A Day in the Life of a PhD Student: Stephen Powley

By Stephen Powley

My vision is for a harmonious, interconnected world that understands how to use technology to break down barriers and bridge divides. I hope that my PhD at Coventry University will make a contribution that brings that vision closer to reality. Automotive Cybersecurity might not seem like an obvious field in which to make such a contribution, but it is in fact one which brings sharp focus to the risks and rewards we will encounter in a hyper-connected world.

It’s been more than 20 years since I graduated with an MEng in Electronics and Computer Engineering. Returning to student life after running my own business for 12 years has required some reorientation and adjustment. I was never a person who dreamt of doing a PhD, but opportunity knocked in 2017 at a turning point in my life and I haven’t looked back. Coventry has proved to be a great place to explore my ideas and learn how to communicate them. As the UK’s number one university for student experiences abroad, it has literally and metaphorically shown me a world of opportunity.

My research journey began through EU-funded support that my consultancy business received from several Midlands universities. These small business schemes allowed us to establish a sound theoretical basis for our product ideas and develop prototype software. This led to developing a more substantial funding application in partnership with the Coventry cybersecurity researcher who was to become my director of studies. That bid was well received by the funders, but narrowly missed the cut. I was impressed by the university’s collaborative and innovative approach and was keen to continue a relationship. It had also become clear to me that my interests lay in research and that I should develop my skills as a researcher. So when I saw a relevant studentship advertised in the Automotive Cybersecurity research group the following year, I was keen to apply.

Connected vehicles have great potential to benefit society: they can reduce accidents, provide mobility to those unable to drive and reduce pollution. However, for connected vehicles to operate securely, and therefore safely, they must be developed and operated using advanced methods. The scope and rigour of these methods often exceeds the existing capabilities of the organisations involved. A high degree of openness and collaboration is also needed, which conflicts with companies’ desire to protect intellectual property. Therefore my research focusses on how collaborating organisations can establish the conditions necessary for creating, maintaining, and retiring secure connected vehicles.

When it became clear that my research would need to look beyond the automotive industry and its traditional supply chains, I determined that original research would be required to properly understand the needs of all the stakeholders. Before Christmas I applied for and was awarded a £1000 scholarship to fund the travel necessary for my research study. Barry Gidden was a Masters student at Coventry and the fund named after him was established by his family to honour his memory after his untimely passing. It supports two engineering/computer science students each year who aim to demonstrate how their research can be used for social good.

In order to gain the required Postgraduate Researcher Development Credits, I volunteered on the Automotive & Road Transport Executive Team with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). Working with my professional institution has helped enormously with making the contacts I need across industries. This type of volunteering is a fantastic development opportunity in its own right too: for example, I am now co-organising a cybersecurity seminar alongside industry leaders. In April, I arranged a high level delegation visit from IET India’s Future of Mobility and Transport panel to our Institute of Future Transport and Cities. Coventry academics and local business innovators came together for a day to showcase Coventry’s strengths in transport, with presentations, conversation and a tour of some of the university’s advanced facilities.

The automotive industry is truly global and India is particularly relevant to Coventry because Tata Motors, India’s largest automobile company, owns Jaguar Land Rover (JLR). JLR in turn is Coventry’s largest private employer and a UK leader in connected vehicles. India hosts many companies at the cutting edge of the Internet of Things (IoT), an umbrella term for the connected world of which vehicles are becoming an integral part. All this made me keen to understand the Indian perspective on connected vehicle security, so I was delighted to receive an invitation from the panel to make a return visit.

Funding can sometimes be a barrier to participating in these type of opportunities. Visiting India quickly became reality though thanks to the announcement of a new Postgraduate Researcher (PGR) Mobility Fund, which I immediately applied to. The judging panel was made up of postgraduate researchers including myself – a first for the University. (Of course great care was taken to ensure nobody judged their own bid!) This was a fabulous chance to experience first-hand how research funding is allocated. I was delighted when my peers saw fit to award me £1000 for my trip.

I became aware that senior academics had also visited India in March. Following an email to the International Office, I was surprised and delighted to receive an invitation to meet with the executive team for a discussion about their partnership plans in India. This provided a fascinating insight into how the University develops its international activities and I am very grateful to the senior staff for including me so openly. The result was that my India trip was further enhanced by visiting several universities across the country as a student ambassador.

My three-week visit in July 2018 was a fascinating whirlwind of visits, meetings, interviews and volunteering that really helped kick-start my research study. I attended an IoT Summit, met thought leaders and senior staff from the IoT and automotive worlds, was welcomed as an honoured guest and spoke about my research at universities, and delivered coding workshops in rural villages for disadvantaged young people. These workshops were enormously rewarding and the experience gave me fresh insight to the privileges we often take for granted. They were delivered as part of a Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Computing (STEM-C) roadshow organised by an IET partner organisation, Saraswati Seva Foundation (SSF). SSF is dedicated to improving the life chances of young people and women through education about, and application of, technology.

I had few preconceptions of what a research degree would involve and it’s not been without its struggles, some of which continue. The hardest thing for me has been making the mental shift from 20 years thinking as an engineer and business person to adopting the mindset and priorities of a scientist. These two modes often seem to conflict, with the engineer’s inclination towards pragmatic action challenging the need for rigorous, scientific method and literature study. I never expected an easy ride and at times have been surprised by the shape of the challenges I’ve encountered. However, the learning curve has been well worth climbing to gain such a wide perspective on the life-cycle of ideas.

I’ve been back in the UK a few weeks now, reviewing successes, reassessing priorities and planning for what is to come. I feel very fortunate for the opportunities I have been able to enjoy in my first year and PhD life has certainly exceeded my expectations. Looking forward, I am keen to consolidate my reading, conduct my original research and make a valuable contribution to the literature. I expect writing papers to feature large in the year ahead and hope to start publishing work and speaking at conferences.

A PhD might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely right for me. If you’re thinking about doctoral studies, or indeed have never done so, then I hope my reflections have given you some food for thought. If, like me, you prefer the road less travelled, then maybe the world of research could be bursting with opportunity for you too.