The veterinary degree is a great starting point for a variety of career options. Cheryl Scudamore, of the Royal Veterinary College, discusses the role of veterinary pathologists
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IF you ask members of the general public what a pathologist does, most people immediately think of forensic pathology as depicted in television programmes like ‘CSI’ or ‘Silent Witness’. However, in the veterinary field, as in human medical pathology, only a small minority of pathologists are actually engaged in crime-related forensic pathology, and even fewer do this as a full-time job (perhaps one or two in the whole of the UK).
If you ask vets what they think pathologists do, I suspect the majority will think of the person to whom they send their biopsy samples. While diagnostic veterinary path-ologists are much more numerous than veterinary forensic pathologists, they still do not represent the majority of working path-ologists – there are a lot of other options.
Options in veterinary pathology
A veterinary degree provides a fantastic training in comparative anatomy, physiology, pathology and medicine, and this grounding is highly valued in many sectors outside veterinary practice. In fact, the majority of qualified vets who work as pathologists are found working in industry – in pharmaceutical or agrochemical companies and their associated contract research organisations.
In the pharmaceutical industry, the veterinary pathologist's ability not only to recognise lesions, but to understand how they relate to possible toxicity of new medicines and to determine what, if any, risk this poses to animals or human patients, is highly prized, and this is reflected in excellent salaries and conditions.
The ability of vets to be able to integrate information from the genomic to the whole animal level is also extremely valuable in biomedical research.
Veterinary pathologists play an important role in evaluating pathology endpoints from the many animal models used in research. They are found in a wide range of government and research council-funded labs investigating the whole range of biological processes involved in human and animal health through to bioterrorism. They may also be researchers in their own right, holding their own grants and managing their own research programmes.
Many pathologists work principally as diagnosticians, often specialising as anatomical pathologists (involved in tissue-based pathology – biopsies and postmortem examination) or clinical pathologists (involved in fluid-based pathology – haematology, biochemistry and cytology). These roles may be found in commercial diagnostic labs or in the VLA, where pathology forms an important part of the UK's animal health surveillance.
In the vet schools, academic pathologists often have multiple roles, providing diagnostic services to the vet school hospitals, doing their own research, or supporting research, as well as teaching. In the diagnostic arena, there are a small number of opportunities to develop sub-specialities, for example in zoo or wildlife pathology.
The career options are more varied and more interesting than you might at first think. Currently, a global shortage of veterinary pathologists, particularly laboratory animal pathologists, ensures that career prospects are good. In addition to the intrinsic interest and variety of the job, a pathology career also has lifestyle benefits, for example, good pay and conditions, and a general lack of ‘on-call’ rotas.
The path to specialising in pathology is not as clearly defined as it is for many of the veterinary clinical disciplines. Although most vet schools offer residencies in veterinary pathology, there is no equivalent to the clinical internship.
While a pathology residency offers a great opportunity to concentrate on learning the discipline and preparing for postgraduate exams, it is not the only route into pathology. There are opportunities to train on the job in the diagnostic and industrial sectors, although it will probably take you longer to develop the skills and experience to attempt a qualification in pathology.
Unlike the clinical specialities there is no RCVS certificate or diploma in pathology, but recognised specialist qualifications can be gained via the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath), the European College of Veterinary Pathology (DipECVP, DipECVCP) or the American College of Veterinary Pathology (DipACVP), and it is possible to become an RCVS recognised specialist in veterinary pathology.
A postgraduate pathology qualification is not required to be a diagnostic pathologist by the Veterinary Surgeons Act, or currently by any of the regulatory agencies, but employers are increasingly looking for qualifications as part of quality assurance mechanisms. Specialist qualifications are also useful for international mobility. In general, pathologists also do not require a PhD, although having one will confer career advantages in some sectors, particularly academia.
While few pathologists are directly involved in fighting crime, they do spend their careers solving problems by integrating visual pathology information with previous knowledge and experience in trying to understand the underlying cause of a lesion or disease. So, if you are interested in using all your skills to help make quality diagnoses or enable research development, perhaps pathology is the career for you. You can find out more from the websites listed below or by e-mailing me, firstname.lastname@example.org
British Society of Veterinary Pathology
British Society of Toxicological Pathologists
European College of Veterinary Pathologists
Careers in veterinary pathology
American College of Veterinary Pathologists
The Royal College of Pathologists
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