Eve Martin has sold freezer insurance, written for a glossy mag and now cares for sick animals. Jill Craven opens a monthly series to mark Europe's Year of Lifelong Learning on adults changing career. The third patient of the morning is a pet snake. Small, but perfectly coiled, it comes into the Cheshire veterinary surgery with the family cat. The snake (fungal infection) is referred to Chester Zoo; the cat (annual booster) gets a jab.
Twenty years ago, the vet on duty was a telephonist for one of those small firms that perch above Oxford Street, a "specialist" in freezer insurance. Eighteen years ago, she'd become a journalist; then 10 years ago - at 31 - Eve Martin started her veterinary degree at Liverpool University.
It's been a difficult journey to the day of the snake. There were many long days and fraught nights and the birth of the first of two daughters during a Christmas vacation - "exceptional, but not entirely unplanned". And, back at the start, an admissions officer telling her she'd be lucky to get in because, unlike school-leavers, "the country won't get as many years out of you".
In 1976 Eve graduated with a liberal arts degree from Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She majored in Russian and, as part of her course, spent a year at the London School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies where she met her British husband David.
The Oxford Street job (her first in Britain), was followed by stints in journalism including two years in New York with Conde Nast's Brides. In 1983 it was back to Britain and law school for David.
Eve then took her first steps towards becoming a vet. It was no sudden whim. "It's something I'd wanted to do since childhood - and I'd probably have done it sooner if I'd stayed in the States as I knew the system."
In Manchester, while working full-time as a journalist, she spent four nights a week at Stockport College of Technology studying A-level physics, chemistry and biology. She'd done some "but not a lot" of physics and biology as part of her four-year Brandeis course. Chemistry was new.
Two years of part-time study later, she got an A in biology, B in physics and C in chemistry. Looking back, she says she should have done O-level chemistry. "You can't launch into an A-level. But I didn't have any advice" - possibly, she admits, because she didn't go looking for it. "I was determined, went along and signed up; there was no intervention." Many of her fellow students dropped out, but of the others one is now a doctor, another a chiropodist, another a physics graduate.
Bristol University had offered her a place conditional on two As and a B. "All that mattered were the required grades. No one seemed to look beyond them. " The offer was rescinded and the university refused to consider a resit. "So I drove to Liverpool and presented myself at the admission tutor's door. It was the first time someone seemed to think something of the way I'd done it all. " The university guaranteed her a place if she got an A in her chemistry resit. A year, and a private tutor later, she made it.
Supported by David, and with a discretionary student grant, she began the five-year BVSc course. "Everyone said that A-levels were the hard bit. It wasn't true. At university you had to assimilate huge amounts of information, year after year. But I love science. I love the specificity of it." She became expert at using small amounts of time to their best advantage - 10 to 15 minute bursts were enough for concentrated study.
A decade on, it still isn't easy: salaries for junior vets are not over-generous, the hours awful for a parent with young children. But she's one of those rare people who has found what she wants to do. Is it all she imagined? "It's different - and a challenge." Her days as a journalist have helped. "You get a few facts from the owner and you have to find out what's wrong with the animal. You have got to be observant. And really, to be a good vet, you have to be interested in people. Too many don't realise until it's too late." That will not change, she says, while selection procedures continue to concentrate on high grades.
She likes the science, the diagnostic challenges - vets make few referrals (the snake's was rare). "You do it all yourself. I like that; running my own show."
SOURCES OF HELP AND ADVICE
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has campaigned for years for a more coherent adult guidance service - lobbying strongly for a year-round national telephone helpline. "How could we afford a hotline for cones, but not a helpline for adult learners?" asks institute director Alan Tuckett.
He says the Government is now committed to considering a permanent helpline which, if it gets the go ahead, should be open in the middle of next year.
For the moment he suggests adults considering a change of career or further education seek advice from: * local careers services which offer education and jobs guidance for adults; * job centres which have occupational advisers; * educational providers - local colleges, adult education services and universities; * local libraries; * if you're in work, employers. They're a suprising source of useful advice, he says; * The BBC, which offers FE and HE guidance as part of its morning FE programmes.