Who are you?
Hi I’m Liz and I’m in the second year of my Ph.D. with Dr. Wadee researching nonlinear buckling behaviour in thin-walled structures. I hope my work will contribute to improving steel design in standardised codes, and/or allow me one day to finally press some buttons in the structures lab. I spend most of the day getting angry at my computer before storming off to the tea room to chain drink Earl Grey and Pepsi Max.
What was the highlight of your degree?
I would say the best thing about the degree is the friends you make; I still see a lot of the special people I spent four years working with. I guess that is testament to how firm your friendship can be after a couple of all-nighters where you find yourself holding each other in the library while one sobs into the other’s shoulder about the possibility of imminent failure.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I have no idea what I’m doing for Christmas let alone in five years…..I think it’s a difficult question to ask yourself and 9 out of 10 times (Editor: Statistics to the rescue!) you’ll be wrong so there’s no point in thinking about it. When I started work after uni I thought that was my life forever, until I came unexpectedly crawling back into the fuzzy womb of education. But ideally, I’d like to be a) not poor, b) not homeless and c) still have at least 2…no maybe 3 friends. As a start.
Do you think your PhD will make you more or less employable?
I go through phases of thinking my Ph.D. will make employers think (wrongly) I have a superhuman brain to thinking I’ll be 3.5 years less young with 3.5 years less work experience than everyone else. I suppose it all depends on what you want to do afterwards; for sure a Ph.D. is necessary for academic work. But like I said I don’t know what I want to do (please refer to answer 2), hopefully the degree will allow me to fulfil at least criteria a) and b). I don’t think it helps particularly with c).
Were you always passionate about Structures?
Erm….I dunno,is Dr. Wadee reading this? (Editor: Yes he’s a massive fan, and even follows us on Twitter #Winning). I always liked engineering and applied mathematics and I definitely preferred the structures and mechanics courses during my undergraduate. I definitely like it, and compared to some of my friends who struggled throughout their undergraduate to enjoy the work, I positively bleeding adore it. So yeah I guess you can say I’m passionate about it. But then I could probably say I’m passionate about y,know…roast dinners. Or something.
In your opinion, how different is a PhD to the undergraduate course?
It’s super different! For a start you get to use the senior common room which is…well not that amazing because I make my own lunch. But it’s the principle. The main difference is self-motivation, although a certain level of this is required for being an undergraduate, there are structured lecture times, people around you doing the same thing as you and set criteria for final exams to learn. The whole point of a Ph.D. is to do stuff that hasn’t been done before, and a lot of the time you’re left to work on your own with no one knowing how much to push you because they know even less than you how much result you should be producing. So you kind of have to push yourself and it can be hard sometimes.
What's the most exciting thing you have done during your PhD? Apart from the Four Bridges Pub Crawl, of course.
In case you guys haven’t noticed, cos you don’t see my face around enough, I LOVE TEACHING! Maybe ‘exciting’ isn’t the right word to use, but it’s definitely a perk to the job. I get to re-learn a lot of the stuff I’d forgotten before talking about it, and this year I’ve been giving some small lectures so I have control over the course content and stuff which is nice because I get to decide what’s important to learn. It’s a lot of extra work but it’s definitely worth it, and anything that gets me out of the office and talking to real people is a bonus.
Have you worked with any civil engineering firms during your PhD?
I’m funded by the UK Research Council so I don’t have any company affiliation directly for my Ph.D. I haven’t worked with any companies and to be honest my research is very theoretical and there would have to be more stages of development before it became applicable to industry.
As a PhD, do you get more exposure to civil engineering firms than you did as an undergraduate?
This is definitely entirely dependent on your Ph.D. For example I do not really get any exposure to industrial firms through my work, but other people around me have direct contact with companies and are working on developing research for them specifically. They tend to have regular meetings and updates and are sometimes pushed for results that can be directly applied. I think as an undergraduate, you probably get more exposure to companies in that they want to poach you for employment, but if you do get industrial exposure as a Ph.D. it would be more to do with the work they do and how the company operates.
We're currently 1st in the world for civil engineering, as an undergraduate I don't think that means much to me in terms of my learning. However, as a postgraduate do you feel that benefits you more since we're number one for our research, our academics and our facilities?
I have never studied at another university so I have no comparison; however from other students I have been reliably informed that our facilities and reputation is ‘crazy’. This is a direct quote from an Italian guy and I’m pretty sure he meant it positively but I can check. Our access to equipment and library resources such as journals and articles seem to be the main cause of awe for overseas Ph.D. students and many of them meet academics here, where they have spent a lot of their studies reading their publications and referencing them. In terms of research being top, I guess facilities and the like don’t directly impact undergraduates, but it can’t hurt to know you’re being taught by the people in the world who really know their stuff, right?
If someone was considering doing a PhD what would be your top tips for them?
The only thing that’s critically important before doing a Ph.D. would be to really, really think about your subject and your supervisor. In order to have a successful and vaguely merry time you have to get on with both, absolutely no exceptions. All other things are also important but easier to make decisions on, like funding (you either have it or you don’t and you’re ok with it), living arrangements and the like. You might also want to think about how you’d change your signature to include ‘Dr.’. Very important.
What's your favourite way to unwind and take your mind off civil engineering, apart from CivSoc events?
I have a long and extensive list of hobbies I cannot even hope to pursue in full satisfactorily, but if I do find a spare evening I like to bake or cook or read or any other horribly stereotypical hobby I could list here. At weekends I see friends, and sometimes my parents (on the outer circuits of London) just to reassure them I’m still alive and the voice on the phone isn’t just a recording of my saying ‘yes, mum’ from 6 years ago. I go to the cinema and watch films a lot and recently I’ve started painting as well. And I’ve started watching Breaking Bad. Better late than never, no spoilers please.
Is there anything at university that you wished you had tried or taken part in?
I did quite a few extra-curricular activities while I was here, like the El Salvador Project and CivSoc etc, but I really wish I’d joined a sports team or something active. Although I‘m actually ok at sport, P.E. at my school wasn’t terribly encouraging so it kind of put me off when I came to uni and I just never thought to do it. I tried to remedy this during my Ph.D. and attempted to join the climbing society, but they go training on a Wednesday afternoon when I have a maths lecture so what ya gonna do. Maybe next term.
You were involved in El Salvador as an undergraduate and now lead the team, how useful would you say the engineering experience is for a first or second year?
I think you’d get a less biased answer asking those guys! Of course it’s very useful to see engineering in practice and you do learn to do a lot of practical things that’s pretty embarrassing for an engineer not to know how to do, like pouring concrete or using a power tool. You learn all these things on Constructionarium anyway so I don’t think engineering is the key experience here. I found the project to be much more educational in terms of leadership, organisation, teamwork and these kinds of ‘soft’ skills engineers tend to sneer at but at the same time be terrible at. You also find out very quickly and sharply your physical and mental limits, weaknesses and strengths which are valuable to know later on in life.
In your opinion, what are most interesting topics in civil engineering currently or in the near future?
Nuclear power plants! That’s the hot topic at the moment isn’t it, and its one I know a bit about because I got an earful about Hinkley while working with Laing O’Rourke. Is anyone anti-nuclear at Imperial? We’re all scientists (so realists…?) here when it comes to energy consumption... I don’t want to say anything too controversial in a student newspaper though so I’ll shut up.