My pathway into an IRC Employment Based PhD – Lorna Barry

Throughout my career I have always struggled to strike the right balance between earning and learning. The need to get on the career ladder early and get valuable experience necessitates that academic learning sometimes takes a back seat.  However, over the course of the last ten years as a full-time strength and conditioning (S&C) coach, I periodically turned to education in various guises; industry qualifications, workshops, conferences and a Master’s degree. These education pieces were a means of upskilling and preparing myself to conquer the next rung on the career ladder. I have always held the view that education and hands-on work experience need to grow in parallel.

I was recently asked by a budding S&C  coach for any tips I could share on my career to date. My answer was plain and simple.

  • Do your job well 100% of the time not excellently 50% of the time.
  • Always be early for meetings/sessions.
  • Cultivate a second interest or additional set of skills. Some day you might want a change of direction and will need a backup plan.


My back up plan has always been teaching or lecturing in some shape or form. I have always wanted to educate and inform rather than preach and tell. This back up plan however, requires a PhD!  In 2017, I discovered that I could marry a PhD with full time work and not have the financial and lifestyle stress that comes with trying to do them independently and I figured the time was right. The Irish Research Council (IRC) Employment-based programme is a unique initiative combining research opportunities with workplace experience. This programme brings a Higher Education Institution, an employment partner and budding researcher together to work on a specific project related to the employment organisation. While the application process is lengthy, demanding and vigorous, it is certainly worth it.

At the second time of asking and almost two years after starting the process, I was awarded an IRC Employment-based scholarship, working with Swim Ireland and undertaking a structured PhD at the University of Limerick.  My role is well balanced with specific coaching time with Swim Ireland’s National Centre Limerick Performance Squad, research time investigating the role of training load in the incidence of shoulder injuries in elite swimmers and taking guided modules specifically geared towards the skills a researcher will need. While the time management is demanding, the ability to maintain one foot in the working world while being guided through the PhD process through the structured programme is a huge benefit. The PhD work frequently takes me out of my comfort zone but a day rarely passes without achieving some small task or learning a new skill. I am constantly learning new ways to be efficient with my time, being more productive and translating a lot of these skills to my work within high performance sport.

The highlight of my participation with this programme thus far, has been the ability to interact with likeminded people who are all striving towards similar goals. Working within the PESS postgraduate office or periodically meeting with a mini shoulder study group allows me the opportunity to discuss the latest research in the world of sport science and rehabilitation practices. Since starting the employment-based PhD, I have had the opportunity to attend two excellent conferences (Shoulder Rehabilitation Conference at Liverpool Hope University and Irish Shoulder and Elbow Society Annual Meeting (ISERS)) with some amazing national and international speakers. While the topics covered across the speakers were varied, there seemed to be a common thread throughout. Rehabilitation, as well as research, has to be context driven. Decisions that are made today will directly impact what tomorrow looks like.

Jo Gibson (keynote speaker at ISERS and renowned specialist physiotherapist) highlighted that a successful rehabilitation programme is often pre-empted by:

  1. Listening to the patient – get the context behind their complaint so you have a clear picture of all the facts.
  2. Understanding their background and functional needs – what level they are returning to? For example, rehabilitating Rafael Nadal is very different to my grandmother despite the same injury.
  3. Educate them on the rehabilitation process and setting clear expectations from the outset (e.g. what the rehab will entail, how much time and input is required, what are the expected outcomes.


As I listened to this theme emerging in a rehabilitation context, I believed that this process could be applied as effectively to the research process.

  • It is evident that a high level of understanding of the research background is imperative before making crucial decisions. A broad understanding of the research field means we are better equipped to make informed decisions that will stand the test of time.
  • We as researchers need to educate ourselves on our research pathway. Does the decision I make today fit in line with the outcomes I expect in twelve months’ time?
  • Setting clear expectations will ensure there are not too many surprises. Set expectations as to the workload we can manage and the timeframes it takes us to complete a task. Are our expectations realistic and aligned with supervisor expectations?
  • Finally, do the PhD aims align with a research gap that needs to be addressed? We often want to produce research that makes headlines but is there a more worthwhile project that needs to be done first. Are we trying to hit a homerun when what we really needed to do was get to first base?


While these points are possibly very apparent to a seasoned researcher, to me they have set the foundation for what I want to achieve over the next four years. Through the support of the Irish Research Council and Swim Ireland, and with excellent guidance from my supervisory team (Dr. Tom Comyns, Dr. Mark Lyons, Dr. Karen McCreesh) and employment mentor (Dr. Cormac Powell) I hope to make a strong impact with my research and really enjoy the process along the way.

Lorna Barry is a PhD student in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences. She is funded by the Irish Research Council Employment Based Programme. She worked as a strength and conditioning coach (S&C) for a number of years, spending two seasons working with Rugby Canadas Men’s 15’s and 7’s programmes where she was S&C on their Sevens World Cup campaign in 2013 and the Commonwealth Games in 2014. More recently she had a rehabilitation role with the Sports Surgery Clinic musculoskeletal team and was lead S&C with Munster Rugby’s Senior squad.  Lorna has a Master of Science (MSc.) in Sports Performance (University of Limerick, 2012) and a BSc. in Sport and Exercise Sciences (University of Limerick, 2005-2009 Currently, she works with Swim Ireland as the S&C coach to the National Centre of Limerick Performance Pathway squad while managing her role as a Ph.D. researcher.

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