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The New Doctor Dolittles: Veterinarians in Research Careers

In the Doctor Dolittle children’s series by Hugh Lofting, the amazing Doctor Dolittle gains the gift of talking to the animals and learning their secrets. Today there are real “Doctor Dolittles” — veterinarians learning the secrets of animals and their genetics, immunologic mechanisms, brain and nerve functioning, pathogenesis of malignancies, and much more — by state-of-the-art scientific means. And the knowledge they gain is extremely important to humans and for understanding human diseases.

The University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine is one of the most research-orientated veterinary schools in the United States. The Veterinary school is located a stone’s throw from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and there is much interaction and collaboration between the two schools.

Having partnered in research with some academic veterinarians and communicated with many others, I thought I had a pretty good idea what they did. I assumed their research training and research prospects were analogous to ours in the human-focused medical field.

However, in preparation for writing this blog entry I sat down with one of their most distinguished veterinarian-scientists, Richard Dubielzig, and was surprised to learn that while many parallels exist, there are also striking differences between their careers and those of their medical school counterparts.

The curriculum at veterinary medicine schools is very similar in concept to the medical school curriculum:  an intensive 4 year course divided between basic science and clinical learning. As at medical schools, the amount of research emphasis varies widely by institution. The following is a partial list of veterinary schools that have built a solid reputation for doing research and producing quality researchers in veterinary medicine:

University of Wisconsin
University of California-Davis
Colorado State
Ohio State
University of Pennsylvania
University of Florida
North Carolina State
Washington State

One difference between veterinary and medical training is that in veterinary training there is less opportunity to train for a career in research than there is in pursuing a medical degree. So if you want to be a veterinary researcher, you’ll need to earn a Ph.D. degree either before, during, or after veterinary school. Opportunities for combined degrees — D.V.M.-Ph.D. — are more rare and less well-defined than at medical schools.
Veterinary schools offer excellent opportunities for an introduction to veterinary research. Most schools offer summer vacations between the first and second and second and third years; these are great opportunities to spend a few weeks in a research lab. Frequently, students planning a research career will take leaves of absence and work in a laboratory or on a research project between years 2 and 3, or between years 3 and 4, of veterinary school. NIH T32 grants, which pay students stipends to spend a year in a research laboratory, are available at several schools.

The usual route for veterinarians planning a research career is to earn a Ph.D. after veterinary school graduation. That graduate training may or may not have a clinical component. To qualify for an entry-level (Assistant Professor) tenure-track faculty position in a veterinary school, a candidate usually must have completed a  D.V.M., a Ph.D., residency training, board certification, and postdoctoral training.

Many veterinarians with research ambitions find fulfilling careers in the safety or research and development (R&D) divisions of pharmaceutical companies. Here, a Ph.D. in toxicology or board certification in veterinary pathology, respectively, is required. While these jobs have higher salaries than academia, the scope of research is narrower and more directed.

Both Dr. Dubielzig and I are impressed with the enthusiasm and gratification veterinary scientists show for their research. And once appointed to a tenured track, achieving tenure is usually less stressful than it is in most medical schools. The greatest professional challenge is often managing to meet clinical responsibilities while also getting research done. This can lead to stress, insecurity, and feelings of being under-appreciated. Not surprisingly, there is more moving around among positions in both academia and industry among veterinary scientists than there is for physician scientists. But when you ask the veterinary scientist if they would do it all again, the answer is usually an enthusiastic “yes!”