Aras Selvi

Programme: PhD Student at Imperial College London

Previous education: BSc Industrial Science, Özyeğin University. MRes Operations Research, Tilburg University

Aras Selvi is a Doctoral student in the Department of Operations & Analytics at Imperial College Business School.

About you

Why did you decide to study the Doctoral programme at Imperial College Business School and what makes this programme unique?

There are many reasons why I decided to study at Imperial College Business School. Firstly, the London factor. As a Business School student, it is very important for me to be engaged with businesses during my PhD years. Needless to say, London is the heart of the business world, and Imperial College London has a great business network. Secondly, what makes Imperial special for me is the science and engineering focus. I have a background in engineering and applied mathematics, and I am very happy to see that here at Imperial, we have an interdisciplinary programme. I am in the Business School, doing research in optimisation and theoretical computer science which is important for businesses, and taking extra modules from the Electrical and Electronical Engineering department!

Finally, the PhD Supervisor. I was reading the papers of my current supervisor, Professor Wolfram Wiesemann, before applying to Imperial. He is a Professor of Analytics and Operations at the Business School. I was really impressed by his work in the field of ‘Distributionally Robust Optimisation’ and I wanted to be a part of his research group.

What is your previous academic and work experience and how did this prepare you for the programme?

I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering at Ozyegin University (Istanbul, Turkey). Here I also did a minor program in Computer Science, which helped me to write codes of the analytics and optimization projects of mine. I did two internships at Coca-Cola Icecek. Thanks to my Bachelor studies, I was able to develop an optimisation algorithm for the sugar procurement strategy of the company, and to write a software which takes input from the users and output the decisions. After seeing the pleasure of taking knowledge into practice, I wanted to improve my knowledge in the theoretical side of my field (namely mathematics of operations research). I went to Tilburg University (the Netherlands) where I did a research Master’s programme in Operations Research and I was a member of the Dutch Operations Research Network. The programme was designed to prepare the students for a PhD in this field and I had the chance to be taught by great professors. My research project was in ‘Adjustable Robust Optimisation’. During this study, I was reading the work of Professor Wolfram Wiesemann, hence I wanted to continue my studies in Professor Wiesemann’s research group. I graduated from Tilburg University with a Cum Laude degree (equivalent to 1:1 honours) and came to London.


What is the best thing about the Doctoral programme so far?

I would say, the environment here is the best thing. With all the other PhD students, we became good friends. Everyone helps each other with their tasks related or unrelated to research. Every Friday we have ‘pub Friday’ at Queen’s Arms, which is a five-minute walk away from our office. Also, we have a great connection with the professors in various departments. For example, Finance professors are showing us the research areas where an Operations student can work. This makes the programme very interdisciplinary.

How is the MRes preparing you for your doctoral research?

Here at Imperial, our first year is an MRes year, which is designed to help us with the PhD research. The good thing is the programme is not fixed and we have the freedom to choose between many modules. We also can take modules from other departments. We meet with our supervisors and department managers to select the best set of modules for our research. Currently, I am taking three modules from the Electrical and Electrical Engineering department, two modules from the Operations group in the Business School, one from the Business Analytics programme, and the others are from the Mathematical Finance group!

What do you enjoy most about the MRes?

We have 12 people in the MRes programme, hence the MRes classes we have are going in a ‘discussion’ sense. So, the teaching process is not in a classical way, rather an environment where everyone can share their opinions, discuss, ask, contribute.

What has been your favourite module/s?

My favourite is module is Data Analysis Tools by Dr Harjoat Bhamra. This is a module that all the MRes students take at the beginning of their programme, which gives them a mathematics and statistics background (or refreshes it) at a fast pace. Almost all of us knew about these topics already, but most of us forgot these since we took some topics in the first year of our undergraduate studies. The way Dr Bhamra teaches this module has made me never forget these materials -he has a Maths background and he really has a great intuition of the materials.

What area of research will you be doing your PhD on?

Very broadly, optimisation, theoretical computer science, and machine learning. My main plan is to bring an optimisation perspective to problems in theoretical computer science and machine learning. For example, in machine learning, a lot of methods apply optimisation. The famous PCA problem optimises the variance explained by PCs, cancer detection algorithms use SVMs which optimize the classification given by a designed Kernel, Neural Networks optimize the parameters of the network, and so on. However, these are automatized in many packages of software today, and one needs to know the optimisation algorithm lying behind to ‘manipulate’ the model for different purposes. For example, what if the data we train our algorithm has measurement errors? Are we going to optimise the false data? Or are we going to develop an optimisation model which ‘knows’ that some of the data is perturbed. What if we are optimising an algorithm which has data coming from surveys, and the users potentially lie? These are very well-known phenomena in the machine learning field, but my research extends these questions.

Another research topic of ours is interpretable machine learning (which is a very active study these days). Some methods like neural networks are black-box models, namely they work well for detecting & understanding things, but not good at explaining why. If we can derive the equivalent mathematical models lying behind these algorithms, then we can explain maths!


Which seminars, events or guest lectures at the school have been useful in developing your skills and knowledge?

There are a lot of events going on at the campus. I am a member of the mailing list of Control and Optimization, Business Analytics, Computing seminars and they offer very interesting seminars. So far, the most interesting seminar was given by Ed Rothberg, CEO of Gurobi, who talked about the common misconceptions in mixed integer programming.

How would you describe the Business School faculty and your fellow Doctoral students?

The faculty is strong – all of the professors hold PhD degrees from the best universities in the world. They have a lot of global connections, and it is never a problem not to know someone from a specific research area – there is at least one professor who knows people in that area! That makes the research process much faster. They are passionate people, they have very specific research areas but always open to doing projects with other departments and companies.

My fellow students are also very well-motivated people. I have never met anyone who is here only to do PhD because ‘it is cool’, rather everyone has a very specific topic of interest. Although our research project period for MRes starts in February-March, almost everyone has already started to do research with the professors here.

Have you benefited from being part of the wider Imperial College London community?

The name of the College is very famous, and I observed this after arriving in London. Whenever I need to do something where I need to specify my company/university, I take very positive feedback after saying the name! Also, there are many events around South Kensington open to Imperial students, which you can register in with your Imperial email, and being a part of this group feels special. After adding Imperial College London to my LinkedIn page, I got a number of jobs, research and internship opportunities given by people I don’t know. This was pretty surprising and fascinating.


What are your future career goals and how have they been realised since being at Imperial?

Before Imperial, I was not planning to stay in academia after my PhD. The main reason was that I thought being in academia would make you a bit disconnected from the business world. But Imperial has changed my mind. It showed me that I can stay in academia and it can even boost my success in the business world. There are many professors who do research at the College and do a lot of consulting jobs for very well-known technology companies. This is optimal for me!


Where do you live in London and why did you choose to live there?

I live in GradPad studios at White City. I chose here because Imperial advised this accommodation. You need to be careful when booking a place before arriving in London, since there may be ‘fake’ advertisements. I remember that I really believed that I found a very good studio apartment next to Hyde Park for 800 pounds a month. So, I think it is good to be on the safe side before physically being in a place, therefore the studios Imperial recommended was a good option for me.

What can a weekend in London look like for a PhD student?

To be honest, you can never say “I am not going to work this weekend”. Not because there is a deadline or something, but because you can not stop thinking about your projects for a whole weekend. I think there are two common options, either a no-work on Saturday policy, which is very applicable, or a ‘half-pace working’ policy where you work in the mornings (at a café etc) and you go discover London at evenings! I usually go to museums, musicals and operas on the weekends.

Advice to prospective PhD students

Find your ‘city’. A PhD is not something that you will work on 24 hours a day on and not go out. A PhD is something that makes you engaged with the city you live in. I was very afraid of the possibility that I would end up at a city which is not of my type. After coming to London, I noticed that this is where I should be. Every morning when I come to my office, I walk from Gloucester Road station and on the way, I grab a takeaway coffee, sip it and look around to see beautiful streets and buildings. This makes me feel alive. I wouldn’t do a PhD in a city which I don’t like. This is a very critical point, because I am aware of many people who apply to universities in cities which they do not have any idea about. So, my advice is to know the city where you will be living in. Ask students about their social lives rather than academic lives, because if you have a good work-life balance, you will be successful in your work anyways!

Programme: PhD Student at Imperial College London

Previous education: BSc Industrial Science, Özyeğin University. MRes Operations Research, Tilburg University