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Dr Cyrill Bussy

Current position
Lecturer, Division of Infection, Immunity and Respiratory Medicine, University of Manchester.

Details of PhD
Toxicology, University of Paris, 2005.

Year became PI

Years spent as a postdoc

Total number of postdocs managed during career

Case study conducted
January 2021.

Tell us about your career journey 

After completing my PhD in a government scientific research institute, I continued my postdoctoral training in different academic institutions in France for 4 years and then in the UK for another 3 years. 

The first postdoctoral position was both in a capacity of researcher and project manager for a European Project (FP7) with a strong industrial component. The next position that lasted 3 years was purely academic but across 3 different labs, and a lab move at mid-term! 

I then came to the UK for career development purpose with a special fund from the Greater Paris Region local authorities. After being awarded a mobility and career development fellowship (Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions), I decided to stay in the UK and started more independent research. 

Looking back, what were the pivotal moments in your development?   

The first one is likely being selected for an MRes in biomedical sciences. This was my first experience with applied industry-led research in a multidisciplinary environment, and a complete change of environment and scientific culture for a biologist. 

This has taught me to be flexible and reactive, and how to talk about biology to material engineers. Then my PhD was not in an academic environment, but instead on an industrial campus. I learnt many research and transferable skills that I am still applying today as a PI. 

The next pivotal moment was my first personal fellowship, based on a project that my supervisors and I had written. It funded my 3rd and 4th year of postdoctoral training and the ability to perform experiments at large scientific facilities (synchrotron, ion beam). This was a useful warm up for the next step: getting the next round of funding to continue my training in the UK. 

I applied to several fellowship grants before and after arriving in the UK, while my supervisors in France and UK provided bridge funding to realize the transnational mobility. About a year after arriving in the UK, I was finally awarded 2 year fellowship funding from both the EU Marie Curie actions and the AXA foundation. I opted for the Marie Curie fellowship, and spent two years at University College London, School of Pharmacy, before getting my lectureship at the University of Manchester.

Did you ever consider a career beyond academia? 

Throughout my journey, it has always been an alternative option. At master level, my research project was relying on an industrial partner generating the materials to be tested. My PhD project was co-funded through an industrial partnership; and I was offered the option to join one of the company at the end of the project. 

I declined to join a European Project (FP7), as postdoc researcher and project manager assistant to help the coordinator; this project was an industry-led one and we ended up waiting (twice) for patent approval to get the work published. 

Later, while preparing my lectureship, I was offered the option to join a government scientific research institute. It was a very tempting though challenging option, but I thought I was not ready to stop doing research in an academic setting. 

Who has helped you along your career pathway? 

I was very fortunate, my research supervisors at master, PhD and postdoctoral levels have been the main source of advices. 

I never had an external mentor not involved in my direct line management. But I think these types of external scientific role model or advisors could be beneficial for those who are not lucky enough to have supervisors keen to discuss career development options. 

Beyond a single mentor, I would also advise postdocs to discuss with different people to be aware of all the options. PIs or mentors can only speak from their own individual experience, and it is always good to listen to more than one voice before making a decision. 

In my case, I have attended several career development events at master, PhD and postdoc levels that have likely made an impact on my career pathway along the discussion I had with my research supervisors. 

What’s the added value of a postdoctoral researcher over and above a PhD student? 

They are well trained researchers who have a better vision of their career plan than most PhD students. They usually bring new skills, know how, and different scientific background, perspective and culture, for the benefit of the rest of the team. 

They provide good role model in the lab, especially toward greater efficiency and time management for starting PhD students (achieving well and fast; showing what is truly essential and what is merely cosmetic perfectionism). They are confident with their knowledge and skills; most are more realistic with expectations. 

What methods, skills and experiences do researchers pick up from postdoc positions? 

Researchers with postdoctoral training are better at time management; they have more defined career ambitions; they acquired confidence by consolidating skills and knowledge; they develop greater adaptability and resilience through research, supervision and their involvement with academic duties (teaching, administration).    

How often do you discuss career development with your postdocs? 

Regularly; we have an annual formal “performance & development review” meeting, but I am regularly checking that they are implementing their career plan and the agreed career development objectives. 

As a former “postdoc”, I know how easy it is to forget or put aside the career plan and dedicated training when the research routine and project deliverables are taking over. 

At the moment, I think I am reminding them every 3-4 month that they need to think about what is coming next and how they can achieve their career aspirations. I can help their progression, but I cannot make the decision or do the training required to climb the next step of the ladder. 

How do you support your postdocs to develop their careers? 

  • By forwarding them all opportunities I am made aware of (fellowships, lectureships, teaching, supervision), in particular those matching their personal plan. 
  • By reminding them that our university is offering a large amount of training for career development in areas beyond academic research or fellowship application. 
  • By making sure that the manuscripts ready for publication are submitted as soon as possible. 
  • When developing new projects with other academics, I am involving them as early as possible in the discussion, especially if I am planning them to have an essential role in the implementation or early steps of these new projects. 
  • By creating new collaboration or getting in touch with my personal network to let them know about these trained and motivated researcher.     

What specific things do you do to develop your postdocs? What have you found to be most effective? 

I am involving them in the training and supervision of the PhD students of the team, and the annual lab project students. For those interested by an academic path, I am sharing teaching opportunities. For some grant application, I am involving them in building the case for support. 

For those interested in becoming PI, listening, sharing and brainstorming are also important; they need to discover the mistakes I (may) have made to understand the non-linear career journey. When they are efficient at managing their time, I am offering them the possibility to explore their own idea (prelim data generation). toward the writing of a fellowship. 

For those who are not thinking about academia, obviously I cannot speak for something I have not experienced myself. So I signpost them to discuss with people who have make the move to research management, scientific writing, research or project management in industry. 

What have you learned from collaborating with international partners? 

The postdoctoral researchers working with me are international scientists (EU and oversea) and they have joined the group to contribute to international, EU wide collaborative project. It is embedded in our daily life, and they are fully benefitting from it (at scientific, cultural, and career perspective levels). 

As for the lessons, international collaboration (or international teaching in pandemic time) expands your days, as you need to be up early to catch up with Asia-based student or collaborators and stay up late for America-based students and collaborators. 

Different countries means different rules and funding streams; but apart from that, scientists around the world are all pretty much the same; there is no real country-specific scientific culture. 

Differences exist between scientific labs, but these differences are not inherent to the country in which the lab is based. Hence, the collaborator, as a person and a scientist is the key in a good/fruitful/reliable collaboration, not the country.     

How do you balance postdoc career development with the demands of your research project? 

I need to balance teaching, research and administrative duties, with line management. Every week is different, but it is always a mixture of all these components. 

An academic position is a demanding job that leads to prioritization, because there is often more tasks to complete in a day than what can be done within regular office hours and contractual working time. In my case, good time management is based on good organization (priority and to-do lists) with always some time on the side for the unexpected. 

In respect to balancing postdoc development and project deliverable, I leave it up to them to manage their time. As long as the funded project deliverables are fulfilled and delivered on time, they have all the freedom to explore new avenues that may lead to their own research idea. 

Does the size of your team affect your relationship with your postdocs? 

At the moment, I am working with 2 but soon I will be working with a third one. I do not think that the number will change the way I am interacting with the different members of the team. 

It is just a matter of being well organized to have enough time (and always plan for spare time for possible emergency) for everyone to allow weekly interactions, at both social and professional level. 

One trick to maintain close contact with all team members is to avoid isolating in an office and interacting with people only through formal meetings. Going in the lab and staying involved with few things here and there helps dramatically in staying in touch with the reality on the grounds, and prevent the ivory tower effect. 

What advice would you give to a new PI who is managing their first postdoc? 

Be prepared for the unexpected, just like what you may have experienced with your PhD students. Remember that you have been there, and you know the multidimensional issue of this unclear position in the academic system. Line management is the easiest part of the job. 

So listen, ponder, but at the end you will need to make the call (remember, you lead the team). A motivated postdoctoral researcher can be a fantastic future collaborator; so train them well and do not forget that they can teach you one or two things during their stay! 

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