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Lizzie Coker – a second-year PhD student – offers insights into the world of a PhD student at The Institute of Cancer Research.

Posted on 22 January, 2014 by Lizzie Coker
Hello, and welcome to From Bench To Blog! My name’s Lizzie, and I’m a second year PhD student at The Institute of Cancer Research. In From Bench To Blog I’ll be joined by some of my colleagues to give you an insight into the world of scientific research here at the ICR.

When I meet new people they’re often curious as to what doing a PhD actually involves, so I thought I’d start off by explaining a bit about what I do at the ICR.

So what is a PhD?

A PhD is a postgraduate degree that is taken by people who already have an undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree. At the ICR, PhD students spend four years researching a particular project by doing experiments and analyzing data. At the end of the four years, students formally write up their findings as a thesis and then present and defend their work to a panel of experts (the viva).

What’s the point of a PhD?

A PhD is an opportunity to develop the skills needed to work as a professional researcher, such as designing experiments and analyzing data, alongside practical skills such as how to operate lab equipment. A PhD is sort of like an apprenticeship for scientists: students receive training in the practical skills needed for research under the guidance of more experienced scientist – the student’s supervisors.

Why do people choose to do a PhD?

Generally speaking, science students undertake PhDs to enable them to work in scientific research once they’ve graduated. Almost all research scientists have a PhD, although it may not be in the exact topic they are currently working on. I chose to do a PhD at the ICR as I find scientific research both challenging and rewarding, and the ICR has provided me with the unique opportunity to work on a project combining several of my main interests: cancer drug development, and the use of mathematical models in biology.

Do PhD students ever discover anything interesting?

As with any scientific research, there is no guarantee that the research will produce exciting discoveries. However, PhD students can make important discoveries that are published in highly respected journals. For example, my fellow student Fiona Rowan has made important discoveries regarding how the protein Aurora-A is activated.

Regardless of the impact of their own work, PhD students will contribute to other projects and papers with the rest of their team.

Are PhD students training to be a ‘proper’ doctor?

I’ve been asked several times if I’m training to be a ‘proper’, i.e. medical, doctor. It’s easy to see why this confusion arises, as people who have obtained a PhD are allowed to use the title ‘Dr’. However, PhD students are not generally medically trained and might never come into contact with patients. That said, the ICR does have a number of medical doctors who are working towards a PhD on special programs developed for medical professionals with an interest in research.

Thanks for reading! I hope that’s answered any questions you may have about what a PhD involves. If you’ve got any more questions or suggestions for topics you’d like us to cover here on From Bench To Blog, please get in touch via the comments section below.
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