What is Smart Futures?

Smart Futures is a government-industry programme providing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers information to second-level students, parents, teachers and careers guidance counsellors in Ireland. On this website you can:

  • Read career stories profiling people working in all kinds of STEM in our blog; browse STEM ‘Career Stories’ or look up a career 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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Career Stories: Siobhán O’Connor, Researcher in health informatics


Siobhán O’Connor talks to Smart Futures about her career as a researcher in health informatics.

Your job title?

PhD/Doctoral candidate studying in the area of health informatics at the University of Glasgow.

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?

As a PhD student you are given a lot of flexibility in how you approach your job as a researcher. It is very self-driven so the more work you put in the more you get out of it, which is really rewarding. That means you get to set your own ‘To Do List’ and meet regularly with your supervisor(s) for their input.

Doing research involves a lot of reading every day so that you are knowledgeable and up to date about what’s happening in your field. There is also lots of scope for creativity for your own ideas too, which is why I love research! You definitely need good communication skills, both written and oral, as you need to get your ideas across on paper and in presentations to many different types of people who will be unfamiliar with what you do.

Describe a typical day?

Describing a typical day in research is quite tricky as it is so varied. You could be doing anything from writing an academic paper, to attending an international conference or presenting your work at departmental meetings.

I guess most days I would spend time reading journal articles on different issues in health informatics, discussing my research plans with my supervisors and/or colleagues, interviewing nurses and patients about their needs and then working with software engineers to design and develop an appropriate mobile app which can help better manage diseases or educate people about important health issues.

What are the things you like best about the job?

The best part of my job is seeing the software development process come to life and watching as an app is taken from design, right through to the development and implementation phase where people actually get to use it out in clinical practice. It might take as long as 18+ months to get it right but getting positive feedback from nurses and patients who use such apps is really fulfilling.

What are the main challenges?

Every job has its downsides and doing research is no different. It depends on your own strengths and weaknesses as to what you find challenging. I think the most difficult thing for me is trying to keep up with all the latest technical developments, as technology is always moving at such as quick pace.

Every research field is also evolving, as there are people all over the world working on different aspects of it so keeping on top of this can be difficult too. I never seem to have enough time to read everything I need to – it’s a constant challenge!

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

The main thing that influenced me most was my family, as my brother worked in IT and my sister currently works in health research. They talked about their jobs constantly and how much they loved working with technology or in a cancer lab so that definitely rubbed off on me. Also lecturers I met and worked with at University College Cork encouraged me to go into research and combine both my backgrounds, as health informatics is a very specialised area, and not many people have a good blend of IT and healthcare to drawn on to develop their research.

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

Yes most of the time!

One great thing about research is that you get to work with people from all over the world and you also get to travel quite a bit which I really enjoy. I have travelled to the United States, the UK, Netherlands and several parts of Africa to work on different projects.

There are also some up and coming exciting areas to work in eHealth such as big data or data analytics, wearable systems, and data visualization. You can also extend your research out and integrate it with other areas such as smart cities or intelligent self-drive cars so there are endless possibilities for research.  The career opportunities after your PhD are great too as you gain very valuable skills and people end up working in all types of industries and roles so it gives you lots of scope in your career.

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

I took quite a broad range of subjects for Leaving Certificate including one Science subject (Biology) as I liked studying a range of topics and I didn’t want to narrow down my choices too early. They didn’t influence my initial career path really as information technology (IT) was not taught at primary or secondary school level in Ireland and still isn’t which is a shame as it offers so many career opportunities.

I studied Business Information Systems at University College Cork (UCC) as it offered students a great mix of commerce and computer science subjects along with an industry placement. The IT sector was booming in Ireland and internationally at the time (and still is thankfully) and I didn’t have strong technical skills leaving school, which is why I wanted to do a more blended degree.

After working for several years in the financial services industry I returned to study nursing at UCC as a mature student so my Leaving Cert biology came in handy at that stage. I was able to combine both of my backgrounds, healthcare and informatics, into my research so I get the best of both worlds!

What is your education to date?

I attended secondary school at Scoil Mhuire in Kanturk, North Cork and then went on to study Business Information Systems at UCC. I recently completed a Nursing degree at UCC last year and I have recently started a 3-year PhD programme in the area of health informatics at the University of Glasgow.

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

Both my degrees provided a broad range of subjects in IT/business and healthcare so I think nearly every module I took was relevant in some way. They all broaden your perspective and give you a better understanding of how the industry works. If I had to pick something very relevant to my current job as a researcher, then I would have to say modules that covered research methods were most useful. They provided me with knowledge and practical skill about how to ‘do’ research and are included in nearly every degree course as a core module.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Doing a PhD isn’t for the faint hearted and while it isn’t overly difficult it does require a lot of hard work and motivation.

The best advice I could give would be to think about the change you really want to see in the world around you and if you think your research can fill that gap then go for it! Also consider your long-term career as having a PhD qualification can give you lots of different options in both academia and industry so it is a worthwhile investment.

However knowing what you want to get out of it before you start will ensure you make the best of the 3-4 years you spend doing your doctoral research. I would also advise anyone interested in research to get some practical experience first either by working as a Research Assistant for 4-6 months to see if you really like it or doing a Masters by research, which you can convert to a PhD in many cases.

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

Getting involved in any type of research, preferably in the field you are interested in (this might not always be possible), will give you a good insight into what is involved. Most of this type of work is done in universities but it can often be linked to many different types of industries.

It may be possible to get involved in research as an undergraduate student, many degree programmes now offer this option, so keep your eyes and ears opened for opportunities when you go to college. You can always volunteer in a research centre or a research lab if direct work experience isn’t possible and try and talk to as many people as you can who have done research or PhDs as they will have valuable advice.

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PLC courses offer alternative route to further education

Students that did not get the CAO points required for particular courses following their Leaving Certificate this year, or those looking for other routes to third level, should check out an interesting article in the Irish Independent, written by a guidance counsellor, which takes a look at using the PLC route after school to go on to further education.

The article outlines how over 15,000 students take this route to study a variety of subjects, including a number of science and technology options, with Level 5 and 6 courses traditionally being FETAC certified. Many of these students are then in a good position to go to apply for a number of Level 7 and 8 degree courses in other colleges.

Read the full article here.

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Career Stories: Myles Watson, Geologist

myles watson

Myles Watson talks to Smart Futures about his career as a geologist.

What is your job title?

I am a junior geologist with Providence Resources.

What work does a junior geologist do?

Finding oil fields is crucial to understand how the area has evolved over geological time, and that involves taking a look at all the information gathered over decades. I assist in these investigations by looking at geological evidence, rocks samples, research and geophysical surveys.

How did you choose geology as a career?

Coming out of school I had a strong interest in science, but I hadn’t the foggiest which avenue to take.

I studied biology and chemistry and had a notion that’s what I wanted to do, so I chose the science omnibus course in UCD to give me a broad spectrum and to see what I liked. That involved 12 modules in first year and I gravitated toward geology and modules that involved field work, because I always had a strong interest in the natural world.

What advantages are there to being a geologist?

A main advantage is that a petroleum geologist can work absolutely anywhere and everywhere. Irish geologists are working all over the world, including places like Africa and Canada, working onshore or offshore on an oil rig. It is a pretty cool to travel by helicopter to work every day. Besides being financially rewarding, the work is exciting too.

What’s a typical day like?

There isn’t a typical day. We are a small company and we have a range of projects, so I work on different projects on different days. I might be looking at data from drilling rigs or seismic surveys. Recently I investigated new areas that might be rewarding for the company, and I assisted with a geophysical survey on Rathlin Island.

Is field work then a big attraction for you?

I’m from the country and I like getting out and about. For my final-year project in UCD, I spent almost the whole summer doing a mapping project in the Alps in France, which was an amazing experience. Physically looking at rocks, making observations and then interpreting these observations is, for me, a very elementary kind of science.

How did you become interested in science?

I’d always an interest in the natural world. That would have come from my dad, who has a strong interest in science and is outdoorsy; he would have had science magazines in the house so that sparked my interest. And in a way, geology found me, as I just chose subjects I liked and gradually moved into it.

What subjects in school helped?

Science subjects like biology and chemistry get you thinking in the mind-frame of a scientist. I also did art, and surprisingly that helped a lot. Undergraduate geology involves a lot of drawing, sketching specimens and picking out important details. English is also important, because there is lots of report-writing in science.

You are now doing a master’s degree?

Yes, I’m doing the MSc petroleum geoscience course in UCD. This is the first year it has run and it’s a fantastic course. It was something I needed to do [for my career]. I put the idea to Providence Resources and they offered to sponsor me. The people here in Providence have been fantastic since I joined as an intern [in the summer of 2012].

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Career Stories: Dr Ida Milne, Medical humanities historian

ida milne h&s
Dr Ida Milne a social historian who researches the history of disease talks to Smart Futures about her career.

Her career has taken a number of paths over the past 30 years and from this experience, she recommends students keep following their interests!

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

I didn’t take any science subjects but I had four granduncles who were in the Royal Army Medical Corps. I’ve always been fascinated by disease. Other people played with dolls, I played with my granduncles’ surgical knives.

What courses or training did you do after school?

When I started off in the early 1980s, I did a year in Trinity College Dublin studying French and didn’t like it. I moved to journalism but I couldn’t pass shorthand. I didn’t realise it at that stage, but I’m dyspraxic. I went to work in the Irish Independent – for a while as a freelance journalist and then with the clerical staff in the library. I worked there for almost 20 years.

How did you go about getting your current job?

I took redundancy from the newspaper and started a BA in humanities from Oscail, DCU’s distance learning programme. I liked that so much I did a taught MA in history in NUI Maynooth.

For my masters, I did a thesis on Spanish influenza in Ireland. This disease happened just as we were moving from being part of the British Empire to being an independent state so it was forgotten in an Irish context. I couldn’t leave it after 15,000 words so I went to Trinity to do a PhD on it.

You’ve just been awarded an Irish Research Foundation Elevate Fellowship. What is that?

The fellowship is part of the EU Marie Curie scheme. It funds you to complete research and you must travel to acquire international knowledge. I’ll be based out of NUI Maynooth for the next three years but for the first two years I’ll be working out of Queen’s University Belfast, which is the international part of the fellowship.

What were you funded to research?

The changing landscape of childhood diseases in Ireland from 1910 to 1990. It starts from a situation in 1911 when 2,000 children under the age of two died from diarrhoeal diseases because of the appalling housing conditions, sanitation and poverty.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Science and medical history is a growing area. Many colleges are now offering some element of medical history. There’s a master’s course in the Centre for History of Medicine in UCD. Also, some courses are offered by NUI Maynooth, UCC and Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

What are the main challenges?

It’s very hard to find a job. However, no matter how old you are, no matter how much you’ve failed, there’s always a way to pick yourself up. I didn’t even do science or honours history for the Leaving Cert but now I have a PhD.

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