Photo of a scientist working in a lab

Credit: Imperial science imagery

At Cancer Research UK, we’ve set ourselves some ambitious goals for beating cancer. One of them is that we will continue to support the development of young scientists, so that we can continue our research work.

But how do people become scientists? And how does Cancer Research UK support their development? In this post we’ll look at how we help train the next generation of research stars.

Starting off in science

For most of our scientists, a career in cancer research starts with three or four years as a PhD student, usually after a first degree at university. This is an apprenticeship for researchers and it’s a necessary qualification for becoming a professional scientist.

We fund more than 300 PhD students in our Institutes and in universities across the UK, working on all areas of cancer science. They learn from the head of the research group and from the other staff in the team, receiving training in how to design and carry out experiments.

Students need to learn the language of their research area and absorb as much information as they can. By the end of this apprenticeship, they have to produce a piece of their own research, and show that they have contributed something original to their research field.

People doing PhDs might be classified as students, but they certainly don’t fit the stereotypical view of a student. They have to work very hard to pack in all the training they need to do, as well as producing work that is original and important – long hours and short holidays are part of the package.

So if you want to be a scientist, you have to be completely committed and be prepared for a tough apprenticeship.

Developing a career

Once you finish your PhD, you get letters after your name and can call yourself ‘Doctor’. But does that mean you are ready to solve the problems of cancer? Not yet. You might have the qualification, but you need a lot more experience before you start running your own research group.

The next step is to join an existing research team as a post-doctoral research assistant, usually known as a ‘post-doc’. Post-docs are typically employed for a fixed period of time to do a particular project. We fund lots of post-doc posts in our Institutes and through our various grant schemes.

What do you need to achieve as a post-doc?

First, you have to broaden your knowledge. As a PhD student, you focussed on one piece of research. Now you have to show that you understand the bigger picture.

You also have to broaden your experience of doing research. You have to learn about the different ways of tackling the big unanswered questions in your field. You need to know how to handle lots of different research techniques and understand the state-of-the-art ways of solving problems.

Most post-docs move around and work in several different research teams during this part of their careers. Before you start generating your own ideas, you need to learn what other people think, absorbing and analysing lots of different ideas. Only then can you can be sure where your own interests lie and where you can make a decisive contribution.

For many scientists, this is a really rewarding part of their career. There are opportunities for post-docs all over the world, and so you can experience new cultures as well as new ways of doing research.

Whilst you’re a post-doc you might also start to learn some of the other skills needed to be a professional scientist. This could include teaching, training junior researchers or writing papers.

But one of the most important things at this stage of your career is to publish your work in scientific journals. Published papers are the most important currency for a scientist. They demonstrate that you can spot problems in your area of research, ask the right questions, design the experiments to get to the answers, and then carry out those experiments carefully. You won’t get far in a research career unless you publish the work that you do.

Stepping out on your own

The time as a post-doc is where you begin to develop your own research ideas. Up until now, you have been working for another scientist and working on the problems they want to work on. You’ve been training for maybe 10 years, since you started your PhD, and it’s time to take the next step. This is the time to become independent and start leading your own research projects.

To do this, you need three things. First, you have to persuade someone to give you a job and some space to work. Then you need to find the money to pay for the research. Finally, you have to recruit a team of people to help you do it.

The two main places that our researchers work are in universities and in research institutes. To get a job as an independent researcher, you need to show that you have interesting ideas about how to solve an important problem, and that you’ve got the skills that you need to get the work done.

If you convince them of this, the university or the institute will give you space to work. They will usually pay your salary and give you some money to get you going. The next thing you need to do is find the longer-term support that you need to carry out your research.

This is where organisations like Cancer Research UK come in. Scientists write to us with their ideas and, if they are good enough, we will award them money to carry them out. Sometimes we award small grants that pay for a specific project for just a few years. On other occasions we will award bigger grants to support a whole research group. Some of our grants are designed for people at the start of their careers and give them time to get established and build up their research group.

Once you’re independent, you decide what research you do, but you don’t have to do all the work by yourself. The final step is to use the money from your grant to recruit students, post-docs and technicians to help with the projects.

Moving from working on your own project in someone else’s research group to being the boss of your own team can be quite a daunting prospect. Fortunately, there are opportunities to get the training in management that you need to take on these responsibilities. Cancer Research UK helps support a management course especially for scientists to help them lead their team.

And so the training comes full circle – it’s now the job of these newly-independent researchers to help train the next generation of scientists.

What else does Cancer Research UK do?

Cancer Research UK is keen to support junior researchers at all stages of their career. Some of our grants are designed for people who are trying to kick off their independent career. But we also provide support and training that goes beyond our research grants.

For instance, we run an intensive two-day training course in science communication skills for PhD students. This helps them get to grips with some of the key rules for communicating clearly with the public.

One key part of doing research is to share results with other experts in their field. This is why going to scientific conferences is such an important part of being a researcher. A conversation over coffee, or a comment in a talk, might spark an idea that leads to a whole new avenue of research. We organise regular meetings for our scientists to help them build partnerships and learn from each other’s experiences.

Filling in the gaps

Another way that Cancer Research UK can support research is to watch out for gaps in the workforce that need to be filled to help fight the disease. There are some areas of research that don’t seem to be attracting enough new people. Over the past few years, we have started to plug some of these gaps with new schemes that focus on a particular field.

For example, we realised that there could be a real shortage of medicinal chemists over the next decade. These scientists are crucial for designing and perfecting the drugs that treat cancer patients. They need a special set of skills, combining chemistry with an understanding of cancer biology and pharmacology. We were able to set up a scheme that will train 60 PhD chemists at six universities.

How do I become a cancer researcher?

So what should you do if you‘re interested in working on the problem of cancer? You need to have an interest in science at school. There’s some information about what sort of subjects you need to do at school on our website. Then you usually need to do a science degree at university. We want researchers in a wide range of areas, so you might have a degree in anything from biochemistry to engineering, chemistry to maths, and even some arts and humanities subjects.

You don’t have to decide at university exactly what research you want to work on – there is time to change fields and work in different areas during your training as a PhD student or a post-doc. But it is worth finding out as early as possible what sort of research is happening in cancer. You could look at our website or see what other funders are doing.

We believe that our training schemes offer some of the best opportunities around for developing new researchers. These are the people who will be vital to the future of cancer research. If you’re a young person interested in a career in research and want to know more, have a look at our website.

Simon Vincent, Head of Personal Awards and Training