From horses to humans 2: lessons from a career transition

Professor Stephanie Dakin

Changing career direction often means getting to grips with a whole new world, which may be somewhat daunting. Here are some lessons I learned along the way in my transition from equine vet in practice to researcher in the lab.

Lesson 1: Securing research funding takes time…and planning

Much to my surprise, it took about 12 months to secure the funding for my PhD (I am not a patient person by nature, although exposure to research has inevitably improved this!). During my career as a research academic, I have learned that this timescale is about par for the course: time is needed to write the funding application, go through peer review, conduct the interview process, etc. This emphasises the need to try to plan ahead, and to factor in that it takes time to secure funding for research (and, sadly, funding outcomes are not always positive, so contingency planning is required). Also, I learned that academic institutions function on very different timescales from clinical practices!

Lesson 2: Vets have inbuilt resilience, transferrable and translational skills

I remember arriving at the Oxford tendon research group where I now work feeling somewhat fraudulent and out of place. What could a horse vet possibly have to offer a basic science tendon research group? I’d stick out like a sore thumb. (I later discovered this was imposter syndrome.) It transpires that vets inherently have bucket loads of the following qualities: resilience, grit, determination, stamina and intelligence – we need it to complete our training. Importantly, this skill set lends itself very well to a career as an academic researcher. The nature of our veterinary training also means we have acquired a vast number of transferrable and translational skills (even if we aren’t always aware of them). So, it would seem that vets are in fact extremely well equipped to harness these qualities, which can be utilised in the pursuit of different career paths.

Lesson 3: Vets excel at teamwork and communication

Linked to lesson 2, vets are also excellent team players and communicators. These are also essential skills in academic research. One of my current mentors frequently and wisely reminds me, ‘Art is Me, Science is We’. This is absolutely true: working as part of a multidisciplinary team is something vets and academic researchers have in common, so don’t underestimate how desirable these skills are in other career choices. The ability to communicate with all members of a multidisciplinary team is highly desirable and conducive to great teamwork.

Lesson 4: Horses and humans are not so different

In the context of musculoskeletal injuries, there is a lot of translation between horses and humans. For example, the pathogenesis of tendon injuries is complex and multifactorial: tendon injuries occur due to the effects of ageing, exercise overuse and mechanical overload, which apply equally to horses and humans. It also unfolds that there are common cellular inflammatory mechanisms in the tendons of horses and humans: the biological processes that go awry in disease mean that tendons heal by forming a repair scar in both species. In fact, the horse is probably the best large animal model of naturally occurring tendinopathy we have. So be reassured, translation between species is of biological importance and of interest to research funding bodies.

Lesson 5: Take the leap…

I’ll be honest, the decision to trade my Dickies overalls and steel toe-capped boots for a white lab coat wasn’t one I undertook lightly. It was stressful, tinged with uncertainty and I felt guilty about ‘leaving’ the profession I had worked so hard to join. Ultimately, I took the risk because I felt I needed to get back on a learning trajectory, discovering new things and rekindling the curiosity I once had as a junior vet. The transition from an equine vet to research academic in my current role has taken a decade; it has been associated with challenges, requiring determination, grit and resolve, qualities that we vets inherently possess. Retrospectively, I’ve  enjoyed the journey and, importantly, I celebrate the fact that I am still learning and making new discoveries.

Final note

I am fortunate to have had (and still have) fantastic mentors who have inspired me, and family and friends who have supported me on my journey. Veterinary training equipped me with an entire toolbox that I learned to utilise for musculoskeletal research in my current role. I also realised the importance of speaking to others who are ‘where you want to be’ in future. A Professor once told me ‘Put yourself completely out of your comfort zone, that’s when we learn and grow the most.’ At the time this was said, I wasn’t ready to hear it. However, a few years later I heeded this advice when I transitioned from practice into academic research. The Professor was right. I very much hope in the spirit of One Health, medical and veterinary communities will continue to collaborate in our shared endeavour to advance healthcare, meeting the clinical needs of our two- and four-legged patients that are not so different from each other.

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