Professor Ahmer WadeeHow long have you been working at Imperial College and what do you enjoy about working in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering?
I started as an academic in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial in September 1999, but I was also an undergraduate from 1991-94 and an MSc student from 1994-95 in the same Department. What I enjoy about working at Imperial is that you are given freedom to follow your own research, develop your own style of teaching and are rewarded for high quality work. Over the years it has been my delight to have forged some very strong friendships with certain staff and students the interaction with whom makes the job worthwhile.

You are the Department’s Director of Postgraduate Research (PhD). Can you tell us more about this?
Well, I sort of fell into the role really, I was the Postgraduate Tutor for four years prior to becoming the Department’s Director of Postgraduate Research, but my predecessor stood down quite abruptly in 2014 to take on the role of becoming Director of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Civil Engineering and, since I was his de facto deputy, I was offered to take on the vacated role and accepted it. The role has a number of facets to it, the main one is to oversee the admission and progression of PhD students through their degree in terms of signing off milestones and appointing examiners, but there are also organisational and social aspects to it where I can influence the procedures and the overall student experience at PhD level with the able assistance of the PGR Office (Sarah, in particular) and the student representatives. 

Tell us about your main research interests
My research career has focused on nonlinear structural instabilities, also known as buckling phenomena. In the Civil Engineering discipline, these phenomena are mostly found in slender steel structures. However, I began my research training through my doctorate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, where buckling problems are often found in aeronautical structures and lightweight composite materials. Hence, with this interdisciplinary background, I have always been interested in a wide range of structural systems, components and materials that exhibit a sudden change in shape or response under loading caused by the system losing stability owing to its geometry and not necessarily because some constituent part has been physically damaged. At school and right through university, I was always proficient at subjects that involved maths and mechanics; this has also filtered through to my research career. Most of my work involves some kind of mathematical modelling that leads to formulating systems of nonlinear equations that are either solved analytically or numerically. Over the years, I have mainly worked on problems that involve the interaction between global and local instabilities in thin metal and composite structures, internal instabilities in materials, alongside the buckling of slender prestressed structural elements and systems. However, there are times where I have departed from these areas to work on particular projects, but I have always tended to return to these topics when a fresh challenge presents itself.

How and why did you become an academic?
I really enjoyed my time as a PhD student, particularly after my first year and finished my doctorate in 1998, so any subsequent job that involved conducting research in my field was going to be attractive to me. I was also lucky to inherit a 1-year post-doctoral position with the same research group in Bath, which gave me some time to consider the next stage of my career. If I am brutally honest, in that year I was not particularly driving for a permanent academic position. I spent a few months putting together funding applications, applying for several different positions including ones in industry and academia, and during this process the lectureship at Imperial came up. I subsequently applied for the post and was successful even though I did not think that my interview went particularly well at the time! However, having become an academic at Imperial, I believe that I have made the best career choice for me.

What excites you most about your role?
Lots of parts of being an academic are exciting, first of all the role is interesting because it is varied; it is difficult to get stuck in a rut because there are three quite distinct facets: teaching, research and administration. The fact that I can impart some of my learning to the next generation and shape the mind of future engineers is personally rewarding to me. As a doctoral supervisor, the intellectual relationship between research student and their supervisor is one of the deepest impressions that can be made on anyone’s development. I had (and am delighted to say still do have) a very strong and positive relationship with my supervisor, both personally and intellectually, I believe that this has rubbed off in my own supervision practices, where we struggle and succeed together as a team. Finally, as a researcher, the fact that I can discover something that no one else has is a constant source of inspiration for my career.

Why should people study at PhD level in your academic area?
At undergraduate and masters levels, we only scratch the surface of the actual state-of-theart of our discipline, if people want to make discoveries for themselves and break new ground, want to challenge themselves intellectually and take charge of their own development, then a PhD is an ideal opportunity. In the field of structural engineering it is a gateway to getting involved in technically challenging projects, be it in the academic arena during the PhD, subsequently in research, or in industry. This is because the ability to approach and solve technical problems becomes almost second nature. Apart from the new and original work that is produced, which is the principal requirement for a successful PhD, the transferable skills that a research student gains almost “by osmosis” will stand them in very good stead whatever the student chooses to do subsequently.

What are you looking for in a PhD student?
The skills of a PhD student are quite different from those required to be successful in a taught degree programme. Apart from proficiency in the appropriate technical subjects, I am looking for perseverence, patience, being calm under pressure, and having good computing and communication skills. Moreover, I also like my students to have interests outside of research, so that they can hold good and interesting conversations, be good citizens of the College, be trusted Graduate Teaching Assistants, and be valuable members of the research student community within the Department. Four of my students have served as the Department representative for PhD students in the past 15 years: I do not believe that this is a coincidence.

Do you have any advice for students wanting to study for a PhD?
Do a PhD because you personally want to develop yourself, and certainly not purely to please others. Since there is no defined end-point, apart from the 4-year deadline, success is ultimately your responsibility in this degree. Ensure you pursue a subject that interests and motivates you, do not worry too much if it is highly specialised because the transferable skills that you obtain along the way will be highly useful in whatever career you pursue in future.