The research option: What does a research postgrad involve

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Considering a research postgrad? Roughly 40 percent of full time postgraduate students at Irish higher-level institutions are undertaking research degrees. But what does being a postgraduate researcher involve?

What exactly is research?

Research involves the in-depth study of a very specific topic. Research courses do not revolve around classes. Therefore, researchers spend most of their time independently researching their topic. A supervisor, who is an expert in the particular field, oversees their work. This can mean long hours in the library or laboratory. A research course is essentially the time equivalent of a full time job.

Research students must investigate and critically evaluate their topic, utilising the latest research methods in the field. There are usually no exams or term papers. Instead, assessment is by a thesis or dissertation submitted at the very end of the course. The grade depends on the quality of the final published thesis. In addition, there may be an oral exam (the ‘viva voce’). This involves giving a presentation on the thesis findings and defending them in front of a panel of experts.

The most well-known research qualification is the PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy. A PhD usually takes between three and five years to complete. The Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is a shorter research course (two to four years full time). It is also often taken as a stepping stone to a PhD. Also possible are shorter Masters courses such as research-based Master of Science (MSc) and Master of Arts (MA) degrees. These typically take one year on a full-time basis.

Deciding on a research topic

The most important decision to make when choosing a postgraduate research degree is the subject or topic. Students can decide upon their research topics in two ways.

Firstly, they may develop an idea themselves and approach a supervisor. Alternatively, the supervisor may have a set list of viable research topics. It is best to choose a supervisor who has a genuine interest in guiding your research in the right direction.

The second method is to apply for a research programme that is ongoing at a university. Students may hear that a position exists, see it advertised, or have a supervisor approach them. This route is more likely in the case of science as well as IT subject areas. A big advantage here is that set research programmes are more likely to have funding attached. In addition, the student gets to work as a member of an established team.

Most research students take a good deal of care over their choice of supervisor and institution. If you are changing institutions, you should visit the campus. Meet with your proposed supervisor to discuss exactly how the arrangement will work. Questions to consider include:

  • Are supervisor meetings frequent?
  • What are the library, IT, laboratory and social facilities like?
  • What other postgraduates are in the department?
  • Do they have links with other universities or colleges in Ireland or abroad that might be useful?

Ask for examples of previously completed research topics and find out what previous researchers are doing now.


Budding research students should be well prepared for what awaits them. Postgraduate research study requires a high level of self-motivation. It can often be a solitary and pressurised experience. However, that the traditional problem of the ‘loneliness of the researcher’ is increasingly countered by the ‘structured’ approach to research education. Researchers can avail of taught, classroom-based modules in generic skills (e. g. communication, report-writing) and subject-specific topics.

For a student with a real interest in his or her subject, a postgraduate research degree is a tremendous opportunity to explore your field at the highest level of learning.

The research proposal

Application procedures vary from college to college, and from discipline to discipline. Most institutions have research proposal forms that standardise the application process. Candidates usually discuss their proposals with their prospective supervisors before submission.

A typical research proposal is three to four pages long and can consist of the following elements:

  • Title of your proposed research topic
  • What you hope to achieve, demonstrate or argue
  • The methodology you plan to employ
  • Your motivation for the project
  • Your prospective supervisor
  • At least two academic references
  • Professional references

Candidates may be called for an interview before being accepted. In general, you can apply for, and start, a research postgraduate programme at any time during the year. However, most prospective students apply for September/October entry.

Students interested in securing a position in an established research team/centre should also keep an eye on institution websites for research positions that become available.


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