What is a PhD, anyway?

Having done a Master’s Degree in Cancer Pharmacology, working in Project Management and in Research and Development in the diagnostics industry, I decided to return to academia, as that was an environment in which I flourished. To do this, I have opted to pursue a PhD in Cancer Research.

But before I tell you about my experience in it, I thought I would give a little insight into the question – “What is a PhD anyway”?

To save re-inventing the wheel, I will quote from the website, FindaPhD.com:

A PhD is a postgraduate doctoral degree, awarded to students who complete an original thesis offering a significant new contribution to knowledge in their subject. PhD qualifications are available in all subjects and are normally the highest level of academic degree a person can achieve.

Basically, doing some research in any chosen field (almost always one you have experience in/studied in before) and contribute some advancing knowledge which was not known prior. This is a very highly specialised degree and is best done when you know exactly what you want to do.

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A PhD is a marathon, focusing on one subject topic for an extended amount of time in order to make a contribution to the field you are studying. Whereas an undergraduate degree gives you a basic understanding of everything, a PhD gives you a world-leading understanding of very little. However, when all these little pieces are put together, they make up the entire web of knowledge we have on a specific topic. They are more like projects than courses – for example just doing your last year thesis for 3 years straight!

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These are anywhere from a minimum of 3 years to 5 years within the United Kingdom, and often longer overseas. They can either be self-funded, or can come partially (fees only) and fully (fees and stipdend) funded. Thankfully, I was favoured enough to obtain one of these that is fully funded by a cancer research charity called second hope. There was no other way I could see myself doing on, and I thank God that this door was opened for me to go and carry out this research.

I will be working in the area of biology, specifically cancer research. As mentioned in a previous post, the title of my thesis is:

The bone microenvironment as a master regulator of disseminated tumour cells responsible for breast cancer recurrence

When a cancer spreads from one site to another, it is classed as disseminated (spread) and this is due to a process called metastasis (the traveling of the cells). I will be looking specifically at breast cancer which spreads to the bone. Not looking at the cells in a general sense, but the cells that go to sleep and go unnoticed for a long time, not doing anything. These however, unfortunately, often get re-awoken to cause a secondary cancer – in this case, breast cancer but in the bone – which has a very high mortality rate. During my project, I will be using some interesting techniques and imaging to find out what cells make the cancer sleep, what makes them wake up and whether anything can be done to manipulate that process in a favourable way.

I am looking forward to starting, but I know it will be no small feat. The final thesis can be anywhere upwards of 50,000 words, often upwards of 100,000, and usually written up right at the end. This is already seemingly daunting, but I will aim to approach this in a manner similar to an encouraging quote I read:

“Eat the Elephant one bite at a time”

Finishing a thesis can feel like having a huge elephant in front of you that you’re supposed to eat in its entirety. Of course, if you mainly focus on how massive this elephant is and when you can finish eating it up, you will feel overwhelmed. But if you take the elephant bite by bite, and not think about how much of it is left, one day the elephant will be all gone. The same goes for your thesis: break it down to small actionable tasks and do one task after another, until it is done and ready for submission.

This is a valuable piece of advice, which I also hope to carry out through other projects that come up in life.

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