Thursday, 7 February 2013

The PhD ‘Journey’

Posted by Lynne Forrest

Now that I’m in the final year of my PhD (and possibly because I’ve been forced to watch too much bad Saturday evening television) I’ve been reflecting, in true X-factor-contestant style, over my PhD 'journey'. None of it has exactly turned out as planned…

Ryan's tearful journey
Looking back, the first year now seems fabulously self-indulgent. It mostly consisted of deciding on a research topic and then doing lots of reading, whilst eventually consolidating this reading into an early literature review. I also went on a couple of training courses and planned my ethics application and data analysis. This was a great opportunity to get immersed in the literature and I wished I enjoyed it more instead of being anxious to get some data and crack on with the analysis.

My project plan assumed I would get through ethics and obtain the cancer registry data I required, early in my second year. However, in case this didn’t happen, I had a back up plan. I would conduct a systematic review of inequalities in receipt of lung cancer treatment, to provide an evidence basis for my analysis and fill in a few months until the data arrived. In fact, as it turned out, I didn’t get all the data I required until my 3rd year.

So, in hindsight, my advice would be to assume that everything will take much longer than you originally think and to always have a contingency plan. And not to worry because sometimes the contingency plan actually works out to better than the original…

The systematic review turned out to be a far more major undertaking than I’d anticipated, in terms of scope, volume and time, but did ensure that I had some results in my second year, which meant I was able to submit abstracts for a couple of conferences. I was lucky enough to win a prize for best pre-doctoral abstract and the chance to present in a plenary session at SSM2012. From this, a professor in the audience contacted me to discuss my research and I’ve now been invited to speak at a clinical conference. So, although I still find conference presentations terrifying, I’m now convinced of the value of conferences as networking opportunities.

My supervisors encouraged me to write as I went along and I think this is excellent advice. I wrote up my systematic review as a paper and, although it was turned down by The Lancet (boo!), it was  accepted by PLoS Medicine, another high-ranking general medical journal. So, a piece of work I initially undertook as a fill-in exercise has somehow turned out fantastically well….

However, the pressure is now on to keep up the momentum. In my third year I need to complete the data analysis, write up, submit my thesis and get through the viva. I also need to start thinking about what I’m going to do when it’s all over. In eight months time my PhD funding will run out, and so I need to start planning ahead now. I want to stay in academia and so am thinking about a fellowship. Hopefully by the time I come to apply I will have more publications, as good, first-author publications do seem to be one of the major deciding factors for entry into academia. My plenary presentation, prize and PLoS paper should all look good on the CV. But nothing is certain, there are many others all fighting for the same prize and the fellowship process does seem to be something of a lottery.

So, anyone out there want to offer me a job?

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