43: UTC’s PhDs: our key players for innovation

In the world today, where inno­va­tion (tech­nol­o­gy-inten­sive inno­va­tion espe­cial­ly) occu­pies an ever-grow­ing posi­tion, the skills and know-how of PhDs spe­cial­ists in engi­neer­ing sci­ences, notably the dou­ble degree PhD-Engi­neers can be seen as increas­ing­ly impor­tant strate­gic play­ers. UTC intends to pre­pare its PhD stu­dents to fit in with this new role and asso­ciate responsibilities. 


UTC today has matric­u­lat­ed some 330 PhD stu­dents, 60% of whom are non-French nation­als and awards between 60 and 80 PhD diplo­mas each aca­d­e­m­ic year. The pol­i­cy aim of the uni­ver­si­ty is to strength­en this pool of PhD stu­dents and to increase the num­ber of its grad­u­ate engi­neers who choose to pur­sue HE stud­ies with a doc­tor­ate, whether it be at UTC-Com­pieg­ne or at anoth­er uni­ver­si­ty. In a knowl­edge-based and increas­ing­ly glob­alised econ­o­my, faced with some major chal­lenges (cli­mate change, deple­tion of nat­ur­al resources, etc.), research and inno­va­tion have become an unavoid­able dri­ving force to cre­ate added val­ue. In this con­text, PhD stu­dents and grad­u­ates are (and will con­tin­ue to be) key players. 

“PhD stu­dents rep­re­sent the main dri­ving force in aca­d­e­m­ic lab­o­ra­to­ries”, under­lines Dr. Bruno Bachi­mont, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Research at UTC. “They alone, prac­ti­cal­ly, are in a posi­tion to com­mit them­selves 100% to research activ­i­ties and to car­ry out long and in-depth inves­ti­ga­tions. In every uni­ver­si­ty of tech­nol­o­gy that has engaged strong­ly in research activ­i­ties, the PhD student’s rep­re­sent at least 20% of the institution’s stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. At UTC, cur­rent­ly the fig­ure is less than 10% hence the impor­tance for us at UTC to rein­force our research capacity”. 

An increasingly valuable passport for enterprise

Once a PhD stu­dent grad­u­ates, he/she dis­cov­ers that job open­ings and oppor­tu­ni­ties in uni­ver­si­ty and pub­lic research lab­o­ra­to­ries are lim­it­ed, but not neg­li­gi­ble, and in France and else­where in the OECD coun­tries, it often takes sev­er­al years before a sta­ble, tenured posi­tion is secured. But the impor­tance now of inno­va­tion should encour­age enter­pris­es to open their premis­es to more and more PhD recruits, in par­tic­u­lar recruit­ing spe­cial­ists in engi­neer­ing sci­ences. “If you want to inno­vate, you must be able to iden­ti­fy and imple­ment orig­i­nal solu­tions to as yet unsolved prob­lems by mobi­liz­ing your knowl­edge, know-how and with off-the-shelf tools,” explains Prof. Olivi­er Gapenne, Cog­ni­tive Science/Psychology and Head of the Doc­tor­al School at UTC. “This state­ment in fact sum­maris­es quite well the train­ing engi­neers receive. But again, the PhDs must increas­ing be able to address prob­lems where exist­ing solutions/tools are inad­e­quate and there­fore new tools and new knowl­edge are need­ed. This is an area of skills that PhD stu­dent acquire when they work in research activities”. 

In the opin­ion of experts, in France where the pres­tige attached to the engi­neer­ing schools’ diplo­mas masked the inter­est of going for the university’s high­est degree, viz., the PhD, things are now begin­ning to change. “Increas­ing­ly, the major indus­tri­al groups are rec­og­niz­ing the spe­cif­ic skills of PhD grad­u­ates and request­ing their input”, notes Vin­cent Mignotte, direc­tor of the l’Association Bernard Gre­go­ry (ABG), a struc­ture for over 40 years now has been assist­ing the world of PhDs to move clos­er to that of the entre­pre­neur­ial world. “What is new here is that SMEs are also recruit­ing PhDs and very often these small com­pa­nies are faced with inno­va­tion chal­lenges in a world where ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion rules and they need staff capa­ble of ‘think­ing diag­o­nal­ly and not tra­di­tion­al­ly. Today most the­sis offers and job open­ings we post on our web-site come from the’ SMEs. The major Groups, who were our main­stay cus­tomers 15 years ago, now for­ward their requests direct­ly to the ‘doc­tor­al schools’”. 

This obser­va­tion is also shared by Clé­mence Chardon, Head of the recruit­ment ser­vice of Adoc’ Tal­ent Man­age­ment, an agency that spe­cialis­es in recruit­ing PhDs. “An increas­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies are recruit­ing PhDs today. Those that con­tact us are most­ly SMEs or start-ups and their busi­ness lies main­ly in advanced sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal areas, such as aero­nau­tics, biotech­nolo­gies, data sciences …”. 

More­over, a dis­tinc­tion to be made with engi­neer­ing diplo­mas, some of which are not recog­nised else­where, is that the doc­tor­al PhD degree is accept­ed round the world. It rep­re­sents a pre­cious pass­port for a high lev­el inter­na­tion­al career. “In some coun­ties, it seems ludi­crous to entrust a man­age­r­i­al post to some­one with­out a PhD, even if the per­son has been award­ed a pres­ti­gious engi­neer­ing diplo­ma”, says Vin­cent Mignotte. “This is one rea­son why French multi­na­tion­al groups are recruit­ing more and more PhDs”. 

Initiating future engineers to research activities

The trends we observe ben­e­fit espe­cial­ly to PhDs who already have an engi­neer­ing degree. For exam­ple, we find those who were recruit­ed in the con­text of the “Young PhD incen­tive” where a tax relief (reformed in 2008) was con­ced­ed to com­pa­nies that recruit­ed a fresh­ly grad­u­at­ed PhD to a researcher post on a no-time lim­it con­tract basis*.

Today, only 4% of grad­u­ate engi­neers from UTC pur­sue doc­tor­al stud­ies at UTC. In order to increase this frac­tion, our Uni­ver­si­ty is con­sid­er­ing an action plan to make UTC stu­dents more aware of the research world as and when they start their engi­neer­ing cours­es – for exam­ple, giv­ing them some small research projects or encour­ag­ing them to do one of their one-semes­ter place­ments in a research lab­o­ra­to­ry (inter­nal or exter­nal). “The chal­lenge”, under­lines Olivi­er Gapenne, “is to fore­arm the stu­dents who do not pur­sue their stud­ies beyond their engi­neer­ing diplo­ma. As the sit­u­a­tion evolves, it is impor­tant toady to have them under­stand that the pro­fes­sions of research sci­en­tist and engi­neers are nat­u­ral­ly dif­fer­ent but not con­tra­dic­to­ry, nor exclu­sive one form the oth­er. And if the engi­neers are work­ing on a project with a com­pa­ny, it is in their inter­est to put them­selves in the posi­tion of a research sci­en­tist, if only to be able to dis­cuss mat­ters with the PhD col­leagues (or oth­er aca­d­e­mics) and to become involved them­selves in the process of advanc­ing our knowledge-base”. 

In order to attract more PhD stu­dents, includ­ing can­di­dates from oth­er HE insti­tu­tions an d to pro­vide a bet­ter vis­i­bil­i­ty for recruit­ing offi­cers as to high qual­i­ty of train­ing these PhD stu­dents will receive, the Uni­ver­si­ty has also imple­ment­ed a qual­i­ty pol­i­cy pro­gramme over the past few years in regard to its PhD degree award, putting it on a par with the UTC engi­neer­ing diplo­ma. As is the case for oth­er doc­tor­al schools, UTC’s school for exam­ple has set up train­ing mod­ules that are design to rein­force the ‘employ­a­bil­i­ty fac­tor’ of its PhD grad­u­ates. The objec­tive notably is to pro­vide a clear insight into the entre­pre­neur­ial world, but this now a stan­dard approach. Where UTC proves orig­i­nal is that we try to make them aware of the need – whilst being experts in their spe­cial­ist fields – to build up and pos­sess a sol­id sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal cul­ture in their specialty.

“Whether they move towards the entre­pre­neur­ial world or to the pub­lic research sec­tor, most of our grad­u­ates are not in fact recruit­ed in their the­sis spe­cial­ty, but into a nonethe­less close area of exper­tise”, explains Bruno Bachi­mont. “They must there­fore show their capac­i­ty to adapt rapid­ly to new sub­jects. More­over, they will be increas­ing­ly expose to com­plex prob­lems for which no sin­gle approach proves sat­is­fac­to­ry. Last point here: pri­vate com­pa­nies need experts to find solu­tions for spe­cif­ic tech­no­log­i­cal obsta­cles, but they also need ‘vision­ar­ies’ capa­ble of antic­i­pat­ing changes in their spe­cial­ist areas and to enhance inno­v­a­tive prod­ucts and process­es. In oth­er words, as far as PhDs are con­cerned more pro­fes­sion­al­ism means more science”. 

Zero unemployed among UTC’s younger PhDs

The high qual­i­ty pol­i­cy thrust of UTC also calls for val­ori­sa­tion of its PhDs. This is embod­ies in the Guy Deniélou Prize, the most recent edi­tion of which took place on April 7, 2017. Every year, this Prize sheds light on the work of its younger research sci­en­tists pop­u­la­tion, select­ing 4 recent grad­u­ates whose achieve­ment were of spe­cial inter­est to a jury of experts. 

As you read the expe­ri­ences of these UTC PhDs in the next few pages, you will no doubt agree that the qual­i­ty of their work deserves the recog­ni­tion they get else­where: most of them were recruit­ed very rapid­ly, often before they have made their pub­lic the­sis pre­sen­ta­tion and this is con­firmed by our polling enquiries. Glob­al­ly speak­ing, the grad­u­ates, over the years 2010–2015, took between 2 to 3 months to secure their first job and it was not­ed, 3 years after grad­u­a­tion, that none of the PhD grad­u­ates (for years 2010, 2011 and 2012) was unem­ployed. 46% are cur­rent­ly employed in pub­lic ser­vice posi­tions, 46% in the pri­vate sec­tors, the major­i­ty as lec­tur­er-research sci­en­tists, research work­ers (as sci­en­tists or engi­neers) and all enjoy a sta­ble job posi­tion. n 

[Min­is­te­r­i­al assess­ment of the impact of the “Young PhD » incen­tive in the Government’s tax rebate pro­gramme — Report to the French Min­istry in charge of HE and Research (MENESR), Octo­ber 1915].

Professional prospects for PhDs in France

A clear-cut added value of the PhD with respect to the Master’s degree 2.

France awards around 14 000 PhDs per year, 40% of whom are non-French nation­als. The most recent enquiry of the CEREQ (French nation­al agency for analy­sis of qual­i­fi­ca­tions) look­ing at the 3 year hori­zon mark of French nation­al PhDs liv­ing in France, par­tic­u­lar­ly the 2010 grad­u­ates (not includ­ing the health sector). 

In 2013, the unem­ploy­ment lev­el, inde­pen­dent­ly of the spe­cial­ist area, was still rel­a­tive­ly high: 9%. Nev­er­the­less, it has dropped by 2 % over the decade. And of spe­cial note, the lev­el is now below that of the Master’s 2 degree, around 12% since 2010 but only 7% in 2007. 

In con­trast, how­ev­er, it is high­er than the com­pa­ra­ble fig­ures for grad­u­ates from the engi­neer­ing schools (4%). How­ev­er, the sit­u­a­tion is high­ly con­trast­ed depend­ing on the spe­cial­ty of the PhDs. 

Advantage in computer sciences and applications, electronics and engineering sciences

PhDs in in com­put­er sci­ences and appli­ca­tions, elec­tron­ics and engi­neer­ing sci­ences are those for whom the access to a first job is short­est in lead-time and who – 3 years after their grad­u­a­tion — have the low­est unem­ploy­ment rate and the less employed under CDD (time lim­it­ed) con­tracts. The frac­tion of those who are unem­ployed or under CDD con­tracts is high­er than those with an engi­neer­ing diplo­ma but this can be explained by the dif­fi­cul­ties inher­ent to secur­ing a job in pub­lic research (for those who have cho­sen this career path). But they are almost all con­sid­ered as being at man­age­ment lev­el and in terms of their medi­an salaries can vie with the engineers. 

 Engineering diploma + PhD – the winning hand

PhD grad­u­ates who also hold an engi­neer­ing diplo­ma can access the employ­ment mar­kets eas­i­er than PhDs in the same spe­cial­ty field but with­out an engi­neer­ing degree. In 2013, three years after grad­u­at­ing, only 5% of the dou­ble degree cat­e­go­ry were still unem­ployed and 17% were engaged under time lim­it­ed con­tracts (CDD). In the sec­ond sin­gle degree cat­e­go­ry, 12% were unem­ployed and 40% under time lim­it­ed contracts. 

 Sources :

• 3 year Job hori­zon for PhD grad­u­at­ing in 2010 – Enquiry for Gen­er­a­tion 2010, inter­ro­ga­tion for 2013, CEREQ, Dec. 2015. 

• Sci­en­tif­ic employ­ment sta­tus in France – joint report 2016. HE and Research Direc­torate Gen­er­al, Research and Inno­va­tion Direc­torate General. 

Sec­tor Group is a con­sul­tan­cy com­pa­ny that spe­cial­izes in the field of risk iden­ti­fi­ca­tion man­age­ment. It is an SME with 120 staff that employs 4 PhDs and is also recruit­ing a PhD stu­dents in the frame­work of a CIFRE con­tract (indus­tri­al agree­ment to train via research) with the UTC Heudi­asyc lab­o­ra­to­ry. Their Chair­man, Jean-François Bar­bet, spoke with our reporters.

Why are the specific skills of PhDs of interest to you at Sector Group?

I myself am not a PhD. I was ini­tial­ly trained as an engi­neer and as a research sci­en­tist: I began my pro­fes­sion­al career at the R&D Divi­sion of EDF (French elec­tric­i­ty util­i­ty), to study var­i­ous prob­a­bilis­tic ways to mea­sure secu­ri­ty fac­tor in the domain of nuclear pow­er pro­duc­tion. That ear­ly career expe­ri­ence and my pro­fes­sion­al fol­low-on con­vinced me that if we want to devel­op activ­i­ties that inte­grate inno­v­a­tive prod­ucts and process, then the appro­pri­ate path is via research. And, giv­en that PhD grad­u­ates are trained in research pro­to­cols, the PhDs pos­sess a pri­ma­ry asset: the capac­i­ty to dare pro­pose break­through solu­tions and to explore paths that are not yet cov­ered in teach­ing cours­es or in indus­tri­al ref­er­ence texts; in con­trast, young grad­u­ate engi­neers has not been pre­pared to adopt this sort of attitude. 

To what extent is this important for your company’s activities?

Our work is spread over a wide range of activ­i­ties: ener­gy, rail­road, auto­mo­bile, aero­nau­tics … one half of our projects relate to exist­ing instal­la­tions (for exam­ple, rein­forced mea­sures for nuclear pow­er sta­tions, inte­grat­ing return on expe­ri­ence (ROE) and the oth­er half on new sub­jects such as increased auton­o­my in road vehi­cles. In our fields it is impor­tant that we deploy con­sid­er­able efforts on R&D to bet­ter meet our cus­tomers’ needs and expec­ta­tions today and to ensure our own future: we must learn all the time what the mar­ket-place is say­ing, today and tomor­row. Remem­ber that the cul­ture of research is doubt and this is pri­mor­dial when you work in the field of risk iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and management. 

What will be the area of work assigned to your CIFRE PhD student?

The answer here is pre­dic­tive main­te­nance maths mod­els, aids to deci­sion to enable fine analy­ses when we are required to inter­vene in an oper­a­tional sys­tem, there­fore nec­es­sar­i­ly tak­ing real con­di­tions in to account. We are con­stant­ly work­ing on research projects in part­ner­ships signed with the uni­ver­si­ties: recruit­ing a PhD stu­dent is anoth­er way to build strong links with the aca­d­e­m­ic world to enhance our R&D. But our objec­tive must also be to recruit the grad­u­ate after his/her the­sis years. This is all the more impor­tant that SMEs find it dif­fi­cult to attract high lev­el sci­en­tists, who indeed often pre­fer to join a major com­pa­ny structure. 

* A CIFRE con­tract allows a com­pa­ny to receive a State sub­sidy to recruit a PhD stu­dent where the research work will be over­seen by experts with a pub­lic laboratory. 

After pre­sent­ing his the­sis on dri­ver-aids, Clé­ment Zinoune joined a spe­cial team at the Renault research and devel­op­ment divi­sion work­ing on the theme of dri­ver­less cars.

Clé­ment gained his UTC degree major­ing in Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer­ing, with the elec­tive spe­cial­ty of Mecha­tron­ics and Sys­tem Robo­t­i­sa­tion, plus a Master’s degree (in par­al­lel) on, flight dynam­ics and drone con­trol sys­tems at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cran­field (UK). He could have stopped there (in terms of his qual­i­fi­ca­tions) but, hav­ing spent a semes­ter on a research top­ic, that con­vinced him that a PhD would also be in order – this turned out to be a very wise decision. 

In 2011, he was accept­ed on a CIFRE con­tract with Renault to do a the­sis on dri­ver aids, under the aca­d­e­m­ic super­vi­sion of Prof. Philippe Bon­ni­fait, UTC-Heudi­asyc. “At the time, Renault was ori­ent­ing its prod­uct pol­i­cy in favour of dri­ver aids that made good use of the data pro­vid­ed by the vehi­cles on-board nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem: for exam­ple, warn­ing a dri­ver when he/she takes a road bend too fast (as seen on a road map). The fact is that nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems do con­tain errors. My research was there­fore focus on set­ting up a method­ol­o­gy to iden­ti­fy errors and cor­rect them accord­ing­ly: when a vehi­cle pass­es the same spot sev­er­al times, the sys­tem com­pares the real tra­jec­to­ry with what the nav.sat is indi­cat­ing – this allows you to cor­rect the car­tog­ra­phy and make the dri­ver aids more reli­able. I did not want to com­mit myself exclu­sive­ly to ‘blue sky’ research, i.e., 100% in a lab­o­ra­to­ry, but pre­ferred to work on inno­v­a­tive sub­jects with a con­nec­tion to indus­tri­al con­cerns. For me the CIFRE con­tract rep­re­sent­ed a per­fect balance”. 

An efficient bootstrap

Clé­ment Zinoune defend­ed his PhD the­sis in 2014 and was imme­di­ate­ly recruit­ed to join Renault’s R&D Divi­sion, in a new­ly cre­at­ed unit on a high­ly strate­gic sub­ject: dri­ver­less cars. “In the begin­ning, we were two and my role was to devel­op the car­to­graph­ic data for the vehi­cle (direct­ly in con­nec­tion with my the­sis) but also to study what form, what lev­el, of intel­li­gence to add to the nav­i­ga­tion on-board sys­tem and his was quite nov­el for me. Today the team has 15 mem­bers and my job is to coor­di­nate the devel­op­ment of the var­i­ous bull­dog blocks that con­sti­tute the vehicle’s intel­li­gence, each brick hav­ing its own pilot system”. 

For some of the bricks, in par­tic­u­lar vehi­cle local­i­sa­tion and per­cep­tion of its envi­ron­ment, Renault is work­ing with UTC-Heudi­asyc Lab for whom the dri­ver­less vehi­cle is a flag­ship research sub­ject. This rep­re­sents a col­lab­o­ra­tion which, in March 2017, led to the cre­ation of a joint lab (SIVAL­ab, cf.intra p.2). Young grad­u­ate as he is, Clé­ment Zinoune is obvi­ous­ly an active participant. 

Michel Boussemart’s the­sis in applied math­e­mat­ics relates to aero­nau­tics. For the past 10 years he has been work­ing for the DCNS (naval defense systems).

Michel first gained an engi­neer­ing degree in com­put­er sci­ences and their appli­ca­tions and a DEA (advanced diplo­ma, equiv­a­lent to today’s Master’s 2 degree) in sys­tem con­trol at UTC and then did his PhD under the CIFRE con­tract for­mu­la at Snec­ma (one of the com­pa­nies in the Safran Group) under the aca­d­e­m­ic super­vi­sion of Prof Niko­laos Limnios, UITYC-LMAC Lab. 

Michel defend­ed his the­sis in 2001, the sub­ject being devel­op­ment of the­o­ry and sto­chas­tic com­pu­ta­tions and method­ol­o­gy, plus aids to deci­sion, in the area of air­craft jet engine reg­u­la­tion proces­sors. “Very often, when we pre­pare for an engi­neer­ing diplo­ma, the aim is to rapid­ly inte­grate the entre­pre­neur­ial world. At that stage we are not nec­es­sar­i­ly, aware of what PhDs do and we tend to imag­ine them total­ly iso­lat­ed from the world in their lab­o­ra­to­ry. Per­son­al­ly, I was for­tu­nate inas­much as Niko­laos Limnios dealt with con­crete indus­tri­al applied maths projects in his lec­tures at UTC. It was this applied facet to research activ­i­ties that I found inter­est­ing. That encour­ages me to reg­is­ter for a PhD under the CIFRE arrange­ment and this way I learned to use rig­or­ous math­e­mat­i­cal meth­ods to iden­ti­fy and devel­op nov­el respons­es for indus­tri­al problems”. 

A profile that makes all the difference

This method­olog­i­cal skill was not put to use imme­di­ate­ly. When his the­sis was accept­ed and the PhD award­ed there was a cri­sis sit­u­a­tion in aero­nau­tics in the after­math of the Sept.11, 2001 attacks in New York. This also led Michel Bousse­mart to widen the scope of his activ­i­ties and redesign his career path. For sev­er­al years, he was recruit­ed to var­i­ous engi­neer­ing posts in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent companies. 

In 2007, he moved to the DCNS Group. “I was recruit­ed as an SLI archi­tect (inte­grat­ed logis­tics sup­port), and my role was to design the full main­te­nance pro­gramme for a sub­ma­rine and I think I was hired more as an engi­neer than as a PhD. Over time, I was able to add the extra research dimen­sion to my work as I in, fact want­ed to do. Since 2013, I have been in charge of a con­fi­den­tial project with a high soft­ware con­tent, and for which my PhD back­ground was clear­ly an advan­tage for me com­pared with the oth­er can­di­dates for the posi­tion. As the recruiters saw things, there was an advan­tage here in terms of archi­tec­ture opti­miza­tion and sys­tem main­te­nance pro­grammes. But I also make use of my research sci­en­tist back­ground to speak at inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences on indus­tri­al issues such as oper­a­tional safe­ty fac­tors and assess­ment. It also helps increase the noto­ri­ety of the DCNS Divi­sion and allows us to keep a watch on devel­op­ment of new knowl­edge that can trig­ger or enhance innovation”. 

Lénaïk Ley­oudec pre­sent­ed his PhD the­sis in com­put­er sci­ences and their appli­ca­tions under the aca­d­e­m­ic super­vi­sion of Pro­fes­sor Bruno Bachi­mont, in the frame­work of a CIFRE con­tract asso­ci­at­ing the UTC lab­o­ra­to­ry and a start-up. Today Lénaïk is a con­sul­tant with this start-up company.

Per­fect Mem­o­ry is a start-up found­ed in 2008 by a UTC grad­u­ate Ste­ny Soli­tude. Its field of busi­ness activ­i­ties is that of data man­age­ment. The com­pa­ny has devel­oped a tech­no­log­i­cal plat­form to col­lect raw data which are’ trans­formed into ‘dig­i­tal cap­i­tal assets’, i.e., knowl­edge that can be used in numer­ous domains (mar­ket­ing, trade, doc­u­ment man­age­ment …) and has cus­tomers in divcerse sec­tors (media, dis­tri­b­u­tion, banks and insur­ance, defence …). 

Lénaïk Ley­oudec dis­cov­ered the start-up in 2012 when he was doing a Master’s degree in his­to­ry and the his­to­ry of art, with the elec­tive spe­cial­ty in val­oriza­tion of cul­tur­al her­itage. “I chose to do my degree dis­ser­ta­tion on val­oriza­tion of pri­vate audio­vi­su­al her­itage. At that time, Per­fect Mem­o­ry was also work­ing in the same area and had designed a tool to man­age fam­i­ly-relat­ed infor­ma­tion: “Famille®”. I did my end-of-stud­ies place­ment with them”. 

When semiotics fosters technologiocal reserach

It was at this occa­sion that the idea came to be to do a CIFRE con­tract PhD on how to edit fam­i­ly films, using a unique approach close to the research phi­los­o­phy of UTC-Costech Lab work: bring­ing in social sci­ences and espe­cial­ly semi­otics : to gen­er­ate edit­ing and ergonom­ic rec­om­men­da­tions to improve the Fam­i­ly® ser­vice offer. 

“The objec­tive is to pro­vide users with an inter­face that enables them to anno­tate AV archives to enhance cir­cu­la­tion of sou­venirs in fam­i­ly cir­cles”, explains Lénaïk Ley­oudec. “For this pur­pose, I stud­ied a cor­pus of 20 or so films, sequence after sequence, iden­ti­fy­ing recur­rent ‘mark­ers’ which I decom­posed into signs which I ana­lyzed to pro­pose new func­tion­al­i­ties in the Fam­i­ly® Web app. To illus­trate there is the face-cam­era posi­tion (the per­son filmed is look­ing straight at the camera)”. 

“My research pro­vid­ed the sci­en­tif­ic basis for Per­fect Mem­o­ry which will, lead on to reg­is­tra­tion of patent claims,” under­lines Ste­ny Soli­tude. “The issue of how we can anno­tate archives – which the PhD stu­dent Ley­oudec stud­ied – is also valid for B2B oper­a­tions (Busi­ness to Busi­ness). When this ques­tion is analysed, com­par­ing the work for ‘silent’ fam­i­ly films and the solu­tion for a major indus­tri­al group, a large frac­tion of the ques­tion has been solved”. 

Building up the ‘employability’ factor

Lénaïk Ley­oudec – who pre­sent­ed his PhD dis­ser­ta­tion in Jan­u­ary 2017 – was recruit­ed on a no-time lim­it con­tract (CDI) basis as a semi­otic and user expe­ri­ence con­sul­tant to design the solu­tions devel­oped by the start-up. “To a large degree, I built up my employ­a­bil­i­ty dur­ing my CIFRE con­tract, inas­much I had already received oper­a­tional mis­sions on behalf of Per­fect Mem­o­ry. This was not easy: the cor­po­rate world is not at all com­pa­ra­ble with the aca­d­e­m­ic world and in a start-up nobody real­ly has any spare time to help you adapt to a pro­fes­sion­al con­text. But it was this expe­ri­ence that enabled me to clear­ly find my head­ing: I was able to con­tin­ue work­ing in my spe­cial­ty area, where­as as often social sci­ence grad­u­ates ori­ent them­selves towards sec­tors oth­er than those of their orig­i­nal specialty”. 

Mohamed Sabt is one of the 4 lau­re­ates of the annu­al Guy Deniélou 2017 Prize for UTC’s PhDs. His research work has already led to prac­ti­cal fall-out appli­ca­tions, throw­ing light on the loop­holes in the secu­ri­ty of two sys­tems (one of which is Android) and opened the way for him to join a start-up company.

Mohamed Sabt hails from Bahrein and came to Com­pieg­ne. He first fol­lowed inten­sive French lan­guage class­es for 6 months, stud­ied for his engi­neer­ing diplo­ma major­ing in com­put­er sci­ences and their appli­ca­tions, a Master’s degree on ‘smart’ trans­porta­tion sys­tems … Then, in 2013, he joined Orange Labs (Orange’s R&D Cen­tre), doing a CIFRE con­tract PhD, under the aca­d­e­m­ic super­vi­sion of Prof. Abdel­mad­jid Bouab­dal­lah, UTC-Heudi­asyc Lab. 

He pre­sent­ed his the­sis in Decem­ber 2016, on smart­phone secu­ri­ty for sen­si­tive apps such as on-line pay­ments. “To begin with, I stud­ied the lim­its of today’s tech­nolo­gies using a proven secu­ri­ty pro­to­col – a sub-branch of applied maths which enabled me to deter­mine if a sys­tem is “safe” or not and to iden­ti­fy its loop­holes. With this method, I was able to iden­ti­fy sev­er­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in two large­ly used sys­tems – the key ware­house of Android (which hous­es the cryp­to­graph­ic keys for the OS) and the SCP secret pro­to­cols of Glob­alPlate­form, a con­sor­tium of smart­card lead­ers. Six months before I pub­lished my results – I informed the Secu­ri­ty Team at Android so they could fix the loophole(s) and also con­tact­ed and Glob­alPlat­forme, who imme­di­ate­ly set up a task force to take my analy­ses into account”. 

A profile that makes all the difference

It nev­er­the­less remains true that prov­ing the safe­ty fac­tor (or lack of) for a com­plex sys­tem using only math­e­mat­ics is a time-con­sum­ing oper­a­tion. Again, mod­ern mobile phone tech­nolo­gies evolve very fast. Mohamed Sabt there­fore chose to explore a com­ple­men­tary path. “In order to offer bet­ter pro­tec­tion for some of the smartphone’s sen­si­tive apps, it is pos­si­ble to run them on a TEE, short in Eng­lish for trust­ed exe­cu­tion envi­ron­ment), imple­ment­ed on a spe­cif­ic com­po­nent and which runs in par­al­lel with the main OS (for instance, Android). In this way, if the main sys­tem comes under attacked the par­al­lel sys­tem is not and the data/functions are pre­served. To opti­mize the process, I pro­posed a method­ol­o­gy based on a very advanced cryp­to­graph­ic pro­to­col which enables the users to make “apps” run­ning in a TEE to be even more secure”. 

So, what did Sapt learn from this work? “Gain­ing new in-depth knowl­edge, of course but more than that: doing my PhD is a way to have a go at a prob­lem nobody before you has done; man­ag­ing a first big project last­ing 3 years; build­ing up a crit­i­cal cul­tur­al out­look by analysing numer­ous and often con­tra­dic­to­ry sci­en­tif­ic papers on the sub­ject; learn­ing to draft one’s own high-lev­el arti­cles”. These are among the skills that Mohamed Sabt chose to offer to a star-up found­ed by some for­mer employ­ees of Orange Labs: Dejamo­bile, devel­op­ing secure on-line pay­ment pro­to­cols. “My mis­sion with them is to offer an expert’s eye on short term apps for Dejamo­bile and to antic­i­pate tech­no­log­i­cal progress in the field to pre­serve our lead in secu­ri­ty issues and solu­tions. In a busi­ness com­pa­ny con­text, you can­not afford to do just basic research. And, for the time being this is what I want­ed to do – applied research, with the advan­tage that this is exact­ly what start-ups do, viz., they take risks to rapid­ly deploy inno­v­a­tive solutions”. 

Questions to Professor Abdelmadjid Bouabdallah

Pro­fes­sor Abdel­mad­jid Bouab­dal­lah, Direc­tor of UTC’s Com­put­er Sci­ence Depart­ment and research sci­en­tist at the UTC-Heudi­asyc Lab, answers our questions

From UTC-Heudiasyc’s standpoint, what was the challenge of Mohamed Sapt’s PhD thesis?

Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty is a strate­gic theme where UTC-Heudi­asyc sci­en­tists have a set of world-class skills that have been rec­og­nized over the past 15 years. The research team has designed sev­er­al inno­v­a­tive solu­tions in this field, one of which is cur­rent­ly under devel­op­ment with a start-up project. Mohamed Sapt’s the­sis (which cov­ered sev­er­al chal­lenges in a new domain) rein­forced our team’s exper­tise and the impor­tance of our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Orange Labs, a part­ner with whom we have been work­ing since 1998 and who recruit PhD grad­u­ates, notably from those we have trained at UTC. 

How can you encourage student engineers to become interested in pursuing their studies with a doctoral thesis?

My belief is that they should be induced to look at research activ­i­ties far before envis­ag­ing to sign up for a PhD. In this light, Mohamed Sabt is a good exam­ple. To begin with, we pro­posed that Mohamed take on a small research project on smart­phone trans­ac­tion­al secu­ri­ty in the frame­work of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Orange fol­lowed by an in-house place­ment with Orange. And to the extent that he dis­played a high degree of inter­est for research activ­i­ties, we drew up a the­sis sub­ject with Orange Labs that we thought would inter­est him. This is an approach we have employed with sev­er­al of our obvi­ous­ly tal­ent­ed students. 

Flo­rent Bouil­lon, an engi­neer with the Safran Group, 45 years old, chose the VAE path to pre­pare and defend a PhD this under the aca­d­e­m­ic super­vi­sion of Prof. Zoheir Aboura, UTC-Rober­val Laboratory.

Why did you choose to do a PhD?

After gain­ing my engi­neer­ing diplo­ma, I decid­ed to join Aerospa­tiale, attract­ed as I was by pro­grammes such as Ari­ane V – and from that point on, I was always engaged in R&D activ­i­ties. Today my posi­tion is in struc­tur­al pro­gramme devel­op­ment with Safran Ceram­ics – Safran’s “excel­lence’ cen­tre for research on very high tem­per­a­ture resis­tant mate­ri­als. The sub­ject cho­sen for my PhD came through dis­cus­sions with my col­leagues: for­eign­ers who are not famil­iar with the French engi­neer­ing diplo­ma were sur­prised that I did not have a doc­tor­ate, and indeed many peo­ple in France thought that my work was more akin to a PhD research sci­en­tist than a ‘clas­sic’ engi­neers work­ing hands-on, so to speak. And the idea sort of grew me and as I saw the VAE scheme devel­op­ing, I decide to join in. 

What is the procedure leading to the VAE diploma?

I authored a dis­ser­ta­tion (170 pages) with the title “Con­tri­bu­tion to method­olog­i­cal devel­op­ment when jus­ti­fy­ing and cer­ti­fy­ing com­pos­ite mate­ri­als for use in aero­nau­tic struc­tures”, which I shall present and defend in June. It is a stan­dard syn­the­sis of research and work car­ried out dur­ing my pro­fes­sion­al engi­neer­ing career. The aim was to present meth­ods devel­oped top assess and cer­ti­fy the behav­iour of struc­tures assem­bled with a new com­pos­ite mate­r­i­al to ensure that it com­plies with the oper­a­tional ser­vice con­straints and the spe­cif­ic safe­ty reg­u­la­tions that are spe­cif­ic to the aero­nau­tic sec­tors. Anoth­er objec­tive was to demon­strate that the work I had accom­plished in my pro­fes­sion­al envi­ron­ment was at the same lev­el of qual­i­ty as that of a clas­sic PhD stu­dent. How­ev­er, a VAE dis­ser­ta­tion has an extra fea­ture, com­pared with the clas­sic PhD the­sis. VAE can­di­dates are invit­ed to analyse their pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences, over and above the sci­en­tif­ic results and achieve­ments. Tak­ing the time need­ed to analyse one’s own track record is not at all easy, but is amaz­ing­ly enriching. 

When all is said and done, it is a demand­ing exer­cise. I thought I would need a year and a half (max) but in fact I took three years remem­ber­ing that at the same time I was in charge of a project at Safran, Ceram­ics (with a top­ic relat­ed to my PhD the­sis): to man­age the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of a ‘world first’ part with a com­pos­ite on a ceram­ic matrix to be installed in a civ­il aircraft. 

Why did you choose UTC-Roberval to write your dissertation?

I had already worked on research top­ics that asso­ci­at­ed Safran and UTC-Rober­val, and I was in charge also of some PhD stu­dents who were diet­ed by UTC-Rober­val aca­d­e­mics. What you have here is a uni­ver­si­ty lab­o­ra­to­ry whose vision I share, all the more so that it does not erect walls between aca­d­e­m­ic research and inno­va­tion-inten­sive activ­i­ties. At the Safran Group, R&D is part of our DNA. Our place on the podi­um for patent claims is a sig­nif­i­cant mark­er. To make a dif­fer­ence with our com­peti­tors, we must inno­vate con­stant­ly and in this respect con­duct research with nec­es­sar­i­ly applied final­i­ties, notwith­stand­ing some basic sci­ence ques­tions and issues to be solved. Our pro­gres­sion runs to-and-forth between research and inno­va­tion. UTC is total­ly in line with this vision. My choice also depend­ed on the rela­tion­ships I built with mem­bers of the Rober­val team, and espe­cial­ly with Pro­fes­sor Aboura. With col­leagues and a super­vi­sor like these, I was con­fi­dent I could suc­cess­ful­ly com­plete my research assignment. 

What personal benefits do you think you will draw from a PhD award?

Above all oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions, there is my plea­sure and pride, and these con­sti­tute the first source of my moti­va­tion. Sec­ond­ly, the title “Dr” is recog­nised inter­na­tion­al­ly. More­over, in order to enhance inno­va­tion, the Safran Group has set up a fam­i­ly of experts, with three lev­els – cor­po­rate experts with one of the Group’s com­pa­nies, experts for and with the Group and emer­i­tus experts. I myself am a cor­po­rate expert and, even if it is not an ‘open-sesame’ key, a PhD is a form of proof that can help me become a Group expert. But I must add that my per­son­al objec­tive – shared by the Safran Group – is to be able to work in an inter­ac­tion with the aca­d­e­mics and not just sub-con­tract research projects on a customer/supplier basis. By invest­ing time, efforts and ener­gy to gain my PhD, I, in fact, gath­ered the assets to progress even fur­ther and this is enrich­ing for me, for the Group, and for the part­ner laboratories 

You are now recruiting PhDs yourself – what profiles are you looking for?

Safran Group likes PhDs and recruits a lot of PhD stu­dents under CIFRE con­tracts. Often, in research clus­ters we most­ly find young PhD stu­dents who already have an engi­neer­ing diplo­ma, to the extent that a ‘dou­ble degree’ (PhD + engi­neer) is an advan­tage and after defend­ing their dis­ser­ta­tion the­sis, many are recruit­ed by the Group. But it is not always obvi­ous to find can­di­dates here. 

Benoît Dylews­ki is one of the lau­re­ates of the Guy Deniélou 2017 The­sis Prize. Benoît did his the­sis work at UTC-Rober­val in a project theme that involved the RATP (Greater Paris Pub­lic Trans­port con­sor­tium); the RATP recruit­ed Benoît Dylews­ki after his PhD award.

With increased train pas­sen­ger capac­i­ties and, con­se­quent­ly, their increased loads, the issue of rail cracks by fatigue has become more acute. How can we pre­vent this risk lead­ing to a rail cat­a­stroph­ic break? This was the core ques­tion of Benoît Dylewski’s the­sis, a major issue for rail trans­port com­pa­nies (as well as for UTC with its numer­ous projects in this field and its role as founder mem­ber of the “insti­tute for tech­no­log­i­cal research” Raile­ni­um, one of the insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed by the Gov­ern­ment under its incen­tive pro­gramme “Invest­ments for the Future”. 

This the­sis is part of the Raile­ni­um frame­work ini­ti­at­ed by the UTC-Rober­val Lab and Cer­fiv­er and was super­vised by two Rober­val research sci­en­tists, Sal­i­ma Bou­vi­er and Mar­i­on Ris­bet. “My job relat­ed to a Cer­fiv­er project direct­ed by the RATP (as the indus­tri­al part­ner)”, explains Benoît Dylews­ki. “I car­ried out exper­i­men­tal analy­ses on rail seg­ment sam­ples pro­vide by the Paris Region rail ser­vices, with the objec­tive to char­ac­ter­ize the microstruc­tur­al, physic­o­chem­i­cal and mechan­i­cal changes that accom­pa­ny increased load fac­tors. I then com­pared the exper­i­men­tal data with dig­i­tal mod­el­ling results. This approach enabled me to improve our under­stand­ing of grad­ual defor­ma­tion and crack­ing of rails – which was the main objec­tive – but also to issue some rec­om­men­da­tions to improve pre­dic­tive main­te­nance and to avoid cat­a­stroph­ic rail failures”. 

A real added value

The three years were espe­cial­ly rich for Benoît Dylews­ki: “Over and above the exper­tise I gained in this spe­cial­ist field, I also acquired the mas­tery of exper­i­men­tal ana­lyt­i­cal tools and meth­ods more than when I was doing my engi­neer­ing diplo­ma stud­ies. I also enjoyed an in-depth expe­ri­ence of part­ner­ship research between an aca­d­e­m­ic research lab­o­ra­to­ry and an indus­tri­al­ist. I was able to take part in inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences and I taught too at UTC, which allowed me to dis­sem­i­nate my research results. That was a real added val­ue in respect to my engi­neer­ing diploma”. 

Before pre­sent­ing his the­sis, in Decem­ber 2016, Benoît was recruit­ed by the Test & Metrol­o­gy Lab (LEM) of the RATP con­sor­tium. The LEM Lab has three spe­cial­ty sec­tors – mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing, elec­tric­i­ty and physi­co-chem­istry – and car­ries out a wide and var­ied range of tests and mea­sure­ments for all the ingre­di­ents of urban trans­porta­tion (rolling stock, infra­struc­tures, equip­ment, sta­tions: lab exper­i­ments to assess, for exam­ple, parts pro­vid­ed by sup­pli­ers to ascer­tain that they com­ply with tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tions, or analy­sis of failed parts … but there are also in situ tests to cer­ti­fy new rolling stock or to mea­sure air-qual­i­ty in the Paris under­ground sys­tem. Benoît Dylews­ki is a QA test engi­neer spe­cial­ist of metal­lic part fail­ures who works in the mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing divi­sion of LEM. “When I began my PhD, I did not know whether I was going to look for a job in indus­try or pre­fer to be a lec­tur­er cum research sci­en­tist. Final­ly, after 3 years in a lab envi­ron­ment, I decid­ed the indus­tri­al world was more attrac­tive. But I don’t exclude the pos­si­bil­i­ty of return­ing lat­er to aca­d­e­m­ic research activities. 

Rémy Foret, Executive Director of the RATP-LEM Test Laboratory, answers our questions

We saw that end-2016, the RATP-LEM lab (which employs 70 staff) recruited 3PhDs, not counting Benoît Dylewski. Is this a deliberate policy decision?

In fact, we do not have any spe­cif­ic desire to recruit PhDs rather than engi­neers, but it is not by chance that we do recruit them. They dis­play tech­ni­cal apti­tude and skills in terms of analy­sis, abstrac­tion, and their capac­i­ty to frame ques­tions … all of which is of inter­est to us as employ­ers. We def­i­nite­ly need peo­ple capa­ble of analysing com­plex data gen­er­at­ed via our test pro­to­cols. More­over, in order to pre­serve the legit­i­ma­cy of our com­pa­ny, we must nec­es­sar­i­ly inno­vate, iden­ti­fy and imple­ment new method­olo­gies, new test pro­to­cols and equip­ment and this pre­sup­pos­es that we pos­sess a state-of-the-art tech­no­log­i­cal review, fea­si­bil­i­ty stud­ies, devel­op­ment pro­grammes. Tasks like these are akin to research activ­i­ties and it is here that the skills of a PhD are very important.

What specific profiles are of special interest to you?

When we con­sid­er hir­ing peo­ple, we have them fill in a ques­tion­naire to assess their sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal skills, and to eval­u­ate their man­age­r­i­al poten­tial. Our sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal cri­te­ria are very strin­gent and an engi­neer who has only had project man­age­ment eXpe­ri­ence may well not fit the bill. But there again, a PhD with a ‘pure’ lab sci­en­tist pro­file, no spe­cial tal­ents for man­age­ment and no expe­ri­ence at all of the indus­tri­al world will not a pri­ori com­ply either. What we pre­fer are the PhDs with an engi­neer­ing diplo­ma who did their the­sis in a CIFRE con­tract or who have had some pre­vi­ous indus­tri­al experience. 

A large frac­tion of UTC’s PhDs look for a first appoint­ment in the aca­d­e­m­ic world. For instance, Baochao Wang, who pre­sent­ed a the­sis on non-renew­able ener­gies, under the super­vi­sion of Pro­fes­sors Manuela Sechi­lar­iu and Fab­rice Loc­ment, UTC- Avenues Laboratory.

In Chi­na, as is the case in France, the num­ber of PhD grad­u­ates com­ing onto the mar­ket-place large­ly exceeds the num­ber of posi­tions offered in HE and pub­lic research estab­lish­ments, hence more and more young PhDs are look­ing to the entre­pre­neur­ial world for a first job. Baochao Wang, as soon as he had suc­cess­ful­ly pre­sent­ed his the­sis in 2014 was recruit­ed as lec­tur­er cum research sci­en­tist at one of China’s best uni­ver­si­ties, the well-known Harbin Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (HIT).

His pass­port to Chi­na was the doc­tor­al degree in the frame­work of a pro­gramme asso­ci­at­ing the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment agency sup­port­ing uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent and staff mobil­i­ty, viz., the Chi­na Schol­ar­ship Coun­cil (CSC), and the French net­works of Uni­ver­si­ties of Tech­nol­o­gy (UTs) and the INSA engi­neer­ing insti­tutes. “In the begin­ning, I pre­pared for a Master’s degree in Elec­tri­cal Engi­neer­ing at HOIT and had not then thought about doing a the­sis”, says our young PhD. “But my Father advised me to pur­sue to the doc­tor­al degree to widen my career prospects. I applied and went for an inter­view at HIT and dis­cov­ered that the CSC could award me a doc­tor­al degree schol­ar­ship, for oth­er Chi­nese stu­dents who wish to present them­selves for a PhD in one of the French UTs or at an INSA. 

A strategic subject: “smart” electric micro-networks

In the frame­work, of this inter­na­tion­al mobil­i­ty pro­gramme, UTC’s Avenue Lab­o­ra­to­ry pro­posed a the­sis sub­ject in one of their main­stream research areas – smart elec­tric micro-net­works inte­grat­ing (at the scale of a build­ing: a renew­able elec­tric pow­er gen­er­a­tor (notably PV solar pan­el arrays), a pow­er stor­age sys­tem and a clas­sic pow­er back-up gen­er­a­tor. The chal­lenge here is to pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty, man­age pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion in such a way as to feed the build­ing at the low­est cost and priv­i­lege, wher­ev­er pos­si­ble, the renew­able pow­er source. 

And Baochao Wang adds: “Renew­able ener­gies rep­re­sent a strate­gic field and I found this high­ly inter­est­ing. The very idea of doing a 3 1/2 year PhD in France (where it usu­al­ly takes 4 to 5 in Chi­na) also attract­ed me. I sent my appli­ca­tion to UTC-Avenues and they select­ed me. But, before leav­ing for France I signed a con­tract with HIT author­i­ties who pledged to hire me on my return to the extent that Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties hold in high esteem the qual­i­ty of French HE insti­tu­tions select­ed by the CSC to send Chi­nese nation­als abroad. 

All of this rep­re­sents a high­ly demand­ing set-up with dis­cov­ery of a new lan­guage and a for­eign coun­try … my expe­ri­ence in France was some­times hard, but very reward­ing for me. “Of course, not only did I acquired a lot of com­ple­men­tary in-depth knowl­edge in elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, but in addi­tion too learned how to organ­ise research assign­ments and how to draft a paper for a sci­en­tif­ic review. In France you enjoy have a cul­ture for orga­ni­za­tion, going as far as (and includ­ing) how to write cor­rect­ly which I must admit is not the case in China!” 

Le magazine

Juin 2023 - N°60

Une recherche tournée vers un avenir soutenable

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