Given the findings of a recent report by the Institute of Physics (IOP) in Ireland (‘The Importance of Physics to the Irish Economy’, November 2012), it is easy to understand the Irish government’s concerted attempt to promote the acquisition of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills. After all, the evidence suggests that such skills are set to play a vital role in securing high-quality jobs here in the future.
At least this is if past performance is anything to go by: according to the report, physics-based businesses contribute €7 billion annually to the domestic economy, accounting for around 5.6% of Ireland’s total economic output. The corresponding figure for direct employment is equally impressive at 86,000 people – a figure that swells to a staggering 205,000 when those indirectly employed are also taken into consideration. Writing on the IOP’s website, the Institute’s Chairman Kevin McGuigan claimed that ‘The source of the strength of physics-based industries is the product of physics research. To be able to develop this research, and create wealth, there must be a ready supply of physics-trained workers.’
So what are some of the postgraduate options in Physics that attempt to address this need? Generally speaking, taught courses are designed to prepare students either for direct entry into the workplace or for the intellectual demands of a research programme. As physics is such a widely applicable natural science, taught programmes tend to cover a range of interests – mathematical, computational, medical, and so on. However, as the boundaries of physics tend to be flexible, there is a high level of interdisciplinary intersection.
Among the courses on offer from the UCD School of Physics are the MSc in Mathematical Science (one year full time, two years part time; available too as a Higher Diploma) and the MSc in NanoBio Science (also one year full time, two years part time). The latter of these incorporates elements of both physics and biology. Students will be given tuition in nanomaterials, statistical mechanics, computational methods and biomimicry during the programme, with graduates typically going on to establish careers in biomedical technologies, drug development, sustainable energy, or in further academic/industrial research.
The School of Physics at NUI Galway offers another noteworthy option: the MSc in Medical Physics is a one-year full-time course that is primarily aimed towards training physicists in the application of radiation physics in medicine, although students also receive a thorough schooling in the application of physical sciences and engineering to medicine. Applicants must hold at least a second-class honours Level 8 degree (or equivalent international qualification) in Physics or Experimental Physics, Electronic Engineering, or another relevant discipline. Applications from candidates who do not meet these criteria, but who possess a primary degree with three years’ relevant work or practical experience, may also be considered.
Postgraduate programmes in Applied Physics are offered by number of colleges. The University of Limerick (at MSc level) and University College Cork (at both Postgraduate Diploma and MSc levels), for instance, both offer students the chance to specialise in particular areas, such as Condensed Matter Physics and Computational Physics. The Higher Diploma in Applied Science at NUI Maynooth is a skills conversion course (as defined by the Higher Education Authority). This one-year full-time programme aims to equip students with a wide variety of skills essential in experimental physics, with an emphasis on electronics, computer programming, and computer-based instrumentation and interfacing. Funding by the HEA means that fees for Irish and EU applicants have been significantly reduced.
Of course a large number of postgraduate options in physics are primarily research-based. For example, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) offers a raft of programmes in which graduates can pursue physics qualifications through research, including Molecular Electronics, Surface and Interface Physics, and Environmental Radiation. While research students are ordinarily afforded a level of autonomy by their supervisors, the bodies they are receiving funding from often predetermine their areas of study.
Elsewhere, over sixty postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers are involved in three main research clusters in NUI Galway. They are: Astronomy and Astrophysics, Lasers and Applied Optics, and Atmospheric and Environmental Physics. The areas of interest are, understandably enough, hugely diverse, ranging from nanoparticle production and nanoparticle-based biosensing platforms to star and planet formation. Candidates for the PhD or MSc research degrees must have attained a high standard (minimum 2.2 [or equivalent international qualification] for an MSc) at undergraduate level, though other evidence of an applicant’s suitability for the programme will be taken into account.
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