Q&A: Stijn Niessen on specialising in small animal internal medicine

Stijn Niessen, internal medicine specialist

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.

NameStijn Niessen

Job title: Professor of internal medicine, co-director of VetCT Telemedicine Hospital, past-president of the European Society of Veterinary Endocrinology


  • 2002: Graduated from the University of Ghent, Belgium
  • 2002-2003: Internship in small animal medicine and surgery, University of Glasgow
  • 2003-2006: Residency in small animal internal medicine, Royal Veterinary College (RVC)
  • 2006-2009: PhD in diabetes mellitus and gene therapy, Newcastle University Medical School/RVC
  • 2009-present: Various positions at the RVC – lecturer, senior lecturer, professor and honorary professor of internal medicine
  • 2009-present: Research associate in diabetes group at Newcastle Medical School
  • 2007-present: Endocrinology consultant at the Veterinary Information Network
  • 2011-2019: Board member, president and past-president of the European Society of Veterinary Endocrinology
  • 2018-present: Co-director of VetCT Telemedicine Hospital
  • 2018-present: Consultant, internal medicine clinical specialist

Did you have a career plan? 

When I was about to graduate, I saw an advert in Vet Record for an internship at the University of Glasgow. I did not have a clear plan to become a specialist, but the internship appealed to me. I knew that it would allow me to work in a supportive and stimulating environment, while being surrounded by knowledgeable people who would allow me to develop myself. The prospect of working in a beautiful place like Scotland also helped!

Why did you decide to become a specialist? 

During my internship, I knew that I wanted to continue to use my growing knowledge of physiology and pathophysiology throughout my career. 

I have also always felt the responsibility of leaving our profession in a better state than I found it. Becoming a specialist and being able to advance the veterinary profession through my specialism seemed a good way to reach this goal.

Can you describe the commitment involved?

There are definitely sacrifices involved when choosing a specialist veterinary career. From an economic and social perspective, I often felt that when my friends were getting mortgages or having children, I was always one or two steps behind. I also spent more than a decade after graduation in rented accommodation of dubious quality!

What have you been doing since becoming a specialist? 

I have worked in both private practice and academia throughout my career. I have been active in research and teaching, working on the discovery of new diseases and treatments, lecturing world-wide, as well as working in clinics.  

One thing I am particularly proud of is the recently founded telemedicine hospital. In light of increasing job dissatisfaction within the veterinary profession and the increasing split between first opinion and referral practice, we wanted to develop a way of practising which allows specialists to work alongside other practitioners. VetCT Telemedicine Hospital recreates the supportive, stimulating and knowledgeable environment one usually finds in referral centres, and makes it available to any practice, anywhere. 

“Becoming a good specialist is a lifelong journey with lots of learning from mistakes along the way”

By using telemedicine, we have enabled any vet in any location to receive immediate and friendly specialist input and advice in their daily cases. ‘Bringing specialist support into your practice’ is our tag-line and we thus provide high-quality mentorship, improved clinical standards, stress reduction and ultimately greater job satisfaction for vets. 

By delivering these novel mentorship opportunities back to practices, we hope to leave the profession in a better shape than we found it.

How do you maintain a good work-life balance?

Since meeting my partner and starting a family, I have worked a lot on my work-life balance. I now make sure not to miss any important daily moments of my family life. By being better balanced I feel I can be a better colleague at work too.

I have learnt a lot from my partner and from other women who go on maternity leave. Sadly, paternity leave is hardly ever taken in the veterinary world. It still often falls mainly on the shoulders of women to take a step back from their careers to look after children, while male vets and those without families progress to superior positions in the meantime. This then leads to imbalance and lack of diversity in the workplace; this is an ongoing great disadvantage within parts of our profession.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a specialist?

My first piece of advice is to try to find a senior role model within the profession who can act as a mentor for you. Dr Austin Kirwan, a kind and wise first opinion practitioner in Lancashire who I met on EMS as a vet student, and Professor David Church, my superb academic mentor, have helped tremendously throughout my career. 

Secondly, it’s important to emphasise that becoming a specialist is by no means superior to developing into a great first opinion practitioner. Having a specialist career needs to suit you and there are potential negative sides of specialising, such as not working with the same client base and potentially giving up your development in other areas, for instance (for me) surgery. 

Thirdly, becoming a specialist is merely a stamp of initial approval; becoming a good specialist is a lifelong journey with lots of learning from mistakes along the way.

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