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The benefits of the ICAT programme

By Dr Cathal O’Connor and Dr Jennifer Finnegan - 23rd Sep 2022

Dr Cathal O'Connor
Dr Cathal O'Connor

HSE National Lead NCHD Dr Jennifer Finnegan spoke to Dr Cathal O’Connor about the Irish Clinical Academic Training(ICAT) programme, which is currently taking applications

The Irish Clinical Academic Training (ICAT) programme is a unique all-Ireland cross-institutional, comprehensive national training programme for clinician scientists based at six major Irish universities and their affiliated Hospital Groups. Dr Cathal O’Connor is a PhD Fellow with the ICAT programme and is a Specialist Registrar (SpR) in Dermatology with the RCPI, dual training in general paediatrics. He graduated from University College Cork in 2013 and undertook basic specialist training (BST) with RCPI in both paediatrics and adult medicine. He has dual membership of the RCPI in paediatrics (2015) and medicine (2017). His PhD study (the SPINDLE study) is examining the impact of eczema on sleep disturbance in infants, and is being performed in the INFANT research centre in University College Cork. He has over 60 academic publications and has a special interest in paediatric dermatology, with primary research interests including eczema and genetic skin disease. He has been chosen as a ‘Future Leader’ by the executive board of the European Society for Paediatric Dermatology for 2021-2024.

Dr Finnegan: Thanks for chatting to me Cathal. Why did you apply for ICAT?
Dr O’Connor: I applied for ICAT in 2018 during the first iteration of the programme. I had been interested in research for some time and thought this was an incredible opportunity to perform high-quality research with amazing mentors in world-leading research centres with lots of support from ICAT. The blending of clinical and academic training appealed to me, as I felt that taking time out of training to do an MD or PhD might be a bit disjointed. I was also hugely inspired by senior colleagues I had worked with during my paediatric BST, such as Prof Deirdre Murray and Prof Alan Irvine.

Dr Finnegan: What are the benefits of the ICAT programme?
Dr O’Connor: One of the main benefits of ICAT is access to a network of world class supervisors and mentors. The volume of excellence we have in Ireland in terms of academic clinicians is staggering. Not only do we have access to these unbelievable clinician scientists, but ICAT strongly encourage us to collaborate with other Irish universities and also with the very best re- search centres in the world to ensure that our projects are truly cutting-edge. The process of defending the PhD proposal was strenuous and really made sure that there were absolutely no flaws. In fact, I had to go back to the drawing board with my original project, and this led to a much better project and supervisor structure. Another benefit in terms of lifestyle is that you can stay in the one centre for the first four years (one clinical-dominant year and three research-dominant years), so there is no moving around the country. The salary is at SpR grade and we also have access to the HSE trainee support scheme.

Dr Finnegan: What area are you studying for your PhD project?
Dr O’Connor: My PhD is examining sleep in infants with atopic dermatitis (eczema) using sleep EEG polysomnography, overnight sleep actigraphy, infant sleep questionnaires, and parental sleep questionnaires and interviews. We also have some novel assessment tools for deeper characterisation of our participants’ eczema, and we have had some novel recruitment techniques for control participants.

Dr Finnegan: What has your experience been like so far on ICAT?
Dr O’Connor: I have really enjoyed the whole process of ICAT so far (maybe apart from my initial failed proposal!). The study days are really excellent, and we have an annual ‘retreat’ in Malahide where we present our research in front of international experts and get feedback. It has been tougher since Covid to maintain the social connections and comradery which we had in the pre-pandemic days, but we hope that this will revert to normal this year!

Dr Finnegan: How important is it to find a good supervisor and good research centre?
Dr O’Connor: It is really important to find an excellent supervisor and excellent research centre. I would recommend to closely examine a supervisor’s previous publications in an area to ensure that they have the background and track record to support you. It is a good idea to meet up with a few supervisors with whom you might work well before committing to any particular project, especially to explore different avenues in terms of the research idea. Prospective ICAT Fellows will be working hard on their thesis for at least four years so it is important to be interested in the area, and also to get on well with your supervisor!

Dr Finnegan: How has your experience been of working clinically in parallel to your PhD study?
Dr O’Connor: It is definitely challenging to be working clinically in parallel to the PhD research and balancing the two, but it is probably good practice for later on when we are pulled in every direction as consultants! One of the biggest challenges is actually limiting my non-PhD research efforts as I still find it hard to say no to shiny new projects. I start my week with a paediatric dermatology clinic on Monday mornings, which means I can focus on my research for the rest of the week. I am back doing Paediatric Registrar call this year, which means doing regular 24-hour calls to meet my paediatrics specialist register requirements, so that is busy enough as you know yourself. But overall, it is still just about manageable.

Dr Finnegan: What advice would you have
for any potential ICAT applicants?
Dr O’Connor: I would first of all say to make sure that you are genuinely interested in the opportunity, as it is tough work for a relatively long time. But if you are interested, then it is an amazing opportunity and you should fully embrace it. The application process has changed slightly from year to year, but I believe recently the focus has been heavily based on the candidate rather than any potential research idea or supervisor. The process is also now open to veterinary trainees and dentistry trainees, which is brilliant for diversifying the research outputs and opportunities for collaboration. The deadline for application is 30 September, but there is always next year if this year is too early for you. It is no harm to apply as soon as you are eligible, as previous interest can be a positive factor for future applications. All the ICAT Fellows are absolutely lovely so don’t be afraid to ask around for advice, especially from people allied to your specialty. The ICAT directorate are also extremely kind and helpful and are always happy to take specific questions about the application process. Applicants should also listen back to the webinar which was held in August for further information.

Dr Finnegan: Thanks for the info Cathal and thanks for your time.
Dr O’Connor: No problem at all. Best of luck to all this year’s applicants and I look forward to meeting them at the next ‘retreat’!

The application deadline for the second cycle of the ICAT programme is 30 September. Further information on the ICAT application process can be found at

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