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VetGDP 1: the origins of the programme

Over the next few months, the RCVS will be giving us more details of its new Veterinary Graduate Development Programme (VetGDP). In this first article, Chair of the Education Committee Sue Paterson (pictured) explains the origins of the scheme and how the construction of the VetGDP was framed by an evidence base provided by students, new graduates and veterinary practices.

This article was first printed in the Vet Record on 23 April 2021 and has been reproduced on the RCVS website with its kind permission.

Susan PatersonThe transition from student to veterinary graduate can be truly daunting, and I certainly remember in my first few months of practice how important the support of an older, wiser colleague was, to help me reflect and learn from my failures as well as celebrate my successes.

However, over the past decade or so, there has been, among many of the profession, a growing awareness of a potential ‘disconnect’ between the expectations vet students and recent graduates had for their first job after graduation and the realities that faced them when they entered the world of veterinary work. Coupled with this was anecdotal evidence that some workplaces weren't doing enough to support their young vets to reflect on their strengths and areas for development and how they might develop their skills and confidence during the first few months in practice. All this combined to form a view that the profession was at risk of permanently losing a significant number of the next generation of vets because of this disconnect.

The RCVS Professional Development Phase (PDP) aimed to mitigate against this by providing structured goals for new graduates to meet in their first year in practice together with overarching online support and mentorship by an experienced team of PDP deans. Despite the valuable support provided by PDP deans on graduates' reflective notes, an independent evaluation of the PDP carried out 10 years after it was introduced indicated that was not achieving its aims and was perceived by many as a tick-box exercise.

Vet Futures' findings

When the Vet Futures project – a joint BVA and RCVS initiative to futureproof the profession – was launched in 2014, a key piece of research, the ‘voices from the future of the profession’ survey, was conducted by the BVA with nearly 2000 vets who had graduated in the previous eight years. This research found that, while over one-third (37 per cent) said their career met their expectations and 13 per cent said it had exceeded them, this still left half of recent graduates who were partly or wholly unsatisfied with their career.

In the Vet Futures report that was subsequently published in 2015, this finding was viewed as a ‘wake-up call’ for the profession. So what was to be done? The Vet Futures Action Plan 2016–2020 identified this as one of the pressing issues to be tackled, stating that it was ‘important that we address the current disconnect highlighted by Vet Futures research between the expectation of students and the reality of the veterinary career’.

The report recommended that a group be set up to look at the issue of graduate outcomes and develop solutions to narrow the expectations gap, better prepare students for working life and increase the support available for new graduates during their early years as practising vets.

Graduate outcomes consultation

At the end of 2017, I was appointed to the graduate outcomes working group, which was formed to look at the evidence gathered so far and draw up plans for potential solutions to the identified issues. The group was chaired by then RCVS president and council member Stephen May, who has a passion for making sure that our graduates go on to have fulfilling, satisfying and interesting careers. The rest of the group was composed of a mix of equally committed veterinary educators, clinical practitioners and, of course, both vet students and recent graduates.

Before the working group was set up, the RCVS and British Small Animal Veterinary Association conducted a piece of joint research across new graduates and employers to evaluate the impact of the PDP in supporting veterinary graduates during the transition from vet school to vet practice. The aim of the research was to understand the positive and negative experiences of these two groups and included looking into obstacles to learning and development, gaps in support provision, common areas of confusion, and areas of anxiety and concern. The research identified that, while the overall purpose of the PDP was understood and valued, both sets of stakeholders did not feel that it was being fully achieved using the current system, and that this needed to change.

These findings fed into a consultation document produced by the working group, which asked for feedback on proposals to improve outcomes for graduates in four defined areas, including a restructuring of the PDP. While it was clear that the PDP, and in particular our knowledgeable team of PDP deans, had been doing valuable work that had an appreciable outcome on graduate development, it was also clear that there was a desire for a graduate support programme that went further, that was more structured and had more direct sources of support in the workplace environment.

The graduate outcomes consultation, that took place from November 2018 to January 2019, directly asked the professions – which included both student and registered vet nurses, as well as vet students – what type of additional ‘structures’ they would like to see, including some form of RCVS accreditation and quality assurance of practices for supporting their graduates, as well as more direct one-to-one mentoring in the workplace.

For a complex and technical consultation, our graduate outcomes proposals received a fantastic number of responses with some 3686 individuals responding, as well as veterinary representative bodies and other organisations. A number of supplementary focus groups were also held with students, new graduates and employers to discuss the recommendations in more depth.

An analysis of the findings, conducted by the Work Psychology Group, demonstrated a very clear mandate for radical change in how support was delivered for new graduates. The majority of respondents supported RCVS accreditation and quality assurance of practices providing support for new graduates and many respondents said that having designated in-practice mentors, who were also trained in order to maximise their impact in this role, would be integral to any future graduate support scheme.

Developing the programme

It was clear that whatever we did with the results of the consultation we needed to shift any future graduate support scheme away from being viewed as a ‘tick-box exercise’ where graduates were given a list of tasks to complete but which didn't necessarily reflect the reality and complexity of their everyday working lives.

It was in a paper that went before RCVS council in January 2020 where we first proposed a system that uses a concept called Entrustable Professional Activities (or EPAs), which are already well established and in use by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

EPAs can be summed up as holistic activities encompassing a range of Day 1 competences for the graduate to fulfil, and which also provide contextual information for them about how they might undertake this activity and how they might best reflect on and learn from it.

The paper, at this stage, committed to a number of innovations, including developing a bank of these EPAs, setting up a new e-portfolio system for graduates to record their progress, defining the role and expectations of an experienced adviser within this new programme and developing a training scheme for them, developing an accreditation and quality assurance programme and, last but not least, thinking of a new name for the programme!

While many things were disrupted by Covid-19 in 2020, the work of the graduate outcomes working group and the education committee continued largely unabated. In fact, our work on a new graduate support programme was given a significant spur by the pandemic as we appreciated that the next few cohorts of students whose studies have been disrupted by Covid-19 may particularly benefit from the additional structured support it would provide.

By the end of 2020 we had a fully developed scheme called the Veterinary Graduate Development Programme (or VetGDP), and were ready to launch an information campaign about it so that practices and vet students could prepare for its start in summer 2021.

This information campaign included a number of interactive workshops on VetGDP attended by hundreds of vet students from the UK's eight vet schools in which the scheme was positively received by students and faculty alike.

In February 2021 we held three online workshops with the profession explaining more about how the VetGDP will work, which were attended by over 600 people. As a result of this information campaign, at the time of writing we have 1800 vets who have registered an interest in becoming a VetGDP adviser and who will be integral in providing support to new veterinary graduates who join their workplace.

So, what now?

Subsequent articles will spell out in further detail how the VetGDP will work, what it aims to achieve and how it will benefit all parties involved.

We know there are numerous reasons why as a profession we have a poor retention rate. We also recognise that the VetGDP will not be the silver bullet to resolve all those problems. However, we hope that by providing meaningful, personalised, flexible support for graduates in their place of work through trained VetGDP advisers, we can go some way to producing resilient, confident vets who will enjoy a long and fulfilling career within the profession.

Even as an experienced vet who has been qualified for more than 30 years, I am still learning. With age comes the confidence to ask and admit that you don't understand a concept, or a task is beyond your skill set.

I hope that as we establish a learning culture within our workplaces that new graduates will also have that confidence to ask, reflect and develop within a safe and supportive environment to become the best professionals they can. VetGDP will help us achieve this.

About the Author
Sue Paterson qualified from Cambridge university in 1984 and joined a mixed practice in Devon. She is an RCVS and European specialist in dermatology.
She is a fellow of the RCVS, an elected member of RCVS council and is currently chair of the education committee.
Paterson is the veterinary director of Veterinary Dermatological and Virtual Vet Derms, a veterinary telemedicine company.
She has published and contributed to text books and peer-reviewed articles. She has lectured extensively in more than 30 countries.
A past president of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association and the European Society of Veterinary Dermatology, she is currently actively involved with the World Association of Veterinary Dermatology.
She is a trustee of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and works closely with the charity StreetVet.

August 2021