Dr Antoine Buchard from the Department of Chemistry shares his experience of applying for a Royal Society University Research Fellowship.
1) What is the focus of your research?
The focus of my research is the synthesis of polymers, which are the main “ingredient” of plastics. More specifically, I work on creating polymers from sugar molecules.
Every single one of us uses plastics, and they are highly beneficial to society. However, as fossil fuel resources are becoming increasingly precious and as the ultimate fate of plastics and the pollution associated with them become a global concern, the way we produce and use them is not sustainable. Using renewable feedstocks, such as sugars derived from waste, the aim of my research is to produce sustainable materials that are still usable but that can be degraded and recycled more easily. The benefit of using sugars is that they are cheap, abundant, environmentally benign and can also be obtained from non-edible crops. They are also really easy to manipulate, so we could potentially produce every type of plastics we need in a sustainable way.
2) What does a typical week as a research fellow look like?
I don’t think there is ever a typical week or day and that’s actually one of the reasons I like what I do. As a research fellow, my main role at the University is to do research, so I usually block my mornings for this. My daily research activities include: reading literature, writing or reviewing papers and grant applications, and analysing (and trying to make sense of) results that we have gathered recently. I used to have the time to perform experimental lab work myself but with a growing research group and related responsibilities increasing, this has become difficult. The way I do research has changed from when I was a post-doc or during the first years of my fellowship. Every day now I discuss data, design new projects, share hypotheses, bounce ideas and dispute them with students in my group and with other researchers. This is definitely what I enjoy the most in research. I still perform a lot of computational modelling myself though, as this type of work is more flexible.
Afternoons are for pretty much everything else, in particular meetings and the many tasks that my research group leader role involves: looking after the group’s finances (very important!) and the good running of the lab, promoting our work on social media, preparing talks for conferences and external seminars, engaging with industrial partners and other collaborators, and managing the human side of the group (which is actually quite interesting). I also teach at undergraduate level for our chemistry degrees, giving lectures and practical classes, and am involved in various departmental committees, but this is fairly limited because of the research fellowship.
I am not going to lie as I think researchers considering this route need to be aware of it: overall, an academic job is pretty full-on and research is a very competitive field so to stay on top of things, I also work regularly in the evenings and weekends, but this is my own choice, and I tend to do it less as I have become wiser and more efficient. The work/life balance can be poor at times, especially around grant deadlines, but having work outside academia, I do not think this is very different from other sectors at all.
3) Why did you apply for a research fellowship at this stage in your career?
My career path is a bit complicated… After my PhD, I became a post-doctoral researcher for 2 years. I was curious to see if I would enjoy and had what it takes to start on a new research project, immerse myself into a slightly different field and learn new skills. It went well and my heart was definitely set on a research career, even if I was still hesitating if whether I wanted to pursue it in academia or industry. With no industrial experience, I then decided to work in R&D for a little while (almost 2 years). This gave me a lot of perspective and made me realised I was missing working in an academic context, including working among and training young people.
With my academic and industrial experience, and with an idea of the type of research I wanted to do, I applied and joined the CSCT in April 2013 as a Whorrod Research Fellow, a position funded by the endowment from University alumni Roger and Sue Whorrod. In 2010, Roger and Sue donated a large sum of money to the CSCT to help early-career researchers set up their independent research around sustainable chemical technologies. Thanks to their continuous support (including moral), I was able to set up my own lab and research group, test my ideas and even publish some papers… so that I was in a privileged position to apply and compete to external research fellowships such as the ones from the Research Councils. After one unsuccessful application I became a Royal Society University Research Fellow in 2017.
4) What was the application process like and what do you think helped to make you successful?
A research fellowship funds an individual and a research project both at the same time, so the first part of the application process (usually a written one online) is very straightforward: “all” you need are a strong track record of publications and conference presentations, as well as a coherent, ambitious but realistic promising research proposal…
I genuinely do not think there is a model career path that makes a candidate more appealing than another. While this has become rarer, I have seen people being successful having worked in the same field, or even the same institution, for their entire “pre-fellowship” career. I think that what played on my side at this stage was the fact that I had done things in various fields and various countries, and had obtained some results every time. I was also able to explain why I had worked on those topics and what skills or ideas I had gained from them and, how these had helped to shape my proposed research project.
The research proposal is the cornerstone of the application process. Writing a fellowship research proposal is very different to writing a paper or even a research grant proposal. In my experience, a fellowship proposal needs to be a long-term research project that reflects the candidate’s unique sets of experience, skills and ideas, in contrast to a stand-alone research project that anyone else could do. Funders often talk of a research “vision”. The way I see it, a vision is a good idea that is playing theplays the long game. A good research fellowship proposal should, in my opinion, lay the foundation of future research projects, even if the original plan is not successful. A fellowship is supposed to be the basis of your whole research career! This is very important, think about it as an investment of public money: while it is ok to take risks and shoot for the moon, if the results are not as good as you expect, you still need to gain some applied or fundamental knowledge otherwise it has all been a waste.
In my case, I think what made a difference was that because of my experience as a Whorrod Fellow, I had had the chance to mature my ideas and polish my “vision”. Having published a couple of papers of my own, I had also demonstrated that I was able to be my own PI, and that my ideas had been welcome positively by the community. These first papers were not in the best journals, but they were a bit original, and clearly laid the ground for future more ambitious work.
In the case of the Royal Society and UKRI (and maybe others), if shortlisted, the application process also comprises an interview. This was quite stressful but I found a lot of support at the University to prepare for it. I talked to a lot of past fellows and senior colleagues, and went through a series of mock interviews organised by RIS (Thank you Caroline Ang!). This helped me to refine the message I wanted to convey to the panel (including updating them on what had happened in the field and in my research since the written application). I took this preparation very seriously, carefully studying the specialised literature around my project, thinking about all its ramifications (collaborators, competition, interaction with other disciplines, both the fundamental knowledge advances that would stem from the project and its applications), and learning how to explain my project fluently both to specialists and non-specialists.
5) What advice would you give to researchers who are considering making a Fellowship application?
If I could go back in time and speak to my postdoctoral self, I would tell him to start working on it as soon as possible! It is never too early to start shaping your own research fellowship project, thinking about ideas and learning new skills that will help you to design an original long term research project.
I think it is important to have a broad view of the applied or fundamental problems you want to investigate, and look at what happens in other scientific fields: could your ideas and skills help in any way? Finally, why not trying some of these ideas early on? Having some preliminary results (or even publications) to support your proposal is definitely a bonus so, if you are considering making a fellowship application, my advice would be to state your intention clearly to your PI. I believe most of them would be supportive and allow you to dedicate a small fraction of your time to pursue your own interests on the side. In general, while it can feel daunting to share your own ideas at an early stage, especially to other researchers in the same space, finding a person that can be a honest sounding board can save you a lot of time and effort.