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UCD Research Skills & Career Development

Forbairt Ghairme & Taighde Scileanna UCD

Career Profile

Name: Stephen O’Brien

What research discipline did you complete your postdoc in?
Food Safety Microbiology

Number of years as a postdoc in UCD?
Four years

When did you complete your postdoc in UCD?
I completed my postdoc in UCD in October 2010.

Did you have any postdoc experience outside of UCD? If so, where and for how long?
After completing my PhD in 2006 I completed two years as a postdoc in Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown, Co Dublin.

What are you doing now?
I am currently manager of the Microbiology Lab in Pfizer, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

What impact has your doctorate and postdoc had on what you are doing now?
My PhD and postdoc experience played a significant role in what I am doing now. A lot of the elements I covered during this period were in relation to food safety the area I am working in at present.

What was the route between your postdoc and what you are doing now?
After my PhD I worked for two years as a Research Officer in Teagasc (the Irish Agriculture & Food Development Authority). Following this I worked as a postdoc in UCD in the Veterinary Sciences Centre. It was during this time that I noticed a decrease in funding opportunities in research and also saw a lot of my friends lose their jobs. Throughout my postdoc my PI was very supportive and realistic in terms of opportunities while encouraging me to meet with heads of industry and to network as much as possible. During this time I organised a Food Safety conference at which I met the Head of Global Food Safety in Pfizer. Shortly afterwards I left UCD and took up the position of Microbiology Lab manager with Pfizer.

Since you completed your time as a post-doctoral researcher in UCD how have you drawn on your experience from this time?
My work in UCD with the WHO Reference Lab on ‘Cronobacter’ a pathogen of concern to infant formula uniquely qualified me for my current role.

When you reflect on your time as a post-doctoral researcher in UCD, what stands out in terms of its contribution to your subsequent career development?
Having the opportunity to work on a lot of projects with industry allowed me to practically apply my research in industry.

During your time as a post-doctoral researcher in UCD what skills would you say you learnt or developed?
The department which I did my postdoc in had a lot of new technologies which provided me with the access and opportunity to develop my epidemiology skills. I was lucky to have a lot of exposure to the Heads of microbiology in the academic community. In the area of research that I worked in it was desirable to collaborate with all the international food safety bodies.

I had a lot of opportunity to supervise both PhD students during my postdocs and also got a lot of lecturing hours from my PI.

What advice would you give to post-doctoral researchers considering a similar career path to your own?
I had 15 months left to run on my contract when I left UCD. I was anxious to leave as I had seen the numbers in my lab dwindle as contracts were no longer extended or available. I was very lucky to get a job in Ireland in my research area. Being a postdoc is a difficult career path, not knowing where you may be in two-three years time so it is important that you are flexible and willing to move abroad.

If you could offer one piece of advice to current post-doctoral researchers what would it be?
A lot comes down to luck. If you get a good PhD topic you may get a lectureship however as you don’t get to choose it this is out of your control. The advantages of having a PhD is that you are unlikely to meet someone at interview who is better qualified than you however I would say that it is very important that your PhD have some practical application so that there is a potential to make money in industry.