Author: Dana Lowry
Institution: Queen's University
Finding a career that embodies your interests, goals and values is difficult. For some people that means long hours of discovery in a research lab. For others, the most fulfilling career focuses on interacting with the public, or teaching students. Clinical microbiology is a fascinating interdisciplinary career that masterfully blends these three fields into one distinct package. To learn more about this niche occupation, I interviewed Dr. Prameet Sheth, Ph.D., M.Sc., a clinical microbiologist at the Kingston General Hospital (KGH).
Clinical microbiology blends medical practices with research and academia. These professionals work at hospitals, use their expertise to run a microbiology diagnostics labs, and determine appropriate treatment and symptom management programs for patients. “It’s about interpreting results,” Dr. Sheth told me. “We [help the] physician [decide if they] should treat something or not; if there is a carriage pathogen versus a real pathogen, and if [there is]- you really need treat it.”
Dr. Sheth stressed that every clinical microbiologist is different, and so a typical day for anyone in this profession varies. “I do 3 things. Clinical call – so the first thing I do is come in and look in the ward to see if there any are patients that have any sort of resistant infection .... What clinical microbiologists usually do is meet with the residents and the clinical team in the lab at 1pm, and then go through the clinical cases [together]. We’ll say ‘Ok this one has so and so. Is this clinically relevant or not; and would this antibiotic work or not?’ But you can tailor [your day].”
Dr. Sheth rotates his clinical call hours with the second clinical microbiologist at the hospital in two-week intervals. In these two weeks, he is on call for 24 hours a day, but for the rest of the month he can focus on solely research and teaching. “I also run a research lab, so I have quite a number of “499” [undergraduate research] students, we’re taking on more masters students and I have to write grants.” On top of these duties, as an expert in microbiology, Dr. Sheth sits on multiple boards and committees. Infection Control Practitioners is one such board and “their job is to control the spread of every virus, bacteria, pathogen - anything. They are meant to contain it in the smallest space possible and to ensure others are not to harmed by it.”
Despite the hard work and extensive hours that clinical microbiology demands, Dr. Sheth says he really enjoys his practice. “It’s a great job because it has so many different components. You don’t get [bored]. When I’m off for two weeks, I’m off for two weeks. But then I have the research, the teaching and the students. I have all of that to keep me busy so I sort of shift my focus. And when I’m back I shift again.”
Clinical microbiologists come from one of two streams, either from a PhD research background or an MD background. Depending on your previous training and your interests, your career as a clinical microbiologist can be suited to your taste. “We are given the opportunity to choose what we want our career to be. So you can choose academic teaching as one your career pillars and you can choose research as your other career pillar. But the clinical side is always there as your main pillar. The others are kind of there left to you.”
Dr. Sheth decided to frame his career with three pillars: clinical practice, research and academia. Dr. Sheth entered his clinical microbiology training with a MSc in Hematology and a PhD in Immunology. He was initially drawn towards the research aspect of clinical microbiology.
The perks of clinical microbiology come with a formidable barrier to entry. There are only two three-year clinical microbiology programs in Canada, and only one candidate is accepted annually. The candidates must have at least a PhD or MD in a similar field, and the position is extremely competitive. Dr. Sheth pointed out, however, that there is a lack of trained professionals in the field: “There is quite a bit of a need. There are multiple jobs in the country that are not filled. They’ve been open for years. Part of it is the facilities, the second part is the funding.” Not to mention the extensive hours and hard work the training itself requires.
Lastly, I asked Dr. Sheth how he found himself in this field, and if he had any advice for those leaning towards his line of work: “If you’re doing something and you don’t enjoy it, stop doing it. If you continue to do it you’ll get comfortable you’ll look back on it and say ‘You know I didn’t enjoy that.’ And if you do enjoy it, then it doesn’t matter. The salary is secondary in my mind. If you’re doing something and you really feel like you have found you're raison d’être, then you’re perfect. If you don’t find your calling and you’re not happy, then no matter how much effort you put into it, you’re going to do it poorly.”