Career Profiles: Sean Mooney

Questions about your career and its development


1. What is your name?

My name is Sean Mooney

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

I am three years into my PhD at University College Dublin, where my research is focused on studying a supermassive black hole which resides at the centre of a distant galaxy.

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

There are two milestones in particular that stand out. The first relates to the degree I got at university. I was doing a general science course, where I took classes in biology, maths, physics, geography, and geology. Towards the end of the course, though, you have to pick a subject to specialise in. If you’d asked me after the Leaving Cert what I wanted to do, I’d have said I wanted to be a biologist. If you asked me after one year of college, I’d have said a geologist. But when the time came, I decided to go with astrophysics and I haven’t looked back since. There is a lot of overlap between the different branches of science, and I still have an interest in all types of science, so I’m not surprised in hindsight that I ended up changing my mind so much!

My second big decision took place after I got my degree in astronomy and astrophysics, when I took a job working as a business analyst. Even though I quite liked the work, after three years I decided to leave the business world to go back and get my Master’s degree – and then start a PhD – in the field of astronomy, as I wanted to know more about how the universe works.

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

Although I liked to watch a lot of nature and space documentaries growing up, my career path was most influenced by people I knew personally, rather than any specific famous scientists, like Carl Sagan or David Attenborough. My biology, maths, and physics teachers come to mind, as they taught the subjects in an engaging way.

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

It does, yes. But I think it is worth noting that compared to say, a previous job I had in an office, where you work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, being in academia influences your lifestyle to a greater degree. For example, (i) there is a fair amount of travel involved, (ii) you might have to take phone calls at odd hours if you’re working on an experiment with people in vastly different time zones, and (iii) in order meet certain deadlines, you occassionally end up having to do work at the weekends. The result of this is that you can’t always plan personal activities too far in advance.


Questions about your current Job


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

I did a Masters degree a couple of years ago, which involved doing an internship. I did an internship in the High Energy Astrophysics Group at University College Dublin. I liked that internship so much that I never left! When it was finished, I applied for funding for me to do a PhD as part of that group, and that is where I am today.

7. Describe a typical day.

My days vary quiet a bit, but for the most part I work in a computer laboratory in UCD. On my commute into UCD, I check my emails and set out an agenda for the day. I try to include a variety of tasks because focusing on the same problem all day can be a challenge. In the first half of the day, I usually work on analysing data taken by the LOFAR telescope. This invovles writing Python code. After lunch, I have a look at the newest scientific papers that have been published, as it is important to stay up to date with what other people in your field are doing. Then in the afternoon, I take care of some administration bits, and do some writing. Whether there is a conference coming up that you want to present at, or even if it is just making notes of what you did that day, there is very often something that needs to be written.

8. What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

The main task is to learn something new about whatever niche of the universe you are studying, and sharing that result with the world. Sharing the result includes writing academic papers to be published in scientific journals, which your fellow scientists will read, but also communicating the results with the general public, since usually it is public funding that pays for so much of the research. Everything you do day to day can usually be traced back to this – finding out something new about how the world works, and sharing it.

9. What are the main challenges?

Two challenges come to mind. The first is choosing which projects to get involved with. Very often, you might have a thought for an experiment, “I wonder how this type of distant galaxy changes over time?” for example, but you have to choose your battles. There are only so many hours in the day so if you start one project, you really have to see it through to completion before taking on something else.

This ties in with the second challenge, which is that it is often very hard to predict how much work is invoved in different projects, because you don’t necessarily know what the results will be. This is especially true of large, ambitious projects where you are working with a team of people from across the world. Just coordinating the work that everyone is doing can be difficult.

10. What’s cool?

The coolest thing is the actual stuff I study! I make detailed images of massive galaxies which are billions of lightyears away. A week doesn’t go by without me seeing a prety picture of a galaxy and thinking “Cooool…”. I use a telescope called LOFAR, which is a non-traditional telescope in that there is no eye piece or dish. The more I learn about the instrument, the more I am amazed.

11. What’s not cool?

A lot of the time, things don’t go your way. In academia, you are constantly writing, whether it is trying to get your work published, or applying for funding. And more often than not, the answer is “No”. So that is just something you have to come to terms with.

The incentives of the publishing system also seem misaligned. People often think scientists get paid to write papers in journals, but often it is the other way around – if you write something up, you have to pay the journal to have them publish it.

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

I like to think that I am very organised, and I find this very helpful as there are a lot of things to keep on top of. A good record of what you do, keeping your schedule in a diary, and planning your work in advance so you don’t miss a deadline is not easy to do. However, these are things I am usually on top of.

The other useful skill is that I learned to progam before starting my PhD. So much of astronomy is done on computers these days, and it is hard to see how you could be successful in astronomy without knowing how to write code. Python is the programming language of choice these days.


Questions about education and training


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

For my Junior Cert, I did the usual core subjects plus Technology, Technical Graphics, and Science. I chose to do Transition Year too, because I wasn’t sure what to pick for the Leaving Cert.

In the end, I went with Irish, English, French, Maths, Physics, Biology, and Geography. I was by no means an amazing student, but I was good at Maths and Biology, and I enjoyed Physics and Geography too.

I couldn’t decide between these four subjects – Maths, Biology, Physics, and Geography – which I wanted to pursue a career in. That’s what lead me to do a general science degree in college. That way, I got to do a little of a lot of all of the subjects, and from college on, I liked physics (and astronomy in particular) the most.

I think if I had not have taken Science for the Junior Cert, or Physics for the Leaving Cert, I probably would’ve ended up picking something very different in College. So the decisions to study those were crucial is shaping my career today.

14. What is your education to date?

I did my Junior and Leaving Certificate in Scoil Dara, Kilcock. Then I went to Trinity College Dublin and got a degree in Astronomy & Astrophysics. After that, I did a Masters in Physics specialising in Space Science & Technology at University College Dublin, and that is where I am doing my PhD today.

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

It was only during my Masters degree when I began to start learning computer programming properly. I did bits and pieces before that, but nothing major. It is such a key part of what I do every day, I wish I had the opportunity to learn the concepts while in school.

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

I am due to finish my PhD in the next year or so, and then I will have to plan my next move. I may not take any formal training after that, but the progress in astronomy is closely tied to the technology available, so I will have to study topics such as machine learning and artificial intelligence as they advance.


Questions about yourself


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

Submitting my first scientific paper to an academic journal was pretty satisfying, as was presenting the discoveries I made at a conference. Last year though, I went back to my old secondary school and gave a talk to students about astronomy – that was a great feeling too!

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

I am relatively easy-going I think, and that is a real necessity. By it’s very nature, doing research means finding out something new about the world. But that means that things don’t always go to plan, and you might not get the result from an experiment that you want! I think being able to say to myself “That’s OK, we can go back to the drawing board tomorrow.” has been important.

19. What is your dream job?

Oh, astronaut, hands down! But I think that ship has sailed for me, so I’m happy to just look at the stars with both feet firmly on the ground.

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

I would say that it is never really too early to start learning about astronomy and physics generally, whether that’s reading books, watching videos, or even learning about the stars in the night sky.

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

I wouldn’t oversell the need for particular characteristics, as I think once you have the passion for it, that will carry you through. That said, three that come to mind are (i) being self-motivated (since nobody is there to make you do the work – it is up to you!), (ii) being flexible (since plans can often change dramatically, depending on what you discover!), and (iii) open-minded (since, for science to progress, you have to challenge the current theories).

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

For my transition year work experience, I spent time in the chemistry department in the University of Maynooth, and I found that helpeful, as I got to see how a University laboratory operated. However, any role that gave you experience with analysing data and making graphs, etc., would be really beneficial too.