Ask the Graduate: Chemistry PhD student

RO Central Team - Friday, December 20, 2019
Posted 4 months ago




About me: Hi everyone, my name is Toni and I studied an integrated masters in Medicinal Chemistry at Newcastle University from 2015-2019. I completed the Realising Opportunities scheme during my A-Level studies which lowered my entry requirements and gave me skills that allowed me onto the course I studied.

Current job: I am currently completing a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Medicinal Chemistry which is also at Newcastle University. A PhD is a type of post-graduate research lasting 4 years, but once complete I will be Dr. Toni!

My role: A PhD in Chemistry is all about research! The aim of my PhD is to investigate around a specific research title, which for me orientates around altering antibodies and attaching radioactive elements to be used in the imaging of cancer (ie PET scans).

A typical day: My typical day starts at 8.30 am in the university’s chemistry building where both my office and the research laboratories are located. Although my position as a Chemistry PhD student has a formal start and end time (9am- 5pm Monday to Friday), deadlines and overrunning experiments mean I can be in the labs from as early as 8am to as late as 7pm including weekends. PhD students organise their own time and plan their experiments according to their schedule which is great if you have a doctor appointment you can’t avoid!

The typical activities I participate in vary greatly depending on the development through the project and success of previous experiments. The project requires me to synthesise (join/combine) different antibody-peptide conjugates, test their activity in human cancer cells, attach the radioactive element Zirconium-89 to the conjugates and test the final compounds in mice. Each step of the way requires the analysis of results and further optimisation in order to develop the most effective cancer imaging agent.

Each day, I also have to check on my growing cancer cells. Once a week, I split the cells to allow them to continue to grow for my experiments. I have attached a picture of my fibrosarcoma cells viewed with a microscope! In-between experiments, I spend my time writing up my results and researching my projects further so I become an expert in my field.

My research has been funded by the University for 4 years which pays for my tuition fees and also gives me a maintenance grant. As part of the requirements for this funding, I became a teaching assistant within the School of Chemistry, the roles of which include:

  • Running tutorials for stage 1 undergraduate students
  • Demonstrating during the undergraduate and masters laboratory practicals
  • Invigilate during exams


The best bits: Throughout my time as a PhD student, I will be attending and presenting at various national and international conferences to present my research findings to world experts. It is also really rewarding knowing I am working on something that will someday make a difference to people’s lives!

Being a PhD student is all about becoming the best possible researcher. To enable this, the university runs numerous training opportunities that you can complete to gain knowledge in anything you are interested in or need assistance with. There are workshops covering a range of different topics including ‘how to sleep’, computer programming training and presentation skills development.

Lunch: I would typically eat my lunch in my office with a journal article open and a cup of tea in hand.

After work: After work I enjoy going to the gym and reading books. It is important to keep a work-life balance and so at weekends and during holidays I like to spend as much time as possible outdoors. I love hiking in the Lake District, sailing, snowboarding and paragliding!


Questions and Answers

1.Did you always know that you wanted to do a PhD?

I always knew that I wanted to do research in Chemistry. When researching possible career paths, I found that it seemed difficult to progress in research (in academia and industry) without a PhD. I wanted to give myself the best chances in my chosen career as possible and so began looking into PhDs and applying.

2.Did you know other people who had done a PhD before you decided to do yours?

Outside of my undergraduate degree, I didn’t know anybody who had done a PhD; however, I spent a lot of time working with PhD students while completing my degree. I spent a summer in the research labs along with a semester during my final year where I was directly supervised by PhD students. This gave me plenty of opportunities to ask questions about PhDs from a variety of different students. There are also a lot of resources online to answer questions about PhDs such as ‘Find a PhD’ ( and blogs such as ‘PhD life’ (

3.Were there lots of other girls on your course? I’d like to study Chemistry but at school I’m the only girl in the class and I’m worried it might be like this at university.

There were plenty of girls on my course, I’d say the genders were split 50:50. I found that at university, there wasn’t as much of a social divide between girls and boys as there is in school/college, they all mingle together!

4.How do you decide what work to do and when? Do you have a manager?

I have a supervisor who I report to weekly with my experiment results and plans for the future. My work is very structured with clear plans of what needs to be done and when, but you do need good organisational skills to prioritise your work.

5.Do you get paid to do a PhD?

You don’t get paid a wage exactly, but with my PhD application, I applied for a studentship that was offered by the university. This studentship pays for my tuition fees and gives me a maintenance fee to pay my living costs. This studentship is on the condition that I teach and demonstrate during labs for undergraduate and masters students.

6.Did you start your PhD as soon as you’d finished your integrated masters degree?

Yes, I graduated from my masters in July 2019 and started my PhD in the following September. My PhD application and interview were before graduation and so this gave me a long summer break to go on holiday and start reading about the research I was about to start. Some people choose to work for a couple years before continuing their studies with a PhD, but I enjoy education and so was motivated to continue straight away.

7.Did doing RO help you once you started university?

Participating in RO helped me build on key skills such as time management and organisation that I will have with me and build upon for the rest of my life. It is also a really great opportunity to get specific information you need about university and how to better your career prospects.