I chose veterinary science and specialisation over a research career

Sarah Mason

I was a Liverpool student and completed my internship and residency there. It is a great university and city, and the Small Animal Teaching Hospital will always have a special place in my heart.

After qualifying, I worked in a first-opinion hospital for a year. I learned a lot, both from my colleagues and from undertaking routine procedures with the Dogs Trust.

In my second year, I moved to a multibranch practice in Greater Manchester to gain sole charge and surgical experience. As there was no out-of-hours work involved, I did locum work for the local emergency hospital to improve my emergency skills, and I later locumed on the Wirral.

'I wanted to understand the position of colleagues who would be referring cases to me'

Did you have a career plan?

I had been introduced to university referral hospitals and combining clinical work and research during my time in the USA, before I was a vet.

At vet school, my plan was always to specialise – combining teaching with research – but I wanted to get a good grounding in first-opinion work to underpin this. I also wanted to understand the position of colleagues who would be referring cases to me.

What changed it?

When I was a vet student there was no specialisation in oncology, it was still considered part of medicine. Fortunately for me, oncology became a European specialism in 2008.

Back then, there was a feeling in the profession that oncology may not take off, so I was encouraged to complete my medicine certificate as well. As it turned out, this was not the case and now the demand for oncologists increases all the time, but the additional medicine training has certainly helped me in becoming a better all-round clinician.

In my student days there were very few private referral centres and most specialists worked in universities, juggling teaching, research and clinics. I maintained the academic dream for a long time, until realising in 2017 that I couldn’t do all these things as well as I would like. I made the decision to focus on clinical work and research, and to train specialists, rather than undergraduate teaching.

What does your job involve?

Consulting, work-up and treatment of all types of cancer patients. At Southfields Veterinary Specialists, we provide advice to vets in general practice and specialist colleagues seeking tertiary referrals for radiation. I also have line management responsibilities, teach and supervise specialists in training, and carry out clinical research projects.

Sarah Mason

What is a typical day?

The day starts with examination of in-patients around 8 am. I make sure the radiation team is happy with the day’s schedule and that the linear accelerator is warming up without any problems.

On Mondays there are always lots of email queries that have come in over the weekend – these are dealt with before rounds and consultations. On Tuesday mornings if my consultation slot isn’t booked I attend the interns’ journal club. On Wednesdays we have oncology book club before rounds.

Clinical rounds happen twice-daily – at 9 am and again at 4.30 pm. These involve the oncology clinicians and nurses, and are an opportunity to discuss the plans for in-patients (we usually have between five and 12) plus day cases. Between 9.30 am and 6 pm I alternate between consultations, dealing with queries (from owners and vets), checking patient staging/diagnostics, writing referral paperwork, setting up patients for radiation treatments and complete computer-based plans for radiation. Often a meeting is squeezed in somewhere.

What are the best bits of your job?

I love the variety, the clients, the patients, the enthusiasm and the dedication of the specialists in training, and the opportunity to work in a great oncology and hospital team.

What are the challenges?

Challenges include balancing the workload and managing people’s expectations of my time.

Have you had a career highlight?

Achieving my certificate and diplomas were highlights, as they were the result of many years of hard work. Being asked to speak at the British Small Animal Veterinary Association congress in 2020 is a huge honour, having been involved with the association since I was a student. I always aspired to this and that it is the last one being held in Birmingham makes it even more exciting.

'Being asked to speak at the BSAVA congress this year is a great honour...that it is the last one being held in Birmingham makes it even more exciting'

Who inspired you?

Laura Blackwood, my residency supervisor and clinical lead and head of department at Liverpool. She was one of the trailblazers in veterinary oncology, and someone who demonstrated to me what can be achieved as an oncologist.

What are your career aspirations?

I want to enjoy my experience and training and use this to provide excellent clinical service, and to train the oncologists of the future to the highest standard. In the next few years I will be learning more advanced radiation techniques, which is exciting and should improve care delivery for patients and clients.

I would like to be involved in promoting oncology and radiation oncology as a specialisation in Europe, hopefully through involvement with the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

Mainly, I intend to continue to develop Southfields’ oncology service and support my fantastic team in our vision of developing it as a world-renowned service.

How do you achieve work-life balance?

I plan my time and ring fence time for leisure as well as work. I take vacations at regular intervals during the year and hand over to my team while I am off – I don’t look at emails when I’m not working.

What are your interests outside of work?

I enjoy sport, mainly running, and recently I have taken up obstacle course racing - my 2020 plan includes running 'The Beast', a half marathon with 30 obstacles to overcome.

I also scuba dive and am a dive leader and assistant instructor. I enjoy helping with training at my local club and have trips planned to Costa Rica and a club trip to Shetland this year. I love spending time with family and friends and my two cats, James and Jarvis.

Would you recommend your job to a school leaver?

Yes, the veterinary profession offers so much opportunity, variety and support. Oncology as a specialism allows vets to incorporate their scientific skills with compassionate client and patient care which, for me, are the basic principles of veterinary medicine. We have so many treatment options for our patients and the satisfaction of being able to give options and guidance to improve and maintain quality of life makes for a great career.

Sarah's CV

1993–1997: BSc Hons in molecular biology, University of Glasgow

1997–1998: Research assistant in cancer biology

1998–2001: PhD in cancer biology, University of Glasgow

2002–2003: Postdoctoral researcher in cancer biology, Harvard Medical School

2003–2007: BVSc, University of Liverpool

2007–2009: Small animal practitioner, completed PDP and modules A&B of RCVS certificate in advanced veterinary practice (CertAVP)

2009–2010: Rotating internship in small animal studies, University of Liverpool

2010–2013: Petsavers-sponsored residency in oncology, University of Liverpool

2012: Awarded RCVS CertAVP

2013–2015: Lecturer in oncology, University of Liverpool

2014: Awarded European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ECVIM) diploma in oncology by examination

2015–2018: Principal clinical oncologist at the Queen’s Veterinary School, University of Cambridge

2016: Awarded postgraduate certificate in education

2017–2019: European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine radiation oncology training

2018–present: Head of oncology, Southfields Veterinary Specialists

2019: Awarded ECVIM radiation oncology diploma by examination

2019: NHS leadership award

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