Careers rarely develop the way we plan them. Our career path often takes many twists and turns, with particular events, choices and people influencing our direction.

We asked Mary Ita Heffernan from Health Service Executive to give some advice for people considering this job:


Mary Ita Heffernan

Social Worker

Health Service Executive

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  Mary Ita Heffernan

Whilst in secondary school, I changed my mind many a time regarding the career path I wanted to pursue! I always knew that I wanted to work with people but was unsure about the profession which would most suit my interests and skills in this regard.

While in school, I definitely found that being unsure about the type or area of work you want to pursue is a very difficult and confusing position to be in, especially given the array of career choices now available and the pressure one feels in trying to make one’s mind up.

To this end, I would strongly advise anybody in this position to research courses and job descriptions well in order to make the most informed decision possible at that time in your life. 

I recommend one tries to gain as much work experience as possible as it will provide you with valuable insight into your skills, ability, likes/dislikes for certain areas of employment!!!!

Also I would research the courses and job areas as much as possible so that you can make an informed decision regarding your choices. If you can't gain enough information in school, contact the college directly or arrange to talk to somebody who facilitates the course. In particular, it would be really valuable to talk to somebody in the profession to gain a realistic and practical insight into the job.


Realists are usually interested in 'things' - such as buildings, mechanics, equipment, tools, electronics etc. Their primary focus is dealing with these - as in building, fixing, operating or designing them. Involvement in these areas leads to high manual skills, or a fine aptitude for practical design - as found in the various forms of engineering.

Realists like to find practical solutions to problems using tools, technology and skilled work. Realists usually prefer to be active in their work environment, often do most of their work alone, and enjoy taking decisive action with a minimum amount of discussion and paperwork.
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Shane O'Donnell - Genetics Student at UCC

Shane O’Donnell, the Clare County hurling champion and Smart Futures Ambassador is currently studying Genetics in University College Cork. Here he talks about how he made his choices for the CAO and how he manages to balance his sporting life with his studies.

Can you tell us a little bit about your course?

The main area of focus, for the first couple of years, is towards biology in general. Other modules including maths and chemistry are included, to allow students to build up knowledge to carry out the biology side further down the line.

The content is fairly broad-ranging from microbiology and biochemistry to bio statistics and fundamentals in chemistry. There is a Genetics module specific to our course however most of the other modules are shared with many other courses. Genetics is a four year course, so I have a few more years thankfully!

Describe a typical day in college?

The daily routine really depends on what time of the year it is and whether I have training on or not! After Christmas a drinking ban comes into place, so I don’t have the ‘normal’ college lifestyle of going out and also training starts which means leaving Cork at 4 o’clock during the day to be back for 7 o’clock. Typically science courses, from what I’ve seen at least, have early hours.

You start at 9am or 10am most mornings and rarely have lectures after 1pm. I try (my very best to) get up for 8:30am, have porridge and head into the 9 o’clock lecture. Usually have two or three in a morning until 12 noon or 1pm, so I’d bring in food with me for half way through. Then I head home and cook pasta for lunch and then, depending on the day, have a lab at 2pm or 3pm which can last between two and four hours long.

Following that, I get in the car and go back for training or go home for dinner, often just more pasta! The evenings are just whatever myself and the lads I live with can find to do. Gym, basketball, squash, PS3 or just heading over to another house which is more interesting!

What are the things you like best about your college and course?

I like the freedom in general that you have in college, you get to do what you like the majority of the time and no one is looking over your shoulder – it would probably be better off if there was sometimes! Getting to live with lads you get on very well with is nearly always great craic. As for the course I actually enjoy the content. I find most of the stuff that we learn in lectures very interesting so it makes it so much easier to learn and to sit through lectures about it.

What’s not so cool? What are the main challenges?

The main challenge is the schedule which at times can be very hectic. If you have three lectures until 1pm, and lab from 2pm -5pm and then training at half 6pm with Clare, it’s going to be difficult. Sometimes commitments land on the same day and that can be very stressful and frustrating because sometimes the next day you might have nothing on at all!

Who or what has most influenced your decision to study in this area?

To be honest I wasn’t really influenced by anyone that I can remember. I suppose you could say my teachers influenced me but it would have been more that I just found science in Junior Cert, chemistry and especially biology in Leaving Cert very interesting.

Did you find it an easy or difficult decision to make?

I found the decision quite easy really. I loved biology in Leaving Cert and genetics was a part I particularly liked in that course so when I realised there was a course specifically for that in a college that looked great, I knew it was right. Although you always doubt yourself thinking it might be very specific to pigeonhole yourself very early on, but that is just a case of worrying for the sake of worrying.

Do you think having access to role models/mentors or just talking to real scientists can help students when it comes to making their subject or CAO choices?

I think if you are struggling to make your mind up at all then seeing someone you look up to doing what you’d like to be doing, or listening to someone who’s been through it all would definitely help in making CAO choices.

Were you always interested in science?

Yes, I always found it very interesting. I got over the initial disappointment in First Year of secondary school that things wouldn’t regularly be blowing up in experiments, and since then it’s been as intriguing and exciting as I would ever have hoped it would be, within reason!

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your study path?

I took Biology, Chemistry and Accounting along with German as my language and they definitely moulded my path of study. It wasn’t even that I found any of the others negative but I just found Biology so interesting that it was head and shoulders above the rest from an early stage.

Do you think your training in science, has in anyway influenced you as a player?

Well when I weigh up the options on the pitch between going for goals or points I look at it in a logical manner. If you get three points for a goal then only one in three attempts has to go in, that’s assuming I would put all three shots over as points (not a safe assumption!). Also in going for goals you will often be fouled resulting in a point anyway, so I suppose you could argue that science may have influenced my hurling, along with not being able to score points!

Did you think about studying sport or sport science after school?

I wouldn’t have much interest in studying sport, but sport science had crossed my mind alright and it’s something that I would still have an interest in knowing how things work from that aspect. But at the end of the day I just decided that genetics was for me because that is what I enjoyed the most.

What made you choose genetics?

I just found it fascinating from the word go. There is one chapter on it in the Biology syllabus for Leaving Cert and it just felt like something I wanted to know more about, and the more I learned the more interesting it was so I knew it was for me. Along with the many different fields which it can affect in such a huge way, so it was an easy choice.

Do you find it tough or easy to juggle sport and study at the same time?

Most of the time it’s okay you just don’t really have as much free time as you would like but sometimes when things land on the same day it can be very difficult but everyone has those days. It’s tough sometimes, but the end result is well worth it on both fronts.

What are people’s reactions when they find out you’re studying science?

When I say I’m studying genetics I usually get an impressed/surprised kind of look from people, most of the time I’m not sure which. I should probably feel insulted by how surprised people are sometimes! After the initial response they ask a little about it and they generally think it’s great.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time? Do you see yourself in a science career?

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I’d love to be in a lab, after finishing my time in UCC, just working on anything to do with genetics, it really wouldn’t bother me specifically which section!

What qualities / skills / interests / education would help someone looking to get into this area?

To be honest I could list out loads of qualities and skills that would be useful when it comes to studying in this area but just like any area where there’s a will there’s a way and if you enjoy it then you’ll be able to do it without too much problems. Things like being organised are great, but I’m probably the least organised person in the course! Being methodical and mathematical will all help but it’s all eclipsed by an interest in the course matter.

Article by: Smart Futures