Siobhán O’Connor talks to Smart Futures about her career as a researcher in health informatics.
Your job title?
PhD/Doctoral candidate studying in the area of health informatics at the University of Glasgow.
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
As a PhD student you are given a lot of flexibility in how you approach your job as a researcher. It is very self-driven so the more work you put in the more you get out of it, which is really rewarding. That means you get to set your own ‘To Do List’ and meet regularly with your supervisor(s) for their input. Doing research involves a lot of reading every day so that you are knowledgeable and up to date about what’s happening in your field. There is also lots of scope for creativity for your own ideas too, which is why I love research! You definitely need good communication skills, both written and oral, as you need to get your ideas across on paper and in presentations to many different types of people who will be unfamiliar with what you do.
Describe a typical day?
Describing a typical day in research is quite tricky as it is so varied. You could be doing anything from writing an academic paper, to attending an international conference or presenting your work at departmental meetings. I guess most days I would spend time reading journal articles on different issues in health informatics, discussing my research plans with my supervisors and/or colleagues, interviewing nurses and patients about their needs and then working with software engineers to design and develop an appropriate mobile app which can help better manage diseases or educate people about important health issues.
What are the things you like best about the job?
The best part of my job is seeing the software development process come to life and watching as an app is taken from design, right through to the development and implementation phase where people actually get to use it out in clinical practice. It might take as long as 18+ months to get it right but getting positive feedback from nurses and patients who use such apps is really fulfilling.
What are the main challenges?
Every job has its downsides and doing research is no different. It depends on your own strengths and weaknesses as to what you find challenging. I think the most difficult thing for me is trying to keep up with all the latest technical developments, as technology is always moving at such as quick pace. Every research field is also evolving, as there are people all over the world working on different aspects of it so keeping on top of this can be difficult too. I never seem to have enough time to read everything I need to – it’s a constant challenge!
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
The main thing that influenced me most was my family, as my brother worked in IT and my sister currently works in health research. They talked about their jobs constantly and how much they loved working with technology or in a cancer lab so that definitely rubbed off on me. Also lecturers I met and worked with at University College Cork encouraged me to go into research and combine both my backgrounds, as health informatics is a very specialised area, and not many people have a good blend of IT and healthcare to drawn on to develop their research.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Yes most of the time! One great thing about research is that you get to work with people from all over the world and you also get to travel quite a bit which I really enjoy. I have travelled to the United States, the UK, Netherlands and several parts of Africa to work on different projects.
There are also some up and coming exciting areas to work in eHealth such as big data or data analytics, wearable systems, and data visualization. You can also extend your research out and integrate it with other areas such as smart cities or intelligent self-drive cars so there are endless possibilities for research. The career opportunities after your PhD are great too as you gain very valuable skills and people end up working in all types of industries and roles so it gives you lots of scope in your career.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
I took quite a broad range of subjects for Leaving Certificate including one Science subject (Biology) as I liked studying a range of topics and I didn’t want to narrow down my choices too early. They didn’t influence my initial career path really as information technology (IT) was not taught at primary or secondary school level in Ireland and still isn’t which is a shame as it offers so many career opportunities.
I studied Business Information Systems at University College Cork (UCC) as it offered students a great mix of commerce and computer science subjects along with an industry placement. The IT sector was booming in Ireland and internationally at the time (and still is thankfully) and I didn’t have strong technical skills leaving school, which is why I wanted to do a more blended degree.
After working for several years in the financial services industry I returned to study nursing at UCC as a mature student so my Leaving Cert biology came in handy at that stage. I was able to combine both of my backgrounds, healthcare and informatics, into my research so I get the best of both worlds!
What is your education to date?
I attended secondary school at Scoil Mhuire in Kanturk, North Cork and then went on to study Business Information Systems at UCC. I recently completed a Nursing degree at UCC last year and I have recently started a 3-year PhD programme in the area of health informatics at the University of Glasgow.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Both my degrees provided a broad range of subjects in IT/business and healthcare so I think nearly every module I took was relevant in some way. They all broaden your perspective and give you a better understanding of how the industry works. If I had to pick something very relevant to my current job as a researcher, then I would have to say modules that covered research methods were most useful. They provided me with knowledge and practical skill about how to ‘do’ research and are included in nearly every degree course as a core module.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Doing a PhD isn’t for the faint hearted and while it isn’t overly difficult it does require a lot of hard work and motivation. The best advice I could give would be to think about the change you really want to see in the world around you and if you think your research can fill that gap then go for it! Also consider your long-term career as having a PhD qualification can give you lots of different options in both academia and industry so it is a worthwhile investment. However knowing what you want to get out of it before you start will ensure you make the best of the 3-4 years you spend doing your doctoral research.
I would also advise anyone interested in research to get some practical experience first either by working as a Research Assistant for 4-6 months to see if you really like it or doing a Masters by research, which you can convert to a PhD in many cases.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Getting involved in any type of research, preferably in the field you are interested in (this might not always be possible), will give you a good insight into what is involved. Most of this type of work is done in universities but it can often be linked to many different types of industries.
It may be possible to get involved in research as an undergraduate student, many degree programmes now offer this option, so keep your eyes and ears opened for opportunities when you go to college. You can always volunteer in a research centre or a research lab if direct work experience isn’t possible and try and talk to as many people as you can who have done research or PhDs as they will have valuable advice.