“I was advised to focus on getting one thing done every single day – it was the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me in my career.”
Dr Edmund Harbord is a Lecturer in Optical Communications & Networks within the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and part of the Photonics research group. Here, he gives us an insight into his career so far and how he been supported in developing it, and how he supports others in their learning.
Tell us about you – where are you from, who you are outside of work?
I come from a small village in Buckinghamshire, and I started off more as a scientist than as an engineer. I did a Physics degree at Oxford, and then a Phd in Applied Physics at Imperial College in London, and then I took a career break.
I ended up getting a scholarship from a Japanese science foundation, I worked in Japan for a while – I think everyone should work abroad as it helps you understand what it is to be an outsider. Then I eventually ended up here in Bristol. I have definitely been happiest in Bristol as the city is well integrated with the university and university doesn’t dominate the city, plus London and Tokyo were such big cities they overshadow everything.
I now have a wife and a one-year-old child and so I try to get home to them as early as possible at the end of the day, and spend time with the baby before he goes to bed.
Tell us how you got here – what did you do to get here, what decisions did you make, what motivated you?
My scholarship in Japan included a 12-month language programme first and then I worked for 6 months at the University of Tokyo and also in the Arakawa lab there – integrated with industry and first exposure to the engineering side as a visiting fellow. I then got a post doc Research Associate role in the Arakawa lab, then got a 2 year fellowship from a Japanese science foundation. I did my PhD on quantum dots – Imperial is where the dots are grown (they are important for lasers and many other things). Arakawa himself was the founder of this field of research in quantum dots and so by going there, I learnt techniques for single dots.
Going to Japan was a bit of a risk in a way (but then it was 2009 and the financial crisis was really impacting) – I could have stayed at Imperial but wanted to move on and learn new things. I had studied a bit of Japanese already and had struggled with languages at school and always wanted to learn a second language, and I was attracted to Arakawa lab as it related to my interests. Don Quixote has a quote that reading a translation is like seeing a tapestry from behind – you see how it’s made up before you understand the bigger picture – and that certainly is the case for writing and researching in a different language. I did write papers mainly in English but for communication with students, being able to speak in Japanese was crucial – especially when you said something wrong as they were too polite to correct you. Working abroad was a really good thing to have done – I never would have the opportunity to study language for a year or reflect on the dots away from the focus of the Phd. I wouldn’t do it any differently!
After Japan, I came to join the Photonics group with Ruth Oulton, on a Research Associate role with an 18 month contract. I knew her a bit through the quantum dots community, and applied for role after talking to her about it. I was the Co-Investigator for an EPSRC grant with Ruth as PI, which helped as it was evidence that I could bring in funding independently – but only 18 months so I was worried that I wouldn’t have a job at the end. I had to secure contract here in the UK in order to bring my fiancée here – I wanted the job at Bristol and was still fairly flexible, long-term I wanted to get an academic position and felt it would be easier in the UK than overseas for me.
In the last 5 years, dots have gone from being a science thing to an engineering thing and I want to drive that – lasers, quantum memories, they all have dots. That’s my vision!
Why do you like your job?
Balancing the research and lab, the teaching, the other duties – it’s good. I like being exposed to undergraduates, and get to teach early years stuff – it’s very important to be invested in teaching the early years as it’s the only way you get quantum engineers out at the end. There are not enough engineers in the UK and so we cannot have any barriers to anyone getting into and becoming an engineer – we need more people from all backgrounds and so need to handle transition into Higher Education well, support them through it. I also like doing outreach to young people in schools or out in the community.
I like managing PhD students, and I am looking forward to having someone to manage in a post doc role sometime soon – I’ll use my experience on how I’ve been managed to do this.
How do you make it work in terms of work/life balance?
I only took two weeks paternity leave when my son was born over a year ago – now I wish I’d taken more. My wife is self-employed and so has taken more time off with him. I spend time with them at the end of the day and make sure I leave work early enough to do this. I would like to find a way for us both to have more time to do the creative end of our work – that can be the struggle when you try to fit everything into a schedule. I may tap into UoB’s parental coaching if I have another child…wish I had engaged with it when we had our first!
How have you been supported, and how do you support others, in your career development?
My PhD supervisor was different – he allowed us to get on and do it – I now realise how much else he had to do now I’m older and wiser, whereas at the time I didn’t appreciate this. I always make sure my Phd students now understand what my other responsibilities are as an academic, so they can understand the various aspects of an academic role. At the Arakawa lab in Japan, I was very excited to work with him. I was one of 50 researchers so a big group and there was no real management structure where anyone had delegated responsibilities. In the end, I felt my career development would be better back in the UK and that I couldn’t really change the system there. But it was well funded and had lots of clever people there to work with, and I was exposed to the engineering end of quantum dots for the first time.
I was enormously supported by Professor Ruth Oulton, who leads the Photonics research group, in developing my skills for teaching. She got me involved with teaching on a unit for the international foundation programme when I was a Senior RA. I did it for two years and in the second year I won a teaching prize for it. This teaching experience was key to me getting an academic role – it wasn’t just about the research I was doing.
To begin with, we had a conversation about the course and what it involved, she gave me all her notes and tips. It was great as I was teaching people with different needs e.g. English as a second language which helped me with people in similar situation in EE programmes; and it helped me get used to what you can achieve within a session and how much material you can give your students.
Ruth made me do a lecture in front of her and gave me comments on everything – even the colour of pens and how to adapt for people who are colour blind, and she also got the programme director for IFP to sit in one of my lectures and gave me feedback. Ruth gave me time to do the lecturing and told me she didn’t expect me back in the lab that afternoon as I’d probably feel knackered and just to focus on admin at that time. She got me to keep a teaching diary, and most importantly she didn’t abandon me and I could back to her and talk about how I was finding the teaching.
Ruth would have conversations with me two or three times a year – the ‘Ten Thousand Feet Up’ chat – about where you are going and what you are doing in your career, which also really helped. When we were looking at me being Co-I on the grant for three years she asked me to think about what I wanted to achieve and what I could improve on – it was the single most valuable conversation I’ve had in my career.
When, at one point, I was getting caught up trying to do everything, she told me ‘look, you need to focus on getting one thing done every single day.’ When I said ‘but I’ve got way more than just one thing to get done,’ she said ‘but if you’re not getting one thing done, then how can you hope to get anything else done?’ She also advised me to focus on getting one single thing done a day as a way to begin on juggling tasks and time management –- so I emailed Ruth every day for a month to tell her what the one thing I had achieved that day was. It was the most useful thing anyone has ever advised me or got me to do in my entire career.
For my Phd students I ask them to email once a week to say what they have done as a way of trying to support them in the way Ruth helped me. I wish someone had done this with me in my Phd! And also I try to ensure I am supporting all my students as well as I can.
I have been on a four-year contract, and I would like to become on a permanent lecturer soon, I hope it will be in Bristol! I want to do more on outreach for young people – be part of the new world and understand that new world.
In terms of the science, I want to put quantum dots in a vertically emitting lasers, and I want to squash lasers.
I think the wider world of higher education is going to change – it will move away from individual scientists in individual labs to working entirely as a team – collaboration with countries such as Japan could change as a result. I think that my ability to collaborate with them will change. For example, I am currently working on my first grant, which is taking a long time to do! It’s not an efficient way of doing things – more emphasis on team-based approaches are needed. We’re likely to have tighter planning, more of a project management approach, emphasis on deliverables – it will remain curiosity driven but have a big plan that includes a lot of scientists – and so be more holistic. It’ll bring academics on different pathways closer together – for example, we’ll see more Research Associates becoming more integrated into teaching – to address the issues of longer-term contracts for staff, increased student numbers, and delivering more within requirements of grant. I would love to see our faculty evolve to a more matrix management framework – eg having a manager for research and a manager for teaching – I think this would work well for PW1 academics.
What advice would you give people considering a similar career?
In terms of lecturing, there are so many simple things you can do to enhance learning – for example, I pre-draw diagrams and then use the visualiser to complete it in front of students, which they enjoy. My top tips are: use the visualiser; go to back of room and see what it looks like from the back and get the students at the back to engage. Use Post it notes and get students to give you feedback within the lecture – on what to continue and what to stop – it’s great low effort/ high impact way to get feedback. Ask them about the pace – and then adapt it according to their feedback… then they know you care about what they think and are using it to shape the course.
I learnt a lot from the International Foundation programme – so now I always do 20/10 minutes talk and problem split. With TEF being introduced, it’s helped teaching and education get foregrounded as key – and this shows in how people are hired. The skill of getting people to understand something that’s conceptually hard but is ‘simple’ in a cogent way and giving lecture notes in time to support it is actually quite a hard one to master! I think that meeting with students in an efficient way eg I hold a drop-in session at the end of the lecture and have office hours – helps students to see me in person and interaction to happen face-to-face rather than through email, which is better for both of us. And that also gives me feedback, eg, helps me realise what areas they don’t understand and what I need to explain better to the whole group. Getting trust with your students is really key – they need to have confidence in you. I also do a talk on managing the transition from school to university – eg we are ‘lecturers’ not ‘teachers’, it’s ‘seminars’ not ‘lessons’. We also have to find ways to support people who haven’t been well prepared for university by their school or family, and I take that very seriously.