Career Profiles: Aidan Duggan

Questions about your career and its development

What is your name?

My name is Aidan Duggan

Where do you work and what is your role/job title?

My job title is probably “student” as I’m doing a PhD.

In the past I studied artificial intelligence, and even further back I started in mechanical engineering. The mechanical engineering degree branched in towards software. I worked for up to 20 years in different aspects of software development software. I needed a change and artificial intelligence was sort of flavour of the month for the last couple of years so I went back to college myself and did a masters in artificial intelligence, which I finished last year and had the option of getting a job at that stage but I decided I would take it one step further and pursue a PhD on the use of artificial intelligence in space specifically within satellites.

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

It gives a great quality of life; I’m learning for the love of learning rather than really purely thinking about what’s coming next. That’s a really privileged position to be in and I’m lucky that within the PhD world I got a scholarship, so it pays my costs. I won’t become rich out of it but there is enough to pay my costs and so it’s a really good position to be in.

How did you go about getting your current job?

I started with engineering, worked on that for a couple of years then went off to Australia and did a lot of travelling which is a fabulous experience as well. I was always interested in software, maths, physics, all that sort of thing and I got the opportunity to go back and to college to do a one-year master’s in software and I knew the second I started that was really what I wanted to do.  I worked in various jobs that used my engineering background:  I worked for a company in Carrigaline in digital television and then I worked in Snap-On in Blackpool, Cork, looking at the software that’s used inside cars. After getting married I moved up to Newry and go a job in Dundalk with a company called ABB in the paper machine industry.  I was there for 10 or 15 years and that is when I decided I needed a change. After a certain amount of time in any domain, it doesn’t matter how interesting, you get to a point where you feel you know everything, so your sense of wanting to know even more starts to dive a little bit. So, I thought I was at that stage, but luckily artificial intelligence was coming up as an option, so I did the first Masters in Ireland in artificial intelligence which was a great course and another steppingstone.  I consider this PhD as like my third career, and hopefully before I finish, I’ll have a fourth!  You’re not stuck when you make one decision, if you like it, you keep going, but you can always have options to change.

Describe a typical day.

Every day is a little bit different, but I spend four or five hours each week supervising computer science students when they do their labs, because of the Covid situation it’s all online, I’ll have a zoom call where I will have maybe 10 or 15 different students and I help them along with their exercises and that’s a new experience and something I’m really enjoying. I actually have to attend a lecture myself as well for my PhD, so that happens on a Friday and then the rest of the week is spent researching, gathering information, finding out what is the “state of the art” out there, what is the latest, the cutting edge of this technology – where has artificial intelligence been used – not directly on a satellite but somewhere else.  There’s a lot of work has gone into cars so what I’m doing is I’m looking at “what you did in in this research – how did you manage to write software to sit in a car and oh maybe I could apply the same idea, take what you’ve done and rewrite it and make it fit on a satellite.” It’s very, very interesting, so I’m getting exposure to artificial intelligence used in lots of different places.

What’s the coolest part of your job?

Being at the cutting edge of new technology feels really exhilarating. A lot of my job involves reading what the latest research in my area is and then pushing the boundary further to create new research and then add to the body of knowledge out there. I also get to meet with and interact with many others doing similar work in other domains. It’s very cool.

Are there any elements of your job that you dislike

Not really, but I was worried when I started as I quite like the social side of it and quite like meeting people, interacting with people, working with people, and helping them.  My impression of a PhD was that you’re very much working on your own and you must self-motivate but working in isolation wouldn’t be one of my strong points so that was the thing I was most nervous about. I’m getting funded to learn something I really love – it’s incredible.


Questions about education and training

What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?

I knew very early on that I’m a techie, I like maths and physics. For my Leaving Cert I went for technical drawing, engineering, physics, and applied maths. I tolerated the French, the Irish and the English!


Questions about yourself

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

I’m supervising labs for second-year students. I actually find that really satisfying, being able to help people.

What is your dream job?

I think I have a different dream job every week really. Over time, the dream sort of changes! When I started my career, my dream job was to be sitting in an office (with a big office, a big chair and a big paycheck!). Then you realize that the goal is happiness.  You know the saying “invest your money in in good pair of shoes and a good bed because if you’re not in one you’re in the other” and it’s funny, but it’s very true, because if you’re not in  your shoes you’re in your bed or whatever and it’s the same with your career –  your career is a huge part of your life, you’re spending at least 40 hours a week in your job, so it has to make you happy. Now I think I am going towards teaching and lecturing.


Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

What advice would you give to someone considering this job? Are there important personal characteristics, or good work experience they can undertake for example

I initially thought I was too old to do a PhD, so I spoke to a lecturer, and he showed me a website with guys in their 60s and I’ve heard of people in their 90s still researching and learning. 

What has stood to me is being experienced. I imagine if I had gone straight into this position after college, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much or appreciated it as much either.  The person you are in your twenties is quite a different person to the person you are at forty, you grow, show your experiences, and you change, but I would say a common trait throughout all things is empathy.  People talk about robots taking over the world and all this and it won’t happen because I think people skills are probably the most important. No matter what career you have you’re always at the end of the day going to have to deal with people, people who are your senior or your boss or people that you have to pass on your knowledge to.  I think people skills are really, really important.