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PhD – the "driver’s license" to world of research

After beginning my residency in pediatrics at the Children’s hospital I got fascinated about all the research projects going around. I wanted to learn to do research myself and started considering a PhD degree – the "driver’s license" to research world. I remember the first time I discussed with my future supervisor. He was talking about his previous studies and the future research plans. Although I was quite bewildered, I was fascinated and I knew I wanted to take a trip to the interesting world of science and research. (Read more)

Now my PhD is almost complete and it’s time to look back. For sure there have been ups and downs: Those moments with desperation due to a declined manuscript from a journal, a failed experiment in the lab, unwanted or unexpected results from analyses, or just the burden from enormous load of work. Fortunately, these are all outweighed by moments of enthusiasm, invention, joy, and success.

I learned an awful lot. Of course I learned about the topic of my thesis, which, however, is just a tiny area of medicine. However, the general research skills are at least equally important, since a PhD should be able to change a field of research. I learned systematic thinking and problem solving while struggling with our research questions and results. I learned project management while running my project and various subprojects. I learned the importance of collaboration and networking. I learned to challenge beliefs and even things considered facts. Furthermore, I learned statistics, presenting skills, and academic writing among other skills. I changed my way of thinking and doing things. And these changes will surely help me in my life in the future – both at clinical work and in the future research projects.

I was surprised how long it took to get this far. In the beginning I was wondering how an earth could people spend years while doing a PhD. But after a while I realized that also my own project would take quite some time. Most parts of research projects are time-consuming and sometimes grueling. Recruiting the patients, learning and setting up the methods, collecting the samples, the lab experiments, data analysis and statistics, writing and getting manuscripts published take an awful lot of time. In addition, since failures may occur, some parts must be repeated all over again. Sometimes I remember I was thinking is it really necessary for PhD student to be a doctor, a laboratorian, a librarian, a manager, a secretary, and a statistician, all at the same time?

As an idealistic PhD student I thought I would find some final words on my research subject. However, a final word may be hard or even impossible to place. Any research project can be extended indefinitely. But at some point the project has to be finished. Although all research finds answers to some questions, it also raises new questions to be answered.

I’ve been asked, why to reach for a PhD? Getting a PhD degree isn’t a project you should spend 3-6 years of your adult life just to earn money (grants aren’t that big), achieve glorification due to academic or professional success (you may not win the Nobel prize after all…), or to guarantee a future career (you never know for sure). What you need is some desire to do research. In an optimal situation a PhD project should increase the level of knowledge both personally and in the chosen research field. PhD project potentially promotes self-progression and curiosity for everything new as well as prepares for the next phase of your career.

What after PhD? New research ideas often do arise and sound interesting. Postdoc research in the familiar research area appears as an attractive option. Or why not to pursue a postdoc position and funding for going abroad as a researcher? Also clinical work is interesting and residency should be accomplished. However, balancing between clinical world and academia may become quite a challenge, especially with a family and children. These challenges have decreased the research activity of young clinicians. Fortunately, HUS and the University of Helsinki together have paid attention to this and established few positions enabling both postdoc research as well as clinical work in parallel. Hopefully this will continue and increase the research activity of clinicians in the future.


Anu Kaskinen, MD, PhD student