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About Stephanie Totten and Jiameng Xu

Stephanie Totten is in the sixth year of the MD-PhD program at McGill University. Her doctoral research is in the field of breast cancer metabolism and focuses on exploring and characterizing rational combination therapies that sensitize tumors to the metabolic drug phenformin. Prior to starting the double program, Stephanie completed her bachelor’s degree in life sciences and her master’s degree in experimental medicine at McGill University.

Jiameng Xu is in the seventh year of the MD-PhD program at McGill University. She has recently completed her PhD dissertation, an ethnographic study based in an inpatient psychiatry unit, which captures the lived experience of persons living with mental illness and their family members. She has also been involved in initiatives to create a space for the arts and humanities within health professional training and in spaces of health care delivery.


This chapter is organized in a question-and-answer style and was written as a collaboration between Stephanie Totten and Jiameng Xu. As we decided how to integrate our sections together over coffee one evening, it became apparent that in spite of differences in the topics and methodologies of our PhDs, there were many common themes. We both agreed on how useful it has been to ask for advice and input from mentors and colleagues before and during our degrees.


  • Ask for advice prior to starting and throughout your PhD.

  • Start early. If possible, start part time in the lab before dedicated research time begins and apply for scholarships early. If you are doing field-based research, prioritize establishing contact with your field site early in your PhD.

  • Test out your data as you go. Make figures, keep track of references and methods, and write early and often.

  • Develop your own strategies for staying on track. Set goals. Think long-term (yearly) and short-term (daily). Goals related to achieving your project aims, as well as related to your overall development as a doctoral student (coursework, workshops, conferences, soft-skill development).

  • Make wellness a priority. Take breaks and vacation, exercise, sleep, eat well, and maintain interests and relationships outside of your research and lab. You will be a better researcher for it!

The strategies outlined in this chapter regarding completing your project are a combination of the advice we have individually received from mentors, colleagues, and senior graduate students, as well as some of the lessons we have learned through our experience thus far. We present suggestions specific to conducting a PhD in two different disciplines and their differing modalities, with Stephanie writing from her work in the wet lab in cancer biology, and Jiameng writing from her PhD involving ethnographic fieldwork. While the suggestions herein do not encompass all possible methodologies and PhD paths that MD-PhD students may take, we aim to highlight the differences between our two respective methodologies. ...

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