I grew up in the countryside in Scotland, with more animal friends around me than human friends. Dogs, cats, crows, a cow called Daisy, Jemima the bad-tempered goose and her friends, horses, rabbits, goats and hamsters.
I loved spending time with them, cleaning their stables and cages, grooming and washing them, and talking to them. My family were mostly farmers and I enjoyed the summers watching my aunt milk the dairy cows and my uncle clip the sheep. I watched All Creatures Great And Small reruns, a TV series about vets working and living in the Yorkshire Dales.
So it was no surprise to my mum when I told her I’d like to be a vet.
At 14 years old and in my 3rd year of high school, I spent Wednesday afternoons not playing rugby, football and hockey like most other students; instead, I worked at my local vet clinic.
I cleaned the kennels of dogs and cats staying overnight. I pre-washed the surgical equipment before putting it in the sterilising machine. I sorted and labelled blood samples in the lab. I prepared the distemper and parvovirus vaccines during consultation hours so the vet could save time. I tidied the waiting room, vacuuming and tidying the pamphlets strewn by the pets’ humans. And when a dog or cat’s owner couldn’t bear to be present when we put their pet to sleep, I held the dog or cat’s paw as they looked at me, a stranger, as they slipped from existence.
Despite difficult moments like that, I loved working at the vets. After a year of Wednesday afternoon volunteering, I was turning up to help on half-term holidays and as part of my bronze and silver Duke of Edinburgh scheme.
I considered all this experience would be essential for improving my chances of getting into one of the few highly competitive vet schools in the UK. But I also needed some top grades in my school work.
I met with Emma, the career advisor at school, and she told me I must sit four subjects: biology, chemistry, English and mathematics in my fifth year of high school and that I must ace each subject.
I took her advice and studied hard while volunteering much of my free time to help at the vet clinic. By this time, I helped the travelling vet as he moved from farm to farm, dehorning cattle, checking cows’ pregnancy state, and once, delivering a foal during a thunderstorm.
Shortly before the final exams, I started the application process for vet school.
On looking at the minimum requirements for entry to all vet schools in England, I discovered that because my grades were Scottish, I needed top grades in five higher-level subjects, not four. So I didn’t have enough subjects to apply to vet school, and it was far too late to do anything about it.
“Perhaps all my experience on the farms and working with vets will be enough to make up for the missing subject,” I thought.
But it wasn’t. I just didn’t have enough subjects.
“She has one job to do, and that’s to advise kids on their entire future careers, and she screwed it up for me,” I cursed and blamed Emma.
I didn’t share this failure with anyone except my mum because I felt partly responsible. I should have checked the entry requirements myself rather than let someone else hold my future in their hands.
I did my best in the exams, knowing that even if I got top grades, I couldn’t attend vet school the following year.
After the exams, I visited the career advisor at the first opportunity I could.
“I’m sorry I gave you the wrong information about subjects. I used to work in Newcastle and hadn’t realised there was a difference between the Scottish and English systems,” Emma explained.
I had accepted I wouldn’t get to vet school and was no longer angry with her. But Emma gave me some hope by convincing me that if I remained at school for another year and sat some Advanced Highers, they’d be enough to get into vet school. I had no idea what those were, but I was willing to try anything.
The following year, I studied for an Advanced Higher in Biology and Chemistry, and I loved them more than any previous type of study. Instead of endless classes of listening to a teacher and making notes, then studying those notes and sitting for an end-of-year exam, they were mostly based around a large research project. I had never done scientific research, and it was exciting.
In Biology, I choose to study how environmental factors affect the growth rate of brine shrimps, something NASA scientists did on the Apollo 16 and 17 missions.
In Chemistry, I studied the efficiency of a horse’s digestive system by comparing the water and mineral content of the food my horse ate with what came out the other end. In a small private lab space reserved for only the advanced higher chemistry students, I boiled, distilled and dried horse poo with Rancid and The Offspring blasting out a little tape deck.
It was a glorious time of exploration and freedom to pursue my research interests. It was the best year I spent in high school, and I got the highest grades any student had received. And I fell in love with research.
Although I’d failed to get into vet school immediately after my first round of exams, I’d discovered scientific research. I had to thank Emma, my careers advisor, for her incompetence – from failure came a new opportunity.
When I failed, I had the chance to try something new—something that might not have been possible before. And it opened a whole new world.
Thinking about this moment, I can see that even when we fail, there can be positives that come from it. It’s important to remember this because often, when we fail at something, we think it’s the end of the world and give up. But if we keep going despite our failures, being open to opportunities, good things can happen.
So don’t be afraid to fail. It might just lead you to something great.
p.s. Even though I’d discovered scientific research as a possible alternative career path, there was still a part of me gnawing on the idea of becoming a vet. And so I tried once again…