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“My Master’s really helped me overcome my fear of independent thinking”

An interview with Max Darby on Postgraduate Study

The most recent Higher Education Authority figures show that there are over 10,000 students enrolled in full-time and part-time postgraduate research. The Irish Times reported recently on the uptake of postgraduate courses during the pandemic, saying “students are looking at their options for the next six-12 months – minimum – and a postgrad course is a perfect fit. It could be a chance to get that postgrad out the way quite seamlessly, and then you can hit the road running and pursue your career.”

In an increasingly fierce graduate job market, it is becoming more and more difficult to set yourself apart from the next undergraduate degree holder. Not only can a postgraduate degree give you a leg up in your chosen industry, but it also opens the door to a whole new world: a career in academia.

After finishing secondary school, UCC PhD student, Max Darby had no intention of going to university at all. He had spent a year tattooing when UCC launched the BA Digital Humanities & Information Technology, a fresh marriage between the arts and computing. This was a game changer. The course spoke to him in ways his CAO list of mechanical engineering and physics courses simply hadn’t the year before. To Max, the degree offered him a chance to “explore the world through technology rather than just learning how to be technical.”

Once in the Digital Humanities programme, Max picked up the computer science side of things with ease. “All of my schooling up until then had been very engineering based, it was very technical, and all my family are engineers.” Speaking on his decision to minor in philosophy he said “I always knew that I wanted to try and understand the world more deeply, but I never had a set of modules to be able to do it. I had that massive pang of ‘holy crap!’ this side of the world exists, and they have classes for it.”

In his third year, Max decided to organise his own work placement with an engineering company based in Fermoy. The project subsequently didn’t take off, but Max describes how the UCC Career Services were able to get him back on track. “The job fell through on a Monday, I rang the Career Service and by Wednesday, I was doing an interview with Musgrave, who I then got a job with.”

“They [The Career Services] left me enough autonomy but then were there with a safety net the second it was needed.”
Darby was particularly grateful for UCC Work Placement Manager, Amy McMullan, who he described as “critical” in getting the job placement.

Max was Musgrave’s first Digital Humanities intern, working as part of the team behind SuperValu’s online shopping platform and developing his own flair for Python and SQL. Since his placement, Musgrave has become something of “a proponent for Digital Humanities”, taking on another intern from the course the year after him, and another the year after that.
He was kept on by Musgrave for the summer after his placement and part-time throughout his final year. He really enjoyed his time at Musgrave and knew that he wanted to apply for their Graduate Programme but felt strongly that he would miss the research and learning aspects of being a student.

“Having been out of college for a year on work placement, when I came back, I realised that certain parts of my mind had essentially gone dead. I was sitting in my philosophy modules getting that burst of “oh my god this is amazing” that I had gotten in first year. I had completely neglected that aspect of my life for an entire year.”

After this realisation, he approached his supervisor for his final year project and asked her about the possibility of doing a Master’s and working at the same time. He came to an agreement with Musgrave where he would join their Graduate Programme and undertake his Research Master’s in the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence part-time alongside it, teaching tutorials to cover his fees, “very quickly merging the two became very accessible.”

Explaining his choice of Master’s, Max told me about his fascination with how one “can use technology to embody philosophical concepts”, this is something he touched on in his FYP for Digital Humanities so he felt well set up for the kind of self-directed learning a Research Master’s demands. It was not without its challenges, however, juggling a daily 9-5 schedule with writing, readings and teaching meant Darby had to be remarkably disciplined.

Overall, though, he looks back on his Master’s/Graduate Programme experience with an incredible fondness and enthusiasm. “My Master’s really helped me overcome my fear of being independent and a fear of independent thinking.” He spoke towards a fear experienced by most, if not all students, that what they write, be it an assignment, a lab report or thesis won’t be perfect until they’ve read X more books or spoken to Y more lecturers. “It got me to overcome that fear of waiting for the perfect moment to put my opinion out there.”

This had a knock-on effect on his performance at Musgrave, “I did a lot less waiting and waiting to be the person who made a decision in the company, thinking that I had to have achieved something to be that person.”

“What became apparent to me was that my undergrad really prepared me for the workplace from the point of view of skillset, being able to present, and knowing what I had to do when I went into a job. What the Master’s allowed me was to understand more deeply the things that I was actually actively participating in and changing as I went along.”

Neatly summing up the career benefits of postgraduate research and study, Darby said “The postgrad gives you a more research-based approach to problem solving. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Whereas, after some independent thinking and research, you start picking the right tool for the right thing.”

After completing his Master’s Thesis, it felt natural to Max that he’d stay involved in academia, “I found sitting at the intersection between industry and academia, not only beneficial but essential. It enabled me to apply the things I was researching in academia directly in industry.” “I was able to research something on Monday and then go into work on Tuesday and make it happen.”

Having one foot in academia and the other in industry really suited Darby, but he found it time-consuming enough to do the part-time Master’s while working full-time at Musgrave and felt unsure as to how it would work with a PhD. “I wasn’t really looking forward to the prospect of doing a part-time PhD for 8 years while working full-time.”

Luckily, the opportunity of an Employment-Based PhD Scholarship arose, and just in time too as Max was “thinking about packing in the academic side.” He brought the UCC initiative to his director in Musgrave, who had seen how well he had done by crossing over his Master’s and the Graduate Programme. She took it up the line to HR who had to make sure Max’s proposals aligned with their overall business objectives. They were happy to invest in research in the area of AI, so Musgrave and UCC came together to back Max’s continued study, something he describes as a “dream come true.”

“Not a lot of students are fortunate enough to get such a good crossover.”

Through pursuing postgraduate education, Max managed to achieve the best of both worlds: a career in industry as a data scientist and the opportunity to continue exploring his passion for AI.

If you love what you’re doing, further study may be the right path for you. It is important that, just like Max, you choose to enter into a Master’s or PhD because it is your passion. Postgraduate study is a huge commitment, in time, money and energy, but if it’s something you’re passionate about, the payoff is unparalleled. A career in academia is immensely rewarding and postgrad students can earn a better salary and have stronger employment prospects if they wish to enter industry.

If you’d like to discuss your plans for after graduation with a Career Consultant, you can make an appointment at the link below:
https://www.ucc.ie/en/careers/meet/