Nethraa Kannan sits down with Eoin Fagan, a PhD researcher at UCD working in the field of astronomy to discuss academia, work-life balance and more.
While colloquially the term “doctor” refers to a medical practitioner, the history of the word goes back to the early 14th century. As is with most things in the 14th century, the term was affiliated to the Roman Catholic Church. ‘Doctor’ came from the Latin word ‘doc?re’, which means “to teach”. The use of the term for medical practitioners only began around the mid-18th century when the word, in common language, referred to the action of altering something.
Whether people disagree with doctoral degree holders using the term doctor on a day-to-day basis or not, history sides with the academics over the physicians. Eoin Fagan, a first year PhD student of astrophysics in University College Dublin commented on the matter stating that he will most definitely be using the title Dr. on his official documents – he’s earned it after all. Eoin began his PhD in the School of Physics in September 2022 after completing his undergraduate degree in Experimental Physics from UCD. Currently, he is researching the effect of the collisions of low density plasmas on target matter, to better understand how rare heavy elements are formed in space. Speaking to the University Observer, Eoin delved into the various facets of his research work, as well as life outside of academia.
Could you tell me a bit more about when you first found out about what PhD researchers do and what made you interested in pursuing a doctoral degree?
I suppose I have always known that doctoral degrees would be an option for me given how research oriented my field is. But I would say that I had only been actively thinking about pursuing one a few years ago and spent a majority of last year applying for various funding opportunities. Ultimately what pushed me towards committing to it was the realisation that I will be a researcher whether it be inside or outside of academia.
You speak about how the life of a researcher is built around their project and not the other way around. Do you think that PhD students lack a work-life balance in that aspect?
I do believe that a lot of people struggle with setting strict boundaries with their work, and sometimes I do fall prey to that as well. On one hand, there is a huge pressure in getting things done because this job is extremely self-supervised–the consequence of not finishing work ultimately affects you. But on the other hand, I think most people forget that this is a four year degree. There is no competition or pressure to “finish early” because at the end of the day what matters most is the quality of your work.
When you find yourself unable to mentally ‘turn off’ from work, what is it that grounds you and keeps you calm?
I find that having hobbies really helps. I am really into sports myself, so when I find myself overthinking or overwhelmed by my work, I tend to either watch a game or go outside for a bit of exercise. You know what they say–an idle mind is the devil’s workshop!
In Science, do you think that there is a need for all researchers to improve their public speaking, in order to be able to disseminate information to the public effectively?
Actually, this is something that I feel strongly about. I have always believed that science is extremely inaccessible to not only the general public but also for people with degrees in science. For example, I would barely be able to wrap my head around the ongoing work in biology or chemistry and that’s with a Bachelors in a STEM discipline. The consequence of not understanding scientific research is something that we’re seeing currently, with the increasing number of individuals that are vaccine hesitant. There is a strong need to change our ways in academia. I don’t necessarily agree with researchers getting trained in public speaking as that naturally happens through attending conferences, but I think it’s more important to make sure that your work is accessible to everyone.
I have to ask you– do you believe that the pursuit of all knowledge is equal? With Budget 2023 being unveiled recently and only giving preference to IRC/SFI funded researchers, the response has been split with some believing that research work that immediately and directly impacts society deserves priority in increased funding. What is your take on this matter?
Every PhD contributes to society. I think all researchers must be given the tools to complete their work and should be compensated fairly for all the hard work that they do. This would probably mean aiming for more equity in research rather than equality, as impact is something that is extremely subjective.
What are some major challenges that you have had to overcome so far? On days when things don’t seem to be going your way, what gives you the motivation to push through?
I need to do undergraduate demonstrations and corrections as a part of my PhD contract which has been a major challenge timewise. It’s about giving your all to students so that they get the best education possible, while also not compromising your own work. I’d say time management has been a major frustration for me. In terms of what keeps me going, while passion for my work is first, there is the added bonus of having an extremely supportive supervisor. Having someone who is personally invested in your success is rewarding and a great source of motivation.
Do you often compare yourself with your peers from your Bachelors who are in the industry and not in academia?
Oh definitely, but not in an envious manner, but only in terms of a lifestyle difference. Obviously the industry is very well funded and my peers get a better work-life balance but in my case, not having to deal with bureaucracy and having a lot of flexibility over my schedule is something that I really cherish.
To wrap up, if someone came up to you and asked you for advice on whether they should pursue a PhD, what would you tell them?
There’s no short answer to this question as obviously a PhD is a long-term four-year commitment. It is hard work that isn’t very well paid, so unless someone has a lot of passion for what they do, it can be a very tricky path to tread on. But for anyone who asks, I’d say first think really hard about where you want to be in a few years’ down the line. Some industries would require you to have a PhD for you to progress in your career while in others it is extremely redundant. Ultimately it comes down to the cost-benefit ratio for you and a lot of introspection before making the decision. Like I mentioned before, there is no competition to get things done by a particular age or in the shortest amount of time. Most of the time, doing a PhD would be an idea that manifests itself over a period of time rather than being an impulse thought. But my personal experience so far has been really good thanks to my supervisor, so I am definitely content with my decision and would encourage a passionate researcher to pursue a doctoral degree.