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‘I often get asked – do you miss practice?’ 

After graduating in 2019 from the University of Nottingham Vet School, I started working more or less immediately in a small animal hospital which offered plenty of support. 

I tackled all the usual learning curves (plus a pandemic) and still have a camera roll of cute puppy selfies. Yet, despite a reasonably civilized start to my career, I found many aspects of practice needlessly challenging. 

Managing finances, inconsolable grief, and argumentative owners who prefer to take advice from Facebook groups and online forums was frustrating and exhausting. I spent too much time managing owners and not enough time applying the science. 

After spending only 18 months in practice, I was ready for a change. Fortunately, I knew of other ways to use a veterinary degree. Having completed a placement at the Veterinary Pathology Group in my third year of university, I set my sights on a new goal.

How I Became a Veterinary Clinical Pathologist

Albeit my enthusiasm, residencies don’t grow on trees. To bolster my application, I reviewed my own cytology prior to submission, attended webinars and conferences, contacted pathologists from various institutions, and arranged to visit my local lab. I followed all the clinical pathology pages on social media and even requested cytology textbooks for Christmas (which are coming in handy now!). I made sure the labs knew I was interested before a residency even became available. 

Six months in and I am pleased with my decision to leave clinical practice and begin a new chapter as a resident in clinical pathology. 

I still use my veterinary knowledge every day and feel that my work has a positive impact on the animals, albeit indirectly. Although the transition to a desk job required a period of adjustment, I am finding that my levels of stress are lower, my job satisfaction higher, and I have the energy to go to the gym before work. 

Of course, I do miss certain aspects of practice; the client relationships that I developed and the power to alleviate suffering made being a vet so rewarding, and it is something that I will never forget. 

But practice isn’t for everyone, and I think it’s important that young and prospective vets know that there are so many ways to use a veterinary degree and to choose this as an option does not make you a quitter. 

Far from it, there is a shortage of pathologists too! 

That’s why I make a point of sharing my experience through my blog (clinpathresident.com). I want to offer a line of communication, share my journey with others, and inspire them to look for alternative options should they become unhappy in practice.

What is a Veterinary Clinical Pathologist?

Veterinary pathology can be divided into two broad categories – anatomic (these guys tend to work with tissues, i.e., biopsies and post-mortems) and clinical (we deal in cytology and body fluids, i.e., blood, urine, and effusions).

Both roles work closely with clinical vets to identify and treat disease but are also heavily involved in research, which is fundamental in disease prevention. 

Becoming a pathologist doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at a microscope all day. A pathologist may end up working in a diagnostic lab, for DEFRA, in pharmaceuticals, as clinical researchers, freelancing, or teaching in veterinary schools.

Just like in practice, pathologists must work as part of a multidisciplinary team of technicians and admin staff, without whom there is no lab, no pathologists, and no diagnosis. 

Good written and verbal communication skills are key, and we must be willing to keep up to date with recent advances in veterinary medicine and quality control, so we can offer the most relevant and trustworthy advice. 

Pathologists are responsible for ensuring that the data is reliable and is reported in a way that our clients can make practical use of it. With hundreds of samples being processed each day, we are exposed to a wide range of unusual and interesting cases and are never bored.

Training to be a Veterinary Clinical Pathologist

Training to become a clinical pathologist is different from many other specialties because it doesn’t require a rotating internship, although this helps. 

Experience in practice to gather some perspective and appreciate what is common is often enough. Expect to be a student again for three or four years, depending on whether you train at a university (three years) or at a diagnostic lab (four years). 

Residencies that are based in commercial labs tend to run four-year courses to ensure enough time to do the relevant reading, as the caseload is higher. The three examining bodies are the European College of Veterinary Pathology (ECVCP), the American Society of Veterinary Clinical Pathology (ASVCP), and the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath). Each has its own requirements which the residency will prepare the applicant for specifically. Having passed all the required examinations, the candidate earns the title of ‘boarded clinical pathologist’.

The Takeaway

As mentioned previously, there are many ways in which a clinical pathologist can apply their skills. Some pathologists even work part-time in practice. Personally, I think I would enjoy teaching and research, and with the rise in digital cytology, traveling the world as a freelance cytologist sounds like a great plan too. The possibilities are expanding, and I am so excited for the future. 

So, in answer to the initial question, yes, I miss practice, but I love clinical pathology more!

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