To generalise or specialise?

generalise or specialise

If you are a junior vet unsure whether to generalise or specialise, here are some things to consider. By Angela Tufvesson

After at least five years of university study you’ve finally graduated as a fully qualified vet. Qualified to work in general practice upon registration in your state, that is. For some vets, the completion of undergraduate studies marks the beginning of a career in general practice, while for others it’s a precursor to further study and a specialist career path like feline medicine or radiology. 

All things to all animals

Most newly minted vets, as well as those who’ve been in the profession for years, work in general practice. Dr Paula Parker, president of the Australian Veterinary Association, says the generalist route offers exposure to a wide range of clinical experiences as well as a significant amount of independence. 

“One of the benefits of going into general practice or mixed practice is you get a lot of hands-on experience and you get to see lots of different types of practice,” she says. “You get to see a relatively high case load if you’re in a busy practice and have the chance to be a primary decision-maker on cases.”

For vets concerned that a generalist career offers little chance to stand out from the masses, Professor Margaret Reilly, head of veterinary science at James Cook University, says vets working in general practice have a lot more opportunities to upskill than in previous generations.

“These days you can practise at a very high level,” she says. “You can get more qualifications as a general practitioner now—there’s more choice than ever. I graduated 31 years ago, and I don’t remember having all these options to obtain extra credentials and memberships.”

Drilling down 

Professor Peter Irwin, principal of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Murdoch University, estimates about five per cent of vets pursue specialty training, but the numbers are increasing. 

“The rise of specialists has occurred in the last 10 or 15 years driven by greater affluence of the pet-owning public and the need, interest and capacity to take diagnosis and treatment further,” he says. “This goes hand in hand with a huge increase in scientific knowledge about animals.”

Vets with a very strong interest in a particular area are attracted and best suited to specialist practice, says Professor Reilly. “They have a passion for something; for example, horses, surgery or feline medicine,” she says. “In my experience, the passion comes first then they think, ‘Maybe I could just do this and nothing else’. I don’t think anyone decides to be a specialist and then decides what it’s going to be in—it’s the other way around.” 

“One of the benefits of going into general practice or mixed practice is you get a lot of hands-on experience and you get to see lots of different types of practice.”

Dr Paula Parker, president, AVA 

Specialising, especially in something like small animal surgery or equine medicine, is often perceived as more glamourous than working in general practice but getting there is no picnic. Professor Reilly says a residency—required training that takes an additional three to four years—is as academically rigorous as a PhD. 

“It is a very tough gig to do a residency and achieve specialist qualifications,” she says. “It’s all-consuming and at the expense of everything else in your life. It’s not an easy undertaking by any stretch. For some people, it’s all they want to do, and they’re driven to do it but if there’s any doubt in your mind, you would struggle because of how hard it is.”

A starting point

Ultimately, most industry experts agree that it’s beneficial to begin your career with a stint in general practice, even if the end goal is specialisation—and especially if you’re unsure which path to pursue. 

“What we’ve seen a little bit of a trend towards over the last few years is people entering into the specialist pathway earlier in their careers so potentially spending less time in general practice or going down the internship path directly from university,” says Dr Parker. 

“I found my experience working in mixed practice in a regional town to be incredibly helpful for all of the later roles I’ve had, particularly the experience with a high caseload and also being a person who’s the decision-maker and the driver.” 

In fact, Professor Irwin says it can be a disadvantage if young vets begin specialty training without working in general practice. “We say to our students to try and work in general practice for a few years to get used to veterinary science and clinical practice, and to meet all the different sorts of people and animals that make the job so interesting,” he says. 

And once you’ve sharpened your skills in general practice, regardless of whether you choose to generalise or specialise there’s no need to limit your experience to practice environments. Indeed, Dr Parker says a growing number of veterinary careers follow a ‘leapfrog model’ with practitioners applying their skills and experience in a variety of non-clinical settings. 

“One of the best things about a veterinary degree is it opens up a wide variety of career pathways,” she says. “A lot of specialists, rather than working directly in clinical practice, work in industry, such as in pharmaceutical companies, consultancy roles, management roles and corporate leadership, and there’s a few that work in government roles. Similarly, general practitioners pursue other ways to use their career as well.”  


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