The demand for PhDs remains strong – with more than 104,000 students starting a doctorate research course in the UK during 2021/22 (HESA, 2023). While known as an intensive and demanding learning period that can last for three to four years when studying full-time (Prospects, 2022), a PhD can also bring clear career benefits.
Armed with a PhD, vets and nurses can explore career opportunities across veterinary medicine and in scientific research outside the veterinary profession, and careers that are not in the field of science at all.
Skills and expertise
Undertaking a PhD enables vets and nurses to grow their expertise in specific areas of interest within veterinary medicine and beyond. This can lead to the development of novel research that has a positive, clinically applicable impact on the lives of pets, their owners and the wider veterinary profession. New effective treatments may be identified through randomised controlled clinical trials, for example, while patterns of health and disease can be identified and explored through epidemiological studies.
Undertaking a PhD enables vets and nurses to grow their expertise in specific areas of interest within veterinary medicine and beyond
There are a range of support networks and opportunities to pursue this work. My PhD in feline chronic kidney disease was a collaboration between the Royal Veterinary College and Royal Canin, enabling me to access funding support, facilities and expertise from both academia and the private sector. This assistance extended to the practical application of my research, involving regular liaison with Royal Canin and a visit to the company in France.
Having an industry partner provides mutual benefit to the company and student with the sharing of resources, cross-functional training and networking opportunities. This helped me to develop my skills in communication and research dissemination, while learning about processes within both academic and commercial environments.
Having previously worked in primary care for eight years – many of these at Village Vet, which is part of Linnaeus – I have since returned to Linnaeus following my PhD and now work as its Clinical Research Associate. This role supports research activity across Linnaeus, enabling me to build on my own experience by promoting research within primary care.
There can be an assumption that a PhD will only be pursued by vets with a specialism or intending to train as a specialist, or for vets and nurses who want to pursue a career in leadership or academia. However, as my experience demonstrates, a PhD can offer access to the wide ecosystem of scientific and clinical innovation taking place within the veterinary profession.
As part of Mars Petcare, Linnaeus also has a global network of expertise to tap into – which offers a range of career development opportunities across science and innovation.
An array of options
Beyond the doctorate, potential career pathways are many and varied. Developing a combination of skills that are clinical, client-facing and commercial is of great interest to interdisciplinary teams. A scientific mindset that challenges assumptions, experiments and follows evidence is recognised as incredibly valuable for senior management and leadership roles (Thomke and Loveman, 2022). PhDs are highly valued in government (Heywood, 2015); sectors ranging from consultancy to finance; and other areas of science. They can also provide a route into academia, such as teaching roles.
Developing a combination of skills that are clinical, client-facing and commercial is of great interest to interdisciplinary teams
There are also many options for career progression in primary care or referral medicine. For vets and nurses interested in a career within primary care, a PhD can be incredibly useful. Experience of running clinical trials can aid with handling and caring for patients, as well as communicating with owners. Assimilating evidence-based knowledge, time management and the development of practical scientific skills are frequently used and highly prized in this area of veterinary medicine.
Throughout my PhD I spent several days every month working in a feline clinic, giving me the opportunity to learn advanced cat handling skills and feline behaviour from an experienced clinical veterinary nurse. I utilised these skills daily in primary care practice, a huge benefit of the PhD that I hadn’t expected at the outset.
For those attracted to referral medicine, continuing to train in a veterinary specialism remains a favoured option by many vets. A PhD supports this by promoting expertise in clinical research and publishing, as well as developing in-depth knowledge on certain conditions and the potential to enhance practical competencies. It also develops the ability to assimilate and disperse information widely to a variety of stakeholders, through the dissemination of research in the national and international arena.
Do your homework
There are many factors to contemplate before doing a PhD. Those wishing to pursue a PhD may have a research question and project in mind, or choose to apply for a PhD studentship where the specific research question and project has already been determined by the academic institution.
The practicalities of studying also require careful consideration. As well as deciding on your time commitment and location, funding is a critical factor. There is government student support available, as well as Research Council grants, industry sponsorship, university bursaries and charities that are willing to finance research in their field of interest (Prospects, 2023).
The practicalities of studying also require careful consideration. As well as deciding on your time commitment and location, funding is a critical factor
Looking beyond the work involved in a PhD, its personal advantages may depend on the career choices made after the course. But the wider benefits are clear. Careers are rarely linear and obtaining a PhD offers a wide range of opportunities for progression and development.
The findings of a doctorate can also have a direct and long-lasting impact on the health and welfare of pets and their owners. It can help to grow the knowledge and expertise of the profession – meaning that even those without a PhD can benefit from its opportunities.
|This article was originally published in Pathways to Innovation: Learning and Leadership in Clinical Veterinary Research. Free to download, the report comprises research and articles by experts from across the veterinary profession.|