My Graduate Life: Gemma Deegan

After 4 years in college, I’m sure plenty of people can relate to the desire of wanting to leave Ireland and get as far away from the rain as possible. I was no exception. Not one to wait around, I was on a one-way flight to LAX international airport exactly 3 weeks after my final exam.

I had always worked hard, both as a neuroscience student in college and at my part time job a waitress. But by the time final year came around, I was exhausted, stressed and knew I had to do something different to get me out of the cycle of work, sleep, study. So in what I think was a fit of madness, I signed up for the USIT graduate visa programme on the final day of its early bird offer. Since it was coming up to my final exams at the time, I put everything about the visa on the back burner except for the things that had to be filled out. I picked a date, booked my flight and decided that LA would be a good place to start, since I could easily travel to San Francisco or San Diego from there.

Gemma graduated from UCD with a degree in Neuroscience.

With my exams and working, I had very little time to think about the fact that I was moving to another country until it was almost time for me to leave. Looking back, I think this was a great idea since it stopped me having too much time to reconsider whether or not I was making the right decision. I remember reading an article about a young nurse that moved to Australia by herself, and the one thing she said was that you question why you’re leaving behind everyone that’s ever loved you, and it’s true.

While it’s easy to advise people to do the program, there were still many times when I questioned if I was making the right decision. I was travelling halfway across the world by myself, with no long term accommodation, job, or friends. I was also leaving my boyfriend, friends and family in Ireland, which made the goodbyes unimaginably difficult. But as is always the case, hindsight taught me that all the sacrifices were worth it in the long run, and 18 months later, I would do it all over again if I could.

Gemma spent her US Grad Visa in San Diego.

After deciding I would settle in San Diego based on nothing but a good feeling about the place, and knowing it was a neuroscience hub, I got stuck in straight away. Moving somewhere new like that by yourself, you really have to be brave and reach out to people, as well as get yourself set up with a phone number and bank account etc. I was really lucky in that I settled pretty quickly. I bumped into two summer J-1 girls by pure accident, who happened to have a spare room available and we quickly became great friends. I also had an appointment with The Irish Outreach Centre, which is a charity organisation that supports Irish people in San Diego. They helped me with my CV, got me in contact with Irish people my own age, and even gave me names of Irish people working in science in the area. They also encouraged me to join the GAA club in San Diego, which is how I eventually ended up getting my job!


A month or two after arriving in the US, I had a few leads for jobs and had gone to an interview, but getting funding was difficult for the lab and things were just moving pretty slow. One evening after football training, I threw on a college hoodie which had the UCD crest and ‘Neuroscience
Graduate 2019’ on it. An American girl that was on the team spotted it and started asking about my degree. She told me that her, and her husband had a biotechnology company that made fiber photometry systems for use in neuroscience research, and that I should get in contact. And as they say, the rest was history. I went for an interview, followed by a two week trial period and I was then offered the job as a technical specialist.

As part of my job I got to travel to Chicago, LA, Toronto and New York. I was working with top neuroscientists all over America and was learning things that I would’ve never been exposed to in Ireland. I was also earning enough to pay California rent prices and still enjoy a weekend brunch, or the odd trip to LA or Las Vegas, so that certainly added to the experience too. During the week I worked hard at my job, but there was definitely plenty of time to let off some steam and have fun too. San Diego has it all; and is definitely a ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of place. For anyone considering doing the grad visa, I couldn’t recommend it enough. It was the most incredible 18 months, and I didn’t question my decision at all once I landed. Not only did I learn a lot about the science industry and my job, but I also learnt so much about myself, a different culture, and about all the doors that are waiting to be opened if you just take the risk to open them.

US Grad Visa Tips

● Networking is everything. Reach out to the Irish community in the area and ask around about jobs. Join the local GAA club and go to the Irish bars. I met the majority of my closest friends in an Irish bar, and even managed to find my job whilst playing football!
● Do your research about the cost of living in the city you’re going to. So many people I know had to go home not because they couldn’t find a job, but because they ran out of money before they had secured it.
● Use up the full 30 days before starting the work element of your visa. Almost everyone I know made this same mistake. They go over thinking they’ll have a job in a week or two and that the delayed work visa date will hold them back. This is never the case. The more time you have to look for a job, the better.
● Be patient. Finding a job takes time. A lot of people need the full 90 day period to find a suitable job and get signed off; but ….
● Don’t delay in looking for a job. I wouldn’t advise giving yourself the first month or two to just enjoy yourself without thinking about the job aspect. It does take time to find a job so use this time wisely.
● Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask them for a meeting. Americans, and likewise, Irish abroad are more than happy to help someone who seems driven and ambitious. Send them an email inviting them for coffee, and more often than not they are willing to look over your CV, reach out to colleagues or point you in the right direction.
● LinkedIn is your new best friend. Connect with those in the same industry that you’re looking to work in and ask if they know of any job positions becoming available. You’d be surprised by how much this can help.
● Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket and bank on getting a job just because you have a lead or an interview. I wouldn’t advise turning down an opportunity whilst waiting for one you prefer to get back to you. Until you have it writing, don’t presume that you have the job until everything is finalised.

Gemma Deegan

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