Órlaith Burke - University lecturer

Since her PhD, Órlaith Burke, has followed the academic route and is currently a Departmental Lecturer at the University of Oxford’s Department of Statistics. We ask her about what got her interested in the profession and where this passion has taken her during her career so far.

Where was it that your interest in following statistics as a profession was first sparked?

The course I did in University College Dublin (UCD) was Mathematical Sciences, which was Maths, Math Physics and Statistics. I think from the very start I realised Math Physics was not for me. I liked the mathematical side of it but for a career it wasn’t something I wanted to do because it was too abstract. Statistics just made sense to me as I liked the idea that it was a way to use maths in the real world.

Once I got to my final year I decided I wanted to do a postgrad because I liked the college environment and there was funding available. At the time I was 50/50 between doing a PhD and becoming an actuary.

Then my supervisor approached me and offered me a PhD position. It was based on three or four applied projects so that’s when I started down the road of doing applied statistics. So I sort of fell into it. After about 6 months I loved it and haven’t looked back since.

While at UCD, you got the opportunity to spend a few months at in the Department of Statistics in Columbia University, New York. How did that come about?

My PhD supervisor recommended that it was something I should try to do. I was in contact with researchers in Columbia University and Prof. Richard Davis offered me a place for a semester. They signed me up as a Visiting Scholar which meant that I got to take any of the courses that interested me and work with Richard Davis’s research group.

I had been in UCD for seven years at that point and I had never studied anywhere else, so it was great to go and see how another university worked. It changed my perspective on academic life and opened my eyes to the ways of other stats departments.

Did you ever consider going into the private sector or were you always concentrated on an academic career?

When I finished my PhD in 2010, I was still focussed on academia. I wanted to keep doing my research and I still had things that I wanted to publish from my thesis. I have been at Oxford for three and a half years now, but I don’t think I would rule industry out in the future.

The advantage of academia is the autonomy it gives you. I have flexibility with the research that I choose to do. Also, I have control over how and when I work. I tend to work better mid-morning, so I can schedule my most productive work at that stage of the day. Someone else might work better in the evening. You can get into the rhythm of what works best for you. Industry is much less flexible in that regard.

On the other hand, particularly early in your career, it can be hard to stay continuously motivated. In industry you might have line managers and strict deadlines. There have been points when that has appealed to me because the pressure in academia has to be self-motivated, which can be tough at stages when things aren’t going to plan. Salaries are always going to be generally better in industry too, but for me it’s a trade-off and I’m much happier in academia at the moment.

The projects you have worked on seem so diverse and unrelated upon first glance, how have you been able to cover such a wide range of subjects?

In my PhD I started off looking at environmental sciences. I did a lot of work on radiological analysis and then some work in political science. Since moving to Oxford I have been moving towards medical statistics, so I now work with Orthopaedics surgeons and Obstetrics and Gynaecology researchers. I would never limit myself to a small few topics though. If something came up in environment or politics I would turn my hand to it, so long as it was in my field of statistics. I tend to be more drawn to the medical projects because you can clearly see how you can have a direct impact. You can see exactly why what you are doing is important.

One of the things about applied statistics is that you realise, as different projects come up, the variety of ways in which you can apply similar statistical methods. During my PhD I was working on time-series cross sectional models and applying those in Political Science. Later, I got involved in Obstetrics and Gynaecology research through using the same technique for foetal heart rate monitoring. So it was taking something I had been using in Political Science, which seemed reasonably disconnected from medicine, and applying it to this medical realm because the data was of a similar form.

It is the case that when you get to know your area of applied statistics really well, you start to see uses for it everywhere and how many different areas it can be useful in.

What advice would you offer a Maths undergraduate thinking about studying statistics further at postgraduate level?

The main thing that worked for me was keeping my options open all along my career path. During my PhD I didn’t work on just one project, it was made up of several projects. From that, other projects and ideas developed. By keeping things broad and not narrowing my options, I was able to choose my own direction at each step of my career.

The other thing I would recommend is for students to find a mentor. It’s a bit of a cliché, but finding one or two people you can openly chat to about your career is really important. Whether it’s a lecturer or another PhD student a few years ahead in the department. The chances are that any problem you are having, they have been through it already. Having that support really helped me through my studies and with my career choices.

Take a look at our guide to becoming a university lecturer.