Questions about your career and its development
What is your name?
Where do you work and what is your role/job title?
I work at Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), which is the Space and Climate Physics Department of University College London. I am an Ernest Rutherford Research Fellow, Lecturer in Solar Physics, and also the co-principal investigator for the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) on board the Solar Orbiter Spacecraft.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
At the moment yes. I now have a permanent position, so it means I don’t have to worry about bringing in research money anymore and I don’t have to worry about being on short-term contracts. Before I got this current position, it did and it didn’t; The work itself is a lot of fun but the job involves a lot of travel, moving around, short-term contracts, not always knowing where you’re going to be in a couple of years’ time… Which isn’t great
Questions about your current Job
How did you go about getting your current job?
I did a degree in Science and ended up doing Physics with Astrophysics in Trinity College Dublin. I started off in general science because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and as I went through that I realised I like physics better than chemistry, and then I liked astrophysics more than physics, and then by the end I was really interested in Solar Physics.
I talked to one of my lecturers who was a solar physicist about doing a PhD and he took me on for a PhD in Trinity. I did an internship at NASA before starting my PhD, then did my PhD at Trinity, and then spent a year in Boston at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
Once I finished my PhD I applied for, and got, a post-doctoral position at MSSL where I am now. Once I started there I was on some short-term contracts, and then I got a fellowship which then led me to the current fellowship and permanent job that I have now.
Describe a typical day.
I am an early bird; I usually get up about 6am and I’m in the office by about 7:30. I usually take the time to go through my emails, see what papers have been published recently to keep track of what’s going on in the field.
I have 4 PhD students. I spend a lot of time with them each day, making sure they’re ok, that they understand what they’re working on, to see how their projects are going.
As the PI (Principal Investigator) for an instrument we have to keep track of the instrument and make sure everything is OK. It’s currently (05/11/20) on the far side of the Sun so there’s less that we can do, but we have to keep track of it every day.
Then within the group we have discussions. There are about 20 people in the group at MSSL, so we’re talking science every day, discussing different research projects. I also do some research of my own, and write some papers so I try to do a little bit of that as well. So it’s busy, but it’s fun.
What’s the coolest part of your job?
The coolest part of my job is definitely being the PI of an instrument on a space mission. As soon as I started doing the PhD and seeing all this data coming in from NASA and ESA mission…Being involved in that is really interesting. It’s very cool. You’re working with something that is in space.
For EUI, the telescope that I work with, we built a part of it at MSSL. The electronics box, the “brains” of the instrument were built here. It was launched then in February (2020), onboard Solar Orbiter, from Florida. I got to go there for the launch, (Though I missed it because it was delayed by a few days and I had to fly back). It’s really cool being there and being part of this huge team across America and Europe, all invested in this mission. Waiting for the data to come back is really exciting. It’s definitely the best part of what I do.
Are there any elements of your job that you dislike?
The short-term nature of being a post-doc is something I’m glad I don’t have to worry about anymore. As a student it’s great because you have 4 years to work on whatever it is your project is about. You get to define a lot of the directions that you take in that time, which is great. Once that 4 years is finished you’re on to contracts that are anything from 18 months to 3 years – so it’s really short-term. You may have to move at the end of each contract. You then have to apply for different jobs in different places – You’re not guaranteed that you’ll get employment and that can be really difficult. I was one of the lucky ones, and I’m definitely in the minority, because a lot of people tend to leave academia after a post-doc because there just isn’t the money, or the positions, available. It’s a shame and it’s definitely something I don’t like about what I do.
Questions about education and training
What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?
For my Leaving Cert I did Physics, Chemistry and Applied Maths, as well as English, Irish, Maths and French. I liked science subjects. I was pretty good at it. The Applied Maths was something that was really interesting. Once I got to University I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I did general science. It turned out I was better at Physics than Chemistry, so I specialised in Physics and within Physics I preferred Astrophysics so I picked that. I went with what I was good at and what I liked and I narrowed it down as I went further along in University
Questions about yourself
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
There are two really. One was getting my PhD; It takes 4 years it’s a lot of work and a lot of effort. To become a doctor at the end of that is really nice it really feels like a proper achievement, and you’re part of something now.
The second thing is seeing my students get their PhDs. I have four students. I’ve had two students go on to get their PhDs. Seeing them graduate, having watched them from Day 1 to graduation, is a really nice feeling. It’s definitely one of the better parts of my job
What is your dream job?
Being a PI of an instrument or a mission. I’m currently co-PI of an instrument and it’s something I’ve always wanted to be (At least since being in science), and I suppose one of the reasons I’ve tried so hard to stay at MSSL where I am is because they’re so heavily involved in Space missions and building instrumentation that goes onto missions. To be a PI you need to be involved in the construction or the operation of the instrument. So the best chance I had of being a PI was to stay at MSSL, and thankfully it worked out and I’m co-PI on 1 of 10 instruments on the Solar Orbiter Spacecraft. EUI is going to be observing the Sun at very high resolution, very high cadence, and we’re getting some amazing pictures back. Being part of that is really, really, cool and it’s why I do what I do.
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.
It’s a hard job. It takes a long time to get here. To do this kind of work you need to be very inquisitive and ask questions constantly. What you’re doing is something that nobody else has done – That’s why you’re doing it. The point of research is to answer unanswered questions.
You also need to be very tenacious and work hard. It can be quite difficult at times, especially with these short-term post-doc contracts. As a student you’re going into fields of research that nobody has really done before and you need to be able to guide it yourself.
For work experiences – If you’re a secondary school student, I know at MSSL we run a research experience week every summer, and I think other places do that as well, so it’s worth asking
If you’re an undergraduate, lecturers and professors always have research projects during the summer. So it’s worth asking someone, if you’re interested in what they’re doing, about that sort of opportunity. ESA do research placements as well for students. You get to go to Madrid, the Netherlands or even Germany to work with ESA, which is really cool, so it’s always worth asking.