The Cornell Leadership Program at Cornell University, usa, aims to assist talented veterinary students to embark on careers in research, academia, government agencies or industry. Over 400 students have participated since the Program began in 1990 and their subsequent careers have been followed. In this study, five sources of data were analysed: application documents of the participants; audio recordings of interviews with each participant from 2000 to 2007; annual tracking records of alumni after graduating with a veterinary degree; spontaneous comments from alumni about how the Program influenced their career plans; and a list of published scientific papers by alumni. Analysis revealed that about 50 per cent of veterinary graduates were establishing themselves in careers envisaged by the Program, although many of them experienced conflicts between a vocational commitment to clinical practice and a desire to solve problems through research. Many alumni asserted that the Program had influenced their career plans, but they had difficulty in accepting that rigorous scientific training was more important in acquiring research skills than working directly on a veterinary research problem. One career of great appeal to alumni was that of veterinary translational science, in which disease mechanisms are defined through fundamental research. It is concluded from the data that there are three challenging concepts for recently qualified veterinarians aiming to advance the knowledge of animal disease: research careers are satisfying and rewarding for veterinarians; a deep understanding of the chosen field of research is needed; and a high standard of scientific training is required to become an effective veterinary scientist.