Research postgrads: A topic you love, as you like

PhD and research masters students are highly disciplined, innovative thinkers and excellent communicators

 

Postgraduate qualifications in a word: research. Postgrads are all about specialist thinking, of looking at the world in new ways, and figuring out how to investigate the world on your own steam.

And research programmes hone these skills like no other qualification can.

Taught master’s programmes often gain the bulk of attention, but the skills acquired during a master’s by research or a doctoral degree (PhD) programme are highly valuable.

Working with a supervisor, students conduct specialised research in a new area, learning how to investigate, communicate and self-start.

Although it can be really hard and students have periods when they hate their chosen subject, usually it’s in an area they are passionate about. Completing a research master’s or PhD is a massive achievement and those who come out the other side are highly disciplined people.

We spoke to five research students at different stages of their career about their projects, what drives them, and what they hope to achieve.

Adam Murphy Dublin City University

Studying: MSc in Science Communication

Project: Using YouTube to improve science communication

What was your undergraduate degree? Physics with astronomy.

What is your research about? I’ve always thought scientists should be able to explain science to everyone. So my research looks at comparing science communication that is informative (but can be dull or condescending), and science communication that’s engaging (but sometimes lacking in information). From there I’ll see if I can make something that’s the best of both worlds.

Why did you decide to do this research project? I was doing a PhD in physics before this, but, despite an excellent supervisor, as it went on I wasn’t getting any results and my heart just wasn’t in it. While that was going on I won a national competition in science communication called Famelab. I realised I had a passion for explaining science to the public, and wasn’t totally talentless at it. So when the decision was made to end the PhD, moving into science communication was a choice I went after, and because I couldn’t do another three-year commitment, a master’s was perfect.

How challenging has it been, from putting together your project to date, and any conclusions of interest so far? Moving from science to communications has been tricky. There’s a complete change in the language and styles used. But I think no matter what there’s going to be a pretty steep learning curve at the start.

What do you hope to achieve from this? I’d love to move into science communication full time, doing something like outreach in a university or the dream job of being a science presenter.

Simon O’Keeffe

Maynooth University Studying: PhD in Electronic Engineering

Project: Semi-autonomous robotic systems for rehabilitation and assisted living

What was your undergraduate degree? Bachelor of electronic engineering with computers

What is your current research about? My research is about semi-autonomous robotic systems and the interfaces best suited for assisted living tasks. An autonomous robot can perform its task without guidance or intervention, but is usually limited to a constrained environment and predefined tasks. In contrast, complex tasks and tasks not anticipated at design time are better handled using a semi-autonomous robot, with human-in-the-loop control. The principal aim of this project is to develop a smart human-robot interface which will allow a paretic individual to guide a semi-autonomous robot to perform various tasks.

Why did you decide to do this research project ? I decided on it after I was made aware of the PhD opportunities in my university. I highly enjoyed my undergraduate studies and knew before I graduated that I wanted to continue my education and become an expert in a field. I chose this topic because of both an interest in robotics and the expertise that is available in the university.

How challenging has it been, from putting together your project to date, and any conclusions of interest so far? One challenging part has been establishing the exact mechanism and level of semi-autonomous robotic control that is best suited to assisted living tasks.

What do you hope to achieve from this? At the end of this project I would like to have made a measurable contribution to assisted living robotics and smart human-robot interfaces. Personally I would like this work to further advance my career opportunities. I currently do not have a strong preference for a career in either academia or industry. Simon O’Keeffe’s research is funded by a scholarship from the Irish Research Council

Sara Buggy University of Limerick

Studying: PhD in English literature

Project: Disciplining dystopia: power and the body in contemporary young adult dystopian fiction

What was your undergraduate degree? BA New Media and English, followed by an MA in comparative literature and cultural studies

What is your research about? My research focuses on the body and its role in the exertion and resistance of disciplinary power in contemporary young adult dystopian fiction.

Why did you decide to do this research project? Young adult (YA) fiction has had a boom in sales in recent years, with much of this spurred by dystopian texts. I was really interested to see YA novels receiving greater attention, and having done previous research in utopian studies, I was especially intrigued by the dystopian craze. I could see the body appeared to be central to many of these contemporary novels, especially when addressing the kinds of regulatory power structures that are not just relevant to dystopian fiction, but very real for many teenagers today. I felt that this needed further investigation. How challenging has it been, from putting together your project to date, and any conclusions of interest so far? The days are long and research can be an isolating experience at times, but if you love your subject it’s not a chore. I also have a great supervisor, which helps. The biggest challenge has been financial, but I was lucky enough to receive funding from the Irish Research Council, which helped enormously. My research has shown the body and disciplinary power are central to the contemporary YA dystopia. Thus these novels are popular with young women in particular, who are often well acquainted with the ways in which the body and power intertwine.

What do you hope to achieve from this? I’ve just submitted my thesis so I am coming to the end of the process. I think I’d like to try and get a position as a postdoctoral researcher next so that I can work on publishing my findings. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll try writing a YA novel of my own!

Eoin Carley Maynooth University

Studying: Physics and Astophysics

Project: Understanding the solar origins of adverse space weather ( Irish Research Council funded ELEVATE postdoctoral fellow) Location: Paris Observatory, France.

What was your undergraduate degree? Physics with astrophysics at NUI Maynooth.

What is your research about? On a day-to-day basis the sun’s atmosphere can produce violent eruptions, sending billions of tons of gas hurtling into space along with particles travelling close to light-speed. These particles are potentially damaging to earth’s technologies, such as the GPS network. My research involves using NASA and European Space Agency satellites to study the origins of these particles to forecast any threats the sun may pose.

Why did you decide to do this research project? I have always had an interest in astrophysics, and studying the sun in particular provides a great mix of fundamental physics and the practical aspects of protecting space-based technologies. Society is becoming increasingly dependent on such technologies, so our need to protect them from the sun is now hugely important. I want to be part of this new “space weather” forecasting effort.

How challenging has it been, from putting together your project to date, and any conclusions of interest so far? It’s all been a challenge; moving to Paris, starting a new job and a new research project. However, it’s progressing fast and I’m almost ready to publish a new paper on how shock waves in the sun’s atmosphere are responsible for these threatening particles.

What do you hope to achieve from this? It’s my aspiration to contribute to the fundamental understanding of our nearest star, leading to a better ability to protect ourselves from its everyday threats. I want to be part of a world-leading effort that achieves this, either in academia or industry. That’s what’s great about this subject, it links fundamental science to industrial practice, so both options are open to me.

Eilionóir Flynn NUI Galway

Academic at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy

Project: The VOICES Project, a European Research Council starting grant awardee (AHSS), supported by the Irish Research Council

What was your undergraduate degree? Law (Bachelor of Civil Law, UCC)

What is your research about? My research is about the experiences of people with disabilities in making choices – and having legal recognition for the decisions they make (known as “legal capacity”). I’m particularly interested in the experiences of people with learning disabilities, dementia, mental health issues and acquired brain injury – who have often been denied the right to make their own decisions about where to live, relationships and sexuality, healthcare and financial matters.

Why did you decide to do this research project? In my work to date on legal capacity and disability I noticed that in many law reform processes the lived experience of people with disabilities was not valued in the same way as academic contributions or expert opinions. I wanted to design a project to challenge that perception, and show how practical and achievable reforms can be implemented by validating the experience of people with a wide range of disabilities.

How challenging has it been, from putting together your project to date, and any conclusions of interest so far? The process of applying to the European Research Council is quite intensive, and I had a lot of support from NUIG, especially my colleagues in the Centre for Disability Law & Policy, as well as from the Irish Research Council, throughout the process.

What do you hope to achieve from this? I hope that the outcome of the project will be to provide practical law reform proposals to ensure people with disabilities have the same rights as anyone else to make decisions about their lives.

The Irish Research Council has a range of funding opportunities for postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers in arts, humanities, social science, science, technology, engineering and maths disciplines. For more information see www.research.ie

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