Career Profiles: Dr. Caitriona Jackman

Questions about your career and its development


1. What is your name

Dr. Caitriona Jackman

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

I am an Associate Professor of Space Physics at the University of Southampton

3. What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?

I did a degree in Applied Physics at the University of Limerick, and their wonderful co-operative education placement programme in the third year allowed us 9 months to work in the “real world”. I spent 9 months working at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London, and this gave me my first exposure to the Cassini mission to Saturn and Space Science more generally. That set me on the path I still follow today.

4. Who are the people who most influenced your career decision?

My parents always told me to do something I loved and to work hard at it. They supported me through my co-op work placement (first time living abroad on my own), through my self-funded PhD and ever since.

I have some fantastic academic mentors and role models including my PhD supervisor. In particular I have some amazing female role models who show me that it is possible to be a successful woman in science (even in areas which are traditionally male-dominated).

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

In general, yes. Academia allows for flexible working which I feel is very important when trying to balance work and personal life

Questions about your current job


6. How did you go about getting your current job?

I did a Physics degree, including a co-op work placement, then a PhD in Space Physics, 4 and a half years of postdoctoral research, 3 years of postdoctoral fellowships, then a tenure track position at Southampton followed by permanency and promotion to Associate Professor in 2016.

7. Describe a typical day.

Highly variable! After much resistance I think I have finally become a “morning person”! I try to get into the office before everyone else so I can have a quick look for any urgent emails, then close down my inbox and concentrate on research for a few hours. This can involve reading published papers, giving comments on work from my collaborators, computer programming, writing up my own papers, preparing presentations for conferences. When I can control my schedule I like to stack any meetings into the afternoons: catching up with undergrad project students, PhD students or postdocs that work with me. I collaborate with lots of people in the USA so often have teleconferences with them in the afternoons.

There are also a large number of administrative tasks on my desk such as reviewing grant proposals, attending departmental and faculty committees etc.

8. What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

My job role includes research, teaching and management. The research side includes a lot of computer programming and analysis of data from spacecraft. The teaching side can include lecturing to undergraduates of postgraduates, or working with small project groups. The management side can include supervision of PhD students and postdocs.

Many of these activities are externally funded so applying for grants is often a big part of the job.

9. What are the main challenges?

Time management is tough and email can be an all-consuming distraction! I find if I’m working on a hard problem I need space, time and quiet to work – and this means trying to turn off my email and my phone for a while!

10. What’s cool?

I love working with so many smart and motivated people with amazing creative ideas. I am inspired by my colleagues every day and love how passionate they are about science.

11. What’s not so cool?

There can be a lot of personal judgement in academia: when you apply for grants or write papers they are peer reviewed and people will sometimes critique your work very harshly. It can be tough to not take this personally

12. What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

I love what I do and think I bring passion and enthusiasm to my role.

Questions about education and training


13. What subjects did you take in school and have these influenced your career path?

I did Physics, Maths, Chemistry and Applied Maths for leaving cert, alongside subjects like French (which I have used – quite poorly – to talk to my French collaborators), and English (which I rely on daily to write scientific papers and reports). While physics and maths are of course critical in my job I think it’s important to have a rounded set of skills.

14. What is your education to date?

Secondary school at Crescent College Limerick, BSc in Applied Physics at the University of Limerick (including a 9-month co-op placement at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory), PhD at the University of Leicester

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

My co-op placement gave me the first taste of what it would be like to work in the space sector, and I loved it.

My PhD gave me the proper grounding in planetary science, and a chance to work on the amazing Cassini mission to Saturn. At the time of embarking on my PhD there was no funding for me to pursue a PhD in the UK so I was self-funded for 3 years, teaching in the physics department to earn some money, and working a second job at the weekends. It was tough but so worth it.

16. Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

It is so important to keep learning new things. At the moment I’m learning more about the exciting area of data science and machine learning through attending specialist conferences and workshops as well as exploring online modules.

It’s also good to keep computer programming skills up to date, and my PhD students motivate me in this regard as they use new languages and methods which I then have to work to understand!

Questions about yourself


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

I have won 3 personal research fellowships over the years: from the Leverhulme Trust, Royal Astronomical Society, and Science and Technology Facilities Council. Like most scientists I have applied for (and been turned down for) so much funding over the years. It is a great feeling when your proposal is successful.

18. What personal qualities do you have that  help you in your career?

Resilience is key to withstand grant proposal rejection, and perseverance to not give up when things are tough or your ideas for a project don’t always go to plan.

Having a happy personal life outside of work is also critical for keeping everything in balance.

19. What is your dream job?

I’m doing it! I love what I do and look forward to going to work every day.

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice


20. What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Pursue something that you love and a scientific topic that interests you. Develop a good network of collaborators and friends. Listen to and learn from criticism.

21. What are the three most important personal characteristics requires for the job?

Resilience, passion, scientific integrity

22. What kinds of work experience would provide a good background?

Something like UL’s co-op placement is fantastic. Alternatively, look out for summer schools or internships that will give you an edge.