What is the postgrad experience like and how will you cope?
Life as a postgrad student can be a challenge. We spoke to three postgraduates about their experiences.
Mick Torrans: ‘While my course in Maynooth was full-time, it was only two days every two weeks, meaning I could work at the same time’
The postgraduate experience is very different from the early college years. Fourth-level students tend to be much less involved in college life - especially the majority who take on the course from their mid-20s - and full-time research postgraduates can find it a somewhat lonely experience. So, if you do become a postgraduate, what will your experience be like and how will you cope?
We spoke to three postgraduates about their experiences.
Colm Duffy went to college as a mature student at the age of 26 and studied international development in UCC. He later went to NUI Galway for a taught master’s in climate change, agriculture and food security, and is now completing a PhD in agricultural economics and climate change at the same university. He is also the postgraduate officer in NUIG’s students’ union.
Cathy Richards has a degree in genetics from UCD. After completing it, she returned to education and is now studying for a PhD at the Department of Surgery in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. She is working with Dr Ann Hopkins on cancer research and the work is funded by Science Foundation Ireland.
Mick Torrans has a bachelors in mechanical engineering from DIT, as well as a bachelors degree in product design from the same institution. He took a few years out and worked with Pleolight, a lighting design company, before deciding to study at Maynooth University for the MSc in Design Innovation. He is now an innovation consultant with Accenture’s innovation lab.
Why did you decide to do a postgraduate course?
Colm Duffy: After school, I went to Australia for a few years, and I came back to Ireland and, after building up my confidence with a part-time diploma, started college as a mature student. I enjoyed college and I enjoyed my subjects, so my supervisor and I put in a research proposal.
Cathy Richards: I was a stay-at-home mum for a year but I knew I wanted to get back into science so I started to look at PhD options. I knew this would delay my entry into the world of work, but I also knew that there would be good opportunities for career advancement. That said, I am in the minority of PhD students who go straight into it after the undergraduate course.
Mick Torrans: While working for Pleolight, I had an interest in going back to college and upskilling, so I looked at a few different courses. Maynooth University’s stood out because it suited me best in terms of content.
Has it been a financial struggle?
Colm Duffy: Since my undergraduate, I’ve been good at applying for funding. Luckily, I received a postgraduate grant from the Irish Research Council, and I was also awarded the Hardiman Scholarship in NUI Galway. I’d advise students to see what grants are available through their school or department.
Cathy Richards: I’m paid through Science Foundation Ireland.
Mick Torrans: While my course in Maynooth was full-time, it was only two days every two weeks, meaning I could work at the same time. With other master’s, I was looking at giving up a full year’s pay cheque and I just couldn’t do it. I also applied for a scholarship at Maynooth which halved the cost of fees – Maynooth has a taught masters alumni scholarship of €5,000 towards fee for MU grads and there’s a €2,000 cash scholarship open for applications to all taught master’s applicants with a 2.1 in their undergraduate honours degree.
As a postgraduate student, have you been involved in student life?
Colm Duffy: I’m postgrad officer with the students’ union. Along with two fellow students, we set up the climate change, agriculture and food security society (CCAFS) slightly unimaginative name, I know! We got the college to divest 3.5m of fossil fuel shares. I’m on the community university sustainability panel, and I’m involved in the Green Party. Now that I’m in the third year of my PhD, I have had to step back a little. The extent to which I, as a postgraduate, am involved in college life may be a little unusual, but postgraduates do have the experience to take the good ideas and implement them.
Cathy Richards: I had my daughter halfway through my time in UCD which limited how much I could get involved in student life. Here at RCSI, however, we have a really active postgraduate students’ union, as well as a really active sports and social society which is open to staff and students. I do take part in a Monday lunchtime running club, and it’s a really great chance to meet people from other departments and possibly do some inter-departmental work.
Mick Torrans: When you’ve done college once, you hit the ground running on the second time around. For me, when I was starting a course for the third time, I did feel I had experience college life. My course was in Maynooth, and I was in Dublin so, once I was finished, I’d be trying to get on the road back home. There’s also the fact I was 32 and the rest of the college are around 21. That said, there was a good age split in the course and we did go for drinks together
Is it hard to stay motivated and can it be lonely?
Colm Duffy: It took some getting used to, but every postgrad is different: you might be embedded as a researcher in a team and regularly attend lab meetings, or you could be working alone or with classmates.
Cathy Richards: I approach it like a job. I need to get home to pick up my daughter from childcare. There are occasional weekends where I might be here finishing off an experiment, but occasional weekend work is a part of most jobs. One big motivator for me was when my first year paper was published in an academic journal; that is really satisfying and motivating. I’ve also found that RCSI create a really supportive environment, particularly where I am based in Beaumont Hospital (north Dublin).
Mick Torrans: Perhaps it was less lonely than a research postgraduate.
Panel: What are the common issues facing postgraduates?
The number of postgraduate students is on the rise and Ireland’s higher education institutions are competing for a bigger slice of this fairly lucrative pie.
Oisín Hassan, vice-president for academic affairs with the Union of Students in Ireland, says that there needs to be a greater focus on developing communities for postgraduate students and ensuring that they feel a sense of belonging.
USI recently held a postgraduate symposium to discuss postgrad issues, and a number of issues were raised. “There’s a perception that college life is just for undergrads, particularly because postgrads, more often than not, are 25 or over, and they have different pressures, interests and career needs.”
Some universities, particularly DCU and Trinity College, have made strides to improve the social aspect. “But our higher education institutions need to think more about this issue; simply opening up a study space for postgrads doesn’t create a community,” says Hassan. “We need to look at mental health and welfare, particularly for postgrads who study in isolation, and local students’ unions need to be aware of this.”
Academically, postgrads are often seen as more capable, but this can be a lazy assumption because it overlooks the possibility that they may run into difficulty, says Hassan. “While many research postgrads have a good relationship with their supervisor, this isn’t always the case. We need to make sure that they are supported academically and that, if problems arise, the postgraduate student is confident it will be dealt with.”