Dr. Rokas Šerpytis is a cardiologist at Vilnius University Hospital Santaros Klinikos, who successfully defended his dissertation Microcirculation Measurements in Critical and Non-critical Myocardial Ischemia for his PhD in Medicine. We are talking with the doctor about his research and doctoral studies experience at the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University.
What is your dissertation about and how is it relevant to the broader society?
In cardiology, microcirculation research is extremely important. Although survival rates for people with cardiovascular diseases have improved dramatically over the last 50 years, they have recently reached a plateau. In my thesis I researched how different cardiac pathologies develop, how to influence the microcirculatory function and thereby improve overall survival rates. Another aspect of my research was how cardiogenic shock develops. We know that the population is ageing, and that more and more survivors of myocardial infarction are developing cardiogenic shock and as a result, and have to continue living with heart failure. In such cases, the results of treatment are usually quite poor. By studying microcirculation, we are also looking for pathophysiological mechanisms to try to prevent the progression of cardiogenic shock.
Doctoral studies span an intense 4-year period. What challenges did you face while writing your dissertation? What motivated you not to give up and keep moving forward?
Writing a doctoral thesis and doing research requires patience and determination. Doctoral studies are demanding on both the student and their family – you’re doing your main job as a doctor, writing your dissertation and carrying out research that may be completely unrelated to your dissertation topic. It’s quite difficult, and requires a constant balancing act between work, research, family and leisure. You have to plan your time exceptionally well. Of course, family and leisure time usually suffer the most. As far as research is concerned, one of the difficulties is that it involves finding the patients required for analysis and setting up a research team. With a very narrow field of research, not everyone has the perseverance, energy and patience to break down all the walls and get the necessary funding to get things off the ground. You are like a one-man band: a researcher, a doctor, a nurse, a statistician. You have to do a lot of things yourself, and often you do it by learning everything from scratch. Each time, paradoxically, you are trying to reinvent the wheel, finding the best way to do things in a new way. Maybe not everyone succeeds. It is perhaps very important to be connected to the overall system, i.e. that the thesis you are preparing, and the research you are doing, make an important contribution to the system – the university, the faculty, the department, and the research area relevant to the system. It is very important to have a team that will help you, because it really isn’t easy being on your own. Publishing your research in highly cited scientific journals is also challenging. But that is what the first year of your doctoral studies is about – creating a structure and your team, followed by carrying out the research, obtaining results and publishing them.
What does the success of a dissertation depend upon?y broad sense, a thesis is successful when it produces a scientific result that has the potential to contribute to improving public health. If a person has a disease and your research results lead to a better understanding of the disease and more effective treatment, you have succeeded as a researcher. Of course, we also consider it a success when research is accepted for publication in peer-reviewed, high citation journals – in other words, when you are valued and recognised as a researcher. An academic supervisor is an extremely important figure in a successful career path; they have knowledge and experience, have completed several research cycles, know what works and what doesn’t, can help guide young researchers so that they don’t sail against the wind, guiding them along the path with ease.
What did this doctoral study experience help you understand? And, if you had the chance to go back, would you repeat your studies?
Doctoral studies are not about learning, but about learning how to learn: learning new methods, new ways of looking at results, among many other things. The big problem is that doctoral students see defending the dissertation as the ultimate goal: I’ve defended my dissertation and that’s it, I don’t need anything else. Whereas actually, doctoral studies should be just one step on your path as a young researcher: in your studies, you have already learned the methodology, the discipline, and many of the important components you need in order to do research, and then it is up to you to apply that knowledge and experience to try to “push” science forward. So I would definitely repeat my doctoral studies, because I learned the most important thing – how to learn. There is an English saying: “Fellowship is not for learning; it is for learning how to learn.” That’s what doctoral studies are all about: learning to embrace new things, learning to cope with all the difficulties that may come on this challenging path.
What would you have done differently in your PhD studies?
I would have sat down every day to write at least 50 words. No matter what the text turns out to be, the goal is simply to write 50 words a day. Usually you write those 50 words and you get hooked: you write half a page, maybe even a whole page. The important thing is to break down the whole writing process – probably the hardest part of the entire process – into small parts. Then you don’t have so much stress in the last years of preparing your thesis.
What advice would you give to a first-year doctoral student?
Find like-minded people, find a good mentor. If a good mentor is your advisor, great. If not, then find other more experienced colleagues who can point you in the right direction, so that you don’t reinvent the wheel, so to speak, every time you encounter something new. The key is to draw on the experience of the people around you, not to be reserved, to communicate and collaborate, and look for people who can help you.