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Aoife Mc Dermott, Lecturer
Education & Teaching

Aoife Mc Dermott, Lecturer

Aoife McDermott works as a lecturer in Human Resource Management in Dublin City University. Having graduated with a BESS from Trinity College, she continued to complete a PhD and took the opportunity to join DCU at the time it entered into significant expansion.

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What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?

There have been four events which have shaped my career.

The first was my decision to undertake a broad degree course. I initially made this choice as I enjoyed economics in school and one route to undertake a degree in pure economics was through the Business, Economics and Social Studies degree in Trinity.

I chose this course as it provided an introduction to a variety of subjects, before I had to choose which to specialise in during my second year. When I went into this degree I found that I was actually much more interested in people than in economics, and I ended up undertaking a joint-honours degree in Business and Sociology.

Sociology is really the study of society - describing and explaining all the things that people get up to! Having exposure to an array of subjects before choosing my degree focus completely changed the direction of my career.

Fortunately a lot of university courses allow significant choice - the Business course in DCU, for example, provides the opportunity to specialise or part-specialise in Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Human Resource Management, Law, e-Business and Management or French, German and Spanish. So if you are unsure like I was, it's worth going into a course with some room for manoeuvre.

The second event to shape my career was that I undertook the Foundation Scholarship Exams in Trinity. These are optional exams (yes, yes, very nerdy!) over the Easter break in second year, or third year in medicine. They are open to students in all degree courses in Trinity. On the basis of these exams I was awarded a scholarship, which lasted for five years. This covered my fees, accommodation in Trinity and an evening meal from Monday - Friday.

Living on campus allowed me to put significant effort into doing well in my degree, without sacrificing too much fun! In conjunction with the fact that I undertook a degree course with relatively small classes, this brought me to the attention of the lecturers in Trinity and I received significant support and encouragement from them. In third year I met the person who would later supervise my PhD. Mary taught me HRM and was Director of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning at that time. She helped me to figure out my strengths and how I could develop them.

The third major event to influence my career was the award of scholarship to complete my PhD by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS). This came with the illustrious title of being a Government of Ireland Research Scholar! I had considered going abroad to undertake my doctorate, but this award, in conjunction with my Trinity scholarship, provided significant incentive to stay. My family also emphasised the value of completing my PhD in an institution where I was known, supported and mentored - and that has proved to be invaluable.

Finding a supervisor who took a personal interest in my development and who has supported my interests has had a hugely positive impact on the course of my career and my value system. The IRCHSS award let me complete my doctorate on a full-time basis, which was quite a luxury.

The fourth important event was spending six months in the UK, working with a renowned Professor in Health Services Research, Louise Fitzgerald. My supervisor organised this for me. I learnt a phenomenal amount in working on a research project and developed a lovely network of friends and colleagues, with whom I still liaise. That time away developed my confidence, research skills and gave me a lovely support group to refer to throughout my PhD. Crucially it made me realise that while working in a university can be a relatively solitary route, there are huge opportunities for collaborative work.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

My parents have very much influenced my career direction. My dad did a PhD part-time. Seeing him work away in the evenings made me realise that having a career where I could pursue my own interests would be a significant luxury. Hearing him talk about his ideas and how he was trying to uncover the information he wanted gave me a great interest in research.

That was further developed through a research methods course I took in second year, as part of my sociology studies. Both of my parents, who began their careers as teachers, in conjunction with some of the lecturers who taught me in Trinity made me realise the value and impact of teachers with an enthusiasm and interest in their subject. They also made me aware that the role of a lecturer or teacher is so much broader than imparting content knowledge, and I hope that I capture that in my own career.

My supervisor, Mary Keating helped me identify my strengths as an undergraduate, as did my college tutor. I went to my tutor for a reference in my final year, as I was applying to a consultancy firm. He told me that he didn't think I'd be happy in that environment as I'm a bit of a softie! - and I'm grateful to him to this day. Thanks Mr McCabe!

So getting to know my lecturers and college tutor, and listening to their advice, were big influences on my career. I was advised by Louise Fitzgerald, a Professor in the UK, to take up a pure research job for the first few years of my career. Her idea was that this would allow me to focus on publishing articles, which can be difficult when you are in a lecturing post. However my current job was too good an opportunity to pass up.

How did you go about getting your current job?

When I started looking for a job I subscribed to a UK-based weekly list of academic jobs. As lecturers tend to work in specialised areas I did anticipate that I would have to work abroad for a number of years, to gain experience and wait for a job to become available in Ireland.

Fortunately, I was nearing completion of my doctorate as DCU Business School entered into significant expansion. I heard about my job through a number of sources - it was advertised both in the Irish Times and on the DCU website.

At that point I was getting the Times every week, as were my parents. I was also told about by a fellow PhD student in Trinity, who was also working in DCU. I applied by filling in an application form, which was available on the web. I was given the opportunity to include additional pertinent information, so I sent in an extra document to accompany the form.

In this I emphasised the fact that my research interests were complementary to those of members of the HRM/Organisational Psychology group, as well as to those of the Learning, Innovation and Knowledge Research Center. I was also excited at the prospect of joining the Business School as it entered a dynamic expansion phase.

The selection process had two components, which were a few days apart. First I had to come in and make a presentation. This was to assess my teaching and communication skills. There was a panel with the Head and Professor of the Human Resource Management and Organisational Psychology Group, which I was applying to join; the Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning; an external representative; and a representative from the Human Resource Department.

In the next stage, I had an interview with what seemed a big panel at the time. The Dean of the Business School, the Professor of HRM, the Head of the HRM and Organisational Psychology group, two external Professors and a representative of the HR group asked me questions about why I wanted to work in DCU; my teaching and research experience and philosophy; course design and delivery.

The panel made an obvious effort to make me feel comfortable, but I was still pretty nervous - I really wanted to work here!

I was contacted by telephone two weeks later and was told that they would like to offer me the job. The offer was quickly followed by a formal letter and contract.

The decision to take the job was easy. I had also applied for and been offered two other jobs - one in Ireland and one in the UK. But DCU had a very clear fit with my research interests, I was very impressed by their strategy and I'd really enjoyed meeting my potential colleagues through the interview process. I had really enjoyed being in college in Trinity so moving into a similarly welcoming and collegiate culture was very important to me.

Describe a typical day?

The most typical thing about my days is the fact that they all tend to be busy!

Days vary quite significantly in and out of term. Out of term days will be focused on course development, lecture preparation and research. In term, I generally try to have one day a week where I try to focus on research activity - at the moment I'm preparing two papers, one to present at a conference of researchers, and the other I'm preparing to submit for publication in a journal.

However, in reality this time tends to be distributed throughout the week. I have a network of people with whom I am developing my research. They are predominantly based in Ireland and the UK, but I am also developing some projects with European academics. So there may be e-mails or phone calls about something!

Otherwise, my days consist of a mix of teaching, an open office-hour where students can come to discuss their courses, assignments or concerns and administration.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

I have outlined the primary tasks and responsibilities according to the three components of the role; teaching, research and administration.

Each is emphasised quite strongly; DCU has strong links with industry and good reputation for producing graduates who are well equipped for the workplace. It also places emphasis on research output. Doing both well has led to its ranking among the top 300 universities worldwide this year.

Teaching - Designing and delivering lectures at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Typically this is undertaken for three courses a term;

  • Designing and marking assessments;
  • Supervising students who are undertaking a degree through research, or who have to complete a research project at the end of a taught degree 
- Undertaking research.
This is really about asking and answering question. So for example, my PhD research explored who takes responsibility for initiation, leading and implementing service-improvement in hospitals. It also looked at the cause of problems which arise in implementing service improvement.

To do this I interviewed people in a number of hospitals. The people I interviewed included representatives of senior management, middle management, consultants, nurses and the allied health professions. I am about to begin to liaise with those involved to prioritise and develop action plans on the basis of the findings. I did my doctorate myself, but lots of research projects are done by teams of researchers, sometimes within DCU, but also with collaborators in other universities.

I am fortunate to be in a highly active research group, associated with the Learning Innovation and Knowledge Research Centre, so there are lots of opportunities for collaborative research in DCU.

- Publishing research findings in journals or books.
As a preliminary or development phase in the publication process, papers can be presented at conferences

- Gaining funding for research is an increasing marker of the quality of the research and facilitates larger scale projects. As a result, applying for funding is an important research-related task.

Administration - Any administration associated with teaching or research duties.

I am tutor for a group of students, who are allocated to me in their first year in DCU. I am their point of contact for issues arising throughout their time in DCU.

I organise the Learning, Innovation and Knowledge research seminar series with Professor Patrick Flood. This entails organising seminars by academics from DCU and internationally;

Other activities as required.

What are the main challenges?

The main challenge in the job is successfully balancing the wide range of responsibilities associated with the role. This can lead to some tension between the desire to perfect lectures and a wish to move my publication plan forward.

Managing this tension requires self-discipline and clear boundaries on the amount of time allocated to each component of the role. As an early career lecturer I spend a lot of time trying to ensure appropriate and engaging content and teaching delivery methods. This can be challenging as there are a variety of different audiences to consider - undergraduates, postgraduates and executive students with significant work experience.

However, I have a really supportive group of colleagues who I can chat to and the culture here is very supportive of innovative teaching methods. I'm still very much learning what works effectively through trial and error.

What's cool?

There are lots of cool things about this job. One of my favourite is the brilliant facilities for teaching in the Business School. I have a lot of fun with them!

There are big screens which my power-point slides are projected onto, and I can use them to show videos or DVD's. I can even link to the internet to show things during class.

Coming a close second is getting to travel abroad to present my research at conferences. I was subsidised to do this as a student too, but now it's funded by DCU because making a research contribution is part of my role.

Another major benefit is the flexibility and autonomy associated with the job. While I work hard, I do so in my own office, organise my own time, and am free to do so once I do my job well.

I also have huge flexibility around my working hours and some flexibility to work on my research at home, if I'm not teaching or meeting students. While I don't get summer-long holidays, it's really wonderful to have block of time over the summer to develop my research. Essentially having research time is being paid to explore ideas and issues that I have an interest in.

I really value having a job where I have the freedom to choose the direction of my work - and to change it if I want. At the moment I don't see myself moving away from conducting research in healthcare service-delivery - this is a really rewarding growth area - but it is great to have the choice.

What's not so cool?

There's no aspect of the job that I don't like. Rather, it can be frustrating to have to my work spill over into my personal time, to finish things to the standard that I want. But really that's a personal choice.

Next term I have a class with over two hundred students, so getting all of their assignments marked within a reasonable time will take a bit of a push! And sometimes it can feel like there are a lot of meetings - about specific degree programmes, about the HRM group, faculty meetings etc. But it is a huge advantage to work somewhere that emphasises including its staff in decision making, so there is a significant upside to that.

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

There is a common notion that being a lecturer entails spending time in an ivory tower, conjuring up theory and occasionally emerging to rant about it to students. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Being a lecturer requires a significant amount of interpersonal work and a very broad skill set. Luckily for me, this has become gradually apparent and I've had, and will continue to avail of, lots of opportunities for skills development.

While there are common skills across the three components of the role, there is some variation and differences of emphases.

The first component of the role, teaching, requires analytic, presentation, communication and inter-personal skills, in addition to proficiency in specific tasks such as course design, assignment and exam design. Teaching responsibilities can also include the supervision of research projects by undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The second component of the role, research, entails analytic skills to identify appropriate areas for research, knowledge of the theory and practice of appropriate methods for collecting and interpreting data, writing skills to present and publish findings and a significant level of determination and tenacity to see a project through from design to completion. It can take 3-5 years to see a project through from initiation to a publication in a journal - and, of course, there is no guarantee that any article submitted will be accepted for publication.

The third component of the role, administration, can entail being a chair of a degree programme. At the moment I don't have such responsibility, but basic administration associated with my role still takes time. Across all of the components of the role self-discipline is possibly the most critical skill to ensure efficacy.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

In school I took English, Irish, Maths, French, Biology, Economics and Business. The fact that I enjoyed economics in school led me to the choice of my degree.

Luckily by taking what started out as a general degree I was able to figure out that what I liked about economics was being able to pose questions and look for solutions; the critical thinking component, rather than the content was actually the part that appealed most to me.

Through exposure to a variety of subjects in my first year in college I was in a much better position to chose the subjects that I wanted to specialise in.

Choosing to specialise in business and sociology worked well for me; the business component gave me a marketable knowledge base and skill set, while the sociology component encouraged me to think critically and introduced me to research skills.

I wouldn't do anything differently. It was great to be in a course where the classes got smaller as I progressed through, so I got a lot of guidance as I stumbled forward!

Choosing a specialised degree wouldn't have been a good choice for me at the time - I'm still amazed when I think of my friends who knew exactly what they wanted to do as they left school.

The biggest thing I learnt through my degree was that I had developed a skill set that I could use in a variety of ways. Having a degree in a specific area doesn't limit you to that for life!

What is your education to date?

I did the Business, Economics and Social Studies Degree in Trinity College.

My course choices meant that I graduated with a joint honours degree in Business and Sociology.

After my degree I started my PhD, also at Trinity. I have submitted my thesis, but there is a relatively long drawn-out process for completing PhD's. The thesis itself is an almost 400 page story about why I asked the questions I did, research to date in the area, how I went about collecting data to answer the questions, and what I found.

This is sent to an examiner from Trinity and an international expert in the area. They are given six weeks to read it, and agree a date on which the student and examiners, in addition to a neutral chair, come together to have a meeting about the work. This is called a viva, and the student has the opportunity to orally defend any questions about their work. Normally the examiners require some changes, and provide the student with 3-6 months to complete them.

In the first year of my PhD I undertook a postgraduate diploma in statistics. This was a year-long course, with classes two evenings a week. While my PhD was a qualitative piece of research - interview based - I felt it was important to have some formal statistical training to draw upon for other research projects that may entail surveys or other data that requires statistical analysis.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Undertaking the PhD proved essential in getting my job, and developed research skills that I will draw upon throughout my career. But I wouldn't be here if I hadn't enjoyed college. Going into college I didn't know what I wanted from life. While there I had really good fun, found it very interesting and was happy to stay!

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

I'm at the very early stages of my career - although, like most PhD students, I combined some teaching with my doctoral studies, I've only recently taken up a full-time job.

So while I feel like I've packed a huge amount of learning and development into a short space of time, it's very much a case of "lots done, millions left to do"!

Nonetheless, there are some components of my role which I really value, and some events that I have knocked a bit of fun out of. The part of the role that I would most like to develop, and that I think is and will remain most rewarding in the future, is supporting, advising and mentoring students. I know that I wouldn't be in my current job without the significant support that I received from my PhD supervisor, Mary Keating, who also taught me as an undergraduate. So I appreciate first-hand the impact that such support can have.

I'd also like to be a really good teacher. Again, some of the lecturers who I've been taught by have really made an impression - my thesis supervisor, taught me HR in the 3rd year of my degree. I loved her classes, and now I'm a lecturer in HRM. So she made a significant impact on my life. Thanks Mary!

So that is another area that I'd like to develop further. One of the things that I'm most proud of so far is recently submitting my PhD thesis. I've noticed that some people seem blasé about having their PhD's - normally once they have graduated! But having spent three solid years working on it, it still feels like a big achievement. As well as submitting it, I found the area that I conducted my research in to be really rewarding.

I looked at who takes responsibility for initiating, leading and implementing service-improvement change in Irish hospitals. In addition, I explored the role-related and contextual factors that facilitate and hinder attempts at service-improvement.

My next task is to work with the organisations involved to prioritise the findings and develop action-plans to address the issues raised. So I have scope to make a significant contribution there.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

From a task perspective, being focused, organised, ambitious and motivated are important qualities, while (trying to be!) patient and warm are really helpful in dealing with students and colleagues.

I find that I need to very focused and organised, as there are three components to this job, each of which is significant - teaching, research and administration.

There just aren't enough hours in the day to do all that I would like, so being able to prioritise, manage my time effectively and complete a task within the allocated space is really essential.

While I'm focused by nature, I used not to be overly organised, but I have learned! I'm also quite ambitious and therefore motivated. Both are useful in ensuring that I don't neglect any component of my role, regardless of other pressures.

Finally, I always try to be quite patient and warm with people. They are really useful traits in dealing with people - both colleagues and students. It's nice that people feel free to knock on my door. Being people-centred has allowed me to fit in well in the Business School in DCU, which has a really welcoming culture. Being a good at networking is also a useful trait for developing research links internationally.

What is your dream job?

I used to dream of being an Olympic show-jumping champion. Unfortunately, while I had a lot of imagination, I lacked any spark of talent. It cost my parents a lot of money for me to figure that out. Thanks folks!

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes. It is reasonably paid. I'm lucky to have a secure job, although increasingly people can spend relatively significant periods of time doing contract work. It is quite a family-friendly role, in that the working hours have some flexibility and there is scope to vary the time spent on non-teaching related activities, if required.

There are clear criteria for progression - related to teaching, research contribution and personal contribution to the running of the business school. Working in a university provides access to all of the associated leisure facilities - there is a superb sports center here, though I don't make as much use of it as I should.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

The most important thing is that you like your subject area! It?s also important to do as well as you can throughout your degree. For example, I applied for PhD scholarship during my final year, so they were looking at my first, second and third year results. Finally, I find that liking people helps a lot.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

Being highly motivated and self-disciplined; good interpersonal and communication skills; excellent analytic and writing skills. Ok, that?s more than three, but they are all important! If you like direction, being told what to do or clear boundaries on your tasks, it?s probably not the job for you.

What is your favourite music?

My brother presents Pop4, the charts show on TG4, so I periodically ask him to fill up my ipod. It's a lazy but effective way of keeping up-to-date! Thanks Eoghan :)

What is your favourite film?

Strictly ballroom. It's an old Baz Luhrman one, but really brilliant.

What is your star sign?

Virgo. The less said on that the better!

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I took the postgraduate diploma in statistics and the PhD after my undergraduate course. For the next year I'm planning to focus on settling in here and learning as much as I can from my teaching experience.

After that I would like to take a formal course to improve my teaching. There is a qualification in Third Level Teaching and Learning offered in Ireland, and an International Teachers Programme abroad. Either of those would be super.

In the meantime DCU offer courses to support lecturers, so I will be taking those from January. I would also like to undertake a professional qualification from the Chartered Institute of Professional Development, the body for HR managers. DCU offers courses accredited by the CIPD and a lot of the members of my group have this qualification. It's not essential, but it is something I would like to do.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Enjoying college, liking ideas or a particular subject and knocking a bit of fun out of learning and explaining things to your friends are probably the best early indicators ? or were for me. Being in school or college and thinking about what makes a good teacher probably helps too! If you have any interest in teaching at primary or secondary level it is worth thinking about teaching at third level too. In a broader sense, any work experience which requires you to think about problems, try to answer them, write reports or make presentations is going to help develop research skills. Getting some summer work experience in a university ? as a research or administrative assistant - will be useful in gaining insight into what it is like to work there.

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