Taking the plunge

Work placements give students hands-on experience and confidence.

Times have changed since Dr William Sutherland (BVSc 1979) graduated as a veterinarian. In his first job out of university, he was guided through just two horse race meetings before his supervisor left him to it.

“He said, ‘I’m going away for a week; you can mind the practice.’ I’d only been there four days, and suddenly I was in charge.”

After heading overseas to work and travel, Dr Sutherland returned to Australia and followed his wife to Mildura, in northwest Victoria, where he established his own clinic just outside of town.

That’s where he’s been for almost 35 years, transforming an old farmhouse on a four-hectare block of land into a hive of activity. The Benetook Veterinary Clinic has grown to include equine stables, ten horse paddocks, nine vets and more than 20 staff.

cute kitten
Dr William Sutherland.

In the early days of the clinic, Dr Sutherland received a request out of the blue from Germany. Could two university students come and do a placement at his clinic? Realising they must have seen a job advertisement he’d placed in the Australian Veterinary Journal, Dr Sutherland took the students on for eight weeks, assuming it would be a one-off.

“But then the Germans mentioned their experiences to other people, and we had people come over from Slovenia and Hungary, the United Kingdom then Canada. They just kept on coming! We developed an unofficial policy: if anybody asked, then we’d be happy to have them.”

Dr Sutherland has been an enthusiastic supervisor of University of Melbourne veterinary students undertaking their clinical placements for many years. The clinic usually hosts two students through the Melbourne Veterinary School’s Clinical Extramural Program at any one time.

“Students benefit greatly from good quality vet clinics giving them opportunities to practise their skills before they’re actually put in front of clients,” he says.

Clinical placements enable students to hone essential skills taught by the University, and to develop a perspective on veterinary professional activities. The program provides high-quality and rewarding experiences for students through a deeply valued and long-term partnership with the veterinary profession.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine students at the University are required to complete 15 weeks of clinical extramural work with veterinarians in their final year of study. Placements are scheduled throughout the year and are undertaken in veterinary clinics around Victoria, as well as interstate and overseas. Through the generosity of donors, student travel bursaries can help students complete a placement in locations away from Melbourne and gain invaluable experience.

Final-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student Georgia Arnold received a travel bursary to assist in undertaking a clinical placement at Benetook that she gained immensely from.

“I’m so thankful that, with the support of the bursary, I was able to travel and spend time at the Benetook Clinic, a placement that offered me unique veterinary exposure in a practical hands-on collaborative environment. Overall, it was such a worthwhile learning experience, both educationally and personally,” she says.

cute kitten
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student Georgia Arnold.

Dr Sutherland notes that Georgia arrived at the practice with the right attitude. “She wanted very much to improve and do everything she could to learn.”

His philosophy is to give students as much practical experience as they can handle. “We supervise the students, indicate techniques and protocols, take them through how we do it, then give them practical experience. They’re going to be out and qualified veterinarians in a relatively short time, and we’d like them to enter the workforce having some confidence.

“I don’t pretend to teach students all the theory in my practice. But I expect them, when they see a case, to go and research it, then come up with answers.”

Georgia says the approach means she gained confidence and new skills quickly. “There was always support from a great team of veterinarians and nurses who went above and beyond to maximise my learning and provide me with clinical experience. One memorable example was being given responsibility to assess, plan and perform surgical treatment, as well as writing and documenting a legal report for an animal welfare neglect case, allowing a great opportunity for me to develop the multitude of disciplinary skills required to be an effective veterinarian.”

As for why Dr Sutherland is so devoted to educating the next generation of veterinarians, he says it’s a natural aspect of being a professional. “Part of our role is to educate and mentor emerging vets as they’re coming through, so that hopefully, when they enter practice, they remember those experiences fondly and think it’s a reasonable thing for them to give back too.

“I really object when I see job advertisements that say, ‘Seeking experienced colleagues only’. Even the very best vet in Australia was a new graduate once upon a time.”

By Anders Furze

If you are interested in hosting Doctor of Veterinary Medicine students, please email vet-extramurals@unimelb.edu.au