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Tom Kent - Forestry Lecturer in WIT

Tom Kent - Forestry Lecturer in WIT

Current Job: Programme leader of the Bachelor of Science in Forestry at Waterford Institute of Technology

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

Work is divided into three main areas: undergraduate interaction; course administration and promotion; and industry engagement and research.

I teach forestry students in modules on Dendrology, Earth Science, Wood Science, Mensuration, Forest Harvesting and Forest Engineering through lectures, field trips and laboratory practicals. I supervise final year student research projects, supporting students through the process of reviewing literature, developing their research questions, experiments, data collection and analysis and reporting. I arrange placement of second-year students into industry positions and organise specific skills training courses for these students to better prepare them for their placement. Some of these courses are around CV preparation and interview skills, while some are directly relevant to operating in a forest environment such as occupational first aid and manual handling, safe use of chainsaws and pesticides.

Administration involves scheduling classes and fieldwork, arranging assessments and compiling results, and discussing with colleagues how we develop the curriculum. I promote the forestry programme to prospective students and parents at careers options events arranged WIT and externally, and field queries from potential students by phone and email.

Our research group carries out research on forest biomass supply chains and we are currently evaluating the potential of eucalyptus and other fast-growing tree species in Ireland. Regularly, companies ask us to carry out some applied research. In the last year we have worked with a forest contractor on a system for measuring harvested timber, a wood processing company on the quality of their wood fuel and an entrepreneur on the chemical characteristics of wood waste.

Describe a typical day?

There is no such thing as a typical day, which is the great thing about my job. All lecturers have some hours in class or laboratory with students, preparation of lessons and assessment or corrections, meetings with colleagues or individual students and communication with administration staff, prospective students, industry or research partners.

Fortunately, as a forestry lecturer, each week we have field trips with students, so can get out into the forest to demonstrate and practice skills or techniques, observe how forestry interacts with the natural and human environment, or visit industry to develop a good overview of the wood supply chain from forests to final products. Days engaged in research work provide further opportunities to interact with industry and gain more knowledge and skills that can be applied to students.

What are the main challenges?

It is important to keep up to date with what is happening in the forestry sector, from the current topics affecting the work of forest professionals to the latest research that may impact the future of forestry. Motivating students can be very challenging, particularly if they do not come to classes.

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

Mainly, I have a clear vision for the forestry programme at WIT and I am prepared to work very hard to implement it. I aim to ensure every WIT forestry student gains confidence and self-esteem through their study programme and every graduate is employable in the forestry sector and is equipped with the knowledge and skills to successfully secure that first job. Of course, education is about much more than simply training for a job, but employment in a job you love is a solid platform for any graduate to build a fulfilling life.

What's cool?

Meeting and getting to work with interesting students every year. We get students from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, and each brings a variety of personality, interests and prior skills to the forestry programme.

Learning more about forestry every day, as the forestry sector is global, and forests have such a central role in both the environment and the green economy. Currently, the area that fascinates me is the international body of research demonstrating that people living near trees and forests have better physical and mental health. Also, I am always interested to hear of new applications for wood.

Meeting graduates that have developed a career in forestry gives me immense personal satisfaction, as it validates the necessity of the forestry programme at WIT, and gives me the confidence to encourage students to work hard, stick with their programme and be confident that they can succeed.

What's not so cool?

Administration can be time-consuming and boring, but is a necessary evil.

Preparing the perfect fieldtrip, with a great location and interesting assessment, and then it pours rain on the day is frustrating.

How did you go about getting your current job?

I previously worked as a contract researcher with an environmental consultancy duQuesne Ltd., then ESB International and Coillte, the state forestry company, where I was seconded to work with Teagasc on researching forest biomass and energy crops. I applied to WIT in response to an advertisement for a forestry lecturer, was interviewed and offered the position of programme leader of the newly developed programme with twelve students in that first intake.

What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?

Getting my first job by deciding to hand rather than post my CV into duQuesne Ltd, as I bumped into my future employer and we spent some time chatting about our shared interest in the environment. A few weeks later I was interviewed by the same person, and it seemed like we just continued our conversation.

I applied for the forestry lecturer position in WIT in order to move my family from Dublin, despite thinking I had little chance of being hired without teaching experience or a post graduate qualification. It was only when I started at WIT that I realised that the entire forestry programme was new and needed to be developed from scratch. That has kept my work life interesting since.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

My mother was a teacher, my father worked in agriculture and we planted trees at home. My father particularly encouraged me to consider forestry as a career and constantly reminded me that most problems can be solved with planting more trees.

Mr Mike Bulfin in Teagasc was a great mentor. He encouraged me to broaden my view of forestry and provided opportunities to take leadership and responsibility in my own work.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes, very much so.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

I enjoyed Biology and Chemistry in school and was interested in studying a science-based course, but participating in my school mountaineering club provided me with certainty that I wanted to work with nature, while Woodwork classes gave me an appreciation of timber. I had a great biology teacher, Mr. Meehan, who developed my interest in the environment and pointed out to me the forestry degree on the CAO.

What is your education to date?

I am highly unusual in education, in that I do not have a post-graduate qualification, unlike my colleagues. I graduated in 1993 with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science in Forestry from UCD and have worked continuously since.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

The forestry programme in UCD was excellent at developing critical thinking and problem solving in students and these skills are beneficial in any occupation, and I have relied heavily on them. How staff interacted with students in UCD has definitely influenced my own approach.

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I have accumulated an enormous amount of on-the-job training in a huge diversity of areas, from operating forest machinery to international standards development. My focus to date has been on developing the forestry programme at WIT and on ensuring students get the best possible start in forestry. I have accumulated a substantial quantity of research data and would like to develop this into a postgraduate thesis. However, I will always prioritise opportunities to improve the forestry programme at WIT over my own qualifications.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

My first time speaking in public was to a conference of 150 renewable energy professionals, which was terrifying. I had prepared a full written speech, but found I did not need to refer to my notes as I had practiced so much beforehand. Preparing and making presentations of research work is good preparation for lecturing.

Participating in student graduation each year, where students are awarded their qualification, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level.

Co-ordinating a large forest biomass technology transfer programme where we carried out forest harvesting operations and arranged public demonstrations of forest biomass machine systems across fifteen forest locations around Ireland and involved the direct involvement of over 100 people from several public and commercial organisations to carry out. There was intense planning, negotiation and management involved and the entire programme passed off successfully.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

I love learning and doing new things. I do not mind taking leadership, meaning if I see that something needs to be done then I must do it, often without thinking too much about the work load and time required. This can create problems and sometimes does not work, but gives me immense satisfaction when it succeeds.

What is your dream job?

I probably have it, in that I am paid to learn more about something I am interested in, and to communicate my interest to others. More travel opportunities would be a bonus, but to date, my forestry career has brought me to 24 countries in Europe, North and South America and Africa.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

Empathy with students, so communicating ideas and knowledge so that it can be understood and absorbed is important. Also, you should be willing to listen carefully in addition to speaking. Students may have a wide range of personal, financial or medical issues affecting their ability to study, but may not be able to talk about these issues.

All students value experience over information, so creative thinking is important in order to provide examples to illustrate concepts and giving opportunities to students to gain experience through relevant assessments field and lab assessments.

Passion for your subject: enthusiasm is infectious, as is apathy. As forestry is such a diverse and dynamic subject, it is easy to remain motivated to know more.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Getting a lecturing position is a complete mystery and can only be attributed to luck rather than design. There are only three forestry programmes in Ireland: Teagasc Ballyhaise has a programme at level 5 and 6, WIT at level 7 & 8 and UCD at level 8. In total, there are about ten people lecturing specifically in forestry in Ireland. Positions are very rare, but the increasing importance of forestry in Ireland should lead to further opportunities.

A PhD is now considered as an essential qualification for lecturing now.  The ability to carry out research and particularly to secure research funding is highly prized by all third level institutes. Having a PhD does not necessarily indicate the ability to lead research but not having a PhD could be disadvantageous, particularly if other candidates have one.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Gain as much practical and professional experience in forestry as possible, and also gain post-graduate qualifications through taught programmes and research.

 

Forestry Careers Ireland