From well-equipped cohort to future research leaders: Preparing the next generation palliative care researchers

In light of the ever-ageing palliative care work-force, including research, a critical question relates to the development of research capacity. There is an urgent need to consider how we prepare the next generation researchers (Philip Larkin et al., 2016).

Joni Gilissen, Robrecht De Schreye, Arno Maetens, Lenzo Robijn, Steven Vanderstichelen, Romy Van Rickstal and Maarten Vermorgen represent a group of 27 PhD candidates working in palliative care research in Belgium. In this blog post, they shout out to you, highlighting how they feel junior researchers can be optimally prepared in order to advance palliative care in their future careers.

Clockwise: Joni Gilissen, Steven Vanderstichelen, Robrecht De Schreye, Arno Maetens, Lenzo Robijn, Maarten Vermorgen and Romy Van Rickstal.

To improve future research in the palliative care domain, recruiting young potentials is not enough. Junior researchers need appropriate training to be future leaders in the field. In 2015, Professor Catherine Walshe wrote an EAPC blog post advocating for people to engage in a PhD in palliative care. Besides the necessary engagement in the topic and the drive to persevere throughout the inevitable ups and downs of a PhD project, she additionally promotes training in research design and methods in palliative care. While we agree, we wish to highlight some additional elements that have helped us as researchers throughout our PhD trajectories and that we believe are essential to a successful career. These are all based on our own experiences.

  1. Start mapping out those strengths and weaknesses

As Professor Walshe also highlights, we all start fresh. End-of-life care research includes a vulnerable patient population, for whom research raises distinct methodological, ethical and clinical challenges that exceed the qualifications students have gained from their graduate degree. Research in this field requires you to continuously develop your skills in and expand your knowledge of different palliative care research methodologies, multidisciplinary approaches, ethics, good clinical practice, and cross-country comparisons. It requires an understanding of palliative care concepts, developments and services, and a well-formed set of organisational and networking skills. We urge you to take the time to make a personal SWOT analysis, in consultation with your supervisor, at the very beginning of your career.

Ask yourself what advantages you have (eg skills, certificates, connections) in comparison to others? (Strengths); What are negative work habits? What do you lack? (for example, while others are more experienced in clinical practice such as nursing or medicine, psychologists or sociologists received more training in research methodology) (Weaknesses); Who can help you? What is lacking in literature or practice? (Opportunities); What obstacles are ahead? (Threats). Identifying weaknesses and opportunities can help you target specific training and figure out how your work may contribute best to society.

  1. Research should always extend your comfort zone

Don’t stay within the boundaries of your own research group, not even your own domain. Interdisciplinary and interregional teamwork and collaboration should be promoted from the start of the PhD. This can mean including experts from different research departments and clinical practice into a project group, so they may frequently provide feedback on both the PhD project and the research trajectory. If you are able to, do a research visit abroad or attend conferences: connect and work together with others. Being exposed to different research methodologies and datasets gathered in different countries and from multiple perspectives contributes to making an experienced and well-rounded researcher. Supervisors should take an active stance in such matters. Attending a conference as a PhD candidate for example, can be quite impressive and the rewards you gain from attending are highly dependent on the people you meet. Supervisors, often with a well-established social network, can aid their PhD candidate greatly in connecting with fellow researchers.

  1. Immerse yourself in the care practice you’ll be writing about

Much of end-of-life care research is rooted in clinical experience, and we strive to do research that is relevant for patients, caregivers, policy and practice. Opportunities to do site visits or a clinical rotation in different care settings – and the integration of such learning experiences into your PhD programme – familiarise you with the complexities of end-of-life care practice. As such, you are able to understand the intricacies of caring for people near the end of life and to further develop the essential attitude to be open to practice-based solutions, to be curious and to have a critical outlook. This is something that is invaluable when interpreting research results, determining future research priorities or appreciating quality of care improvement initiatives.

  1. Scientific publications are just half the work

PhD candidates should be supported in the societal dissemination of aspects of their research that can be useful for guiding practice and policies. Learning to write for different audiences and translating and disseminating their work should be a standard part of their curriculum. Academic articles do not belong behind a paywall and PhD thesis books should not be hidden away in a dusty bookcase in some long-forgotten corner of the research department. These should be used to produce recommendations across Europe. In addition, from the second year of the PhD trajectory and onwards, we advocate the opportunity for PhD candidates, if they are willing, to support their supervisors in teaching.

  1. Start thinking about the future before the end

The future career of a PhD candidate is often unsure and an academic career is not always guaranteed. Supervisors should allow you to carve out time for personal career development in the last year of your PhD trajectory. Schedule a one-to-one meeting once a week or twice a month to discuss follow-up funding and ways to develop a competitive track record (by targeting high-impact journals, working independently, building a support system in- and outside the faculty). Passionate PhD candidates are plentiful, but senior academic appointments in palliative care are still scarce across the EU. To provide more stability to researchers in general, there should additionally be more funding mechanisms in palliative care research overall.

Several of the recommendations made are partly up to the PhD candidate’s willingness and drive to take initiative. Nevertheless, supervisors should actively seek to ignite enthusiasm and curiosity in their students. Being mentored with passion in itself goes a long way.

While many aspects of research are ever-evolving and complicated, we hope this post will contribute to PhD guidance to provide new generations of European palliative care researchers with the essential baggage to influence future policy and practice.


  1. De Nooijer Kim, Dhollander Naomi, Dierickx Sigrid, Dombrecht Laure, Faes Kristof, Grant Matthew, Honinx Elisabeth, Jennings Nicholas, Mertens Fien, Miranda Rose, Paque Kristel, Piette Veerle, Scheerens Charlotte, Scherrens Anne-Lore, Tanghe Marc, van Dael Annelien, Vanbutsele Gaëlle, Vandenbogaerde Isabel, Verhofstadt Monica, Verkissen Mariëtte. More information about these PhD candidates and their research can be found at or @EoLC_research.

To view earlier posts about research in palliative care, check out the Research category on the EAPC Blog.

EAPC 2019 – 16THWorld Congress of the European Association for Palliative Care –  Global palliative care – shaping the future – 23 to 25 May 2019, Berlin, Germany #EAPC2019

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