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Newsletter Editor's Column
James Going
Welcome to the Newsletter for Autumn 2009. I hope you will find something of interest in our virtual pages. This issue of the Newsletter is later in appearing this year than I would have liked - 'New technology baffles  old hack'has been the problem, but I'm learning...

Andrew Wyllie's piece on academic careers set me thinking about my own career. Life as an academic pathologist has had its frustrations, no doubt, but there have been many satisfactions. It's a grand life if you have the inclination to be a 'perpetual student' in the best sense of that term - not in the extinct guise of the student with a private income, who found it convenient not to pass their exams, but in the 'life long learning' sense (currently I am challenging my brain with readings in graph theory, to understand better duct branching in the breast).

As a medical student in the 1970s in Edinburgh I thought that when I qualified I might feel I knew something, which perhaps I did, but by that time I had discovered there was a lot more to know than I had thought to begin with, and exactly the same experience was repeated following study for MRCP, a PhD supervised jointly by our new President and Dr Tom Anderson, and Primary and Final MRCPath, as they were then.

By then I knew there would always be much, much more to learn, and that however much information there is in text books and research articles, there are more unanswered questions than questions with answers. This dawned on me quite slowly, and it made getting to grips with research difficult, because it took a while to learn to recognise what was known and what wasn't. But in the course of that experience, I did glimpse the 'faraway castle' referred to by Andrew, which is why I still do my best to be an investigative pathologist. When it goes well, there's nothing like it. So, if you think you might have the inclination, don't be afraid to set out on the journey:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high...
*

The Laistrygonians were the cannibals who destroyed Odysseus' fleet in Sicily and I sincerely hope you never meet anyone like them in your career. Nevertheless, there are challenges to be met. Every year, the Medical Schools Council reviews Medical Academic Staffing in UK Medical and Dental Schools. After a few of years during which the number of academic pathologists in the UK fell rather steeply (371 in 2000, 192 in 2005) the decline did appear to be arrested (191 in 2006) but by 2007 a further decline had occurred to 171 and the 2008 figure is 154 (142 at consultant level). In the same period the number of NHS consultants in pathology increased from 2286 to 2711, which means the percentage of (consultant) academic pathologists has fallen from 14% to 5% of the consultant workforce in the 9 years during which medical student numbers have increased by 40% !

People sometimes express surprise that more of our trainees don't seem to be excited about the prospects of a senior academic career. Our trainees have eyes, and can see which way the wind has been blowing in Pathology this last 10 years. With some honourable exceptions I don't think we are going to see enough of our brightest trainees - the people who should be queuing to replace ageing senior academics - until that cold North wind veers or backs into a more clement direction.

Some of this is out of our hands but as a group we have never been particularly good at marketing themselves. That needs to change. National Pathology Week is a step in the right direction - why don't you get involved if you aren't already? The economic climate isn't about to make things any easier, and we all need to do all we can to keep our subject as healthy as possible.

James J. Going
Glasgow.

*Ithaka (C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press, 1992)
 
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