A new study of 844 veterinary students showed that the species they hoped to work with played a bigger role than gender, farming background, or animal handling experience in determining which sector they intended to work in post-study.
According to the study’s lead author, its findings have important implications for filling industry labour shortages affecting public health, food production, and animal welfare – in particular, shortages of vets in intensive animal production and aquaculture.
Dr Adele Feakes is The University of Adelaide’s Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Practice Management. She and her co-authors found the biggest portion of students expressed a preference to work with typical pets like cats, dogs, guinea pigs and birds, then wildlife and/or zoo animals, then hooved animals like cows, sheep, alpaca and horses.
Want to fill veterinary shortages in key industries? Find the students who like pigs and fish
They were less likely to express a preference to work with intensively farmed animals like pigs and chickens, and least likely to want to work with fish or laboratory animals.
However, more students intended to work in practices that included large farm animals than ones dealing exclusively with pets. Students were least likely to want to work in non-clinical veterinary fields or outside of the veterinary profession altogether.
Intentions to work in pet-only practice, practices dealing with large farm animals, and intensive animal production reflected students’ preferred animal types. Students who expressed a preference for working with fish and water animals, meanwhile, were much more likely to intend to work in non-clinical veterinary fields, like research, industry, diagnostics or public health.
Gender was shown to be irrelevant in veterinary students’ intentions by sophisticated statistical analysis that accounted for all inputs.
The importance students placed on income and financial knowledge in their future professional work was a decisive factor only when it came to students’ intent to start or buy their own businesses and to a small extent for non-clinical veterinary work.
The importance students placed on leadership in their professional work was also associated with business intentions, as was, interestingly, their self-reported level of experience handling rodents, fish, or wildlife.
Although intentions were low for non-clinical veterinary fields and working outside the profession over all student participants, final-year students were less likely to intend to enter business or work in non-clinical veterinary fields (like research, diagnostics, industry or public health), and far more likely to intend to work outside of the profession.
“Students do find themselves considering how they will use their veterinary science education as they approach graduation”, said Dr Feakes. “But for the undersupplied veterinary sectors, this negative final year effect is not good news.”
Dr Feakes said that the study’s findings could be applied to primary and secondary school learning materials. Further, she suggested that universities could consider screening applicants to ensure representation of species preferences associated with sectors of need.
“Educating veterinary students is expensive and there is an undersupply of graduates for high need sectors such as biomedical research, industry and rural practice, despite some veterinary programs focussing on rural supply,” she said.
“Our finding of the importance of species preference to veterinary student intentions means we could harness this idea for primary and secondary level educational materials. For example, children’s books, games or activities about caring for animals and veterinarians could help by featuring a wide range of animal types, with less use of dogs and cats.”
“This finding could also be applied in veterinary school admissions processes, to help boost supply of veterinarians to undersupplied sectors.”
With that in mind, she warns that the best means of doing so needs to be thought through carefully. “I would caution against using questionnaires and interviews for species type preferences in veterinary program applicants, due to risk of ‘coached answers’ from applicants,” she said.
“I am very interested in exploring innovative adoption of tools from marketing to ‘reveal’ students species preferences such as choice experiments, eye tracking analysis, facial recognition and/or virtual reality games.”
Feakes et al. (2019). ‘Predicting career sector intent and the theory of planned behaviour: survey findings from Australian veterinary science students’. BMC Veterinary Research.