💼 PhD Student: Department of Cardiovascular Sciences
⏳ Nov 2021 — Present
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This interview was conducted by @lina_learns - PhD student at Tsukuba University
The decision to do PhD
I'm from Belarus. I worked there as a physician for one year, after which I got an opportunity to join the Master's Program in Nagasaki, Japan. My family - my grandfather and my aunt are scientists, so I thought that maybe I could try that as well. Working as a doctor in Belarus is a bit complicated in terms of salary and future opportunities because there are not a lot of chances to grow.
I wanted to try myself in research, therefore I pursued Nagasaki. The next step was going to be PhD because two years of a Master's program fly by too fast. I decided to try a new industry, a different lab. I then started applying for different programs and got this position in cardiology. I love the field, it was always my favorite area in medicine.
My PhD Program
I arrived in Belgium in November 2021. I am currently studying in the department of Cardiovascular Science at a major university in Belgium. The program is around four years, but it will mostly depend on my own results. I still have to create my own PhD plan and submit it in four months. Then, I will start.
We conduct research in the field of cardiology using basic science laboratory techniques. I need to use large animal models, so I will mostly work with pigs. My field is related to investigating cellular remodeling after myocardial infarction. I want to figure out the mechanism of arrhythmia after myocardial infarction because most of the morbidity cases after myocardial infarction are due to arrhythmias. I plan to dig into these arrhythmogenic mechanisms and find what actually causes these cases.
Joining the lab
I joined the lab with one postdoc - an extremely smart girl, who went to London to master the technique I will use for my PhD. She created the project which I recently joined. I use her knowledge as foundation, but there are still a lot of things I have to discover myself.
Responsibilities as a PhD student
I am not expected to teach, I mostly have to do my own research: conducting and planning experiments, ordering stuff, thinking about the next steps and results, analyzing them, and writing research papers. We have only a few hours of courses a year.
The schedule depends on the stage of the experiments. For example, when I just entered the program, I joined in the middle of the experimental flow, and there was a lot of stress as everything was new to me. I never worked with animals before, but I had to perform experiments on pigs. It is an extremely different field from what I was used to.
But once we finished with the first pack of animals, I now mostly work from home. Because of covid, the administration asked us to work from home unless we have any priorities in the lab. I take advantage of this. I know that other students might prefer going to the lab because they feel more motivated, but in my case, I usually feel distracted. There are a lot of things going on in the lab, and you always have to do something: clean, and maintain things. But I also know that when I will finish my PhD plan and move on to analysis, it will have to be on-site.
There is a system of four evaluations of different complexity. For example, in one of them, you have to explain your project using just the whiteboard without any presentation in front of the whole committee for 15 minutes. I think it's extremely difficult.
At the same time, you have to publish a paper where are the first author. I think one paper is enough, but it needs to be in a relatively good journal with an impact factor of higher than two or three. But I know for a fact that a lot of students publish more papers. For example, my supervisor published three papers, but she's an extremely hardworking person.
The most surprising thing about PhD
I did not expect to work with big animals by myself. When I applied for this program, it was mentioned that I will be working with pigs, but I expected some assistance. Upon arrival, I realized that all the whole work has to be done by me. I was in shock because it was someone's (animal's) life. I worked as a doctor, I used to treat people, not kill. It's a very difficult topic and it was hard to adapt and not think about the consequences of taking an animal's life. I never had an experience like that.
During my Master's in Nagasaki, I mostly worked with cells, so it was very "innocent" work. Because of higher expectations here, initially, the professor was not very happy with my work. There was a lot of stress, but I knew that it was just the beginning and I have to adapt, learn and master the technique. It always takes time. Now it's a bit better, but still a lot of stress. I think whenever you start a new position or a new job, it's inevitable that you get stressed.
I really like the international community here as we have a lot of diverse students and colleagues. There are 4 first-year PhD students in our department, so we can discuss our problems and learn from each other. It's less stressful when you work together. It is a big improvement compared to my previous university because in Japan I was mostly alone in a very small lab. I also did not learn Japanese and became more introverted, but here there are a lot of opportunities for socializing.
I like that we have a journal club where we communicate and discuss our results with others.
7 years to graduate
It can take up to 7 years to graduate because you can never predict experimental results. Experiments never usually work on the first try. Your experimental design could be wrong, or the theory could be wrong. Sometimes the results are weird where you don't understand them or you can't explain them.
It also really depends on your project because if you join an existing project, it will be faster rather than starting from scratch.
It is also different for different countries. I know that in Nagasaki a 3-year PhD was quite common. But here it sounds unrealistic, the average is around five years. I once spoke with a student who was graduating and she told me that it took her seven years to get to that point.
Salary & Funding
You have good financial support here. When you join the program, which already is already funded, you also get a sufficient salary to have a comfortable life here. My salary here is twice as much as the MEXT Scholarship. It is really good to have financial support as you don't have to worry about your bills or rent.
Getting work experience during PhD
Our contract states that we are not allowed to have a job, but you can join medical courses, or try to find an internship at the hospital. Working and having a side income is possible, but you would have to learn the local language, which is time-consuming. But I know some students from parts of Africa where Dutch is the native language who are able to get some experience at the hospital.
Advice for my younger self
I think you have to think twice before applying for PhD. I know it's common advice, but I realized it only after coming here and starting my program. PhD is really time-consuming and you have to be 100% involved and spend all your time thinking about your research. Of course, you still have free weekends sometimes!
It's important to realize that at least here in Belgium, it can take up to seven years to graduate. So the question is: Do you really need a PhD for your career?