Contributor Aimee Eckert
When I started my first year of A-Levels, my father sat my younger sister and I down and told us he was terminally ill. Despite surviving previous tumours of the throat and lymph, cruelly and almost mockingly, a melanoma scattered its metastases and took residence in his brain. I cannot remember much of that conversation apart from that he might ‘have a year left.’ After the most courageous fight imaginable, he passed away at home eight months later in May, aged only 43 years old.
Biology has always been a passion for me, as during school I was astounded by how the individual units of our bodies – our cells – work, and what goes wrong in the event of disease. My family’s experience was a key factor in cementing my decision to study cell biology at university and pursue a scientific career. However, due to the prevalence of cancer (in the UK, 1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with it) my story is far from unique; throughout my undergraduate and now postgraduate study, I continue to meet people who have had extremely similar experiences. This has reinforced the fact that I am not alone and it is a powerful source of inspiration when lab work gets stressful.
When it was time for me to apply for PhD positions, questions that needed to be answered on the application forms and personal statements included ‘why do you want to do a PhD?’ and ‘why are you interested in this area of research?’ For me, thinking about my father helped me describe my motivation and discipline and to write a strong application. I was concerned as to whether it was appropriate to briefly mention my experience of cancer in PhD applications. I imagined unpleasant images of my application going straight into the ‘No’ pile if I did. In the end, I decided that what had happened to my family was relevant: it had contributed to my development as a scientist and that the laboratories I was applying to should know about it.
In my cover letters I included the following sentence: ‘My personal experiences have made me passionate about pursuing research that has the potential to translate into improved treatment outcomes for cancer patients.’
I asked two supervisors (my future PhD supervisor, and a supervisor from one of my unsuccessful applications) about their thoughts on this issue. I told them about my father and whether what I had done was sensible, or would they have done anything different if they were in my position. My PhD supervisor said that students should not bring such emotional and private matters into an interview. Fortunately, he agreed that I did the right thing by mentioning on the cover letter that I have a personal reason to be passionate about cancer, without sharing details with people I have never met before. However, he added that this is a very subjective point of view and different institutions around the world have different workplace cultures. The second supervisor said that he was not aware from my application that I unfortunately lost my father to cancer. His opinion was that it is right to let your science do the talking, as this will be the main criterion for selection. However, motivation is a key part of being successful in science and allowing the supervisor to understand that you are driven is no bad thing.
I am not qualified at all to give advice and have provided only my example, so this case study has an N of 1(!) but hopefully this can help you decide what is right for you and your situation. Alternatively, a referee who knows you well may mention difficult obstacles you’ve had to overcome in the past. Overall, a potential PhD supervisor wants to see how you have great potential for the future and that you have the right stuff to complete the PhD successfully. This means you should show off your creativity, motivation and discipline. Overcoming certain challenges can be evidence of motivation and genuine interest in the subject, but it’s important to remember that previous research experiences, interests and suitability for a postgraduate position are the priority. Some top tips for writing PhD applications from supervisors are:
- Keep it brief – a page is enough.
- Specific – no one likes a letter that might have gone around all your institutions of interest. Why this position?
- Demonstrate you have some understanding of the field/person you are applying to. This will make it clear that you put in the work to prepare the application.
- Spell-checked, one colour, one font, and also proof read – one supervisor told me “you would be amazed at some of the poorly formatted letters you get.”
- Clear English – “again you would be amazed.”
Many of the above points seem very obvious. However, bear in mind that your application will probably be in a pile of 100, so make reading your letter as easy as possible for those making the decisions.
I am extremely excited about starting my PhD and beginning my scientific career. When I reach an inevitable trough and an experiment has not worked for what will feel like the hundredth time, I will take the time to reflect and be thankful that I am able to study science to try and help others. There are thousands of people all over the world who are working together to ensure that, someday we do not lose the people we love so soon. I know that my Dad would be proud of me.
Aimee Eckert is a MRes Cancer Biology student at Imperial College London. She will begin her PhD in September, jointly at the University of Sussex and the Institute of Cancer Research in London. When not in the lab, She enjoys getting involved with a variety of science communication schemes and relaxes after all this excitement by drinking tea and baking cakes.