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How does one become a scientist?

25 November 2011

This week’s question is not so much about cancer research as it is about cancer researchers and the general structure of science.

How does one become a scientist?

At its core, a scientist is one that defines their world by repeated experimentation and observation, and contributes this knowledge to a wider audience. The educational route many take to complete this task is the PhD.

Ph.D. is literally an abbreviation of “Doctor of Philosophy,” which has always seemed a bit odd to me since one can earn a PhD in many other areas than philosophy. According to Wikipedia:

The term “philosophy” does not refer solely to the modern field of philosophy, but is used in a broader sense in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is “love of wisdom”.

In the US, most biology and medicine-related PhD programs require one to outline a thesis project and conduct research to answer specific questions that are yet unknown to science. One then has to communicate this knowledge to a wider audience society in the form of a peer-reviewed publication. This process takes 4-7 years to complete.

Halfway through the PhD one needs to submit a proposal to their thesis committee to outline exactly what questions one is to ask and how one will test them. Then, one has to prepare a presentation of all their research done so far and convince their committee that he/she is capable enough as a scientist to continue. I just finished this process, and I am happy to say that I passed. It was an extremely stressful few weeks, and it took me a few days to recover.

The vast majority of scientists working on the cancer problem have completed a PhD. This is what Yours Truly spends most of his time (life) on. However, there is a greater need than ever for communication between researchers and those that could benefit from research. The traditional means of “communication” from scientists is in the form of peer-reviewed papers. The process delivers an effective vetting process, the nuances of which I dearly wish I could communicate to you, dear reader. The process is also very slow, and leads to accumulated knowledge written in scientific jargon and an unfortunate barrier of esotericism.

This blog is an experiment in scientific communication, one of the requirements of my degree and my societal responsibility as a researcher. So ask away! Let’s keep the dialogue going and help spread cancer awareness (the real kind) and promote scientific literacy.


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