“We get academics to think about the key contributions they want to make…. what will be done differently as a result? And we get them to question why they’re doing it, if they can’t answer that easily…”
Thorsten Wagener is a Professor of Water and Environmental Engineering and Head of the Water and Environmental Engineering Research Group. Here he tells us about how he leads his group and supports his colleagues.
Tell us about you and how you got here?
I grew up in the middle of Germany in an old mining town, which had lots of forest around it.I did my high school diploma, but not especially well! Then I dida year of military service, which was boring, but then at least itmotivated me to go to university.I wanted to do architecture, but my grades were too low, so I ended up doing Civil Engineering. I had planned to swap to architecture after my first degree, but in my university there was a Professorof Hydrology in Civil Engineering who spent a lot of time in developing countriesand so I got to spend five months in Ethiopia as part of my degree. I liked the idea of doing more for the environment and so ended up in hydrology and the water aspects of civil engineering.
After my bachelor’s degree I wanted to learn more, so I went to the Netherlands to do a Masters, and then Imperial in London to do a PhD. To get away from the big city I moved to the USA, where I ended up staying a while, as there were lots of good job opportunities. When I was starting out as an academic staff member, I found that having discussions with people just two or three years ahead of me was more helpful to me than speaking to those who were 20 years ahead, so peer-to-peer mentoring is something I encourage others to do.
Tell us about how you came to the University of Bristol and your time at Bristol so far.
In 2010 I found out about this job opportunity at the University of Bristol through friends who were already working here. I came for the job interview and I realized that Bristol offered a great opportunity to advance research in water within the faculty of engineering. There was an opportunity to give the group a new strategic direction (hydrology and water resources) – rather than the much more diverse research done before – connected with a chance to recruit new people to pursue that direction. We found complimentary skills and complimentary levels of seniority in our initial hires (Rafael Rosolem and Ross Woods) that helped to create a coherent group. One of the cultural differences I found between the US and UK has been in recruitment methods. I would like to give more time to recruitment like they do in the US where we would discuss and interview each person individually for 1.5 days. They might seem like a big time commitment, but then you are recruiting somebody for a potentially life-long position!
Part of what I like about academia in the UK is the fact that people function as a group andif you do that well, it’s positive and supportive, as people can help each other. For example, in the Water Group, we write many more joint papers across the group than I am used to from the US.Here in the UK, you hire people who can work well in a group. So looking at how much they collaborate and whether they have built up networks is important for recruitment. It would be a loss for the group if somebody just wants to work by themselves.
We had support from the Dean to grow and re-focus the group, and a level of freedom with that. It grew gradually, and each time we looked at what areas we needed to expand in terms of expertise for both academic and research posts. Ultimately,we want to expand while having sufficient overlap to collaborate.
How do you make it work in terms of work/life balance?
My wife is also an academic, so we talk about this a lot! I have gotten quite good at compartmentalising things.I’ve got better at this since doing my degrees, when I thought I had to work all the time,which was neither healthy nor effective.In academia, you have to be self-driven, no one tells you what to do. I can remember telling my late Grandma this, when she asked me about my work she said “but who tells you what to do?” and her look of astonishment when I said “well, no-one” has always stayed with me.
Academics try to solve scientific puzzles and to find new solutions to existing problems. There are many more things I would like to do than I can do, so I need to organise things well. I got better at blocking things out (like email) and finding time for the things I want to do. I also block time off to not do anything related to work – especially during the weekend.
It is helpful to have a rolling five-year plan. What do you want to achieve over this time period, what is your focus, what are key outputs (papers, proposals etc)? It is important to ensure that key outputs happen, and one does not continuously get side-tracked by minor things. While at the same time it’s important to avoid burning out, recognising that it’s a marathon not a sprint!
To relax, I read books that aren’t about work, I’m currently reading the original James Bond, which is totally different to the movies. I go to gym three times a week to stay fit (sort of), and I used to play football until I was injured. I still like watching football gamesand reading about football tactics.
How do you see the role of Head of Research Group?
I’m not officially a line manager to academic staff, they are managed by the Head of Department, and the Research Associates are managed by the Principal Investigator. As head of group I am trying to make us all run in the same direction and support each other by doing so. In a group, the whole should be bigger than the sum of its parts, otherwise there is no point of having a group. We discuss how we can work together, on proposals or papers, and how each person individually can see her or his career advance by being in Bristol.
An advantage we have in the environmental field is that water groups generally have a pretty balanced demographic in terms of gender, and since being in Bristol I’ve had more female PhD students than male. I would like to see the sustainability side of Civil Engineeringpromoted more widely, as I think it would help us to further diversify and to attract new students, including more female students.
Part of my role is to make sure others do well. I’m dealing with people all the time, but as often happens in academia, you have tolargely figure out how to do leadership yourself (even though I went to some excellent workshops on this in Bristol). That’s why I read a lot of books written by or about football coaches! Professional football is interesting, as there’s lots of similarities to managing a team of academics, you have a group of over-achievers who are all on some level individualistic and you have to get them to work as a team. There is also a high turnover, so you’re dealing with some similar issues.
How do you empower or enable others?
We try to ensure early career academics have a PhD student as soon as possible on their topic.I or another senior academic support as co-supervisor to help with interactions initially, which isthe university’sor faculty’spolicy. I let the main supervisor choose the topic, but I help with organising meetings to support the PhD student. We get the PhD students to come to each meeting with a Powerpoint presentation for the supervisor and this Powerpoint becomes a straw man narrative for the project they are working on. It evolves and grows at each meeting, and it helps the PhD student to produce an outline of their paper with the key figures and key conclusions, essentiallyit gives them a digital notebook of their work and interactions. The student brings the question and is responsible for organising the meeting. This method helps the student but also helps their supervisor!
I have regular conversations with academics in our group about their long-term plans and get them to think about it in terms of the key contributions they want to make. It’s not useful to have too many research topics at the same time – especially early in your career. I encourage people to plan how to integrate papers,proposals, conference sessions, students, networksand collaborators around the topics and to do things for a purpose andhave a holistic view of everything they are doing. I try to ensure they all get to teach some of the topics they specialise in and get a chance to communicate their main interest. I tell them to organise sessions around their research topicat conferences which helps them to become associated with the topic. It is good to have a balanced and holistic view of your approach to be an academic.
In terms of supporting Research Associates, Isuggest that they make sure their CV at the end of the Postdoc looks like the CV of someone whose job you’d like.For example, if you wish to be a lecturer then you need to do teaching and write proposals as well as research, but if you want to go into industry then you need to be doing other things, such as developing networks. We get them involved with supervising Masters’ students, mentoring PhD students or teaching units. I encourage academics to support Research Associates in their teaching, for example, watch them give a lesson and give them constructive feedback. Of course, people have to use the opportunities you givethem, there’s always a level of being self-driven in academia.
We make sure we help them create a plan for what they want to do, explain the opportunities to them and support them. We get their vision and encourage them to think big, especially at the end of a PhD, when people can think technically. We get them to think about what an important contribution to research and knowledge is and what makes a difference.We get them to think about how to have impact rather than about just ‘how do I get a paper published’. If you change the focus, it can change what people do and how they do it. We get them to think about who would find this paper useful, and would that person do anything differently after reading about your work. We get them to questionwhy they are writing the paper, if they can’t answer that easily then they should stop and figure this out. Overall, it’s most important to make some relevant contributions and to communicate them well in quality papers.
From the university, I’d like to see consistent support from the top down and clarity of what is expected of people and what they must do. This is needed to prevent staff from working all the time due to uncertainty or abandoning certain areas due to bad or out–of–date advice. As a university, we mustbe considerate towards early career academics or researchers, especially when practical issues, such as visa costs for an entire family are an increasing burden. I want to see more consistency in the approach for promotions. We’ve recently been working with the Faculty Research Committee on a document to help academics on Pathway 1 (teaching and research) understand what would be expected of them in order to advance their career long-term.
It took a while for our group to get well connected in the UK, as many of us are international.Now the Water group has better visibility and connections to industry and government agencies,and we have a chance to get involved with long–term decision making in the UK. We have regularfunding from EPSRC and NERC, and there are a lot of opportunities for new research coming. Being connected is a key element in gaining this funding, which makes university-wide institutes like Cabot so valuable.
We’re also proud that in the Shanghai academic ranking of world universities, we’re now first in the UK for the study of water resources, andthird in Europe.