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Veterinary students perceptions of research: An analysis of opinions and a teaching strategy to break down students' negative attitudes to research

Jan Thomas
Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
Murdoch University

Background

As a rigorous five-year undergraduate program, Veterinary Science has a high unmet demand and attracts extremely able students but the numbers of graduates that progress into research are low. The Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Science at Murdoch University is highly ranked for research outcomes and many of the teachers are world class researchers. While honours and doctoral student numbers are high, these are usually graduates of three year Bachelor degrees, and only rarely from Veterinary graduates. This is despite calls and encouragement from veterinarians and academics for veterinary graduates to consider a diversity of career options and the widely held view in the profession that, given their wide range of expertise, veterinarians are well placed to form part of, and lead, research teams.

Various strategies have been attempted to encourage veterinary students to consider research as a career. At Murdoch, special seminars to go through honours options are available and academics give informal encouragement to the notion during lectures. More formal attempts have been tried at Universities such as Cornell University (McGregor, 1999), where selected students undertake a leadership course which includes preparation for research. Typically however, most graduates progress directly into private practice. In common with other professional vocationally focussed degrees such as physiotherapy (GDS 1998) and dentistry (GDS 1998) data indicate the majority of graduates from veterinary science gain employment after graduation and it may be that ease of employment is a major reason for lack of graduates taking up honours and doctoral studies.

Alternatively, students may lack confidence because they have limited exposure to research practice. For the most part the only exposure students get to research is via the inclusion of current content in subject material and by having teachers who are also researchers. Do our students ever consider research as a career or is the focus for work in practice so strong during their undergraduate lives that students will not contemplate research until after they have been in the workforce?

This paper discusses reasons why veterinary students do not consider research as a career option. It examines a strategy for encouraging veterinary students to consider research as a potential career through developing an understanding of researchers as people not simply an understanding of the research outcomes. The strategy is aimed at improving students' perceptions of research, and to encourage better communication between students and researchers about the process of research and through this communication, expanding the horizons of these talented students.

Description of the teaching strategy

In their third year, veterinary students complete a unit, Diagnosis, which views veterinary science a series of problems with varying solutions depending on the context. One of four modules addresses problem solving in research. During this module the students examine how problem solving in scientific research is conducted both in theory and in practice. They examine how humans influence the outcomes of science through guided readings, debate and essay. Importantly, the module also incorporates several research scientists and academics reviewing their careers, how they became involved in the research that they currently undertake and how these decisions were made. During these sessions, researchers did not dwell so much on the outcomes of their research, nor on the subject of their research. They covered issues such as the reason they decided to do research, how their jobs had progressed, how their research may have changed directions over their career, and why they chose to study their area of research. These frequently identified issues such as current funding opportunities, employment options available, unexpected cross fertilisation of ideas, serendipitous breakthroughs, seeing an opportunity (both job and research opportunities) and being prepared to take advantage of these. For the students, the researchers seemed to have changed from experts giving a lecture on a topic which they knew everything about, to people who were displaying human characteristics and progressing through life with a sense of direction but with the exact route often determined by other factors.

Research method

Students completed a survey prior to their enrolment and on completion of the unit. Amongst other things, the survey addressed questions of students perceptions of research, and self appraisal of their ability to undertake research. Each student was assigned a code and their answers were scored as either yes/not necessarily/no or as factors that were important or not important. All results were then entered onto a data base with standard statistical data generated. In particular the means of results scored on a ratings scale prior to and after completion of the unit were compared using paired T-tests. Changes were considered significant when p<0.05.

Results

Opinions were mixed on what constituted the characteristics of a good researcher. Several characteristics, such as "love of animals" and "intelligence" and "sense of humour" were significantly increased prior to the study and this did not change as a result of the study. Several characteristics such as "the ability to communication" and "the ability to work in teams" were not considered important prior to the study and this did not change as a result of their study. There were two characteristics that were statistically different as a result of the students' study. These were "ability to see an opportunity" (p<0.05) and an "interest in the research area" (p<0.01).

When asked "Have you ever considered research as a career?" significantly more students said yes after completion of the unit (p < 0.01). More importantly, students felt that as a result the limited exposure to researchers in this personal way allowed them to see what a researcher actually did (p=0.0000) and allowed them to better understand how research actually happened (p=0.0000).

Students were asked to identify important negative issues for them in taking up life aspects of life as a researcher. Aspects covered issues such as boredom, insecurity of tenure, income, work context and so on. The major issues for veterinary students both prior to and after the unit were loss of clinical skills (63% and 56% respectively) and not enough contact with clinical work (45% on both occasions). Perceived boredom in research decreased with 38% of students seeing research as boring before the unit and only 26% after the unit. Conversely, income became an issue for students after the unit. Prior to discussions with researchers about their life, only 25% of students thought that the income was insufficient. This increased to 45% after the unit.

Conclusion

By the introduction of some simple strategies to expose students to the human face of research and researchers has substantially expanded the horizons of veterinary students. Students were more likely to have considered research as a career after this unit. Students became more aware of the diversity of skills needed to be successful at research, particularly the skill of "seeing an opportunity", a factor which did not necessarily relate to scientific knowledge. Many of the skills that universities try to develop, such as problem solving skills and communication, were not seen by students as significant personal qualities for researcher success. Comparisons between the researchers views on the importance of some of these skills should constitute further work.

Given that loss of clinical skills is a major deterrent for students, it may be possible to design joint research and clinical positions catering for the professional and financial needs of the such professional graduates whilst at the same time building researchers.

A simple tactic to break down the barriers between the perceived expert researcher and students has resulted in a raised awareness in students about job opportunities and careers in research. Self confidence is a significant determinant in whether students consider a undertaking a research honours and potentially continue on a research career. By allowing students to relate and communicate with researchers on a more personal level, it has provided students with more confidence in their ability to achieve good outcomes in this area. This strategy is an inexpensive way to encourage excellent students into research and builds on the principle that the sharing of personal thoughts and ideas is more likely to establish relationships between two parties, in this case researchers and students, opening up further opportunities for all concerned.

References

GDS (1998). Graduate Destination Survey. DETYA, Commonwealth Government, Canberra Australia.

McGregor D. D. (1999). Leadership training for veterinary students. J Vet Med Ed, 25(1), 6-11.

Please cite as: Thomas, J. (2001). Veterinary students perceptions of research: An analysis of opinions and a teaching strategy to break down students' negative attitudes to research. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/thomas.html


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