Address to new Postgraduate Students

Tercentenary Hall, TBSI

27 August 2018

Thank you, Neville1 and good afternoon everyone,

And welcome to Trinity College – or welcome back for those who were undergraduates here.

You are now counted among Trinity’s 4,500 postgraduates, just under a third of the total student body, and you are indispensable to the great research capability of this university. I’m delighted to have this opportunity of speaking to you all, and I look forward to meeting you many more times, over the course of your time here.

For those new to Trinity, let me introduce myself. I’m Patrick Prendergast, and I was elected by the staff and student representatives in 2011 as the 44th Provost. I’m a former Trinity postgraduate student in the School of Engineering, a former Professor of Bioengineering, and a former Dean of Graduate Studies. Between 2004 and 2007, I held the position Professor Neville Cox holds today, with responsibility for supporting postgraduate students in their research and integration into university life. My experience both as a student and college officer ensures that I have a good idea of the opportunities and challenges facing you.

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Let me say how delighted we are that you have chosen Trinity for further study. Because of your academic achievements, you will have had the choice of many universities.

It’s a privilege for us to be nurturing your talent, and when you submit your dissertations or graduate thesis, it will be a privilege to count your learning in the body of our research.

These are privileges we don’t take for granted. We want you to get the most out of being here. So I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit about Trinity and how I think you can make the most of your time with us.

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This university, of which you are a decisive part, is now entering its 427th year since its foundation in 1592. We have a cohesive mission in education and research. We pledge:

  • to give our students a distinctive education and transformative experience;
  • to undertake research at the frontiers of disciplines, making a catalysing impact on innovation; and
  • to fearlessly engage in actions that advance the cause of a pluralistic, just, and sustainable society.

You will find these three missions in our current Strategic Plan, which is strongly cohesive and defines our goals and actions across all our commitments – including in interdisciplinarity, global relations, access and inclusion, creative arts, online education, and innovation and entrepreneurship.

I won’t go into detail on these commitments; you will get a sense of them through the Orientation Week. I congratulate the Dean of Students, the Dean of Graduate Studies and all involved in organising the Orientation Week. I thank particularly the volunteers.

Trinity is Ireland’s highest-ranked university and it’s one of Europe’s principal research universities. We are a member of LERU, the League of European Research Universities, which includes the universities of Oxford, Copenhagen, Utrecht, Zurich, and Paris-Sud among its members.

We are globally recognised for research of impact, ranked first in Ireland and 33rd out of 1,500 higher education institutions globally, in terms of securing funding through the major EU Research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020. To date, we have been awarded 35 European Research Council PI grants, worth €64 million in funding.  Nationally, Trinity has 16 percent of academic faculty but has won 49% of ERC grants in Ireland since 2014.

Our research is multidisciplinary. Trinity has 24 Schools across the three faculties, and I think 59 departments within the Schools, and a further 50 or so research centres as well as ten research institutes and inter-institutional research groupings across the university. That is a lot of research!

I think it’s helpful to familiarise yourselves with the research being carried out across the university, even outside your area. You never know what will be pertinent to your own research and it’s good to stay abreast of developments in other fields.

Trinity research is organised into 19 interdisciplinary ‘research themes’ – including, as examples, ‘ageing’, ‘cancer’, ‘creative arts practice’, ‘digital humanities’ and ‘nanoscience’.

If you want to get a handle on the range of research in the university, a good place to start is a quick perusal of the research themes. These are on the college website2.

Another useful publication is the Provost’s Annual Review which every year spotlights 12 research projects, as well as looking at the college’s achievements in areas like global relations, the Student experience, alumni engagement and innovation. This is the Provost’s Review for the academic year 2016/173. The next review 2017 to ’18 will be out shortly.

Another area in which Trinity stands out globally is in innovation and entrepreneurship. For the past three years, we’ve been rated the number one university in Europe for educating entrepreneurs, according to evaluation by research firm, PitchBook.

We recognise the responsibility that comes with our leading position: responsibility to educate talent, incubate research, and produce products and services that drive growth and discovery in Ireland, Europe, and the world.

It goes without saying that you, our postgraduates, are an indispensable part of our mission and intrinsic to the university’s reputation in research and innovation. We have a responsibility towards you – to give you the opportunity to develop your skills and talents. And, of course, you have a responsibility towards yourselves, and towards those who have helped you get to this position where opportunities are open to you.

So, how we can we help you to best fulfil your great potential?

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Regardless of what field your specialization is in, there are, I think, two main challenges which all postgraduates face:

  • firstly, we all ask ourselves the question: do I have the focus required to do advanced study without the typical undergraduate structure of tutorials, course work, lectures, and exams?
  • And secondly, we’re all concerned about how to build a career, to develop the skills form employability.

On the first question, I can only say that embarking on long immersion in a specialist area of study isn’t easy. Particularly not in the beginning. You have two main support tools: your academic supervisor and your fellow postgrads. Share your experiences and your concerns. Consult often with your mentor. It may be that, as you explore, you will re-think the terms of your research. That happens a lot. The area of focus at the beginning may give way to new avenues of investigation as you delve deeper into the subject – “follow the truth – wherever it may lead” – as it says in the College statutes.

The research life can get lonely, so connect with other postgrads. They will have similar concerns to your own. They are like work colleagues. Be generous yourself about sharing knowledge and tips.

On the subject of your Dissertation, you will eventually know more than anyone else in the world, whether you be a Master’s or a Doctoral candidate. Indeed, in the end, you will know more than the professor mentoring you. If you persist, there will come a moment, I promise, when you will own your research; when everything falls into place; when all the separate pieces of research and experimentation you’ve done suddenly slot into each other and make a wonderful pattern.

That’s a great moment, which you will have richly deserved, because doing research at this level isn’t easy.

On the second challenge, building your career – well, as postgrads, you’re at a stage when more is expected of you, and not just in terms of research. Increasingly you will have the opportunity to start taking on responsibilities within your departments and within the university. These may be teaching responsibilities, or helping to organise conferences and events, or looking after visiting professors and speakers, or contributing to commercialisation and innovation projects.

Postgraduates are vital members of the Trinity community – of this collegial group of scholars, students and professional staff working to the same values and in a common mission. You bring dynamism, fresh ideas, energy, and support to the community. You give tutorials. Often you are the mainstay of our conferences and events. And as your research progresses, you deliver brilliant papers, which inspire undergraduates.

The benefit to the university is clear: Trinity’s multidisciplinary excellence depends on the quality and commitment of its postgraduates. We recognise this and we know the relationship is mutually beneficial: we do all we can to support you in acquiring skills and building your careers.

if you go on to become academics, you will not just be engaged on research, you will be teaching, publishing, administrating, organising events and conferences, leading teams, collaborating, fundraising, innovating, commercialising, and launching spin-out companies. Academia is a multi-faceted career, and now more so than ever.

And if you choose not to go down the academic path, you will, in any case, need these skills in your other chosen careers.

The reason why employers like to hire postgraduates is not only for your intellect and mental discipline but for the portfolio of skills that comes with immersion in a university.

So use this time well. Seize every opportunity to get involved in academic and departmental life, as well as in student and extra-curricular activities. Be proactive. Learning new skills is essential; taking on responsibilities and building relationships and trust is even more important.

Look to build relationships across the university. In Trinity, we encourage researchers to collaborate. No matter what your area of study, there will be someone in another discipline who can enhance it. Explore all opportunities. Don’t remain isolated in your department. Talk to everyone, attend lectures on subjects you know little about, open yourself out to different influences.

And look beyond the university: build links with other institutions and in other countries. Trinity is a globally connected university with links around the world. Make the most of these to build international contacts. The Trinity Trust Postgraduate Travel Grants are available for you to attend conferences or carry out research abroad – do benefit from them.

Similarly with industry: Trinity collaborates with multinationals and smaller companies on a huge range of projects. You have the chance to get involved, either directly through your research, or through the Innovation Academy, which Trinity runs jointly with UCD and Queen’s Belfast.

 

The Academy educates postgrads to develop opportunities for innovation arising from their research. It’s interdisciplinary and it provides a range of modules, including creative thinking, protecting your idea, and planning and financing your venture. It invites you to work in groups to solve real-world problems identified by industry and partner organisations. 

Much research – whether arts, humanities, science, or health sciences – can be commercialised, and this is something you will start thinking about. Not immediately of course - but once you understand the unique contribution your research is making, you may well start thinking about how to best introduce it to the world – as a product or a tool, or a service or a performance.

If you use your time wisely over the next few years, you will be in an enviable position: you will be experts in your particular field with strong mental discipline; you will have developed your people and communication skills and your organisational ability; and you will have entrepreneurial experience, and an enviable network of contacts in industry and in academia. In short, you should be able to choose what you want to do, how you want to do it, and who you want to do it with. 

We want the very best for you. Success for us means helping you realise your great potential. So please avail of all the supports and structures in place for you. That includes getting in contact with me, or with the Dean of Graduate Studies, as the needs arises. You are members of the Trinity community. That’s a lifelong membership. We are all connected, and I believe we all have the same goals: achievement and gain for the university; achievement and gain for each individual member of the community.

 

Thank you, and the very best of luck with the great adventure you’ve embarked on.

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2 https://www.tcd.ie/research/themes/
3 Provost’s Annual Review 2016-2017 available at http://www.tara.tcd.ie/handle/2262/82059