When I applied to medical school back in 2015, I already had an inkling that I wanted to pursue cancer research once I specialised post-medical training. I’d read the Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee a couple of years prior, and the stories of scientific research and discovery within had stuck with me ever since. I’d completed my FHS course year studying molecular medicine and the mechanisms of cancer pathology, so by third year was pretty certain I’d be following an oncology training pathway.
The Cancer Science DPhil programme launched for incoming applications at the beginning of my fourth year of medical school. Since intercalation is only possibly after third or fourth year of the Oxford six-year course, the opportunity felt too serendipitous to not submit an application, and I was incredibly excited when given the opportunity to pursue research into the pathogenesis of colorectal cancer within the Leedham group at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics.
In the two years since, my DPhil has proven an incredibly enriching experience – not just for the science itself, which can be rewarding and frustrating in equal measure, both hour to hour, and month to month, which is an incredibly enjoyable challenge, but, as a medic, for all the ways in which it differs from the medical school experience.
Many medics, and in particular, undergraduate medics, will follow a fairly rigid career path, from the age of 16 when choosing their A-levels, all the way through the career pipeline to their chosen speciality. Therefore, the flexibility of working as an independent student, pursuing areas which you find interesting, finding opportunities to attend training for skills you’d like to develop, and having the schedule flexibility to pursue outside interests, all seemed remarkably novel after four years entrenched in the fairly inflexible (by necessity!) course structure of the Oxford BM BCh course.
In the time since starting my DPhil, as well as gaining some of the pre-requisite wet-lab skills needed to work with the techniques and research of my group, I have also completed training in bioinformatics, something I’d always been interested in during my undergraduate studies, but had struggled to find the time to pursue with any sincerity. I enjoyed this so much that I have since applied for and obtained CRUK funding to continue this training on several upcoming courses.
Having control over my own schedule of work has also allowed me to complete two years of a fast-track language course at the university language centre in Jericho – something I’d have really struggled to manage while on completing my medical studies, as so much of any placement as a medical student is making sure to be in the hospital at specific times to maximise your learning opportunities. I’ve also spent time working with the Centre for Personalised Medicine as president of the Oxford Personalised Medicine Society, and this work was really enriched by having both a Medical and a DPhil student perspective on the kind of events and engagement which students benefit from in academic societies.
The Oxford Cancer Centre have also provided seminars from experts across the field, and opportunities for collaboration with other students on the course, which has proven fascinating from an interdisciplinary approach, particularly as someone who has yet to decide what area of oncology I’d like to focus on post-DPhil. The variability in students, from qualified clinicians, to medical students, to biologists, engineers and mathematicians, is also fantastic, and leads to some really interesting discussion at these seminars and dinners.
For anyone who enjoys science and research, I can’t recommend doing a DPhil enough. The biggest benefit to my intercalation has been the independence I’ve developed as I’ve worked (and am still working!) to establish and develop my own research and goals within the lab. Having the time to work through ideas, think about science and medicine critically, and try and identify unmet needs within oncology (which I can then potentially pursue in my research) is the kind of opportunity which any medic who also has a love for research can’t afford to pass up.