Dr Julien Leuthold

As a scientific advisor at the Swiss National Science Foundation, Julien Leuthold accompanies candidates and participates in the launch of collaborative instruments. In this way, he has chosen to combine professional development, scientific excellence, hobby and family life.

Deciphering magmatic complexes motivated his research work, particularly in Patagonia during his thesis in petrology in 2011 at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment (FGSE). His interest in natural sciences still accompanies him through his current involvement in actions for the general public.

Julien Leuthold


What does your current position involve?

After several years of conducting academic research, I have stepped into the other side of the mirror. I am a scientific advisor at the SNSF since 2019. My tasks are diverse. I answer questions from researchers, make sure that the evaluation process runs smoothly, and then explain the decisions to the applicants. I sometimes evaluate requests for scientific exchanges or requests to transfer grants abroad. Occasionally, I also participate in the evaluation of research infrastructures, from the creation of the call to the final report.

I also take part in several working groups. For example, the Weave/Lead Agency working group, in charge of international collaborative projects. We negotiate with partner agencies and then handle international projects. This requires careful monitoring. I was also elected to the Staff Committee where we defend the interests of employees as best we can.

What do you like about your work at the SNF? Why did you choose this path?

In each of my tasks, the team is constantly questioning itself in order to always strive for excellence. I really enjoy this. I also like being close to the scientific research environment. Obviously, it is fairly less exciting than conducting research yourself, but my position offers many advantages. For example, I suffered from the instability of research positions, and the constant need to publish. Today, the work has not diminished, but offers more security. I am also very proud to work in a multilingual and multicultural world, where it is common to mix German, French and English in the same sentence. There is a very good listening from the teams and superiors and good ideas can be implemented quickly.

You are also president of the Société Vaudoise des Sciences Naturelles. How does that fit in?

The mission of the Société vaudoise des sciences naturelles – whose bicentenary we recently celebrated! – is to share knowledge from the academic world to the general public. We have a large number of activities: conferences, excursions and visits, newsletters and memoirs, junior activities, prize-giving. There is a lot of strategic work to adapt the SVSN to the needs of the members and to the technological advances. To give you an idea of the challenges, I started my role as president when the COVID-19 pandemic was coming to Switzerland... Since then, the society offers most of its activities in hybrid mode, in order to reach the maximum number of people throughout the canton, and even the French-speaking world.

Do you now use the skills you developed in your work as a researcher, particularly at the FGSE?

Definitely. My work as a researcher has allowed me to develop a sharp analytical mind and the ability to conduct constructive criticism. I have also developed the ability to present results to any type of audience, or to write reports. Moreover, I was able to develop a great deal of autonomy and independence, thanks to the confidence of my teachers. I have further strengthened these skills during my work as a researcher and lecturer, as well as in my voluntary activities at the Municipality and the SVSN. These dispositions have always been extremely useful in each of my activities.

Having been in the academic world and having been a researcher myself – having been turned down a few times for grants, but also having been successful – helps me to understand the needs of applicants. Thanks to this experience, I am better able to help them by providing constructive and detailed feedback and by being available in case of questions or remarks.

What motivated you to come to UNIL in 2001?

I was rather sedentary at the time and simply continued my studies where I lived. I’m not complaining, since I met my wife ;-). I could have gone to Berne to do a PhD, but the professor I was in contact with, Othmar Müntener, got the chair in Lausanne.

I think that my interest in natural sciences in general, beyond geology, did not develop at the FGSE, but resulted from my studies at the gymnasium. Later, while I was a researcher, the recurrent question: “But what is the use of your research?” also pushed me to talk about science with non-experts and curious people. Although I am still convinced of the value of my work – magma mixing in magma chambers – I realized that applied research is very interesting. For example, I have evaluated projects in robotics or photovoltaics and discovered incredible worlds.

Do you now have any activities related to your natural science research at FGSE?

Always, yes. At the SNSF, I manage several projects related to geosciences and geology in particular. At the SVSN, I propose and organize several activities in the geosciences disciplines. And this summer, I will give lectures during a touristic-scientific cruise in Spitzbergen.

How is the professional transition to an extra-academic role? Were you prepared for it?

It’s always a 90-degree turn. I had a few interviews for academic positions abroad, but was never selected. I was often criticized for my lack of academic publications. Aware of this weakness, I tried to diversify and develop other skills that could be useful to a research institution: for example, I love teaching and I am very interested in politics. So I was a lecturer at ETHZ and was part of several commissions and working groups. It was very exciting. As a city councillor, I also devoted a lot of time and energy to political tasks. In the end, I may have sacrificed my academic career, neglecting article writing! But I am convinced that it helped me to branch out and get to where I am today.

On the other hand – at least in my time – institutions didn’t offer much to prepare students and researchers to leave the academic world. At the end of my academic period, I was unemployed for a short period. Thanks to contacts and proactive behaviour, I was able to create an internship that helped me enormously in my reorientation and taught me a lot about the extra-academic world.

When you look back on your career, what are your thoughts? What advice would you give to a doctoral student or post-doc who is preparing the next step in their career?

I’m fairly satisfied with my trajectory and career. I’ve been fortunate to work in some amazing places, to do my own independent research projects, to live abroad for a few years, to pursue some very rewarding hobbies, to have a family life. Without a family life, I could certainly have pursued an academic career, immersed in my work day and night. It would have been different, but would it have been better?

A great piece of advice is to dare to try: for my first fellowship, I did not dare to write to the English professor with whom I would have loved to collaborate. During a train trip back from a workshop, a professor from Fribourg told me: “Just write to him and you’ll see. If he answers yes, you’ve got it, and if he doesn’t, he’s a fool” (or something like that). Within a few hours, I had a positive answer and I moved to England a few months later! Another piece of advice is to develop your network: it’s incredible the opportunities that can arise with the right contacts!

What are your current professional projects and aspirations?

Today, I would like to progress in my career and take more responsibilities. I have learned a lot and developed valuable skills in my different jobs and hobbies and I think I am perfectly capable of managing a team and more ambitious projects.

Interview published on March 31, 2023.

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