What is your name?
My name is Cian O’Regan.
Where do you work and what is your role/job title?
I’m a Human Factors PhD student at the Munster Technological University in Cork. My research focuses on evaluating human performance in the execution of manual tasks when assisted by Augmented Reality devices following long time intervals between the last time someone trained or performed that task and having to execute it again.
While I realise that’s a bit of a mouthful, my research team and I are basically trying to measure how well astronauts on future missions to the surface of the Moon and Mars remember the training they may have received on Earth months prior to their arrival on the Moon or the red planet.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
I’m a firm believer that the work of a PhD research student is best summed up by paraphrasing the words of President Kennedy when he described the United States’ motivation for sending people to the Moon – we do things “Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
While my work is no doubt challenging, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic, I find myself very fortunate to be in the role I am now because it really doesn’t feel like a job at all because of my passion for my research topic!
My sister is a nurse who worked in the ICU during the first wave of the pandemic, so compared to her work, I feel quite guilty for even thinking about a complaint about the lifestyle of a PhD student in terms of the lifestyle.
My job as a PhD student/researcher allows me great flexibility in being able to work from home or work at the Observatory. It also allows me to travel regularly around Ireland as well as abroad for conferences which is key for making connections in addition to being the perfect opportunity to present your work to your peers.
I also run my own photography business, so I’m fortunate that I’m able to do that at the same time that I’m studying full-time.
Questions about your current Job
How did you go about getting your current job?
After graduating with a BSc. in Business Information Systems from UCC in 2019, I worked as a business analyst for a year in a financial services startup here in Cork. While I really enjoyed the job because the office was filled with really nice people who I got on extremely well with, my plan was to use the money to save up and do a masters degree in the field of Human Factors/Interaction Design as I found the topic to be very interesting while studying it for my undergrad.
I had also been working part-time at Blackrock Castle Observatory as a Science Explainer since 2016, and it just so happened that at the beginning of 2020, I was asked by the Head of the Observatory, Dr Niall Smith if I wanted to apply for a PhD scholarship at the Cork Institute of Technology (now the Munster Technological University). While I dedicated a lot of time to writing the best research proposal I could, I didn’t really care if I was unsuccessful because I always had a job to fall back on which I was planning on using to fund a masters, so I think it’s always good to have a backup plan in place.
Because I was allowed the freedom to write the research proposal myself, it meant that I could pursue a PhD in something I was truly passionate about. This passion was obviously seen by the reviewers, who kindly approved my application to start researching at MTU, which I’ve been doing now since I started back in October 2020.
Describe a typical day.
I try my best to keep to a 9-5 schedule as I was told by my supervisors at the beginning of my research that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of spending 12 hours at my desk working. As everyone knows, that approach is fine if you need to get something done quickly before a deadline or an exam but is really unsustainable in the long run and would lead to serious burnout and fatigue.
I’m currently in the experiment planning phase of my research which means I spend most of the day ensuring the methodology for my experiment is as watertight as possible so that I don’t realise during data collection that we should have done something differently. This means that I spend a lot of time reading research papers, books, browsing databases, and emailing experts to see what other researchers in my field have been working on and evaluating how my experiment can emulate what’s been done before rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
I find that meeting with my supervisors, other researchers, and people working in industry really helps break up the day so that my head isn’t buried in the books or my laptop screen from sunrise to sunset.
What’s the coolest part of your job?
When I was a teenager I used to write a lot of letters to astronauts and folks who used to work in Mission Control going all the way back to days of Project Mercury. I’d ask for advice on how I could one day follow in their footsteps and work in the field of human spaceflight (in which capacity, I had no idea. All I did know was that it’s where I wanted to be!).
I couldn’t believe both the volume of letters I received back as well as their contents – notes and letters from the likes of John Glenn, Gene Kranz, and Jim Lovell telling me to reach for the stars and dream big. Those messages were exactly what I needed at that time, because for me, that’s all working in the space industry was ever going to be – a big dream.
Now that I’m working in the space industry as a human factors researcher, I actually find myself speaking and interacting with some of the people I wrote letters to years ago asking for advice, and that’s when I have to pinch myself for sure. I think the coolest part of my job is getting to meet (either in person or virtually) with other space researchers and space industry professionals – ranging from astronauts to systems engineers to pilots – who work for organisations such as NASA, the European Space Agency, as well as private companies who are really at the forefront of space science and engineering. As someone who is just over a year into my PhD, I can’t think of a single person I’ve reached out to that hasn’t been willing to offer advice or recommendations to me, which I think is quite reflective of the co-operative mindset of the space community in general.
Are there any elements of your job that you dislike?
I wouldn’t say I dislike any part of my job because of what I’ve already outlined, but I do have to admit that it’s very hard to mentally switch off from your research at the end of the workday, which can be quite mentally draining at times. There have been many occasions in the past where I might be watching TV or a movie with my family at home and next thing an idea related to my PhD would pop into my head. In fear of forgetting the idea, I’d often walk out of the room just to write a note in my journal to remember to investigate that idea a bit more the following day.
So the only part of my job I dislike is that it is quite hard to switch off, but I hear this is a pretty common complaint from a PhD student!
Questions about education and training
What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?
I studied Business Information Systems in UCC for my undergraduate degree. By far and away the most fascinating module I took during this time was an elective in Interaction Design which I found to be extremely interesting because it taught me the basic principles of how people interact with computers in everyday situations – ranging from turning on the oven at home to flicking switches inside of a cockpit. Some of the stuff I learned in that module I still think about today in my own research, so I’m really glad I did that module looking back on it now.
During my third year placement, I spent three months in The Netherlands where I attended the International Space University’s Space Studies Program. This was really the turning point for me in realising that space is just like any other industry in that it needs people from all disciplines – from economists to astronauts to geologists – in order to thrive. Most people have a false impression that you need to be the smartest, strongest person in the class in order to work in the space industry. My time at ISU showed me that the only thing you need to be in order to get your foot in the door is to just be yourself, be nice, and continue to be passionate about your work. It’s that easy!
Questions about yourself
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
As everyone who has been through third-level education will tell you, getting handed your diploma upon the completion of your studies is a very rewarding moment not just because of all the hard work you’ve put in over the past couple of years, but also because of the sacrifices and efforts of family and friends around you which often goes unrecognised. So graduating with a BSc. in Business Information Systems from UCC was very rewarding for me.
Representing Ireland at the International Space University’s Space Studies Program in 2018 was also a highlight for me because it’s an extremely competitive programme to get into, and I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship by the European Space Agency to attend.
The reason SSP18 was so rewarding was because my 135 classmates hailed from 35 different countries, so it took us all a few weeks to get used to how to communicate well and work effectively alongside people from different cultures and professional backgrounds. While the work was mentally demanding and the hours were long, I look back on my time at the Space Studies Program with great pride and fondness – not because of everything my classmates and I learned from world experts in the space domain, but because of the camaraderie and teamwork between my classmates which has resulted in the formation of lifelong friendships.
What is your dream job?
Over the past few years I’ve been very fortunate to meet a lot of astronauts, and I have to say that when you hear them talk about their experiences of being an astronaut, it’s pretty difficult to not want their job! All astronauts will tell you themselves that you don’t need to be the smartest person in the class or the fastest, strongest person on the team, but the most important thing is that you need to be a team player, show that you can be both a leader and a follower, and work hard at whatever you do in life.
However, becoming an astronaut is most certainly not easy. I’ve often heard them say that the most important thing you need to have if you want to become an astronaut is luck. Recently, NASA selected 10 new astronaut candidates from a pool of 12,000 applications, so you can see their point! But one thing I’ve heard almost every astronaut speak about is how they really enjoyed the job they were doing before they were selected. So while I predict I’ll apply to the European Space Agency in subsequent calls for astronaut applications, I hope I’ll be working in a really interesting and enjoyable job related to human spaceflight when I receive my unsuccessful application letters!
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.
The number one piece of advice I always give to someone thinking of applying for a PhD is to not do a PhD just so you can have letters after their name and be called a doctor, because I think it will only end up badly. For me, the most important thing for anyone considering undertaking a PhD (regardless of whether it’s space related or not) is to ensure that you pick a research topic which genuinely interests you in a field you’re passionate about.
Whether that’s human factors, microbiology or engineering, a PhD takes years to complete, and if you’re not fascinated by your research domain, those years will no doubt drag on and you’ll be left thinking why you undertook the PhD in the first place.
Communication skills (both written and verbal) are also very important because there’s no point in coming up with the greatest idea in the world if you don’t know how to communicate it to the general public, your supervisors, as well as people you’ll meet at conferences who you’ll be presenting your research findings to.
And the final piece of advice I’d offer if you do begin a PhD is to just trust yourself and your abilities. Universities and other research institutions don’t just pick random people off the street for research positions. If you’re lucky enough to be selected to undertake PhD research, there’s probably a good reason! So trust yourself, and try to have as much fun doing it as possible because it really is a wonderful position to be in.