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From Queen’s to global peacemaker

Conor Houston, Queen’s Law graduate is Director of Houston Solutions Limited, and Chairman of several organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland, One Young World 2023 Belfast, and of Fleming Fulton School. He is also the Governor and Trustee of the Irish Times Media Group.

Conor Houston

What does Queen’s mean to you?

 I’m often reminded of Seamus Heaney, his famous line when he talked about the original centre. I think, as I reflected, I’m making this video today, Queen’s University very much is for me, my original centre. It’s where I formed my passion for Law, which was the career I practised in for most 10 years. But it also gave me a number of skills, perspectives and opportunities that continue to this day, and I’m very proud that I have for almost 20 years, I’ve had an association with Queen’s University. 

What was your Queen’s experience like?

I graduated in 2004, with my Law degree. I had a fantastic three years at Queen’s, made a lot of friends who are still very much friends today, and I suppose it ignited my passion and interest in in law and the rule of law. I was very fortunate through my times at Queen’s to be involved in a number of summits and conferences, but also to go and study at the European Public Law Group Academy in Greece, in 2004, which was a really fantastic opportunity. It was my first time, I suppose, with young people from right across Europe studying together, all the different languages, cultures coming together and united by European Union law. 

That was a very formative and special time. And in fact, a number of the things that I’m continued to be involved in, tend to have that international perspective and lens. After I had completed my Law degree, I went on to study for my Master’s in Human Rights law, and was very fortunate that there was an opportunity to do a cross border element. So I did the first half of my Master’s in Queens, and the second half of my masters at the National University of Ireland in Galway. And again, that was a very special time and experience and a number of the friendships and relationships I enjoy to this day were because of that cross-border experience. 

What was your first graduate role?

I graduated from Queen’s with my Master’s and I then went back to Queen’s to study at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, where I was finally admitted as a solicitor in 2008. I was lucky that I had a firm that I did my apprenticeship with John J. Rice and Company in Belfast, which was a criminal and human rights firm.I worked there for almost 10 years and was fortunate to be involved in many of the pioneering human rights cases of that time. I was dual qualified in that I was qualified both in Northern Ireland and also in the Republic of Ireland. So I practised a lot in Belfast and Dublin. And during my time in practice, I was very involved in the profession. Firstly, through the Young Lawyers Association, the Northern Ireland Young Solicitors Association, which I ended up becoming Chair of, and we had some fantastic conferences and events and a lot of fun with that group. I was then the first lawyer for Northern Ireland to be appointed to the board of the European Young Bar Association, which our relationship continues to this day. And 2010, we actually brought the European Young Bar Association conference to Belfast, so it was fantastic to bring all these international lawyers to our city. 

What has been a career highlight?

I suppose a combination of all those roles, as well as being so very fortunate to be representing some leading human rights cases represent journalists, politicians, and many others. I suppose I became very interested in how law can affect change, I was very passionate about making a difference. And that’s what attracted me into law, the power of law to create change in a society. 

I was very fortunate that the cases I got to work on, were very much about driving that change. But I suppose I became interested in how could I do even more so in 2014, I was awarded a scholarship by the United States State Department. And I spent a few months, I took a sabbatical and took a few months out to Boston College and then into Washington, and on their rule of law programme, which really started to develop my thinking more around the skills and experiences and perspective I had, and what I could do. 

Whilst my mission was very much about helping people and making a difference, trying to refine what I could do with that, I became very interested then around maybe getting involved around politics and trying to create change to help complete our peace process, and to, I suppose, realise the enormous ambition and potential of Northern Ireland. 

What are some of your favourite work-related projects? 

I was very honoured to be appointed as the programme director at the Centre for Democracy and Peacebuilding. And I worked there for a number of years and worked on some fantastic projects around working with, for example, community organisations, youth groups, loyalists bands. And it was a great privilege to be involved in their work in trying to help to complete the peace process and build capacity within both civic and political society. 

One of the amazing projects I got to work on with them was the EU debate programme, which was set up about nine months before the EU referendum. And the idea was to create a space for informed thinking and debate in Northern Ireland, on the issues that the Brexit referendum would have, particularly as it pertains to Northern Ireland. 

I was involved with the board in rolling out a very ambitious programme where we engaged with community groups, youth organisations, religious organisations, every political party in Northern Ireland. And we really began a conversation, we weren’t trying to determine the outcome of the debate, we were trying to make sure that there was a debate. So we were neutral in that we weren’t trying to tell people to leave or remain, we were just trying to present all of the arguments and create that space. And that was a very humbling experience. 

Queen’s University Belfast were very involved in supporting that project. In fact, we launched a new debate in the Great Hall in Queen’s and academics from the School of Politics, including Professor David Phinnemore were involved in writing a briefing paper for us. So it was very important to us that it would be underpinned by that credible academic expertise, but also the have that support of the reputation of Queen’s.

Why did you set up your own business? 

I decided to set up my own consultancy, and I suppose what brings together a number of the clients and projects that I work on, is that one thing to realise the ambition of Northern Ireland. So I work with a number of leaders, all of whom may be coming from very different backgrounds and sectors, but all of whom are very passionate about realising the enormous potential of Northern Ireland, and trying to drive change here. 

I suppose that’s what unites the number of projects that I’m privileged to work on now. And as I mentioned, I’m government trustee of the Irish Times Media Group. So the Irish Times is owned by a trust, and there are eight of us appointed to effectively act as the shareholders of the group. So we’re there to sort of look at the long term vision and that’s been particularly interesting, interesting in an age of post truth and thinking about the lines around freedom of speech, etc. So, and a lot of that, of course, goes back to the learnings that I had when I studied both my Law and Master’s degree around the issue of proportionality and competing rights. 

What is One Young World? 

I’ve been involved in leading a bid to bring One Young World to Belfast in 2023. So in 2017, I was asked to address the one Young World Youth summit in Bogota, Colombia. One Young World is the world’s largest youth summit. It brings over 3000 young people from every country in the world, to a city each year. And it’s one of the only organisations aside from the Olympics that actually gets every country in the world involved. 

And this is about identifying the future leaders, both within business but also within NGO sector, just young people that are passionately driving change right across the world. So I was very fortunate to be invited to address this summit in Bogota, Colombia in 2017, and was introduced on stage by the then president of Colombia, President Santos and the late Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. Both of those men spoke about the impact that Northern Ireland had on their journeys to peace, and this was a very humbling moment for me. 

When I addressed the summit, I realised the power of our generation and the generation watching this video, to effect real change, not just within the place we will call home, but also in terms of making an impact in the world. So I then began the process of building a team to put together a bid to bring One Young World to Belfast in 2023, and we were successful in that. 

How has your degree from Queen’s helped you?

Queen’s is that passport, not just for your career, but to accessing opportunities, and a fantastic network right around the world. So, you know, I’m extremely proud of the many hats and roles and things I’ve been involved in being a graduate of Queen’s University is really up there, and I look forward to continuing that role with Queen’s. 

What challenges have you faced?

When I was a lawyer, and some of the projects I work on, particularly some of the Civic roles that I have, I think one of the challenges your generation is going to face is how we engage with the people we disagree with. So one of the challenges is always when you have very passionate about change, or seeing something happen, and you encountered the resistance to that.

I think that one of the big challenges that I challenge myself every day, I think that we have to all turn on is what can we do to engage with the people that we disagree with, how we, I’ve often said we don’t have to agree but being disagreeable is a choice. So we need to find more places and spaces in which we can find that ability to respectfully engage with each other and actually see that compromise is an art, it’s not a sellout.

I think this is something that I encourage your generation to really challenge I think that the future will belong to those who can build relationships that can be constructive that can respectfully disagree with each other, but can see the common good can work together for the common good, can see the bigger picture that is the challenge of your generation. 

What gets your out of bed in the morning?

I don’t feel that there’s an average week. For me, I think that’s probably what I love most about my, my work. In fact, I don’t even feel like I have a job because I’m very fortunate that everything I do, whether it be in my business life or my civic life, they are projects and issues that I’m very passionate about. So I jump out of bed in the morning, passionate about making the change in the area that day, whether it be through being on the border shadows and LGBT youth organisation, whether that be in promoting the role of small businesses through the five and a half 1000 members, and I have the privilege of being Chair of the FSB, and speaking up on their behalf, whatever I can do to to advocate change, to advance those who are trying to make a real impact. 

That’s what sparks me on in the morning. 

What advice do you have for graduates?

I think that’s one of the most exciting things about this generation, the graduates of today is that you really do have a blank canvas to create the kind of life and career that you want for yourself. And Queen’s University, as I say, is the ideal place to give you that toolkit for you to be able to do that. 

It’s for me, it’s that life journey, it’s not just about getting that degree wasn’t really that important that you do, and it’s about the relationships that you build, the skills that you have, and they will sustain you for the not just years but decades ahead. And you know, as I said, it’s 20 years this September since I started Queen’s, and I’m reminded of something my late grandfather said to me, he said 20 years is a long time looking forward, but nothing looking back. 

And for the first time, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel like two decades ago I entered Queen’s University, but those two decades, I’ve had that original centre of Queens, which has, as I say, been a constant thread throughout my career both here in Northern Ireland and through the international experiences and opportunities I’ve had. 

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6 Paths to Take After Graduation

Contemplating the road less travelled: student blogger Maeve McDermott

‘What now?’ is a question many of us will be asking ourselves this summer following graduation. Three+ years of lectures, tutorials, assignments, deadlines and structure that a post-graduation world doesn’t offer. Whilst this can be daunting and the post-graduation fear is real, it’s important to remember that there is no one right next step – there are a multitude of routes you can take after you finish your degree, and Prospects Student Career Guide 2020/21 takes you through just some of the options available.

  1. Graduate scheme 

Perhaps the most conventional route, a graduate scheme job or ‘professional level’/’high skilled’ job is a structured scheme whereby employers target graduates’ skills and experience and are normally available to those achieving a 2:1 or above. These schemes are run by many leading UK employers across all industries and often last 1-2 years, with many graduates offered a permanent role following this initial period. It’s worth doing your research if you have a specific company in mind – look at their website and social media channels to familiarise yourself with their work culture and values. Recruitment processes and timelines for graduate schemes vary from company to company so be sure to be aware of these well in advance.

More on graduate schemes

 2. Work for a small business

If working for a large company in a graduate scheme isn’t for you, you may prefer working for a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME). Roles in small businesses often offer you more responsibility and a wider variety of opportunities, as well as the opportunity to see first-hand how your work is making an impact on the company. These roles can offer greater opportunity to really develop your skillset, often making them a more appealing option for fresh graduates wishing to gain as much experience as possible. SME roles often aren’t widely advertised, and SMEs usually recruit via word-of-mouth recommendations/networking or through your university. 

3. Self-employment

If being your own boss is something you like the sound of, self-employment may be worth considering. A somewhat less conventional option, this route requires a great deal of drive and determination, but undoubtedly has its benefits. Currently, one seventh of workers are now self-employed, and include innovative business owners, using their own experience and skills to identify gaps in the market, and freelancers predominantly in professions such as writing, programming and graphic design. Whilst this route can be a more difficult one, with challenges such as unstable income and tax refunds, resources for self-employed people continue to grow, including British Association for Supported Employment and Centre for Entrepreneurship.

More on launching your own business

4.Work abroad 

Maybe you have your sights set on something further afield? Expanding your horizons overseas won’t just allow for adventure and fun – structured work experience abroad such as internships can be a great way to travel and improve your employability at the same time. This type of work experience is often organised by third-party organisations such as The British Council and Erasmus+. Additionally, many students opt for a gap year following their degree, and choose to gain international experience working in USA summer camps, summer jobs in Australia or adventure working holidays in New Zealand.

Find out more about work experience and gap year opportunities.

Discover Global Opportunities.

5. Volunteer for an international project

Another way to get meaningful experience abroad is through gaining experience by volunteering for an international project. Working with local people in foreign countries and making a meaningful difference to their lives is a truly unique opportunity allowing for personal development, and can also impress future employers, demonstrating a caring attitude and a strong work ethic. There are countless volunteering opportunities available – from wildlife conservation to teaching English.

Discover volunteering opportunities.

6. Postgraduate study 

If you feel that you’re not quite ready for the world of work just yet, postgraduate study might be a possibility. Relevant postgraduate study can set you aside from other graduates and accelerate your career progression, as many roles in fields such as law and clinical psychology require professional accreditation gained through postgraduate study. Perhaps you want to become an expert in your field and even become an academic? Moreover, conversion courses offer you the chance to pursue a career often completely different from what your undergrad may have prepared you for. These are intensive postgraduate qualifications that allow you to widen your range of skills, expand your professional network and increase your confidence in a subject and sector you previously may have known little about. 

Discover postgraduate study at Queen’s.

It’s important to remember everyone’s career path is different and the countless possibilities definitely make that post-graduation fear a little less intimidating. The options really are endless, and this time next year you could be flourishing in a Big 4 grad scheme in London, or volunteering at a wildlife conservation in South Africa. The best thing you can do is reflect on what is best for you, think about what you really want and consider all of your options. 

For more on your career options after graduate, visit our website.


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Life Sciences Sector Expert Q&A

Mark Gallagher, Careers and Work Placement Consultant in Queen’s School of Biological Sciences offers an insight into graduate opportunities the Life Sciences Sector offers.

What is the Life Sciences sector?

The Life Sciences in the broadest sense can encompass study and work related to all living organisms and so can have a very broad definition which can range from agriculture to zoology (A-Z). The Life Sciences sector spans a huge variety of career areas, including, but not limited to, pharmaceuticals, biomedical engineering, environmental management, food and nutrition and scientific research. Companies may be involved in areas including research and development, drug discovery, diagnostics, analytical testing and can range from small research intensive companies, with a small number of employees, right through to large multinationals employing thousands of people.

What kinds of careers options do Life Sciences students have?

Career areas are very broad in the life sciences – and at various levels, straight from a BSc qualification to roles that may require additional levels of qualification and up to PhD. Here are a few of the main areas of employment: 

Research & development – The focus of research and development (R&D) is mainly on creating products, processes or commercial applications using innovative multidisciplinary approaches. R and D takes place in Universities but also in industry within smaller medical biotech companies or parts of companies tasked with process and product improvements. To work in R and D typically you are encouraged to further your level of qualification to at least MSc if not PhD level.

Quality assurance and product Manufacturing – Quality Assurance (QA) or Quality Control (QC) involves ensuring that products are manufactured in accordance with recommended standards, and requires analysing raw materials used initially through to finished products. Companies in the sector are highly regulated so Quality is key at all stages of production with a variety of repeat analytical tests being undertaken to ensure products are safe to use. Careers can also involve monitoring environmental factors like water and air quality for contaminants which could potentially impact on process or product quality. 

Science Business roles – Opportunities for regulatory affairs officers are commonplace in the sector as are roles to develop new markets and business for products, or providing expertise and consultancy to support products – roles which don’t involve lab work but the understanding you gain from a science degree is essential to carry out the role effectively. Regulatory affairs officers ensure the appropriate licensing, marketing and legal compliance of products, and work with documentation and medicine approval authorities throughout the world. Products developed as a result of research and development will need to find markets in which to be sold – and that creates opportunities for science graduates to help develop those markets, by approaching health authorities and companies to explain the features and benefits of products developed – so if you are a science graduate who is keen to use your communication and persuasion skills this could be the route for you. 

Clinical trials – All medicines must undergo clinical trials before they are granted licences. Scientists are involved in setting up trials to ensure that new products are safe for use. You could be involved in a variety of roles ranging from lab-based research, through to using data analysis programmes to analyse and interpret results, or managing and monitoring trials by visiting hospital sites and liaising with nurses and physicians to ensure the trials are running appropriately.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in building a career in this sector

Be open to new things – at University your Careers Service will offer a host of opportunities which present an opportunity to try something new. This could be applying for periods of experience abroad, events that seek to attract students from all disciplines, career development programmes and classes that are optional to attend but specific to your degree. Get involved and set time aside outside your studies to develop skills and knowledge of options and the labour market – it’s never time wasted. 

Focus on what you can control – you can’t control the unexpected such as COVID and the wider economic impacts. You can though control how you present yourself to employers and ensuring that your applications are at a high standard – giving yourself every opportunity to gain an entry level position. Use the expertise that exists in your Careers service to help with this.

Be smart and organised in your job search – you now have access to thousands of vacancies at your fingertips, but making online job applications can be tough. It’s better to make a small number of high quality applications rather than make multiple applications. Start to analyse job specifications thoroughly, look at the essential and desirable criteria for jobs of interest. For more experienced roles that grab your attention work out how you can address any skill and experience shortfalls. Speaking to people is also something I really encourage (don’t just email!) – whether that is people working in similar roles to those you are interested in, making enquiries directly to companies or attending career and networking events, these types of interactions can all help boost your confidence and also gain insights into what employers actually value in prospective employees – this in turn can help inform future job applications. 

Attitude and approach are key – focus on developing your reputation for high quality work, reliability, integrity and being a good colleague to work and collaborate with. The skills and knowledge you take with you from University will be invaluable in understanding the areas you work in – but always continue to develop your skill set, the way we work is changing quickly – many employers value your attitude and willingness to learn equally as they do your knowledge and skills.

About the blogger:

I’m Mark Gallagher from Queen’s School of Biological Sciences. I work with three key groups of people – students, employers and academics. The key focus of my own role is the development of student employability from first year right through to Master’s level students. If you are a student looking to explore a career in the Life Sciences sector, don’t miss my blog featuring a Q&A of everything you have ever wanted to know about the sector.

I encourage students to develop themselves by undertaking work experience placements which form part of a degree programme, to get involved in some of the programmes that the Queen’s Careers, Employability and Skills service run throughout the year as well as encouraging involvement in extra-curricular activities that help develop confidence and transferable skills (which are key for employers we work with). 

I also work with a large number of employers throughout the year, these are typically employers who are interested in recruiting placement and graduating students from the School. 

We run a very successful work placement programme within the School of Biological Sciences where each year our undergraduate students undertake a one-year placement as part their degree programme. Many of our students work in the Life Science sector locally and throughout the UK joining established employers big and small, as well as gaining experience with Biopharmaceutical manufacturing companies in ROI. In a typical year, 20% of students will move outside NI to gain experience, with many travelling internationally. All placements are quality assured to meet our course learning requirements and students and employers are visited during the course of a placement to ensure everything is progressing as anticipated. 

We have 8 undergraduate programmes in the School which are quite different so it’s important to ensure our labour market information is current and conveyed to students ensuring they know what their options are. Students can also book one to one appointments throughout the year, and in recent months these appointments have moved online.