The Laidlaw Scholarship application process as a person with a Disability -Harry O’Brien

How did you first hear about the Laidlaw programme?

I first heard about Laidlaw in November 2019 in an email sent out by careers, and for whatever reason, I looked into it and saw that it was pretty cool, and they pay you to do something that’s great for your cv which will make you more money in the future so you’d be silly not to apply. 

How did you decide what research project to do?

You must apply with a research project proposal, so I started thinking “what kind of research project would I like to do over the summer”, and I decided that I wanted to do one by the beach. It’s important to pick a project you enjoy doing, for reasons I will come back to later. I also wanted my application to be successful, so I decided to do my project about an important issue, ensured it was feasible and ensured my findings were a) useful, b) new, and c) could be acted upon. I made my research project about ‘the environmental, economic, and social effects of global warming on our coastal communities. A case study of southern Irish coastal regions’. 

How did you find a supervisor for your project?

I actually forgot about Laidlaw after writing my research project proposal because I thought I had found a professor in the college who would supervise my research project but she stopped replying to my emails, so on Friday, the 24th of January 2020 at 17:40 (3 days before the deadline) I reached out to the amazing Dr Susan Murphy and kind of begged her to accept my request for her to supervise my entire project. I found her by using, searching for researchers in Departments relevant to my project and finding researchers who have researched topics similar to my research project. Thankfully she said yes, but I had also asked one of my lecturers whose area of expertise was absolutely nothing to do with geography or beaches or climate change as a back-up, and she said yes also, so I actually applied with 2 supervisors, which I think helped me because everybody else only had one. 

How did you write your research project proposal?

This was the tough bit. You must provide a title, which if you’ve seen previous Laidlaw projects you’ll know are generally really complicated, especially the medical research ones. My original title was ‘how will climate change impact coastal Ireland physically, economically, and socially?”, and my supervisor recommended the title I ended up using, which definitely helped.

(An example of the titles of successful research project proposals)

You must provide “a short summary of the research question, objectives, and impact in simple terms which can be understood by a non-expert” in 1000 words or less. I probably gave about 7 hours on this alone, because I believed it to be the most important part of my application. I split my summary into 6 chapters, Aims and Objectives, Methodology, Expected Findings & Impact, Requirements, Timeline, and Sources.

Aims and Objectives: I described the severity of our current climate crisis and how it is too late to prevent global warming so we must adapt to the changes it will bring (so my findings would be a. useful). I outlined the lack of new scientific literature on the likely effects of climate change on the regions I was studying (so my findings would be b. new). I ended it with what specific findings I would produce and what I will do with my findings.

Methodology: A detailed description of how you will produce the findings you’ve named. This takes a fair bit of time, but you have a lot of freedom to decide how and where you want to carry out your research project. You should justify every decision you make with regard to your methodology. For example, I chose to research Ringaskiddy, Kinsale, Castletownbere, and Barleycove because they are all distinct coastal communities which will eliminate any sampling bias.

Expected Findings & Impact: Be honest about your expected findings. The impact part is important, because if your findings don’t have any impact then what was the point of you doing your project? I knew that as part of a climate change act that was recently passed, every city & county council had to produce a climate change adaption plan, which involved ‘identifying areas and assets vulnerable to climate change”. Once I produce my findings I will contact local politicians if I have identified areas and assets vulnerable to climate change in their constituency that is not included in their climate change adaption plan. I didn’t mention this specifically in my research proposal which I am only realising now, but I did mention it in the interview and I believe this gave my research project proposal possibly the strongest and most tangible impact of all the applicants.

No need to write a full paragraph for requirements, timeline, and sources. These chapters made my proposal look more professional. I used 6 sources which were all academic (no news articles or Wikipedia).

Work with your supervisor to improve your proposal and send it to friends and family to make sure it’s understandable.

How was the application process?

There is a personal part of your Laidlaw application, which includes a personal statement and a Leadership in Action Experience Statement. See below what is asked from your personal statement.

Personal Statement: Please provide a personal statement on how you wish to develop as a leader and what difference you want to make through leadership (300 words max.)

Your personal statement requires ego dissolution and strong self-awareness. You must objectively acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, and have a solid understanding of a) why you’re doing Laidlaw and b) what you hope to get out of Laidlaw. I’m a morally conscience and a somewhat sheltered person who’s incredibly lucky to have had such great parents who have supported me with their time, money, and love to get me to where I am today. I’m in a position where I don’t have to get a job, don’t have to take care of kids or a loved one, and have very few responsibilities that I can’t get out of. This allows me to spend my time on self-development and satisfying the top 2 of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (esteem & self-actualisation), and Laidlaw will help me achieve those things by developing my leadership skills so I can maximize the positive impact I leave on the world. Leadership is an important part of this, so if you don’t really understand leadership you should understand that first. I didn’t realise what leadership really was but when I did learn, I knew I wanted and could become a great leader. If you’re just doing Laidlaw because it would be good for the C.V. you’ll have to be a really good liar and spend a lot of time on this, but really you should use this to reflect on if you’d really enjoy Laidlaw, because if you don’t then (in my opinion) you’re definitely better off spending your time in an area you enjoy working, which is where you will produce your best work. 

The Leadership in Action experience has all the same requirements as the personal statement, but it’s more specific. The personal statement is the ‘why’, and the Leadership in Action experience is the ‘how’. My why was self-esteem and self-actualization, and my how is through building my digital marketing and leadership skills, because that’s where my strengths lie in and it’s what we need right now with all this ‘fake news’.

I actually submitted my thing like 30 minutes late because I had a meeting with my supervisor Susan on the 27th which was a Monday and also the day my research project and cover letter were due to be submitted and I procrastinated making the changes she recommended until like 23:50 that night and I was screaming in my room in Trinity Halls because I had put so much time into making the actual research project proposal and I thought it was all gonna go to waste because of the slow Wi-fi but fortunately it got submitted. I didn’t hear anything about it for ages, other than an email saying I got invited for an interview, which would be with the Laidlaw programme co-ordinator Joel McKeever from the TCD careers office and 2 scientists who are somewhat involved in Laidlaw. I had to make a PowerPoint about myself that I could present to them in 3 minutes and answer their questions about my research project. I was pretty honest in my PowerPoint and put a lot of effort into it. I made a flowchart that showed how I would decide what Leadership in Action experience I would undertake in the Summer and photoshopped myself into a ‘The Interview’ movie poster. In the interview I could tell they hadn’t actually read my research project proposal because the questions they were asking were made up on the spot, so a great way to prepare for this interview is a) make your PowerPoint personable and trustworthy and b) explain your research project proposal to your friends and parents and siblings and answer their questions and if your friends don’t understand it or think it’s stupid, the interviewers probably will too. The Laidlaw programme aims to develop leaders with moral character and the ability to make an impact, so mention how you want to be a leader and use Obama or Nelson Mandela or Gandhi or somebody with really high approval ratings as an example.

How has your disability impacted your Laidlaw experience?

There is a lot of written communication involved in the application process and the programme itself once you get in. I was able to use Grammarly for free thanks to the Disability Service and I had my supervisor proofread my application, but I can’t get someone to read out my emails for me and tell me what information is in them. I missed the first induction event because of this which caused a bit of hassle but nothing serious. There is a lot of self-organisation required in building a successful application which I found challenging, especially during the application as there wasn’t anybody making me do the work or telling me how, and since it was in a domain I was uncomfortable in (writing) I procrastinated, delayed tough decisions and challenging work, and almost didn’t make it into the programme. 

As someone with an atypical mindset, the freedom I was given in choosing my research topic was crucial. Had I been forced to pick a topic I wasn’t interested in or had I picked a topic I thought would give me a fancy complicated research title in hopes of improving my odds of being accepted into the programme and bolstering my CV, I most certainly wouldn’t have made my research project proposal as passionate nor as in-depth as it was. My topic was something I had an esoteric understanding of and feel strongly about, which shined through on my application with the help of my supervisor (and Grammarly).

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