What is Smart Futures?

Smart Futures is a collaborative Government-Industry-Education programme promoting STEM careers to students in Ireland. It provides access to careers information and role models to students, parents, guidance councillors and teachers. It is managed by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in partnership with Engineers Ireland.

On this website you can:

  • Browse STEM ‘Career Stories’ about people working in all kinds of STEM-related roles or look up a specific career area by entering a keyword (e.g. chemistry) in the search box (top left hand corner). 
  • Request a STEM volunteer to visit your school for free here or become a volunteer yourself!
  • Watch careers video with people working in areas such as food and sports science, cybersecurity, engineering, energy, app development, biotechnology, medical devices and lots more hereSTEM Infographic

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Dragons’ Den star says consider science and tech careers ahead of CAO deadline

Smart Futures Champion and star of ‘Dragons’ Den’ Barry O’Sullivan is pictured with students Jenna Howe and Donal Ryan to promote Smart Futures as a tool for exploring careers in science and technology

Barry O’Sullivan with students Jenna Howe and Donal Ryan

In advance of the CAO Change of Mind deadline on 1st July, Smart Futures Champion and star of ‘Dragons’ Den’ Barry O’Sullivan has encouraged Leaving Certificate students to consider careers in science and technology.

As CEO of Altocloud, O’Sullivan is also encouraging leading tech companies in Ireland to get involved with Smart Futures to inspire young people and break down any stereotypical perceptions they may have about careers in science, engineering or technology.

According to research with over 2,000 Irish third-level students, conducted by Amárach Research as part of Science Foundation Ireland’s Smart Futures programme, students’ main concern when making their CAO choice is whether they will “fit in”, ranking it higher than other factors like career prospects.

The Smart Futures programme, which is managed by SFI Discover and coordinated in partnership with Engineers Ireland, provides a coordinated platform for science and technology companies to reach out to young people and their parents and clarify what a career in science, technology or engineering actually involves.

Career prospects

Looking at the ICT sector alone, the tech industry is booming with an average of 80 new jobs created each week and the top ten multinational technology companies all based in Ireland. There are currently 6,000 vacancies in the IT sector, with job vacancies growing by 89% since the start of 2011 and employers are competing for available talent as a result. The average earnings in the ICT sector have also increased by 5.8% since the start of last year.

Barry O’Sullivan said: “Studying science and technology at third level offers young people the chance to be involved in work that can change the world, whilst also offering rewarding salaries and a skillset that allows you to travel the world. I would urge anyone who is unsure of what they want to study at third level to make sure they have considered all the options.

SmartFutures.ie outlines a variety of the fantastic opportunities available in Ireland and has a host of video interviews from people working in these roles, so you can hear first-hand about what studying or working in diverse fields like cybersecurity or nanotechnology is really like.”

“First-hand testimonies are the best way to show young people what they are missing in not choosing careers in areas like ICT. People working in industry can volunteer to visit schools and show young people first-hand how exciting the world of innovation in Ireland is. Employers are looking for more graduates with skills like analytical thinking or programming, so it’s a win-win if companies come on board to dispel any stereotypes about courses like Computer Science or Electronic Engineering.”

Parents are encouraged to explore over 100 career stories on the Smart Futures website to help support their children in exploring CAO and career decisions.

STEM survey results infographic

Role models in the classroom

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has been sending volunteers from the these sectors into schools as part of the Smart Futures programme to talk to students about their career in order to highlight the range of diverse and exciting career opportunities available for graduates.

In 2014, Smart Futures engaged with approx. 26,000 secondary school students through STEM outreach, careers events, competitions and online channels. In the current academic year over 350 STEM volunteers have been trained to deliver their career story to teenagers, delivering over 250 free STEM career talks in schools nationwide.

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‘Science With Inspirational Mentors’ reaching young people in the Midlands

Science with Inspirational Mentors (SWIM) has been set up by the Atlantic Corridor with the aim of increasing participation in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education and careers in the Midlands region.

The project will see a new suite of activities being delivered to secondary schools in collaboration with the Amber Centre in Trinity College that will focus on highlighting the Midlands Life Sciences sector and will work towards helping to address issues related to economic development and educational attainment in the area.


The project is supported by Science Foundation Ireland, and complements the national Smart Futures programme which promotes STEM careers and STEM role model engagement to post-primary students, teachers, parents and guidance counsellors across the country.

Students in Haywood school meeting mentor from CPL  Recruitment

Students in Haywood school meeting mentor from CPL Recruitment

SWIM is open to second level schools in the Midlands and mentors will work to:

  • Communicate positive messages about STEM education to local schools
  • Use personal stories about why they pursued a career in science
  • Highlight what makes a science career so exciting
  • Help dispel misconceptions/stereotypes about working in science
  • Provide hands-on demonstrations
  • Act as a mentor for students going on to study science at third level locally (e.g. AIT)
  • Share their enthusiasm and passion for science
  • Highlight science and engineering inventions/famous role models when talking to students
  • Focus on how they overcame any challenges in school, college or at work
  • Highlight how STEM is essential to our health, happiness and safety and part of everyday life
  • Participate in speaking engagements during Science Week at local schools

SWIM events have already taken place in a number of schools in Offaly, Westmeath, Laois and Longford and included presentations to TY/5th year students from Cpl Recruitment on STEM skills, as well as STEM career talks from local industry mentors.

Stay up-to-date on latest news about the project on the website and on Twitter.

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Career Stories: Niamh Connolly, Post Doctoral Researcher

Niamh Connolly RCSI

Niamh Connolly talks to Smart Futures about her career as a Post-doctoral researcher.

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?

In biomedical research, we try to solve problems that can lead to better medical treatments or diagnoses. For me, this involves doing experiments, trying to figure out what the results of these experiments mean, and combining it all into a storyline that makes sense and brings the knowledge in the field forward.

My job is a little bit different in that I split my time between experiments in the lab (“wet” research) and computer programming or modelling on the computer (“dry” research) – so I need the skills required for both.

In the lab, I need to know how to use a pipette, a microscope, or other equipment around the lab (skills I learned during my PhD). To analyse the results of those experiments I need to know data analysis and statistical techniques – that’s done on a computer so I need to have good computer skills. For modelling, I need computer programming skills (also learned during my PhD and during my engineering degree).

In general, you also need to be a good communicator, to be analytical and patient (things don’t always go the way you want!) and to have good problem solving skills.

Describe a typical day?

I spend about half my time in the lab, and half my time in front of a computer.

In the lab I look after cells (we grow them in plastic dishes), or perform experiments with a microscope, which means running in and out of a dark room to check on the cells!

A day on the computer involves writing computer code to model some of the systems we are investigating in the lab. I also send emails, prepare manuscripts, and analyze data in Microsoft Excel.

What’s cool?

I love the feeling of solving puzzles – I sometimes feel like I’m trying to put together a big jigsaw, but I don’t have a picture to guide me, and sometimes I’m not even sure of the shape of the pieces! But I love the idea that I’m trying to figure something out that possibly nobody else has ever known, and that is so exciting.

What are the main challenges?

Sometimes the little things you have to get done before you get to do the bigger stuff can be quite boring! Also it sometimes feels really difficult – progress can be slow and, even though you work in a team, you can feel alone in your research. That is why a good supervisor, good mentors, and good friends are all really important, to help you through those tougher times.

But for me, nothing worth doing is ever easy, and sometimes the very fact that it is difficult even excites me! It is really important to realize that there will be ups and downs, as with anything in life.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

My Dad has probably been the biggest influence on my love of science.

He is always curious about the way things work, and why things are the way they are. I think I’ve got a lot of those characteristics now.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

I think with most jobs you have to try really hard to hang onto the lifestyle you want for yourself.

In research, some people think that you have to work long hours to progress in your career, but what is more important to me is to have a good work-life balance. I am willing to work long hours when needed (before deadlines for example), but I want to keep as many evenings and weekends free to live my life outside of work.

In terms of security, post-doc work is generally on a contract basis – a contract can be for 3 months or it could be for 3 years. That is one of the current issues with this type of work.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

For the Leaving Cert I studied Biology, Accounting and Technical Drawing – a very varied set of subjects! I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I wanted to keep my options open! They all helped me in some way, but did not particularly guide me towards what I’m doing now.

That was more a case of realizing over the years what excited me and what I was really interested in.

What is your education to date?

I went to secondary school in Athlone (Our Lady’s Bower). I went to college in UCD and studied Electronic Engineering – I loved that!

After working as an engineer for a few years (and travelling for a year), I decided I wanted to work in biomedical research and went back to college to do a Masters in NUI Galway, and then went on to do my PhD with the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI).

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Because I changed my career path from engineering to biomedical research, my Masters was really important. It was a yearlong taught Masters, where people from the physical sciences (such as engineering) studied more biological subjects, such as anatomy and molecular biology.

But for someone with a degree in the biological sciences this type of course might not be necessary.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

For a career in scientific research, I think that one of the most important qualities to have is curiosity; a desire to learn, to understand things; to understand how and why they work that way, and a desire to figure things out.

You also need to be self-motivated; although you’re in a team, you only get out of this job as much as you put in. I also think that being organized helps hugely!

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Work experience in a scientific lab would obviously be the most direct way to get experience of this kind of career, but there are plenty of other places that would also be useful.

Work in a hospital or a pharmacy can give you an idea of the medical side of things (ultimately I’m trying to find better ways to diagnose and treat medical conditions).

Work in a pharmaceutical company would let you see the other side of this coin – where the drugs that are developed in a lab are tested and produced.

Finally, anything that provides work experience with computers would also be useful – working with Microsoft Excel or any kind of computer programming can be invaluable for a career in research.

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Career Stories: Robert Healy, Software Developer, SAP

Rob Healy SAP

Robert Healy talk to Smart Futures about his career as a Software Developer in SAP.

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?

A software developer’s job is, of course, to develop software. A computer consists of two main components, hardware and software. Hardware is the physical components like the keyboard.

Software is the instructions you give to these components in order to make the computer do what you want it to. I work within a team of developers that are developing a large application for numerous customers, so my main responsibility is to make the application behave in the way the customers want it to.

Making a computer do what you want it to do is rarely straight forward. Thus, the main skill required for a software developer is the ability to solve problems quickly and intelligently.

Describe a typical day?

On a typical day I am given a certain task from the product owner on my team to complete.

The product owner is the person who finds out what the customers are looking for and then explains what I, as the software developer, need to do to achieve this. I will then think about how the task could and should be done while also relaying any extra questions I need answered to the product owner for complete clarity on the task.

Then comes the fun part, I get to develop this new piece of functionality the way my colleagues and I feel it should be done.

What’s cool?

I am very lucky to be a person who loves his job. Before I started working in this sector I pretty much did the same thing as a hobby in my free time. I really enjoy solving problems, much like doing a crossword or Sudoku puzzle.

However I also like computers. So when I want the computer to do something, I really enjoy the entire process of finding a solution to the problem and also the feeling of overcoming the problem and getting the solution I want.

What are the main challenges?

Sometimes your brain just stops working. You start out processing a million things per second and everything is working out great. Then you hit a bump in the road that just completely stumps you and literally fries your brain.

Then tasks like adding two numbers together just become a huge effort and you feel like you’re getting nowhere.

With practice you realise that when you get into these stumps you need to just get up and take your mind off the problem.

I find the majority of the time in these situations when you come back to the problem with a fresh head you can nearly solve the problem within five minutes. I’ve also learned that this doesn’t just apply to my job, it’s much the same in life!

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

Absolute sheer luck. I remember trying to fill out my CAO after not getting what I wanted in my mock exams and not having a clue what I wanted to do. I literally sat thinking wow, I don’t know what I want to do in college. I started scrolling through random courses and then eventually I saw a computer software course. I figured I kind of like computers, sure why not.

I am so lucky that I ended up really liking it and actually being good at it which led me to be where I am today.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes completely. My job has no negative impacts on my life whatsoever.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

The only subject in school that I think had an impact was Maths. I loved Maths and did higher level all the way through school. Doing this really evolved my passion for solving more difficult and complex problems.

What is your education to date?

After completing my Leaving Certificate I attended DCU doing Computer Applications for four years.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Oh my education from DCU definitely. I had absolutely no idea about computer programming or about software in general until I started my course in DCU.

Those four years are what educated me for my job. Although I suppose all my life having a love for solving problems also aided me.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

I would never tell someone what they “need” in order to “be able” to do this job. Do a job you would enjoy doing, then you’ll figure the rest out.

As regards my job; if you enjoy solving problems, having your brain tested and at least a small interest in computers then you would like this job.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Any kind of software development internship is a great help.

Luckily, in 3rd year in DCU you get to spend half the year as an intern for some real-world exposure.

They have a large amount of companies offering internships. In fact, I did my internship with the company I currently work with, which shows you how valuable it is!

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