Counseling veterinary students who aspire to careers in science

Douglas D. McGregor College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.

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 MD, DPhil
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David R. Fraser Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

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 BVSc, PhD

Preparing for a successful career in science is a daunting challenge, requiring objective analysis of one's own attributes and potential, careful planning; a realistic assessment of employment prospects; and a firm commitment to a course of action. Nowhere are those realities more evident than in science careers to which veterinary students might be attracted.

Although discovery-based careers are diverse and intellectually rewarding, remarkably few veterinary graduates elect to pursue them.1 Apart from their strong vocational commitment to a career in clinical practice, veterinary students get little exposure to the full range of opportunities their professional qualifications make available. For reasons of tradition and expediency, the typical curriculum strongly directs students into veterinary practice. Efforts have been made to counter that bias and to highlight careers in which discovery and public service are significant elements of an individual's professional responsibilities. These efforts include the provision of research experiences for veterinary students through dual-degree programs, summer programs, and elective options within the professional school curriculum.

Participation in research at an early stage in one's education can be a career-defining experience, especially when experiential learning is supplemented by vocational counseling. Counseling is particularly valuable when it emphasizes the importance of making wise decisions about graduate training. Guidance in selecting an accomplished mentor and a stimulating environment for graduate study can significantly improve the prospect that students will make discriminating choices about graduate training and their careers. A report2 commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that a trainee's prospect of success in science as measured by the ability to obtain an NIH R01 research grant is related to the time one spends in a superior research environment. Counseling held in conjunction with the Cornell Leadership Program for Veterinary Students emphasizes this point by encouraging students to make career-relevant decisions that will enable them to realize their full potential. The following narrative describes the authors' experience with counseling, its limitations, and the perceptions students have of the preparation necessary for a career in science.

The Leadership Program for Veterinary Students

Encouraging students to evaluate their own capabilities objectively and empowering them to make informed decisions about graduate training and their careers are important objectives of the Leadership Program for Veterinary Students. Offered annually, this 10-week program combines faculty-guided student research; vocational counseling; and student-directed learning activities calculated to promote leadership, critical thinking, and communication skills. Field trips to federal research facilities are additional features of the program.

Since 1990, 359 students from 54 veterinary colleges worldwide have taken part in the leadership program. Although the life experiences, culture, and academic backgrounds of program scholars are diverse, all have distinguished themselves in a wide variety of professional and personal pursuits. They are highly motivated individuals who have the ability to excel as research scientists, teachers, and public health professionals.

At an orientation meeting, students complete an anonymous questionnaire. The questionnaire explores the respondents' perception of their ability to evaluate graduate training options and the capacity of mentors to guide their graduate education and professional advancement. Information gleaned from the document revealed several misperceptions about graduate training that enabled program facilitators to address those matters in subsequent counseling sessions.

The first counseling session is chaired by the codirector of the leadership program (DRF), an established scientist and experienced mentor, but provision is made to include more recent veterinary graduates. Experience has revealed the value of this decision because veterinary students relate readily to individuals who are only several years older than themselves, but who have already made constructive choices in their graduate education. The meeting provides an overview of science-based vocational opportunities for veterinary graduates. Program scholars are encouraged to consider why a veterinary degree is relevant to a discovery-based career. It is a question frequently asked by students who are conditioned to view veterinary science in the context of animal patient care. This practice-oriented perspective often gives inadequate credit to the unique insights that a veterinary education provides to understanding the process of life and the special capacity it nurtures in skilled observation. Both can facilitate and enrich the discipline training required for a career in science.

Graduate training is explored in greater depth in subsequent meetings that focus on the acquisition of skills needed to practice science at a high level. Successful scientists comment on their own careers and the guidance they provide trainees at different stages in their professional development. Many of their remarks are contained in the Graduate Studies Planner, a copy of which is included in the program workbook. The document specifies principles underlying sound research training, but places on students the responsibility of seeking relevant information and coming to their own conclusions on the basis of published reports, accession of data from Internet sources, discussions with individuals in training, and interviews with prospective mentors.

Choosing a Mentor

The program organizers believe that it is difficult for a trainee to become more proficient than the individual who guides his or her graduate studies. That perception in itself accounts for the prominence given to vocational counseling in the Cornell University program. Students are encouraged to objectively assess prospective mentors in terms of their success as scientists and their record in facilitating the professional advancement of their protégés.

One measure of success in science is the individual's timely progression to appointments of increasing seniority and responsibility. Scientists who have academic appointments typically progress from assistant professor to associate professor and then to full professor approximately every 5 years. Program scholars are advised to learn whether a prospective mentor has advanced professionally in a timely manner.

An even more reliable measure of success in science is the individual's ability to sustain a research program through awards made through a process that entails informed review. Not all review panels are equally qualified, however. In the biomedical arena, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the NIH are generally accepted as the gold standard. Support by the National Science Foundation carries similar prestige for research that has more remote connections to human health, whereas the USDA National Research Initiative approaches that standard. Disease-specific sponsors who make awards to a national constituency also enjoy considerable respect. Scholars should determine whether a prospective mentor's research program is sustained by sponsored agreements of this kind. Much of the information is in the public domain and is available on the World Wide Web.3 The number of times that an individual has been cited in the scientific literature is another useful measure of peer regard. This information too can be accessed on the Web. Some have commented on the limitations of citation frequency as a measure of quality in science4; nevertheless, such metrics and impact factors derived from them reflect the individual's stature as a scientist. But it is important to remember that not all scientific journals have equal prestige. A useful measure of quality is the frequency with which journals are cited in scientific reports.

How does one compare established scientists with those who do not yet have a lengthy publication record? A useful strategy is to limit the period of one's search. Ten years should be sufficient to capture not only the independent publications of junior faculty, but also reports that were published while the individuals concerned were still in training. Leadership-program scholars are advised to consider an inexperienced mentor's own training as a scientist. This recommendation stems from the frequently expressed, but inadequately explained, observation that success breeds success in science.5

Still another consideration, arguably the most important, is a mentor's record as a trainer of young scientists. Students should ascertain the typical duration of enrollment before a mentor's graduate students are awarded the PhD degree and the subsequent appointment of those individuals to either prestigious postdoctoral positions or to post-training appointments as research scientists or veterinary public health specialists. Many students are reluctant to ask these questions. It is an unfortunate omission that stems from the erroneous perception that such inquiries are offensive. The reality is that successful mentors welcome inquiries of this sort. Leadership-program scholars are advised to seek relevant information, not only from prospective mentors, but also from individuals who are presently in training. Useful questions for students to ask such individuals include the following:

  • • What do you like and dislike about your laboratory?

  • • How often do you meet with your mentor?

  • • What guidance do you receive in meetings with your mentor? Are there occasions to review data, develop a research strategy, and discuss scientific literature, and are you encouraged to express your views and to think critically?

  • • What support do you receive in the form of resources, technical assistance, or advice from laboratory colleagues?

Training Environment

Mentors set the tone for a training environment, but personal preferences are also important. Some trainees are inclined to pursue their graduate studies in a laboratory where they have frequent access to their research mentor. This is often the case with junior faculty who have not yet established a program involving a large number of graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and technical specialists. Other trainees prefer a laboratory with a more mature program, where they can learn from individuals who are at different stages in their professional progression. In these circumstances, contact with the faculty mentor may be less frequent, but the limitation is compensated by the practical guidance received from laboratory colleagues.

The choice of a research laboratory should be made only after trainees have objectively assessed their professional goals and options. Individuals who see their future as a clinician or veterinary service specialist may wish to couple those activities with research that has immediate and practical applications. The latter include case studies, clinical trials, the development of protocols, and laboratory investigations that seek insights into the natural history of diseases. Individuals who have career aspirations of this kind typically seek the PhD degree to establish their credibility for an academic appointment or a career in government or industry. In this situation, the subject of one's dissertation may be the principal concern. A decision based on this consideration can be personally satisfying and is often adequate for a specialty practice–based career, but it may not allow the individual to realize his or her full potential as a research scientist. Trainees who aspire to a career involving basic biomedical research face the more challenging task of choosing a mentor who is a successful scientist with a strong training record. Here the choice is critical because trainees who pursue their graduate studies in a suboptimal environment may have difficulty securing a prestigious postdoctoral position that will advance their career. Likewise, they may be at a disadvantage in competing for awards that bridge the gap between training and independence.

An effort is made to advise leadership-program scholars of these realities in a generic sense, thereby avoiding the distasteful practice of commenting on perceived deficiencies of one's colleagues. Students are urged to identify the strongest possible environment in which to pursue their graduate studies. Ideally, they should select a field in which important biomedical questions can be addressed, where they can learn to practice science at a high level, and where there is a reasonable prospect that they will be competitive for employment.

Preparing for a career in veterinary public health calls for similar diligence and planning. The conventional course of action is to seek theoretical and practical training through a 2-year program leading to the MPH degree or completion of the Epidemiology Investigators Service Program at the CDC in Atlanta, Ga. An alternative strategy is to obtain a PhD in epidemiology, then build on that experience with postdoctoral research training or field experience in a government or private sector agency. Scholars are advised to weigh these options carefully using, where possible, objective measures of program quality while bearing in mind their ultimate career goal.

Discussion

Experience with the Cornell Leadership Program for Veterinary Students revealed the importance of counseling in guiding veterinary students into careers in science. That conclusion was drawn from requests for references by former leadership-program scholars, the many times these individuals cited advice they had received in the year they took part in the program, and their subsequent progression during training and after they had entered the science workforce. Yet, counseling proved to be a more challenging task than the program organizers had anticipated. One might expect that a subset of students selected on the basis of their academic record, personal achievements, and a strong interest in science would already have insight into the preparation required for individuals to function as independent investigators. Some do, of course, but the great majority of students fail to weigh their training options objectively. They give insufficient thought to training experiences that allow them to grow professionally or how they should structure their training in a manner that would enable them to make timely progress from dependence to independence.

Too frequently, students fail to distinguish a superior training experience from one that does not afford them the capacity to realize their full potential. Instead, they are inclined to select an area of investigation and a research topic that accords with their vocational bias to clinical work or the topic's immediate relevance to veterinary practice. This instinctive commitment is reinforced throughout their veterinary education.

Inexperienced students may also be attracted to mentors who are well-meaning but whose research does not address important questions in a sufficiently rigorous and disciplined manner. In these circumstances, trainees may fail to acquire a finely honed ability to develop hypotheses that can be tested definitively through well-executed experiments. And they may be insufficiently skeptical of their own research and that of others.

The foregoing realities underscore the need for vocational counseling. Although most students are ill prepared to evaluate training options, they are typically open-minded and receptive to guidance. The challenge for counselors is how to provide advice objectively and in a nonjudgmental manner. Good counseling and effective mentoring are required not only for students, but also for veterinary graduates at all stages in their preparation for a career in science. Continuing guidance is necessary to ensure that motivation is maintained and that doctoral and postdoctoral experiences provide a sound foundation for veterinary research.

Despite all this, young veterinary graduates face another problem that may override all that they have gained from wise counseling to make careful and critical decisions in the choice of postgraduate scientific training. The problem that may impair their judgment is their instinctive commitment to clinical practice and the reinforcement of that commitment throughout their veterinary education. Although recent graduates may accept the logic that rigorous scientific training is required for successful careers in veterinary research, they can become uneasy if their postgraduate research project does not have clear and direct clinical relevance. Even if they are prepared, in the short term, to forego clinical investigation to receive good training in a fundamental discipline leading to the PhD degree, a return to clinical work in a postdoctoral position often becomes an imperative.

In 1997, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons published the findings of an enquiry, chaired by Lord Selborne, into veterinary research in the United Kingdom.6 One of the observations in that report was that young veterinarians who obtain the PhD degree as the first step towards a research career may abandon that goal because postdoctoral positions they considered suitable were not available. One interpretation of the report could be that the criterion for suitability of a postdoctoral position used by young veterinary scientists may be its relevance to veterinary practice. However, postdoctoral experience should not be judged in that context, but by how well the experience would expand and enrich scientific expertise that is gained while the individual is in training for the PhD degree.

Another relevant issue deserving comment is the need to inform students about employment prospects and the effort required to realize a successful career in science. Veterinarians who aspire to an academic career should be aware that faculty appointments typically entail commitments not only to research, but also to teaching, provision of veterinary services, and other scholarly activities. Allocation of time for research should be considered in the context of the effort required to sustain a successful program. Those who depend on external funding may require more time for research than many institutions are able to satisfy. This reality too often leads to an unfortunate outcome in which an individual secures an initial research award on the basis of past productivity, scientific vision, and an impressive training record, but then cannot satisfy sponsor expectations when his or her program is considered for ongoing funding 3 to 5 years later. The implication is that trainee counseling must include a realistic assessment of duties incumbent on faculty and the need to provide newly appointed faculty members, in particular, with enough time for research to meet their scientific aspirations and the anticipated expectations of program sponsors.

Conclusion

Veterinary students who aspire to careers in science often fail to objectively evaluate their academic achievements and work experience and the training required to achieve their vocational goals. Counseling has much to offer individuals at this critical early stage in their professional development when they lack the experience necessary to make informed decisions about research options or their employment prospects. Students are receptive to advice, especially when they are encouraged to seek experiences that enable them to realize their full potential. Critical in this connection are identification of a stimulating environment for graduate studies, selection of an accomplished mentor who has a successful training record, and sequencing of training in a manner that enables the individual to grow professionally and progress from dependence to independence.

References

  • 1

    AVMA membership directory and resource manual. Schaumburg, Ill: American Veterinary Medical Association, 2005; 24.

  • 2

    Lenfant C. Biomedical research training programs. Bethesda, Md: National Institutes of Health, 1989.

  • 3

    ISI web of knowledge Web site. Web of science. Available at: www.isiknowledge.com. Accessed May 19, 2006.

  • 4

    Menastosky R. The number that is devouring science. Chron High Educ 2005;52:1217.

  • 5

    Benacerraf B. The training experience. J Immunol 1974;113: 431437.

  • 6

    Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Veterinary Research. Selborne L, ed.London: Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, 1997; sect 3.21.

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Contributor Notes

The Cornell Leadership Program for Veterinary Students is presently funded by grant No. AI 07227 from the National Institutes of Health; grants from the Albert C. Bostwick Foundation, Merck & Co Foundation, and Pfizer Inc; and individual scholarships from the Wellcome Trust.

Address correspondence to Dr. McGregor.
  • 1

    AVMA membership directory and resource manual. Schaumburg, Ill: American Veterinary Medical Association, 2005; 24.

  • 2

    Lenfant C. Biomedical research training programs. Bethesda, Md: National Institutes of Health, 1989.

  • 3

    ISI web of knowledge Web site. Web of science. Available at: www.isiknowledge.com. Accessed May 19, 2006.

  • 4

    Menastosky R. The number that is devouring science. Chron High Educ 2005;52:1217.

  • 5

    Benacerraf B. The training experience. J Immunol 1974;113: 431437.

  • 6

    Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Veterinary Research. Selborne L, ed.London: Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, 1997; sect 3.21.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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