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VetGDP 4: the wider impact of the programme

At the start of this series of articles, we looked at the background to the RCVS Veterinary Graduate Development Programme (VetGDP) and how it grew out of Vet Futures-based research that suggested retention of younger vets in particular was an issue. In this final article, BVA president James Russell writes about his hopes for the VetGDP programme and how it fits in with other projects, including those from the BVA, that arose from Vet Futures.

As someone who has signed up for the Veterinary Graduate Development Programme (VetGDP) advisor training and who has spoken in support of the programme alongside RCVS president Mandisa Greene, the biggest question I have been asked in relation to the programme is:‘Why now?’ For me, the answer to that is that now is exactly the time to be launching a programme that provides additional support for new graduates in the places they will be working.

Although the programme was being developed before the pandemic, Covid-19 and the disruptive impact it has had on lives and education means that we have a cohort of graduates coming through, some of whom are feeling underprepared and disadvantaged, and this is exactly why we need it to be in place.

However, the programme is not just about this particular year or cohort. There has, for some time, been a recognition more generally that greater support for our newest colleagues is needed. The Vet Futures research made this much clearer, although it is important to stress that it would be wrong to paint a completely negative picture of the situation for new graduates. There are a lot of really good experiences for new graduates out there; for example, there are corporate graduate development programmes, many of which were operating in a similar way to the VetGDP. There are also many independent practices that have development programmes and very good attitudes towards mentoring and developing graduates, as well as similar initiatives in other areas such as academia and research.

However, we also know that there are negative experiences out there for new graduates and that those formative first 18 to 24 months in veterinary practice can really shape your overall longevity in the profession. If your first impression of the profession is that it is unsupportive, this can knock your confidence in a way that can be difficult to shake off and may unfortunately leave some questioning their choice of career.

My hope for the VetGDP is that it can deliver more confidence for our new graduates as a whole because, thanks to the VetGDP adviser training, everyone is going to be getting a consistent experience of support, as far as that is possible in a practice environment that can often deliver very different experiences on a day-to-day basis.

This consistency of support will be in having someone within the practice who can recognise the graduate's needs and support them to deliver on their goals. The structure of the VetGDP will provide a stronger, more open and more honest platform from which graduates can have discussions with more experienced professionals in their practice. Ultimately, I think it will give the newest members of our profession who are graduating now the knowledge that, when they go to an RCVS-approved graduate training practice, they will be working for someone who they know will invest time, effort and thought into their development.

Wider impact on practice culture

As someone who has, in the past, managed a large practice team, I know that one of the key challenges of managing people is understanding the individual goals of those for whom you are responsible. For example, you have to help them work on the development of their skills and their career trajectory, as well as help them meet their professional and personal goals. All the while you need to make sure that you are fulfilling the needs of the business that, ultimately, has to be successful in order for their needs and wishes to be met.

I think the way that the VetGDP has been set up, with its emphasis on feedback, reflection and goal setting, through regular structured meetings to prioritise next steps for the graduates, may hopefully have an impact on the wider clinical setting. It can lead to more conversations of this nature with other members of the team, whether they are in clinical or administrative work or otherwise. It means we can find those synergies and make sure that each member of the team is put in the place that best suits them and the business, and so improves the outcomes of the whole practice team, both financially and emotionally.

Good veterinary workplaces

In terms of synergies, I also see the VetGDP and BVA's Good Veterinary Workplaces policy and project as two sides of the same coin. The fundamental principles of Good Veterinary Workplaces are about the whole team buying into better and improved ways of working, something that can apply within any work environment.

Once the team has bought into wanting to improve things, it can open up conversations about how members of a team can play to their respective strengths, how we can develop different team members in the ways that best suit them and making sure to recognise and praise good work. The structure provided for graduates by the VetGDP can feed into a lot of this work.


As I've said, retention of the veterinary workforce has long been a concern, particularly in light of an already existing overall shortfall in the number of veterinary surgeons in the UK. It is also something that has been exacerbated by external factors, including the UK's exit from the European Union and the Covid-19 pandemic. A key aspect of the findings of the Vet Futures project was that if there's not enough water in the bucket, you need to increase the flow in, and reduce the flow out.

In terms of supply, we are seeing more vet students being trained in the UK now than ever before, but we need to make sure they are coming into a profession that's enjoyable, and gives them career structure and satisfaction. While no single project or initiative can ensure this, I am glad that, from the Vet Futures project, a number of initiatives have been developed, such as the VetGDP and the Good Veterinary Workplaces project. This means there's a broader focus on mentoring and supporting people – ultimately this has to be a good thing for the longevity and sustainability of the profession.

I think the focus on mental health has been key to this as well and, as a Vetlife trustee, I recognise that people have found the past year in practice exceptionally hard, and while there are brilliant initiatives in place to support people with their mental health and wellbeing, it is absolutely OK to be finding things tough.

If projects such as the VetGDP and Good Veterinary Workplaces can increase the opportunities for people to have conversations with their peers and managers about their health and welfare, then that is certainly a good thing, and it needs to be combined with adequate and appropriate support.

Finally, I think the way that the profession has taken to the VetGDP needs to be praised. When it was first launched at the end of last year there was some criticism, including from the BVA. Some suggested that the timing wasn't right, with practices already being under a lot of pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic, and there was some pushback against the scheme.

However, many positives about the project have since been highlighted and at the BVA we are grateful that the RCVS has recognised the pressures on practices and adjusted the timeline for training the VetGDP advisers accordingly. This will ensure that more graduates receive a high-quality introduction to the profession.

As always, when you introduce something obligatory there will be a need for frameworks and boundaries. Moreover, some people may not like the additional time pressures, burdens and inconvenience that these frameworks can introduce, especially when things are already so tough. But the BVA recognises that we need to do all we can to ensure all new graduates are supported in the future, particularly in 2021 as they may be coming in with a slightly different level of confidence compared with other cohorts.

It has been fantastic to see so many practices engaging with the VetGDP by putting team members through the VetGDP training and working towards the RCVS-approved graduate development practice status.

About the Author

James Russell is a 2002 Royal Veterinary College graduate and a postgraduate diploma holder in production animal and livestock medicine. He has over 17 years' experience working in mixed practice.
In September 2018, he stepped down as director of a large veterinary practice in Ashbourne to become an independent veterinary consultant.
Russell has been associated with BVA since 2008, when he joined the Veterinary Policy Group. He went on to become the inaugural East Midlands representative on BVA council from 2010–2012 and has been chair of the CPD committee since 2016. He is currently president of the association, covering the term 2020/21.


August 2021