Q&A: Steven De Decker on specialising in neurology
As part of a series of articles on veterinary specialisms, My Vet Future is talking to vets about their route to specialisation, with the aim of helping vets better understand how they can become specialists.
Name: Steven De Decker
Job title: Senior Lecturer and Head of Service Neurology and Neurosurgery, RVC
2005: Qualified from Ghent University in Belgium
2006: Completed a small animal rotating internship at Ghent University
2007-2010: PhD in disc-associated cervical spondylomyelopathy (‘wobbler syndrome’) in dogs
2010: Moved to the UK to start residency in neurology and neurosurgery at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC)
2013: Became a neurology faculty member at the RVC
2013: Board-certified neurology specialist (DIP ECVN)
2015: RCVS recognised specialist in neurology
Did you have a career plan?
Although I knew before graduation that I wanted to pursue a career in neurology, I didn’t have a specific plan on how to achieve this. I didn’t see myself doing a PhD or moving abroad, and I definitely didn’t see myself doing advanced surgery. When I look back at the decisions I made, it was doing a PhD that gave me tremendous satisfaction. I also feel that moving abroad was very valuable for my development, and I really enjoy spending the day in theatre doing complex spinal or brain surgery.
When did you decide that you wanted to specialise in neurology?
Because I knew, as student, that I wanted to specialise, I applied for a residency at Ghent University during my rotating internship. Although I was very disappointed I was not accepted, it gave me the opportunity to apply for PhD funding. During my PhD I had the opportunity to publish several papers and present my work at international conferences. This created some international recognition, which contributed to my successful residency application at the RVC.
How long did it take you to become a neurology specialist?
I think that my route to specialisation really reflects the difference between specialising in ‘Continental Europe’ and specialising in the UK. After graduation, I immediately started a 1 year internship, followed by a 4 year PhD and then a 3 year residency. 8 years after graduation, I was finished and had my all-important postgraduate degrees. It would be very difficult to follow this path to specialisation in the UK.
"I think that my route to specialisation really reflects the difference between specialising in ‘Continental Europe’ and specialising in the UK"
In the UK, it is usually expected that you will get experience in private practice before being considered for an internship. It would also be unusual to start a residency immediately after a rotating internship. Nowadays, it is not unusual for candidates to work a couple of years on a ‘neurology-specific’ CV before being successful in the selection process.
As a RCVS Specialist in veterinary neurology and EBVS® European Specialist in veterinary neurology, I have to be reaccredited every 5 years. This is a relatively simple process of demonstrating you are an active member, whether this is by submitting proof of conference attendance, publishing papers or giving CPD lectures.
What’s it like working in academia?
Academia gives me the best opportunity to have a variable workload and combine the things I love to do. I like clinical research and enjoy publishing papers by myself or together with other members of the team. I feel privileged that we represent the forefront of veterinary specialisation and are always among the first to develop and use new and innovative clinical techniques. I also love travelling and my position offers me the opportunity to travel around the world lecturing and spreading my love of neurology!
Can you describe the commitment involved?
I postponed all important decisions in life, such as getting married and having children, until after my residency. It was hard to see friends from vet school getting on with their lives, while you are still living the life of a student.
"I feel privileged that we represent the forefront of veterinary specialisation and are always among the first to develop and use new and innovative clinical techniques"
It is also important to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the people close to you. During my residency, I had very little time and attention for my partner and I’m very grateful for the support during this time.
How do you maintain a good work-life balance as a specialist?
It would be easy for me to work 18 hours a day every day. It is however important to protect your work-life balance and also be a ‘role model’ for residents and other colleagues. I feel strongly that we should step away from a working culture in which we boast about very long working hours. It is well-known that an unhealthy work-life balance is associated with decreased productivity, increased stress, decreased joy and decreased retention of staff.
I’m fortunate that the RVC actively promotes the value of a healthy work-life balance; this is something that is actively encouraged among the team. Although I still have periods in which I work excessively long days, it is important to consciously switch-off and do something else once in a while. My young family keeps me more than busy and I also have some hobbies.