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Google tells me that the edge of the universe is expanding outwards at 68 kilometres per second per megaparsec. To clarify: a parsec equals 3.26 million light years, and a megaparsec equals a million parsecs. Get it? Me neither, but suffice to say that it’s faster than the speed of light. NASA’s Solar Probe Plus, the fastest spacecraft ever built, has the potential to travel at 0.067% the speed of light. In other words, it is impossible to get to edge of the universe. We will never ever get anywhere near to catching up. (We can’t even see the galaxies at the edge of the universe, because they are moving away from us so fast that their light will never reach us.)

Does anyone else ever get a similar feeling when you think about knowledge and technology? That no matter how much you learn and how hard you try to keep up, everything just seems to be getting further and further away from you? Even within your own field of knowledge keeping apace with the changes can seem impossible. Perhaps 50 years ago one could choose a field within veterinary science and manage to know most of the things that there were to know in that field, but these days we are developing so fast and acquiring knowledge at such breakneck speeds that you cannot hope to ever know it all.

Small wonder then that veterinary students and new graduates feel so overwhelmed and under-equipped for the careers that lie ahead of them: like being flung into space in a primitive spaceship, trying to reach the edge of the universe. 

This feeling of not knowing enough was recently highlighted while I was sifting through the answers to a survey that was sent out to veterinary students from around the world. One of the questions asked was: “What concerns you most about your future career as a vet?” More than 30% of respondents listed the same thing as their main concern: “How will I ever know everything that I need to know?” The same theme pops up again and again throughout the rest of the questionnaire in various iterations: “I don’t feel like I know enough.” “Where is the best place to get more information?” “How do I best improve my skills?” “Everyone will think I don’t know anything.” You can almost smell them shitting themselves.

 

Launching a rocket into space requires an unthinkable amount of energy. During the first few apocalyptic seconds after launch while everything shakes and rattles, threatening to fall apart, the rockets will use up almost all of the fuel onboard just to overcome gravity and fight friction. By the time it reaches the outer edges of the atmosphere it’s travelling at 28 000 kilometres per hour, glowing white hot with effort.

Watch this – it’s awesome!   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tx6jrvCCd4

And then everything suddenly becomes easier… As the craft leaves the atmosphere and is slingshotted into orbit friction reduces dramatically. Forward motion becomes much easier and progress requires a fraction of the fuel that was needed for lift off. As the spacecraft moves further along it’s journey the earth’s gravitation pull becomes exponentially less. Soon the craft is coasting along at tremendous speed, using only small bursts from thruster rockets to maintain forward motion and adjust it’s course.

 

Launching a veterinary career is not entirely dissimilar. You could think of your early education as going through the space programme: you’re preparing for your journey into space. Another major concern for the students in the survey was: “Am I good enough?” Well, if you’ve been selected into a veterinary degree then you’ve made it into the space programme. The space programme doesn’t generally take in people who don’t have ‘the right stuff’. So let’s put that one to bed: you’re good enough. 

Then, toward the end of your studies the countdown starts, and somewhere around final year you’ll launch: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…we have lift off! The effort required during this stage will be tremendous. You’ll need almost all the skills and knowledge that you have to just get you moving. At times it may feel like things can fall apart at any minute, and it may seem impossible that you’ll ever have what it takes to be successful. There’s nothing you can do to decrease the effort of the launch. Trust in the integrity of your spaceship (yourself and your education) and that you have enough fuel to get you into orbit, because you do. Your course is structured to teach you more than enough to launch your career. 

And then you graduate. You’re flung into space. It’s unfamiliar territory, it’s huge, and it’s scary. But you’ll notice something: as you proceed on this journey it gets easier. The further you progress the less effort you’ll need to keep moving. The momentum that you’d built up during the launch will carry you along. Experience and subconscious learning takes over from conscious study, and things that previously seemed impossibly complicated become simple. (Remember how daunting driving a car seemed when you first started learning to drive?)  You’ll need progressively smaller bursts of effort and learning to keep you moving or to help you change direction. 

Which brings us to another important point. If you start this journey without aiming at a destination you will likely end up lost and aimlessly wandering around the vastness of space. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up nowhere. Try to pick a path – choose something to aim at, and follow that path. This will help you to focus your learning and will speed up your growth. If you later find that it’s not the destination that you had in mind you can always change direction  without too much effort. Remember, out here in space you just need a few bursts from the booster rockets to change your journey completely. 

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up nowhere.

Don’t get me wrong – a career as a vet will never be easy. It’s still a huge journey, and challenges will be plentiful. This is no return trip to the moon. It’s a lifelong journey exploring the farthest reaches of space, boldly going where you’ve never gone before. You will need to take stock, make mistakes, recalibrate, change direction, and you’ll definitely need to refuel. Luckily refuelling stations abound in the veterinary space these days: congresses, textbooks, mentors, on-line CPD, blogs, podcasts… take your pick – they can all keep you moving forward. If you don’t, you’re likely to start drifting aimlessly, or plummet spectacularly back down to earth. Try to delay this until you’re ready to retire! 

So how do you ever know everything I need to know, young explorers of the veterinary universe?

You won’t. You will never know everything you need to know. You need to never stop learning, and never think that you know enough. The more you learn, the more you’ll realise how much there  still is to know. Rather than becoming paralysed by what feels like a critical lack of knowledge and skill, be inspired by the prospect that you never need to become bored or stagnant in this career. 

It’s not about trying to reach the edge of space –  about knowing all there is to know. It’s about journeying well and to never stop exploring.

And one more thing: remember to occasionally look back at how far you’ve come, appreciate the view, and try to enjoy the ride.

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