on the welfare of livestock. I worked on the revision of the ‘Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Cattle’ and went across to Holland to learn their lessons from the H7N7 avian flu outbreak in 2003. I was then promoted to the position of Scientific Secretary to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. This independent scientific committee assessed risks from BSE and vCJD to public and animal health, and food safety. I worked with medical practitioners, dentists and scientists across the world, discussing topics for committee debate, developing committee papers and publishing committee opinion. I worked with colleagues working in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and related medical fields in the UK and across Europe. This committee was recognised and respected internationally, with a reputation for independent robust scientific opinion.

Non-veterinary role

I then moved to a corporate communications role in HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), working closely with the presidents, chief executives and chairs of the department's key corporate stakeholders such as the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the Institute of Chartered Accountants for Scotland, England and Wales. This was my first role where my veterinary qualification was not a prerequisite for the job. I found this a little unnerving to begin with, but I had a supportive manager who delighted in telling everyone I was a vet – it certainly made an impression. I have found this a very useful tactic when I want to make a room full of civil servants sit up and listen. At my leaving do I presented my manager with an (unused) rectal glove – this had added resonance for him as he had been a customs officer when he first joined HMRC and it obviously brought back certain memories!

Principal Private Secretary

I was the Principal Private Secretary for three Secretaries of State for Scotland where I dealt with issues as diverse as the VIP welcome party on the tarmac at Edinburgh airport for Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the two pandas from China; taking the Scotland Bill through Parliament; and the Papal visit to the UK in 2010. It was a fascinating experience to be so close to the beating heart of Westminster for three years.

The run up to the general election and subsequent frenzied five days before the Coalition government was finally announced was an experience I will never forget. After five days of excited anticipation and negotiating the seething press pack every day on my way into the office, I finally received my call from the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary telling me who had been appointed as the new Secretary of State for Scotland – Danny Alexander MP. I alerted the office and was at the door of the Scotland Office to welcome him to his new role in front of the TV cameras. He was in post for just two weeks before a reshuffle moved him to HM Treasury. Another anxious wait for a phone call from Number 10 ensued, and my second Secretary of State in as many weeks was announced. That was on a Saturday night, and on Monday I was at the (revolving) door of the Scotland Office to welcome him to his new role in front of the TV cameras.

Next stop was the Cabinet Office working on the Civil Service Reform Plan, an ambitious plan to modernise the Civil Service. As well as improving public services, all departments are reviewing their operations to make efficiencies to meet HM Treasury spending targets.

Board roles

I am also a non-executive director on the Moredun Foundation and Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) boards. The Moredun is committed to promoting animal health and welfare through research and education, globally. Its research has led to the development of many vaccines, diagnostic tests and improved treatment strategies for farm animals across the world. SRUC delivers tertiary education, research and consultancy services in the rural sector. My work as a non-executive director draws on all the knowledge and experience of strategic planning, finance and resource management, independent and impartial judgement, high standards of governance and propriety that I have gained working at a senior level in several government departments. These discussions and making decisions in a veterinary and scientific context is extremely fulfilling and has brought me in a full circle back to my roots.

Proud to be a vet

I still have my old stethoscope as a reminder of my time in practice. One of my last visits as a practising vet was to some pigs and I left my stethoscope hanging over the pig pen wall when I went off to clean my boots. Within minutes the pigs had it down and when the farmer handed it back to me he said: ‘They piggies have chawed off they luggy bits’ [sic], translated as ‘the pigs have chewed off the ear pieces’.

My journey has had its challenges as, having overcome my own self-limiting belief of ‘I am a vet – what else can I do?’, I have had to persuade others of the many transferrable strengths and skills I possess. As a result of my determination to break out of my (perceived) veterinary pigeon-hole I have had the opportunity to work in a number of challenging, extremely fulfilling and rewarding non-veterinary roles in the public and private sectors. I am proud of being a vet; ours is a very versatile degree, which can take us in many directions if that is what we desire. There are many opportunities out there. ‘As a result of my determination to break out of my (perceived) veterinary pigeon-hole I have had the opportunity to work in a number of challenging, extremely fulfilling and rewarding non-veterinary roles in the public and private sectors’

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