Aisling Connolly talks to Smart Futures about her job as a PhD Student.
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
The way I see it my job is to ask the questions that no one else will ask and to find answers to these questions.
I spend my time reading a lot of scientific papers to try to figure out what questions have been asked, and learning about the solutions that were used to answer these questions.
Along with reading, I write a lot of code that models and simulates the real world.
This is like experimenting with the ideas that I come up with to see how viable my answers to these big questions are. I also do some teaching, which can be a lot of fun too.
I work in computer science so useful skills in this area are good mathematical and computer skills, a deep curiosity to understand the world a little bit better, and patience!
The skills required to do a PhD will be similar in any area, except the subject focus will be different.
Describe a typical day?
I spend a lot of my time reading, coding, thinking, teaching and solving!
For me, the coolest thing is being able to hang out in a university all the time!
Not only are you surrounded by some of the brightest and interesting people in the country, there are so many other perks.
From clubs and societies to academic things, everything is so open and you can just join in anytime.
For instance, if I want to take a dance class, I can just go along to the gym and there are classes every day.
If I want to take a swim, I can. If I want to learn some Philosophy or Physics, I can just go along to a lecture or event on campus.
There is something to satisfy any interest I may have from day to day.
What are the main challenges?
As I said, for this job you need to have patience.
The work is hard and because it is original, there is not necessarily a ‘rule-book’ to follow so sometimes it can be a bit frustrating when your work or ideas or experiments don’t work out as you would hope.
This is all part of the learning process though and is super exciting when you finally get things to work!
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
I have always loved to ask questions and solve puzzles, figuring things out is a hobby of mine, so it seemed like a natural progression to continue through school and university so that I wouldn’t have to give up my hobbies.
I found that I was lucky in school and in university and had some inspirational.
I used to look up to them and thought it would be nice to be like them some day.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Yes, for sure!
The hours that I work are not set in stone and this works really well for me. I now get paid to study and learn and practice my hobbies, so I can’t imagine anything better.
There are always more questions to ask, so in terms of progression, if you’re good, the opportunities are there.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
Maths, Economics, Geography, Physics.
I think all subjects in school help towards a career in a university. Becoming good at studying and having a general interest in everything will stand to you.
Maths was the one that influenced me most. It was the one subject that I was best at and I got a satisfaction from solving problems.
What is your education to date?
I went to secondary school in the Jes (Colaiste Iognaid) in Galway.
After that I got an Arts degree in N.U.I.Galway in the areas of Maths and Economics.
After that, I moved to UCD to do a masters in Simulation Science – This is where I learned to model and simulate real world problems.
For the Simulation Science masters, I wrote my thesis in the Power Tower with Paddy Power! I was building models that would predict information about soccer matches.
After this, I came back to UCD and started into the PhD.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
I think for a career in academics, all education is important.
As you progress through university and postgraduate study your focus narrows.
If you start in a Science degree, you may do many subjects in first year, a couple of subjects in second year and by your final year, you generally specialize in one subject eg Physics, or Maths.
It is important to choose the right subjects as you progress and your studies narrow.
My advice would be to choose your favourite subject, this makes it a lot easier to work hard at it.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
I think somebody who actually enjoys school and learning things would do well in my job.
You need to be very patient and self-disciplined in order to get good work done.
Someone who is genuinely excited about the world would also do well. Although, if you’re excited about the world, you’ll do well in any job!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
There are many ways to get a taster of the type of work I do.
All school activities will give you an idea, but so will an involvement in any type of project like Coder Dojo, BT Young Scientist, Competitions and debating.