Patrik Rorsman: Choosing the Right PhD Project

2021-10-04

Photograph: Debbie Rowe, 'Portrait of Patrik Rorsman', modified. Royal SocietyCC BY-SA 3.0

Uppsala Diabetes Centre will partially fund seven cross-disciplinary PhD projects selected from a large pool of submitted applications. Patrik Rorsman, a distinguished professor of diabetic medicine, is part of the advisory board that will make the selection.

“Uppsala has always had great competence in the diabetic field. Nevertheless, researchers have often concentrated on their own disciplines or fields, and may not have been able to use the enormous capital that has long existed to build something larger. I think this centre is a good initiative and a step in the right direction”, Patrik Rorsman says.

Recently, Uppsala Diabetes Centre (UDC) made a public call to partly finance seven PhD projects focusing on diabetes research. One criterium was that projects needed to be cross-disciplinary; supervisors would be from at least two different fields of science or from both Uppsala University and SLU. In total, 22 applications are now being reviewed by an advisory board consisting of six national or international experts: Annette Bergemann, Mattias von Herrath, Trond Jensen, Susan Francis, Cathy McGovan, and Patrik Rorsman. The latter defended his PhD dissertation at Uppsala University in 1986. Since then, he has worked as a professor in Oxford, Alberta, Lund, and Gothenburg. Rorsman is also known as a veteran in diabetes-oriented centre formation; in the 1990s, he started what would eventually become Lund University Diabetes Centre.

“We started to involve people who were clinicians, experimentalists, physicians, and cell biologists. In the beginning, it was not obvious that such widely differing researchers could collaborate and work on common issues together. However, as soon as we started to meet and talk to each other, a sort of harmony quickly emerged. I, who was trained in cell biology and physiology, gained a broader perspective by meeting clinicians; a remainder that research should ultimately serve to improve the lives of people with diabetes”, Patrik Rorsman says.

A Good PhD Project

Following the application process, project suggestions are distributed among the advisory board members based on expertise. Each reviewer is assigned several projects, and each project is assessed by several experts. The proposals are then judged with the help of a standardised point template before the assessments are finally combined and compared.

“Without a doubt, all the six project suggestions that I have read are fundable. They are good and well written, and as a reviewer you must understand that this is not an exact science. You can never achieve absolute parity – after all, it is people who make the assessments. For example, we must all look out for what might be called the ‘professional bias’ – the tendency to prefer projects that are reminiscent of what the reviewer might be working on. Therefore, it is crucial to have an advisory board that covers all the relevant fields. However, most people are pretty much in agreement in the end. Maybe, this partly has to do with the fact that reviewers tend to have similar professional backgrounds, but I also think that it gives the impression that the process works as intended”, Patrik Rorsman says.

According to Rorsman, a good PhD project is characterised by several factors. The proposal should be well written, clear, and easy to read. Not least the meaning of the project and the role of the PhD student should be well defined – clearly defined tasks make it easier. In this particular assessment process, it is also important that the project is truly cross-disciplinary. Components should complement each other so that the sum of the collaboration becomes larger than its parts. Ideally, the research will arise through cooperation. Another important factor is the project’s novelty, and how it aims to contribute to existing knowledge.

“It should have a certain level of scientific originality and a new exciting hypothesis. If such a project succeeds, we will know a bit more about the world than what we did before. A proposal can be competently presented and well thought-through yet still uninteresting. The perfect project probably does not exist, and the proposals that ultimately get omitted are not necessarily bad, sometimes just ‘that little extra’ is missing”, says Patrik Rorsman.

Opportunities for Breakthroughs

In a few years, Rorsman’s current project at the University of Gothenburg will have concluded. At that point, he plans to retire, but he thinks that the future will require increased cooperation between different researchers and scientific fields. Today, for example, it is often difficult to compare results from different laboratories. Thus, new standards are required. Furthermore, he believes in introducing PhDs to larger, cross-disciplinary networks at an early stage. Such collaborations may create lasting connections and new possibilities to seek funding from external sources. Also, those who have larger networks may become more attractive partners in other contexts.

“Breakthroughs are unexpected. If I knew where they would occur, I would naturally be there myself. On the other hand, I believe that a very important way to move forward is to increase communication and combine approaches, just as the UDC are currently doing. After all, we are a relatively small number of people in the world that study diabetes. There is so much left to learn, we have probably only just scratched the surface. This is why it’s so fascinating to get to read these applications – here, I find many new and exciting research ideas that I did not even know about. Maybe, there’s something unexpected here. A new breakthrough.”

Anton Nyström

Last modified: 2022-01-03