November 01, 2012

Research: An Intriguing Playground for Your Ideas

From the beginning I have to admit that I’m not really a traditional academic. I skipped most of the classes during my undergrad studies in Romania in order to work as a software developer. It was not as much for the financial reward as it was for the hands-on experience. Since I always fancied the use of technology to solve problems, a day job offered me the perfect opportunity to do so. At the end of the four years of my degree in Computer Science I was completely confident that the thesis on sentiment analysis would be the last academic document I would ever write. Moreover, at that point I considered that most of the time spent in the university was somehow wasted. So how did I end up doing a PhD you might be wondering? Well, in my pursue of interesting opportunities I ended up working in Norway for Thomson Reuters. As you are probably aware, Norway is famous for being cold, dark and having rather short and flexible hours. With a sudden gain in free time and less opportunities to enjoy a spotless blue sky, I was left with two alternatives: be bored or try something new. While being bored was never a viable option, I started a postgraduate distance course at Aberdeen University. A lot of reading, many written assignments, lots of thinking, some exams, all in all a good taste of what academia is in the UK. After the first year, I decided to take it one step forward and pursue a master at the University of Warwick. Jay, my academic supervisor, managed to tempt me into doing research really fast, so I gave up the idea of a taught master completely and started a PhD/MRes right away.

So, why is research so interesting? First of all think of it as a playground for your ideas. One might argue that a position in the industry can have the same outcome. In a sense this is true, but with restrictions, middle managers, hidden agendas, IPOs, sense of emergency for paying salaries, etc. Academia has way less of all these, and in addition it encourages you to look sideways. More or less, a perfect environment for someone to play with ideas of how to change the world. If you want you can imagine it as being a CEO of a recently funded venture. It is a lot about thinking, explaining to audiences, making connections to your peers, and occasionally getting funded in order to make all the previous things possible for the next few years. Also, picture an environment where everyone knows many things about everything and is passionate about it. Every lunch is a chance to debate what’s the role of wasps in the ecosystem, or why / if a hard-disk gets heavier after being used as a consequence of the relativity theory. You never struggle to find an opportunity to use your brain and debate with similarly minded people.

Of course, like most good things in life, research comes with a price. You will have to publish your findings, probably in journals where is not really trivial to do so. You also have to understand what all your peers think about a specific area and learn their jargon. Only by using words that they are familiar with you would be able to “join the group”. Also, you will have to think about how you can help the university make more money (to invest in further research, etc). So a fair bit of your time will probably be invested into writing bids and proposals (the fantastic art of grantsmanship). You can also be involved in teaching and supervising students. I look at it as a giving-back thing and a great source of ideas from some of the brightest students in the world.

Finally if you consider it might be worth doing a PhD, try to think of it as the obtaining a certificate for being a researcher. It’s more or less your ticket to enter academia. Also, if in doubt about finding funding, you shouldn’t worry too much. In the technology area there is currently a lot of funding, so you might even end up being paid for doing your PhD. Anyone tempted now? :-)

April 10, 2012

UKBA Bureaucracy and Legislative Vacuum

As I moved to UK to pursue a research degree last September, I decided to apply for a work permit on behalf of my full time student status. The main rule regarding work permits for students in UK states that one is allowed to work for 20 hours a week while in full time education. As it kind of made sense I decided to invest a full day of my time to solve this problem and win my right to work. The next 6 months proved me that I severely overestimated the UKBA and their perceptions on equal opportunities.

One reality, different perspectives

In UK, as in EU in general, there are two main categories of students: international students and EU students. Members of the first category need to apply for a visa to be able to study in the UK, and therefore together with the visa they are automatically granted the right to work for 20 hours a week. Members of the second category, the more privileged group of EU students, don’t need to apply for a working permit as they are allowed to work in another member state anyway. These two categories are completely disjunctive and cover everyone that studies in the UK. However, from the UKBA perspective, there is one more category, generically named “Romanians & Bulgarians”. One could argue that Romania and Bulgaria are part of the EU, which is technically true, but the UKBA considers they are not, even though they are member states for over 5 years already.

The amazingly bureaucratic process

So, one may be interested to find out how can a Romanian or Bulgarian get the working permit that is automatically granted for all the other full time students. First, one needs to fill in a 20-page paper form and send it for processing at the Romanian and Bulgarian Caseworking Team (even the name sounds a bit discriminatory). The processing time is around 6 months in most of the cases. Considering that most of the students that pursue a Master degree in UK study for 12 months only, having a 6 months processing time severely restricts their right to work.

Moreover, while the EU rules grant free medical care for people from other member states, and also for all the full time students, Romanian and Bulgarian students need to prove that they have a “comprehensive health insurance”. As there is no accepted definition for what comprehensive means, reports on different websites mention people being rejected for not having an insurance that covers dental care! On top of all this bureaucracy, everyone applying needs to send all the documents in original, including the passport and medical insurance. Therefore, during the 6 months of waiting time, one has no way to identify himself, travel to other country or even get sick.

It probably sounds like an impossible scenario, but as I’m just getting in the 6th month of waiting I can reassure you that this is how things work.

Is there a reason behind it?

It feels like all these complication are in place just to restrict a total number of 9,000 Romanian and Bulgarian students to work during their studies in the UK. Apart from the debatable ethical bit around this subject, I wonder if these highly skilled people wouldn’t actually help the struggling UK economy if allowed to work.

November 06, 2011

Serious Games for Future Entrepreneurs

Is there a better moment to start my new blog if not when I’m stuck in an airplane for two hours? I’m currently flying above France, from Stuttgart to Birmingham, after a very interesting project meeting debating the future of dynamic manufacturing networks…

The Context

The previous week I attended an interesting workshop on entrepreneurship at Birmingham Business School. The purpose was to give research students a better insight into how businesses operate. While everyone was expecting some relatively boring bullet-point based presentation, we actually spent the whole time just playing a serious game. As funny as it may seem, at the end of the session I felt that there was no other better way to transfer so much information to the given audience.

How It Works

The game used is Sim Venture and has the main purpose of giving a holistic view on the common processes of running a small business. You start as a full time employee, dedicating 40 hours a week to your main job, while in your spare time assembling computers in your flat. There are plenty of variables that can be altered, grouped into four categories: Operations, Sales and Marketing, Finance, and Organization. A common scenario for the first months is to do a market research, define your target segment, do a competitor research and then readjust you product to meet the desires of potential clients. From this point it’s all up to you to decide how to proceed and organize your activity for the next 3 years. One of the drawbacks identified was that there’s only one scenario, assembling computers, with no possibility of trying something more service oriented. Moreover, it’s not currently possible to play against other human players, which makes it a bit less attractive for a group of students. Hopefully these features will be available soon!

Lessons Learnt

During the 4 hours spent on the workshop we had the opportunity of playing two complete games (36 months each), with a coffee break in between. It was quite funny to see a whole bunch of PhD students repeatedly asked to take a break, but actively refusing to do. Instead, they preferred to keep optimizing their virtual company’s financial flow. I have to admit it was quite addictive!

In the first game I followed my intuition and tried selling premium products while loyalizing my current customers. I spent very fast all the initial 15k into very aggressive marketing, exhibitions, a great website and networking events. As the orders started to flow I managed to quit my main job, outsourced all the production to a 3rd party and spent all my time just doing personal sales. In the first year I also got myself severely into debts from all possible sources: friends, family, loans and operating overdrafts. Even though I ignored cash flow issues a bit and almost got bankrupt, after 3 years I ended up with a turnover of over 200k and a very financially healthy business.

During the second game I tried to fight my intuition and went into the value for money market, selling cheap computers to end customers. As I wasn’t really good at doing that, I managed to get bankrupt twice in the allocated time for one game…


I think it’s good to be aware of your managerial tendencies for not sliding too much into that direction. However, don’t fight your intuition either as you’ll probably end up bad if you’re trying to accomplish something that you don’t believe in. And if we’re discussing about managerial tendencies, it could be interesting, if you have the chance, to take a Human Synergistics test. It’s more or less a personality test oriented on business capabilities, so that you are aware of your natural tendencies upfront. I did take one some years ago and I’ll be very interested take it again so I can see how I changed during the previous year. The results are ploted on a circumplex that looks like this.

In the end I think it was a great exercise and maybe the best way to get a holistic view on the implications of running a small business in the given time. Would be nice if Sim Venture or similar software would be used more in business related courses for captivating the students during their first modules. There’s probably no better way to keep a crowd focused than competing in (serious) game!

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