Credit: Ryan Milligan

Interview

Changing Careers: Ryan Milligan

Dr Ryan Milligan made a career change from truck driving and is now a lecturer in the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast.


Who are you and what do you do?

I'm Dr Ryan Milligan, a lecturer in Astrophysics at Queen's University Belfast (QUB), where I also did my degree and PhD. I also hold a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Ernest Rutherford Research Fellowship to understand the physics of solar flares.

What does your role involve?

My research involves the study of solar flares. These are colossal explosions in the Sun's atmosphere, which can have a significant impact on our own planet. The excess radiation produced during flares can heat up the Earth's ionosphere, which can have an effect on satellite drag, GPS signals and radio communication. I use data from telescopes in space to try to understand the origins of this radiation, and the impact it may have. This is also important for other planets across the solar system and as we search for potentially habitable planets around other stars.

What's your background and career path?

When I left school at 18, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I took a year out to study sound recording engineering in Dublin but ended up working in fish factories and coal yards afterward. When I turned 21 I got my HGV license and started driving trucks for a living. At 23 I decided to enrol in an astrophysics degree course at QUB as a mature student. Having never studied physics at high school I had to complete a foundation year. I then went on to get my master's in science and ultimately a PhD, all while continuing to drive trucks to pay the bills. 

During my PhD, I was offered the chance to spend my summers at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where I got my first postdoc position after I graduated. From there I was awarded several fellowships and research grants, until eventually landing a permanent lectureship position back at QUB where it all started.

What did you do to go about changing career? 

I took a gamble! I had always had an interest in astronomy, but never actually considered a career in it. I wanted to study astrophysics more out of curiosity, and I somehow assumed that I would end up driving trucks again if it didn't work out. I had to get letters of support from my high school teachers as I was applying to university as a mature student. But thankfully it all paid off in the end.

What resources, organisations, events, etc. were most useful to you?

The most useful resource to me were my advisors and mentors at university. They guided me over the course of my studies and perhaps saw the potential in me that I didn't see myself. They pushed me to do a PhD, encouraged me to apply for positions and grants, and showed me that a career in astronomy was possible.

How did you get your first job in the space sector?

It came about through networking at NASA while I was an intern there during my PhD. My first job was working for the RHESSI (Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager) mission, which was a NASA satellite designed to study the Sun in X-rays. I combined RHESSI observations of solar flares with those from other space-based telescopes to help understand how such huge releases of energy occur. 

Were there any barriers you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?

Imposter syndrome! This was by far the biggest barrier to me, and still is in some ways. Coming from a manual labour background, and being surrounded by so many intelligent and inspirational people, was definitely intimidating. Why would anyone hire a truck driver to help unlock the mysteries of the universe?! I definitely felt way out of my depth. But with each paper that I published, conference talk that I gave, grant proposal that I got funded, I started to believe in myself a bit more.

Was the style of your job applications in the space sector different from what you were used to?

As a truck driver, you could basically show someone your driving license and you were hired! As a scientist, you often have to outline and budget a detailed research proposal of what you aim to accomplish over the next few years and how you plan to carry out this research. This can involve several months of planning, usually in collaboration with other scientists on whom your project will rely. And there's never any guarantee of getting funded, so all that effort could amount to nothing.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

When a project is funded, having that freedom to work with other people that you respect and admire to explore research areas that you are passionately interested in is very rewarding. You also get to travel the world sharing your findings with other scientists and start thinking about new ideas for the next project...

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