I did a BSc in Theoretical Physics at University of Wales, Swansea. I also completed an MSc in Plasma Physics in Queen's University Belfast.
I wanted to work in the field of sustainable development and renewable energy, particularly focusing on electrical grid stability as I had read a number of articles in science magazines about pressures on the network.
At the time of applying for my PhD I was working with a small renewable energy company in the USA, and while there I attended the ARPA-E energy innovation conference. At the conference a member on a discussion panel was asked which countries were catching up with the USA, and the panellist replied that many countries were far ahead of the USA and that "...really interesting things were happening in Ireland"; I was interested in what these really interesting things were.
I chose Queen's as Prof Morrow was recommended as the man to talk to by some people who teach wind power at South West College, Omagh (Omagh is my home town). I searched for Prof Morrow, liked the field he was working in and saw he was advertising two PhD studentships, one of which was exactly what I was interested in. I also chose Queen's as it is a prestigious university, especially in the field of electrical engineering, and it is great to be close to my home town.
I am investigating ways to improve grid operation and the utilisation of power produced by distributed generation. Distributed generation can include wind turbines, diesel generators and biogas power generators. My work falls under the Smart Grid concept - this involves incorporating into the power network the communication technologies that have revolutionised our lives in the past twenty years.
I have found, when working in any job, that there are always research projects that should be done; in business and industry there is rarely the time or financial incentive to undertake this research. The advantage of a PhD is that a topic can be identified and investigated thoroughly, I find this process very fulfilling and hopefully the results will contribute to the field. A PhD allows the interested student to investigate topics that interest them, the opportunity to apply the knowledge they have gained and demonstrate their ability to engage in a detailed and extensive investigation.
The biggest down side is the lack of switch off time, with many jobs the employee starts at a fixed time and finishes at a fixed time, but doing a PhD is more like running your own business, it never stops. The PhD has, to a large extent, consumed my social life in the way jobs in the past have not, but in the end it is a trade-off. A big risk in undertaking a PhD is that it you may come to dislike a topic you were previously very interested in.
There aren't many typical days - the day tends to start between 9am and 11am and finish between 6pm and 9pm. Perhaps 50% of my time is spent working directly on my PhD, and much of the remainder of the time is spent between undergraduate education (labs, tutorials, design exercises), admin (forms, feedback), training days (university organised, school organised and industry relevant), meetings (with industrial partners and internal), helping (and socialising with) other PhD students, developing the necessary tools for research (developing hardware and software), producing publications (research papers and posters) and attending/presenting at conferences.
When working on activities directly related to the production of my thesis typical tasks are researching the topic (reading academic publications, textbooks, Google and Wikipedia-for starters), applying the theory (mostly developing computer simulations and analysis algorithms, the intention was to have real data to analyse, but due to lead times this will be limited but should be available for the next generation of students), refining models, analysing the results and writing them up for thesis publication.
Depending on the time of year all these various topics dominate my day to a greater or lesser extent.
Queen's provides a good academic environment in which to study, the academics are approachable and there is a healthy balance between formality and informality. The facilities and funding provided by the university also tend to be good.
Belfast is an interesting city and one of its big advantages is easy access to nature, such as the Lagan Meadows and Cave Hill - these are easily accessible from the city in a way lacking in many other compatible cities. I also often use the Queen's PEC (Physical Education Centre) which is very well equipped. Belfast culture and night life seem to be quite vibrant, but I do not have as much time as I would like for these activities.
A PhD is not something you should enter into lightly, as it will involve three (or more) years of your life. It is hard work and you have to have a passion for your subject area in order to succeed. If you are academically inclined, or research driven, then it is a fantastic opportunity, but do your research before making the commitment.
I have not decided between academia or a large company, either way I will probably move to mainland Europe for a few years, before probably moving back to Ireland, North or South.
If you are interested in a particular field get in touch with the relevant people and have a look around, it is the combination of the environment and the topic that makes research work.
Queen's University Belfast is committed to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
For more information please read our Equality and Diversity Policy.
Queen's University Belfast is registered with the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland NIC101788
VAT registration number: GB 254 7995 11