Theoretical Astrophysics student Ciarán Kenny talks to Alison Lee about his PhD and life as a postgraduate
What is the official title of your PhD?
In layman’s terms, what does that mean?
My area of research focuses on cosmic rays – very small, fast and energetic particles that originate in space and are detected either via space detectors or ground based detectors. I investigate the origin of these particles – where did they originate in what is mostly empty space, and what process is giving them so much energy?
Briefly explain the background to your work.
Astrophysics is a very broad subject. It can range from investigating how the universe began to how the sun affects telecommunications on Earth. People often think it’s the physics of the very large, e.g. the sun. However, it is impossible to understand how the sun shines without understanding the physics of the very small (quantum and nuclear physics). This means astrophysicists require a very broad knowledge of physics. Fortunately, the physics undergrad I completed in UCD meant I was well prepared.
Describe your typical “day at work”.
When people hear the word ‘astrophysics’, they probably assume that I spend all day looking through a telescope whereas you’d usually find me sitting at a desk; I’ve never even used a telescope! I arrive at about 10 a.m. and check to see if any new papers have been published on my research area. As my work is mainly theoretical and computational, I spend almost all day scribbling notes while trying to solve equations. I sometimes use computer programming languages such as C++ to try solve the more difficult equations. I also spend seven or eight hours a week demonstrating in the 3rd or 4th year physics undergrad labs.
What, for you, is the most fascinating thing about your field of study?
Having your own work, no matter how small and insignificant it is, which contributes to the understanding of how the universe works, and why it’s in its current state, gives me a great feeling of satisfaction.
How could your work make a difference in this particular scientific field, and to the world in general?
You might be aware of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment that’s been taking place at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland for the last few years. I was fortunate enough to work there as a summer intern in 2008. In what is arguably the largest man-made experiment ever created, very energetic protons are smashed together, creating more particles which can be analysed to test and verify our current understanding of particle physics. Cosmic rays are also very energetic elementary particles, however they have a much higher energy level. If we could understand how these particles seem to naturally become so fast and energetic in what is mostly empty space, we could use this information to improve experiments like those at CERN.
What undergraduate degree course did you do and where?
I did a B.Sc. in Theoretical Physics here in UCD.
What made you choose to do a PhD?
For me it was a simple choice. If you want to get a job straight after a Theoretical Physics degree, chances are physics will not be the main focus of the job. Most of my classmates who took jobs after their degrees ended up in the economics and finance sector, which didn’t particularly interest me. Generally, if you want to continue working in physics, you do so via research through either a Masters or PhD. While there are a few physics jobs available for those with degrees, the recession was in full swing when I graduated, making the odds of me finding one much smaller.
In your opinion, what are the best things and worst things about being a postgraduate?
The best thing is definitely the flexible hours: I can come and go as I please and I have no lectures. If I feel like I’ve done a good day’s work by early afternoon I can catch up on some much-needed Xbox time! Another benefit is that my funding finances a few trips to international astrophysics conferences each year. For example, I’ve just gotten back from two weeks in Beijing, and you’d be surprised at the fun to work ratio I had there! The biggest downside is the financial pressure. My scholarship funds me for three years, whereas a typical physics PhD can take at least four years to finish. This means that I’ll have to find external funding for my final year or else take out a large loan.
How do you feel your PhD will affect your career prospects?
Having a PhD is particularly rewarding as a large proportion of the most interesting and best-paid jobs require it. For example, if I would like to go on to work in The European Space Agency, having a PhD will certainly increase my chances. At the very least, I hear they also bump up doctors to first class on planes!