Could You Be a Veterinary Pathologist?
Advice and recommendations for those interested in pursuing a career in animal health
Many pathologists are unaware of the veterinary arm of the discipline – and many veterinarians are unfamiliar with the full scope of a veterinary pathologist’s work. As a result, many promising potential veterinary pathologists end up in other careers – and that’s something I’d like to change by shining a light on our profession. Although veterinary pathology residency programs typically attract many more applicants than they can accept, there can be no downside to raising awareness and to inviting others to consider joining the field.
The general veterinary practitioner and the veterinary pathologist essentially have the same patient population, but the main difference lies in their client bases. As a general practitioner, my clients were the people who owned the animals I was caring for. However, as a pathologist, my clients are now the general practitioners themselves! And, because I’m also involved in research projects, I also have clients who are researchers in academic labs, biotechnology companies, and pharmaceutical companies.
With respect to skills needed, I think the two areas of work have more similarities than many people realize. For example, both types of vets work to diagnose and manage diseases in the same patients. Both areas of work rely on thorough investigations and interpretations of findings, as well as on excellent communication skills to ensure accurate messaging about what we’ve found. In both careers, we share the most important and clinically significant findings with our clients. And, if other issues are found, we let them know and explain that they’re either of lower priority or clinically meaningless. Miscommunication isn’t something we can totally avoid (we’re only human, after all) but, by being thorough and precise, we can at least reduce the likelihood of miscommunications that can negatively affect patient (and client) care.
But there are clear differences. As the pathologist, I’m at an advantage because, when I’m interpreting my findings, I not only have the original expert interpretations of the general practitioner, but also additional findings from my own investigations. However, unless I’m doing a postmortem examination, I don’t have access to the whole patient – I only have tissue samples and a written commentary from the general practitioner. Unless the diagnosis is cut and dried, this can be a disadvantage, because it can feel like putting together a jigsaw puzzle while some key pieces are missing. Working as a pathologist has further heightened some areas of my skills, such as problem-solving and analytical thinking. Although I also needed these skills in general practice, I need them more than ever now.
Those interested in pursuing a career in veterinary pathology will need to do a residency in pathology after completing vet school. The training programs are separate for anatomic pathology and clinical pathology, although there is some overlap between the two areas during training, so students will have to decide which subspecialty they would prefer to pursue before applying to residency programs.
People who haven’t yet fully made up their minds about pathology as a career may want to try shadowing some pathologists to get a sense of the different areas of work available. Many places are very happy to organize this, so interested students could contact pathologists who work at vet schools, diagnostic labs, research labs, or government institutions. This is a good way for them to get an idea of the day-to-day work involved in different areas of pathology and see if it interests them.
Those who already know they want to apply will need to get their CVs ready! Residency programs are competitive – I was the head of residency training in anatomic pathology when I worked at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and I typically received 40 or more applications for each advertised position, so people who want to be competitive must make sure their CV helps them stand out. Useful additions to a CV might include a range of work-shadowing experiences in different areas of pathology and with different animal species; attending pathology rounds sessions at a vet or even a medical school; research projects the student has been involved in; journal publications they have authored; technical lab work they may have done; and any teaching they may have done, especially on topics like animal diseases or the life sciences in general.
It’s also important to find a mentor – someone who can guide applicants with the above, answer any questions they have as they go through the process, help them prepare a CV and applications, help them navigate their interviews, and (for those whose mentors know them well enough) write reference letters for them. And if any vet students or vets reading this are thinking about a career in pathology, I’ll certainly be happy to answer any questions you might have or to help in any way I can!
Independent Veterinary Pathology Consultant at Midwest Veterinary Pathology, Lafayette, Indiana, USA.