"I stumbled onto a project related to terrorism by chance, it seemed the perfect combination between working on something unusual, solving problems, and most of all, doing something that would be useful for society."
Name: Sumitra Sribhashyam
Position: PhD student in Management Science
Institution: London School of Economics
Qualifications: BA Hons in Marketing Communications, MSc in Operational Research
What's your PhD all about?
I am doing a PhD in Operational Research (O.R.), also referred to as Operations Research, Management Science or Decision Science. It is a very broad field and has applications in a wide range of industries, from the military (where it originated from), to managing health systems, and business strategies in the transport industry and many more! According to the O.R. Society, “O.R. is the discipline of applying advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions”.
My PhD is about trying to infer how malicious agents (such as terrorists or gangs) may make decisions depending on their state of mind and the state of the environment, i.e. what is happening. The aim is to try and use such analysis to support risk management and policy making.
In the most part my work involves applying techniques from Decision Analysis. That is, formalising an agent’s preferences and how he/she might choose. To do so, an understanding how people make decisions, what affects their choices, and the cognitive processes involved is crucial. This is requires a knowledge of psychology.
The way people make decisions has also been widely researched by economists, and so economics forms a very important part of my research.
Finally, as I am applying these techniques to a specific type of agent (malicious ones, e.g. terrorists) I need to have an understanding of terrorism, defence systems and more generally, politics.
What was it about that area that sparked your interest?
In short, applying maths to concrete problems, where I can make a difference in society.
I’ve always enjoyed solving problems, which led me to study mathematics. However, after a couple of years, I felt the need to solve much more practical problems. I stumbled onto a project related to terrorism by chance, during my MSc (which then led on to my PhD), and it seemed the perfect combination between working on something unusual, solving problems, and most of all, doing something that would be useful for society.
Are there many other people doing similar work?
The application of my research may seem niche, however there is substantial research being carried out to try and deal with issues of an adversarial nature (such as security, crime, etc.).
Some research institutions may focus on this area much more than others. As for all types of research, this depends on their field of expertise.
What sort of maths is involved?
The sort of mathematics involved in Operational Research (O.R.) can vary greatly. It depends on the type of technique you are using. Hard O.R. uses very advanced mathematical techniques. For example, mathematical optimisation, or mathematical programming involves maximising/minimising functions subject to certain constraints. Algorithms are used to solve such problems. This can be useful in farming, scheduling in transport and production lines, or telecommunications for example. Game Theory (GT) is another type of method used - you may have heard of it in the movie 'A Beautiful Mind'. Amongst other things, solving game theory models require knowledge of probabilities and the use of matrices. GT is often used for conflict resolution.
System Dynamics (SD) involves maths in great part, but also qualitative elements. SD involves differential equations to represent the evolution of complex and non-linear systems. System dynamics can be used to model the evolution of ecological systems, or even business systems.
On the other end of the spectrum, Soft O.R. relies on less heavy mathematical modelling, and involves a lot more qualitative data to represent decisions.
Generally, it involves knowledge of probabilities, algebra and logic. The tricky part in our field, I believe, is to be able to coherently translate the subjective elements of the world and decisions to be made using a mathematical language.
Have a look at the O.R. Society’s website - "Learn about O.R.", it has several examples of how O.R. is used:
You worked in industry before starting your PhD, how did that benefit your career?
Before my MSc, I worked in a blue chip company (Xerox). There, I was a junior project manager, responsible for managing several projects.
I gained a lot of skills that you can only learn by ‘doing’, such as negotiating, independently solving issues and learning how to take the initiative and taking difficult decisions when my manager or a superior was not around for advice. In addition, and quite importantly, I think what I learnt most of all is how to do things without a text book or manual!
These skills are essential for any career, and they are useful when pursuing a PhD. A lot of work is done on your own, and at this level, it is rare that you will attend lectures or classes. You need to learn things on your own. In a PhD, you have a supervisor, who is meant to guide you and ensure you are on the right track. However, it is your responsibility to take decisions, to investigate ideas or research directions on your own and subsequently defend those to your supervisor or other academics.
In addition, my work in industry and the skills I gained have enabled me to get involved in several consultancy projects alongside my research. My previous work is useful for teaching as I understand what skills need to be developed and how the knowledge can be applied. This helps me guide the students and give them advice.
You moved to the UK from France to study, what attracted you to Britain?
Overall, the multicultural environment was what won me over the first time I came to the UK.
Having travelled to various countries since I was a toddler, I was attracted to Britain because I was able to find a little bit of all the countries I visited in one place.
In addition, the education system seemed very structured and organised – quite different from my experience at university in France.
With academia becoming increasingly international, what advice would give other students who are moving country to take up study?
When you move to a different country, it is quite tempting to look for other students who come from the same place as you. This is not recommended as you may not integrate well, get a chance to improve your ability to speak the country’s language, or get a good grasp of 'how things work' in the new environment. Each country has a particular style of teaching, and it is important to understand how things work if you want to be successful. So my best advice would be to 'mix with the locals', even if it means having to step out of your comfort zone!
And what advice would you give to current students if they were looking to move into your field?
Because of the nature of O.R. and its applications to a variety of industries, it is important to have broad interests. As much as a being skilled in mathematics, it is crucial to have the ability to understand other disciplines, some more qualitative (such as psychology, organisational behaviour) than others (engineering). Furthermore, it is essential to be able to apply theoretical models to concrete world problems, and to do so, one needs a well rounded understanding of these problems.
As mentioned before, some universities specialise in different applications of O.R.. If you already have a certain preference, it is a good idea to investigate the area of expertise of the lecturing staff when choosing where you want to study.