Programme: PhD in Operations & Supply Chain Management
Research topic: Real-time Labour Allocation in Retail Stores
Supervisors: Professor David Robb, Dr Valery Pavlov, Professor David Sundaram
Academic unit: Graduate School of Management at the University Auckland Business School
Funding: China Scholarship Council (CSC) scholarship
Hello! Tell us about yourself and your journey to doctoral studies
I was born in Rizhao, a small city just south of Qingdao - which is a sister city of Auckland. The easiest way to know me is to remember "Shandong" - it is my first name, the name of my home province and the name of my home University.
After obtaining my bachelor degree in Engineering, I was involved with several modern warehousing and logistics projects. I programmed management systems that were implemented in practice, and I built mathematical models seeking to improve operational efficiency.
While those coding experiences for managing “cold” machines were exciting, I felt more interested in doing research with “warm” people. In the final year of my masters in Engineering, I decided to study overseas. I chose the University of Auckland after finding Professor David Robb, who is considered an expert in both New Zealand and China.
Tell us about your doctoral research
My PhD research project is in the area of workforce management in retailing, specifically looking at the practice of allocating cross-trained store associates to different jobs in real time.
Almost all of us have experienced this situation: when checkout queues become too long, an employee – who might be working in another area of the store – is asked to come and open a new checkout till to help reduce waiting time. Although this is widely observed in practice, our discussions with retail practitioners revealed that there are few specific guidelines for such decisions.
We work with a local retailer and aim to understand how managers make such decisions, the impacts of their decisions and how we can help managers make better decisions to effectively address a shortage (or an abundance) of employees. Based on the research, we expect to help managers with various recommendations and ultimately improve customers’ shopping experiences.
Life is truly like a box of chocolates. PhD study at The University of Auckland has been an incredible part of my life.
What does ‘research’ look like to you?
Researching for me encompasses a variety of activities. Firstly, I found a collaborating retailer and established mutual trust. Secondly, I talked to managers via interviews and watched how they acted via field observations. Thirdly, I analysed data and conducted extensive simulation studies. Lastly, I built mathematical models and explored better policies that help improve managers’ decision-making.
The last four years has been quite a rewarding experience of mastering a mix of research methodologies and conducting various research activities. I have three papers employing different methodologies – one was published in an A* journal, one is under review at an A* journal, and the last one is to be submitted soon. I am fortunate to be part of the Business School that provides a supportive environment and fruitful resources.
You've been involved in a lot of different opportunities during your time here. Tell us about some of them.
Life is truly like a box of chocolates. PhD study at The University of Auckland has been an incredible part of my life. It provides excellent opportunities for doctoral candidates. I have attended various writing retreats, seminars, workshops, field visits, and paper discussions regularly hosted by Professor Tava Olsen. I worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) in the Business School, obtaining my GTA certificate in 2017, and have been a CSC ambassador.
With support from the University of Auckland’s Postgraduate Research Student Support (PReSS) account and the Business School’s PhD Conference Funding, I have presented my research in Auckland, Queenstown, the Netherlands, and the United States.
My supervisor encouraged me to think about the real-life impacts of my thesis. With his encouragement, I attended the PhD Commercialisation and Research Innovation course and learnt how research can have an impact beyond academia. I participated in the 1st and 2nd Solve It Challenges run by the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and am proud to have won the 1st prize for solving Fonterra’s sustainable packaging problems when transporting dairy products.
Another excellent opportunity to share one's research is to take part in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. It was a challenge, but also a fantastic practice, to condense your 200-page thesis into a three-minute, plain-English talk!
Wow! That’s a lot to fit in. Do you manage to have any time for hobbies?
New Zealand has such excellent natural beauty. I love hiking in my spare time and also joined my supervisor’s family hiking several times. Really. No need to be a hiking expert. Just take one day off from your research and enjoy the wild natural beauty around Auckland, e.g., Shakespeare Regional Park, Okura Bush, Muriwai, Lake Wainamu and Dome Forest.
What was it like coming to Auckland as a Chinese international student?
Auckland is so friendly to Chinese international students. There are quite a lot of options along Dominion Road for Chinese students who favour their home cuisines, and so much natural beauty to explore.
Language was definitely the most significant challenge for me. I attended the Academic Writing 210 course - the textbook was organised following a traditional thesis structure. It provided me with an overall impression of a thesis, as well as plenty of resources I still refer to. I also utilised various English Language Enrichment resources, such as “talk to Aucklanders/local students”, online language resources, and English workshops – where I was lucky enough to meet my partner.
Lastly but most significantly, I am lucky to have David as my supervisor. He provides lots of help beyond academia. I feel free to talk with him about my daily life and laughs and tears.
And last of all, do you have any advice for people who are just starting their doctoral journey?
Getting a PhD is never a piece of cake. However, the PhD journey is not only about completing a thesis – consider it as about four years of your life. Enjoy your life with a load of exciting things, e.g., travelling, teaching, exercising, and learning from peers. Enjoy every day with people you love. Make the best use of these years: laughs, tears, happiness and sadness. By the end, you will have more than a doctoral certificate.