Imperial Doctoral student Petra Sarapatkova

Programme: PhD Student at Imperial College London

Nationality: Czech

Education: BSc Environmental Policy, London School of Economics. MSc Environmental Technology, Imperial College London

Job prior to Imperial College Business School: Policy Officer, European Commission

Experience before joining Imperial

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

At the time I was working at the European Commission on climate policy, which we all know should be evidence-based. Seemingly information is not difficult to come by; you get bombarded by reports from consultants and lobbyists, people chat to you at conferences. But inevitably much of it is waffle. So this is what motivated me to pursue a PhD in the first place – I wanted to be able to cut through all the cheap talk. And why Imperial? There is an excellent group of economists here working on environmental issues. I’m lucky enough to have two of them as my supervisors. What’s more, the programme is designed in such a way that you get time to learn the skills you need, which is a luxury you won’t get in many other universities. Also, it’s fully funded!

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

I have been always interested in how you solve environmental problems – both my undergraduate and master’s degrees are in this field. This helps for my PhD as I’d already heard about emissions trading, for example. I worked for eight years in Brussels, mostly on energy and climate policy. Working for more than three to four years before starting your PhD is definitely a double-edged sword – you lose touch with academia on the one hand, but you also you see things from a more practical, bigger-picture perspective. For me it was the right choice, but perhaps it’s not for everyone.

Studying the Doctoral programme at the Business School

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

The freedom to delve into pretty much any problem on your mind and being surrounded by truly inspiring people. The pandemic threw a bit of a spanner in the works here, like in any other workplace, but what endures is a good sense of community and friendship. And you get looked after by incredible admin staff when any problems crop up.

How is/did the MRes prepared you for your doctoral research?

The MRes was incredibly important – especially for someone like me. My quantitative skills were pretty limited up to that point. You kick off the MRes with a bit of a maths bootcamp. As it happens, I haven’t applied the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality in any of my research so far, and I hope I won’t have to, but it gets you into a certain way of thinking about problems. You then get to choose from a smorgasbord of theory and methods courses - what I learned in some of these became my bread and butter.

What did you enjoy most about the MRes?

It was hard work but thoroughly enjoyable too. For me, I guess the best thing was to find out I’m able to push my limits. I’m from a background where it was subtly impressed upon me that ‘maths is not really a girl’s thing’ and I was relieved to find out it wasn’t true. Also, hardship breeds camaraderie and the MRes wasn’t an exception.

What has been your favourite module/s?

It ended up being the subject I feared the most – econometrics. I think being able to find meaning in data and especially being able to use them to find out about the causes of things is a bit of a super-power. I am still learning the ropes but I hope that by the end of the PhD, I’ll be an Avenger-level metrics whizz.

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

I’m broadly interested in the economic impacts of environmental policy and also in the drivers of low-carbon innovation. Instead of one big manuscript, you can opt to work on three standalone papers, which I think is great as you don’t have to fully commit to one topic and you can let your interests evolve over time.

The people: intellectually brilliant

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

The Economics and Public Policy department organise weekly seminars with top academics from all over the world who present their most recent work. That is a great source of inspiration – you don’t only get to explore new areas in terms of subject matter but you learn about new methods. There are many bits and bobs you need to learn as a PhD student, from type-setting in Latex to coding in a new statistical programming language. At Imperial, you can really fill your boots with interesting and/or useful seminars and courses.

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

They’re all intellectually brilliant. I consistently feel like I’m not the smartest person in the room, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! There is a lot of warmth too and I was pleased to find out many people care intensely about the world and are politically engaged – not something you’d necessarily expect at a business school.

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

Very much so. There are various research groups that organise interesting talks and events, such as the Grantham Institute or the Energy Futures Lab. Solving climate change requires people from different disciplines to chip in, so it’s great to explore how engineers think about things, for instance. It’s a wonderful place to be for anyone who’s curious. I personally love walking around the campus and snooping into labs through windows – you see the strangest machines and pieces of equipment.

Opportunities at Imperial

What has been the greatest opportunity you have had at Imperial that you wouldn’t get anywhere else?

To work with people who are at the top of their fields. There are some other places where you get that opportunity but not many. Imperial has the whole package – it is great academically, located in a cool city and you feel like you have a chance to peek at the cutting edge of science in a range of disciplines, which is pretty exciting.

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

I’m giving myself a bit more time before I start thinking about future careers steps. I certainly want to keep plucking away at environmental issues and use what I have learned during my PhD but in what exact role, I am not too sure yet. It is not uncommon for students to do internships during their PhD – I will be doing one at the European Central Bank next term – so that is a great opportunity to try a career on for size.

Do you think studying in a central location such as London is beneficial for networking and career opportunities?

Absolutely. I think no one and nothing feels out of reach in London. I was able to attend my first academic conference in London last year, which was great.

London life as a Doctoral student

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

I live with my partner and dog in Fulham, which is not very far from the South Kensington campus. I wanted to live within cycling distance and preferably somewhere green for the benefit of our four-legged friend – and Fulham ticks these boxes. The nightlife isn’t particularly exciting but there are some great coffee shops!

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

It sounds like a cliché but the possibilities are endless. I love horses and you might think that as a student on a budget in a big city, it’s tough luck, right? But I’ve been able to volunteer in a stable, right next to Hyde Park. So, I get to canter around the park almost every week. We normally pick up a coffee in our local bakery and take our dog for a run in Richmond or Wimbledon Common.

Advice for prospective students

What advice would you share to prospective students considering the Doctoral programme in your specialism at Imperial?

Come join us! If you happen to be interested in the Doctoral programme and are a fellow tree-hugger, feel free to drop me an email.

Programme: PhD Student at Imperial College London

Nationality: Czech

Education: BSc Environmental Policy, London School of Economics. MSc Environmental Technology, Imperial College London

Job prior to Imperial College Business School: Policy Officer, European Commission

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