Postgraduate study in science and maths
A postgraduate qualification can really enhance your career prospects if you are looking for a job using science or mathematics.
Many careers in the area of science or maths are extremely specialist, and an undergraduate qualification is often not quite enough to get you your target job. However, the combination of a numerate or scientific undergraduate degree coupled with a postgraduate business qualification can be highly sought after by employers.
Finance jobs are often targeted by maths graduates and entry is very competitive, so specialising in subjects such as quantitative finance or investment and treasury within a postgraduate course is an excellent career option for maths graduates.
Recent years have seen several initiatives being developed by the Irish government to promote science, recognising that investment in science is vital for the future economic growth of the country. The Irish Government's Strategy for Science, Technology & Innovation offers a commitment to double the number of PhD students and increase funding levels to support this research.
This means that more opportunities are becoming available to those who wish to pursue science to postgraduate level. Science postgraduates can find jobs in industry/enterprise, government bodies, research centres of excellence, and education. There are many opportunities both in academic and non-academic routes. If choosing the academic route, you could be carrying out research in a university environment and lecturing, teaching at second level or in colleges of further education, or working in university administration.
Many postgraduates go into the enterprise sector, helping companies to drive innovation. But you need to be aware that having a doctorate isn't enough: personality is also important. Alongside academic excellence, you need to be self-driven, with good communication skills, able to influence people and to market your research to others in the company. You must always be aware of the application of your research. In a field where collaboration and cooperation are increasingly important – both across institutions and across national frontiers – you also need the ability to see the big picture and to work as part of a team.
During your postgraduate study you should take every opportunity to develop your career: become familiar with how to draft funding proposals, think about developing patents, attend conferences, and publish as early and as often as you can. Opportunities for teaching can help you develop presentation skills, and joining a postgraduate student society can help you to meet a broad range of people.
Research is often sponsored by commercial firms and the academics pursuing it are often given funds to hire a research student to help them with their investigations. These positions are usually advertised in the relevant department so keep your eyes open. Alternatively, employees can be sponsored by their firms to take postgraduate courses. The Embark Initiative offers support for research degrees.
A science postgraduate qualification is more likely to be research based, whereas maths and other quantitative disciplines often include a substantial taught component. Within science, postgraduate study can be divided into taught courses, leading to a masters degree or diploma, and research courses.
Taught courses typically give you in-depth knowledge in a particular field and involve lectures, laboratory work and a major project or dissertation. Courses last one academic year (diploma) or one calendar year (masters). The tendency over the last few years has been to put more of a focus on the research side of further study. The main reasons for this are the vast number of science areas that exist and also the funding available.
Many people who choose research enter with a masters in mind and, depending on the scope of their topic, often convert to a PhD. Some faculties offer mentorship schemes as well as an advisory panel of supervisors rather than just one (as was previously the case). Taught modules are available on topics such as research skills and commercialisation techniques. For science graduates, a growing number of options in postgraduate study are now available, spanning a variety of areas. These include:
- pharmacy and biotechnology
- health sciences and sport
- education and research
- manufacturing and production
- technology and computing.
There are many new, interdisciplinary areas such as nanotechnology, which links physics and engineering, and health sciences, which links biotechnology, engineering and medical areas. This is a growing trend. Most scientists looking at postgraduate study will opt for a research degree but taught courses are also available, particularly in new areas such as science communication (which combines science and journalism), bioinformatics (linking computing and life sciences) or science education (linking science with education).
It is possible to do a PhD in science without doing a masters first, and careers advisers normally recommend this route as the best use of your time. You will need to register for an MSc by research; at the end of first year when your work is assessed it is normally possible to be promoted to the PhD register. This means you will be able to complete a PhD in around three to four years (a masters would take two years).
Your choice of course may depend on the time and funding available. A taught programme, which tends to combine lectures and a short dissertation, is normally shorter. This is also more likely to be available on a part-time basis, so could be a good option if you are already working in industry and wanting to top up your qualifications.
It is very difficult to undertake a science related postgraduate course without having completed a science undergraduate qualification. However, one conversion option in this sector is to complete a graduate diploma in computer science. These are usually open to all disciplines and there are good career opportunities upon completion.
It is also possible to undertake a postgraduate course in maths if you are coming from a broadly quantitative background, for example economics or actuarial studies.