“You’d never feel like you're on your own,” says Séan McKillen, a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Limerick. And his is not a unique experience.
Talk to any student and you'll hear stories of a tight-knit community and student support – from the Students' Union to career support in the form of guidance counselling, CV clinics and workshops. It's no wonder UL has one of the highest retention rates of all third-level institutions in Ireland, and consistently impressive employment rate among its graduates.
As a faculty, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is broad-ranging, comprising six academic departments or schools – the Department of History, the Department of Politics and Public Administration, the Department of Sociology, the Department ofEnglish, Irish and Communication, the School of Law and the School of Modern Languages and Applied Linguistics.
It also has close links with the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance and the University of Limerick Language Centre (not to mention a variety of research centres, clusters and groups).
The wide range of options allows students to specialise in a topic they are passionate about – which is a solid motivator for career success. Each course gives postgrad students essential soft skills needed for many careers – such as communication, and business, and in Séan’s case, lecturing and academia.
Séan completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Limerick and, when he graduated, he signed up to do a research Masters. “My supervisor at the time suggested that, if I was interested in a Masters, to apply to transfer to the PhD register – because the research kept expanding. That's where I'm at now. I haven't always had a pure plan!” he admits.
Séan's PhD is in history, “to do with the Sunningdale Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first attempt at power sharing back in the 1970s, and how it's largely forgotten due to the later Good Friday Agreement – the comparison between the two.”
The University of Limerick was somewhat of a foregone conclusion for Séan; all three of his siblings completed their undergraduate degrees there – although they didn't exactly follow in one another's footsteps. “
My sister works in the IT Department at UL,” he says. “And she's actually getting back into study herself. My brother works as a web developer for Aer Lingus and my other sister became a solicitor. We all took wildly different paths.”
Family supports aside, the University of Limerick has a lot to recommend, according to Séan. “It's really close-knit,” he recounts.
“And they provide you with an awful lot of opportunities, especially if you're going into research. You have the opportunity to get teaching experience that might not be possible elsewhere. I know people who have done their PhDs elsewhere and they were shocked that any of us had teaching experience – tutorial experience, not to mention lecturing experience.”
Séan has a unique perspective on the support available in UL; he took a year out of his studies and worked as president of the postgraduate students' union, “so I can rely on the feedback I got from students I represented. They always felt really well supported.”
Séan's experience during his PhD will be invaluable for his future. “If I want to stay in academia, in a teaching and research role, I need that qualification,” he says.
“It's something I feel really passionate about, the research I'm doing, and it's an area I'd like to stay in after I finish. Even if it's not in the academic world... it's something that deserves more study and, given the fact that the political situation in Northern Ireland isn't exactly settled, there's a lot more groundwork to be laid.”
The goal, for Séan, is to be finished with his PhD in 18 months' time. From there, he hopes to get more teaching and lecturing experience. “The next step will be to try to get into a postdoctoral programme,” he says. “Or to get a short-term teaching position, just to get the experience. Once you're finished, you're not finished – you're just moving on to the next thing.”
Wherever Sean ends up, he won't be short of advice and support at UL. “It's really easy to get involved with career support, and it's heavily promoted around the campus. It's heavily pushed in UL and they're great at setting up workshops for postgrads, no matter what you're studying.”
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