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Engaging in a PhD? The view of Pierre GAFFURI, materials scientist.

Merci d'avoir accepté l'interview.

Please give us a brief overview of your background before, during and after your PhD.

I grew up close to Mantes la Jolie, a suburb of Paris. Directly after my baccalaureate, I entered the INSA de Lyon, a general engineering school. I was seduced by the progressive culture, the school's educational level, and also the section for high level athletes, which gave me the opportunity to pursue climbing competitions in parallel with my studies. I then entered the master's program in materials science and engineering, during which I studied for a year at NTNU (Norway), was an intern at STMicroelectronics, Safran and at the Swedish Research Institute in Stockholm.

I did my PhD at the University of Grenoble Alpes, in co-supervision between the laboratory of materials and physical engineering (LMGP) and the Néel Institute. I studied the growth and the physicochemical properties of functional (nano)materials (zinc oxide nanowires, luminescent aluminoborate particles). These materials are interesting because they can replace the more critical materials used in optoelectronics (LEDs, photodetectors...), and maybe one day on other applications.

Today I am a researcher at Solvay in Paris, in the functional inorganic materials laboratory, where I identify, fabricate and develop new materials ranging from functional nanoparticles to materials for the next generations of batteries.

What motivated you to start your PhD thesis?

The first reason was practical: during my end-of-study internship in Stockholm, I decided that I would work in materials research and development. Now, French companies are getting in line with their neighbors and a PhD is nearly necessary to apply for research positions in the industry. In retrospect, the PhD is a very relevant requirement to start a career as researcher in industry and innovation, because it teaches you skills that are not provided by the sole corporate training.

A second, more personal motivation: I really wanted to continue learning and training in materials science, a dynamic discipline with high technological stakes, between chemistry, physics and engineering. A solid three years of research experience is very instructive!

What advice would you give to students about starting a PhD thesis?

Choose your thesis as a whole, i.e. the scientific subject, but without ever neglecting the supervisory team, the atmosphere of the laboratory and the location. You will be involved in a strong human relationship for three years, and its good working is a major success factor. You can get information by asking for the opinion of your master's teachers, interns and doctoral students in the lab, visit the lab... Also, don't do a thesis by default. If you are not very enthusiastic, things will eventually come to a standstill. There are plenty of nice technical jobs that don't require a PhD. But if you are motivated and curious, then you should go for it!

CIFRE or not CIFRE thesis?

At the end of my studies at INSA Lyon, I wished to be enrolled in an industrial PhD (CIFRE), having enjoyed my internships in the corporate sector. I naively thought that a CIFRE thesis would necessarily be more exciting than an academic thesis. After discussion with a teacher-researcher from INSA Lyon, I understood that the dynamism of a thesis was more determined by its environment than by the participation of an industrial partner. Some companies are even very cautious about confidentiality, which can slow down the development of collaborations with new players. I chose to apply for a certain number of theses, CIFRE or not, and I finally found a subject that matched my interests the most in a transdisciplinary project at Grenoble Alpes University.

What advice do you have for thesis students?

Encourage meetings and discussions with as many colleagues, collaborators and industrial partners as possible. This helps you to quickly understand the issues at stake in the academic and industrial worlds, as well as the other alternatives. It can help guide your project (9 out of 10 PhDs will have a position outside the academic world...), and you are not immune to making friends! Finally, know when and how to take proper breaks from you project, to come back to it with motivation and fresh thoughts.

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