Postgraduate study by research: what you need to know

Independent research isn't just for scientists - it's a fantastic opportunity for students with a specialist interest in virtually any topic to excel.
Woman studying

Independent research can be wonderfully satisfying and intellectually stimulating. It is also time-consuming, demanding and intense. It demonstrates that you are capable of independent study, that you have project-management skills and that you are highly organised. In fact, there aren't really any disadvantages, although some students can find the traditionally solitary nature of research a lonely experience. (This is an important factor to bear in mind: although there may be other research students in your department, they are unlikely to be working on the same topic as you, so must be prepared to work alone for long periods of time.)

Who would it suit?

Research isn't the sole preserve of would-be academics, but it's not for the faint-hearted: it's open to anyone who is highly motivated, with a demonstrable interest in a specific area of study. It's often said that research is a lifestyle, but there is evidence that a sizeable proportion of research students work over 40 hours a week, and many hold down a second job to make ends meet. Whatever your financial situation, life as a research student is all about self-motivation and discipline. It's really important that you treat your studies like a day job, setting strict working hours and study deadlines.

The options

There's a huge range of careers that a doctoral degree can lead you to, including – but by no means limited to – the more traditional academic route.

Masters by research can be gained in all disciplines. In humanities and social science these are usually Master of Letters (MLitt) or Master of Philosophy (MPhil). For the sciences, they can be Master of Research (MRes) or Master of Science (MSc). Doctoral degrees are also available in virtually any subject and are known as Doctorates of Philosophy (PhDs) regardless of which discipline they are in. Other research doctorates include DPhil, LLD, DSc, DLitt, DEng and DEd, many of which also have a taught component as well as a significant research element.


It goes without saying that research is a fundamental requirement for a career as a scholar: a PhD is usually a basic requirement for an academic. It's notoriously difficult to become established in academia, but for those that do, the lifestyle of a full-time researcher can be rich and rewarding. Typical entry routes include post-doctoral fellowships, where early-career post-docs are enabled to strengthen their experience of research and teaching within a university environment with the aim of obtaining permanent lecturing posts at the end of the fellowship. Alternatively you could be named research assistant on a research grant led by a principal investigator. Try and amass as much experience as you can in terms of teaching, researching, presenting at conferences and writing/contributing to publications to establish your academic profile and boost your chances of employment.

Research and industry

Collaboration between businesses and research centres has a positive impact on local economies and it's crucial to the wider development of innovation and enterprise across the island of Ireland, according to political commentators on both sides of the border. Many Irish HE institutions now have specialist departments focused on developing links with industry. For example, NovaUCD, University College Dublin's Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre, is well on its way to achieving its aim of becoming a key international player in the commercialisation of research. It implements UCD policies concerning intellectual property (IP) and provides business support programmes for start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Client companies of NovaUCD have created over 30 jobs since the beginning of 2010; 16 new high-tech business ventures began NovaUCD's Capmus College Development Programme, which enables participants to commercialise research undertaken at the University.

Case Study: The Research Community

A good example of the research 'community' can be seen in Cork, where the City's Institute of Technology works with a wide range of national and international collaborators. CIT's research activities are designed to have a pragmatic, meaningful impact on industry whilst providing a centre of excellence for research. CIT is heavily involved in four research clusters, which consist of multi-disciplinary groups of researchers working on high level strategic research for the benefit of the nation. The Strategic Research Clusters are

Network embedded systems

This is based in the NIMBUS Research Centre building at the Faculty of Engineering and Science, where up to 80 researchers, including undergrad and postgrad students and researchers from other institutions work together. The Cluster also includes dedicated industry visitor workstations where company researchers can work with NIMBUS staff and students at the building's dedicated facilities.


This cluster consists of a team of interdisciplinary scientists from the Departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Computing and Biomedical Engineering. They develop and implement platform technologies to underpin core research areas of diagnostics, bio-analysis, antimicrobial screening, bio-informatics and biodmedical engineering.


This is the science of generating and harnessing light, which impacts on a wide range of areas, such as telecoms, medical imaging and astronomy. The industry-specific facilities are cutting edge and designed to be of real, practical benefit for firms in this sector.

The Energy and Sustainable Environment Research Cluster(ESE)

This is a multidisciplinary cluster that covers engineering, chemicals, mechanical and manufacturing, electronics and computing. The cluster has become increasingly involved in the Schools of Business and humanities. Clusters, which operate an an increasing number of third level institutions nationwide and provided independent expertise, advice and assistance to different sectors of industry, government and business.

Case Study:Creating new products from academic research

Dr Kevin Kavanagh is a senior lecturer in the Department of Biology at NUI Maynooth. For many years Kevin has been studying the immune systems of insects and has become a world renowned expert in insect biology and immunology. His expertise in this area has led to the creation of Beemune Ltd. Through pollination, bees are responsible for 40% of the global food supply. However, the past decade has seen bees dying prematurely at a massive rate and in 2007, almost two-thirds of the entire commercial bee population wiped out by a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

After two years of research at NUI Maynooth, Dr Kavanagh has developed a food additive that has been shown to rapidly improve the viality and health of colonies of bees. In 2021, Keven set up Beemune, which produces natural, safe foodstuffs for bees and aims to improve the health, productivity and improve resilience to the environment and modern farming methods. The company is focused on the export markets with customers in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.