Career in cancer research: a noble quest?

by Sofia Raftopoulou

It starts out with fairytales about knights and dragons. It blossoms when you, like me, dress as Wonder Woman at Halloween. It continues with protecting your weaker classmate against bullies. It peaks when you decide to invest your youth into studying and build your life around research. Research that will make people’s lives longer and better. That will soften their pain. No matter the stage in your life, the story has always been the same: in the good versus evil battle, you always choose to be the hero.

“Your heart is full of devotion to your cause”

Life in research isn’t either easy nor is it glorified. And by no means is it a timeline full of Eureka moments. Having spent my whole adult life studying and doing cancer research, either as an undergrad, a research assistant or currently as a senior PhD, I have seen all kind of cracks forming on my peer’s and my own faces and minds. Of course, I can only refer to the academic environment, based on my own background.

Long working hours, abuse of power from supervisors, great peer competition, lack of financial and many times geographical stability, constant pressure of publishing results and receiving grants. And although there are moments of absolute enjoyment and fulfillment, although there are mentors and colleagues worthy of your trust and time, the overall score board says this: research is hard.

So, for most if not all of us, there has been a moment or more, when we have faced a dilemma. Is this the life I want to have? Is it worth it? Now, here is the trap. Doing time long research, especially in cancer, inspires the same feeling you had in that superhero costume of yours back in kindergarten. The same way none knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, no patient knows your name or face. None will ever thank you or shake your hand unless they personally know you. Yet, your heart is full of devotion to your cause. This is why most of us, are willing to endure almost everything and ignore the signs. But is academic research the only noble way of advancing science?

“Remember that the hero lies in you and not in the shape and color of the uniform that you wear”

The way I see it now, is that none can offer more input in science than a happy, balanced scientist. And that the path to happiness differs for each one of us and also changes over the course of our lives. So, if you find yourself in a situation of questioning your choices and looking for alternatives, please don’t silence your inner voice out of guilt. There are many other ways to help improve patient’s lives, outside of academia and even far from the bench in the wet lab. Working in the R&D sector of a Biotech company, conducting and monitoring clinical trials for a CRO (Contract Research Organization), working in the regulatory affairs department of a Pharmaceutical, being a project manager, product owner or an MSL (Medical Science Liaison), are some of the many alternative career paths worth exploring by early – stage researchers.

I love basic research, I always will. The same way that I love my fellow PhDs and colleagues at the university and the spiritual freedom that academia sometimes offers. I am just ready to accept my personal needs and values, and keep an open mind when evaluating future prospects. A post doc might be the path of least resistance, but it is not meant for everyone. Remember that the hero lies in you and not in the shape and color of the uniform that you wear. All that matters is that it matches your size and needs. Ask Superman who made a successful hero career while wearing red pants over his trousers. And who would blame him?

About the author:

I come from Athens, Greece, where I studied Biotechnology and got my Masters in Molecular Medicine. Both my bachelor and master studies have been cancer focused. I am currently a PhD candidate of Immuno-Oncology at the Medical University of Graz. My thesis explores neutrophil polarization in the tumor microenvironment and the subsequent impact on successful immunotherapies. At the same time, I explore my love for science communication by blogging and being an EACR ambassador. Connect with me on LinkedIn at