“When I was 13 and just choosing my GCSE subjects, I was grovelling at the bottom of the class in a lot of subjects…”

Failure is another taboo subject in the profession, as it is in most walks of life. We don’t like it, and we don’t like talking about it.

The CertAVP, as part of its “A” module (Foundations of Advanced Veterinary Practice), has you analysing learning methods. Apparently I am a strongly experimental/empirical learner, which means I learn better by trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It also means failure is all part of the learning process.

A lot of people who come into veterinary medicine seemed to saunter effortlessly through school at the top of the class. These people continue to saunter through vet school and into the real world. I wasn’t one of them!

When I was 13 and just choosing my GCSE subjects, I spent a few days at a veterinary practice and decided being a vet looked like a pretty cool thing to do with your day. However, I was grovelling at the bottom of the class in a lot of subjects and my heart sank when I saw you needed pretty much perfect GCSEs and A-levels to get in to vet school – and that’s if they even chose you after interview.

I tried choosing my subjects tactically, going for subjects I was naturally good at. However, it quickly became apparent this wouldn’t work because all the vet schools wanted something mathematical and something chemical in the mix. Biology was actually optional!?!

There was nothing for it but to tackle it head on. I failed a lot of tests and homework assignments, frequently getting red pen “See Me” on the tops of the pages of my work. Every so often, though, I’d nail it and get a good mark. That became more frequent as time went on, marks slowly rose from 20% to 70% and 80% and eventually… eventually… I got the grades I needed to get into vet school.

stampVet school was even harder – the emphasis on memory and the quantity of utter rubbish to be memorised (calorie content of half a bale of hay, anyone?) were nigh on impossible for me, but by becoming a hermit I managed to pass more than I failed and, as the course became more clinical and more relevant, I started to get better marks.

So you could say I’m no stranger to the embarrassment and loneliness of failure.

Now I’m doing post-graduate study and things have changed – there’s more emphasis on thinking, analysis and criticising than on memory and recall of random facts and figures. The CertAVP’s “A” module was straightforward, and the law degree is more on analysing what judgements mean and the effect they will have on future cases – but I still mess things up.

In the last month I’ve had a coincidence of failures: I wrote a case study in my CertAVP course that was, frankly, bad (the weekend at work was intense and by the end I was exhausted and forgot to submit the case report. I received a terse reminder I hadn’t submitted it in time, so wrote it in a rush and skipped over a lot of the detail needed to show logical progression of thought through a case) and, at the same time, I had to submit a dissertation proposal to a committee at law school to describe what I wanted to do over the summer. It was rejected.

You can get a huge number of inspirational quotes about failure by searching with Google, one of my favourites being:

Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.

– Richard Branson

Richard Branson
Richard Branson, by David Shankbone [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
They’ll make you feel better for a second before the abject desperation of your position comes back to you.

My position was that, in a class of 30 eminent doctors and lawyers, my dissertation proposal was the only one to be turned down. They wouldn’t say exactly why, but I knew I had been very controversial in my premise (that medical law discriminates against and exploits men) and hadn’t put the research and word count in to back it up.

I could have grumbled, blamed it on the “no-doubt-feminist bias of the committee” and the fact they didn’t want to be challenged, and tried resubmitting it with more references and more flowery prose. I had taken a month to write the original. They gave me five days to rewrite it, with references, or I’d have to do the dissertation next year. I had to nail it this time, and no mistakes.

That was a very lonely time.

It was incredibly embarrassing to admit to my wife and family that my proposal had been rejected and I would have to keep working on it. I worked late at night for those four nights, lived and breathed a new subject, and my next proposal was accepted within hours of submission. It is a more prosaic topic and less controversial with a lot more literature to support it: “A medical degree is becoming a licence to kill”.

What I gained there was not just an approval of my submissions, but also a deeper understanding of what was expected at this level (what didn’t work). The case report needed to be a standard case, not a fancy or memorable one, that showed progression through logic and reasoning and research, if possible. The law dissertation shouldn’t be controversial or have very little already written on it in journals, unless I wanted to try for a PhD! Now there’s an idea…

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

– Woody Allen

So where am I going with this? If you’re sitting still in your career, content with your bachelor degree in veterinary medicine, then that is a fine and noble pursuit. However, I would say it is a good challenge to try something else – whether a veterinary degree or another one – and in this day and age, distance learning courses and degrees can be done where you have real, meaningful interaction and feedback with tutors. The Open University has a particularly good reputation in this. Other Universities like Liverpool in the UK, and Massey in New Zealand do distance learning courses in veterinary medicine leading to degrees, and a number of CPD providers provide structured attendance courses for certificates.

So far it’s been very rewarding to undertake, and when I fail at something every so often it makes the success all the sweeter, the learning process more valuable, and the achievement all the more meaningful.

When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.

– George Bernard Shaw

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2 years 3 months ago

Brilliant article. I am sitting here now, panicking about having to resit my second yet vet exams in September, having failed one so badly it means I have to do the lot again. The same happened in the first year. I feel as though I am the only one who is not sailing through, and no one else has had to resit every exam in first and second year. I worry about what kind of vet I’ll make at the end of it.


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