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PhD Studies in France - Pourquoi Pas?

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

A PhD in France is normally 3-4 years in duration. Doctoral candidates or “doctorants” in French are not considered as students but more as early career researchers. While not all PhD students will have access to one, France benefits from a strong network of doctoral schools (around 300) which are responsible for the training of PhD students in close collaboration with over 1200 research laboratories where PhD students are conducting their research. Doctoral schools are normally part of a university and doctoral training is delivered by the doctoral school under the responsibility of the PhD supervisor. Doctoral schools are often thematic in nature and will serve several research entities which have research interests in common. The main aims of doctoral schools are to ensure that students have a support structure for professional development, career planning and preparation to enter the academic, research or alternative career labour market.

To get a PhD in France, you are highly likely to have published in peer-reviewed journals and you will have to produce a thesis. The examination then takes the form of presentation to a “jury” in a public forum (called the “soutenance” or “défense”). Members of the jury and the public will then ask questions of the examinee.

Why Study A PhD in France?

When someone mentions France to you, what do you think of? The world’s most popular tourist destination, according to the United Nations World Tourist Organization and the home of many cultural treasures, not the least its language, France is a country steeped in social, artistic and intellectual history. To add to this, a world-renowned cuisine (and wine), a diverse natural environment and contemporary cities, there is something for everyone in France.

From philosophers Voltaire and Monstesquieu, mathematicians Descartes and Laplace, writers Zola and Dumas, artists Cézanne and Renoir to film-makers Godard and Besson, intellectual pursuits have always been part of the fabric of French society. The French Higher Education system is well known for its long tradition of excellence. A country of Nobel Prize winners (4th in the world), its academic institutions are today well placed in the rankings and are an important element of European research and academia. The French Government, whatever the party it is led by, has always had education at the forefront of its priorities, with the largest proportion of public spending (around 20%) being dedicated to it. Overall, Higher Education represents 1.2% of the country’s GDP (87% of it from public funds) or the equivalent of nearly 11,000 Euros per student every year while research spending represents 2% of the country’s GDP.

Two of France’s leading universities, Ecole Normale Supérieure and Ecole Polytechnique feature in the top institutions in the world. Academic excellence, coupled with some of the cheapest tuition fees, makes France an attractive proposition for PhD studies.

Internationalisation: La porte est ouverte!

With 278,000 international students making up 12% of the student community, France is the fourth most popular destination for study abroad (long-term or short-term) after the USA, the United Kingdom and Australia. This includes 25,000 international PhD students. Of these, many come from within Europe, but the country is a popular destination for students from all around the world, notably from Morocco, China, Algeria, Tunisia and Senegal. France has an egalitarian policy when it comes to international students and the same regulations are applied to French and international students. This is one of the most prominent marketing messages of the agency Campus France (equivalent of the British Council) which represents the Higher Education sector abroad. Of note: in public institutions, tuition fees (which are actually more aligned to registration fees) are the same for all and all students wherever they are from have access to social security and accommodation bursaries.

The extent to which French institutions collaborate internationally is evidenced by the fact that around half of the French research publications is co-authored with a research partner from another country

Doing your PhD in France is also the opportunity to learn the language or improve your French, the official language of the Olympics, the United Nations and the European Union institutions

The French Higher Education System

Compared with other countries, France has a higher number of institutions which are relatively small in size. These tend to be more or less specialised and for example a medium-sized French city, such as Grenoble or Nancy, may have 2 or 3 universities (focused on science or social science), and also a number of specialised higher education establishments. In the Parisian region, there are 13 universities, covering the whole range of disciplines (Yes, even the Sorbonne!) while a large number of smaller institutions such as Télécom Paris Tech or Science Po are highly specialised.

Reform and modernisation of Higher Education in France

In the past 5 years, the French Higher Education sector has undergone some very ambitious (yet controversial within the sector and trade unions) reforms aimed at modernising and maximising collaboration in academia and research. The impetus for these changes was the fact that French institutions were considered to be lagging behind their peers in terms of research capacity and quality. Billions of euros are being invested to create critical masses of excellence and to support partnerships between France’s public universities, Grandes Ecoles (which are smaller and more specialised) and research centres. The aim is to create larger, more comprehensive higher education institutes called Pôles de Recherche et d’Enseignement Supérieur, in which high quality teaching and research exist in closer proximity (physical or virtual). A small number of collaborations have been selected to be “transformed” into French versions of the US Ivy League institutions. Other projects involve the creation of a super campus in Paris to rival some of the top science and research organisations such as Harvard and MIT. To find out more about the research activities in key disciplines in France, you can download information sheets (available in French and in English).

So currently, the Higher Education in France comprises Grandes Ecoles, public universities and groups of both types of institutions.

Universities

There are 83 public universities in France, all funded by the Government. The Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche is the body which accredits ALL national qualifications through a very strict quality assurance mechanism. State subsidies are the reason why higher education remains so affordable. French universities are the main foci for public research. However, a large share of the scientific research is carried out by State-funded research organisations such as CNRS or INSERM, which are not formally part of the universities, although a number of research units from these organisations have research facilities within universities.

Grandes Ecoles

Grandes Ecoles are a unique type of higher education establishments found exclusively in France. Most of them are accessed after an exam or strict selection two years after high school and offer “graduate school level” qualifications in a range of areas but most notably in engineering, business and the arts. They are widely regarded as prestigious and traditionally have produced most of France's scientists and executives. A number of them offer doctoral programmes and have very active research teams often well connected to relevant industries and private sector partners.

Pôles de Recherche et d’Enseignement Supérieur (PRES)

Les Pôles de Recherche et d’Enseignement Supérieur (PRES) comprises of universities, specialist institutions and research bodies, allowing them to share of expertise, facilities and funding and to be competitive at on the international scene. There are around 20 PRES scattered around France which act as a promotional tool for their constituent institutions. PRES can also coordinate postgraduate research training programmes for the PhD students who would receive their qualification from one of the member institutions within the PRES. PRES are also involved in student life providing welcome services, accommodation advice and social student activities.

Fees, finances and scholarships

Compared to its other study abroad rivals, France can be a very affordable option. For public institutions, PhD tuition fees are set by the French Government. For 2012-2013, this was 380 euros (relatively more for Ecoles d’Ingénieurs at 596 euros). However, tuition fees can be more for private institutions. Universities may also levy administrative fees (“frais de dossier”) but these remain in the tens of euros. You may also have to pay for extra-curricular activities like student’s associations if they exist. Health insurance for students is free until the age of 20. After the age of 20 the health insurance for students costs €200 a year and covers most of the medical expenses.

It is worth noting that evidence of funding (whatever the source) is often a requirement for admission. There are several funding streams:

Contrat Doctoral

A Contrat Doctoral is a job offer which is advertised according to the recruitment needs of a research laboratory, mainly in public universities and is open to prospective PhD students regardless of their nationality. Successful candidates are selected under the responsibility of the head of institution, upon recommendation of the head of doctoral school and the PhD supervisor. A Contrat Doctoral is for 3 years, renewable for 1 year and it is a work contract which sets out all the legal framework for the doctoral worker, including the minimum salary level for PhD researchers and activities he/she may be involved in (there are two salary levels, one for research only and one for research + other professional tasks such as teaching). It offers social protection as for any other employees but this also means that the salary is subject to tax.

Bilateral bursaries from the French Ministère des Affaires Etrangères

These are often available from French Embassies and Consulates in your country so check on the embassies’ individual websites.

Bursaries from the Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche

Below are a couple of examples, but this is by no means exhaustive:

  • CROUS bursaries provide funding for accommodation and living costs. These are needs-based and generally around 750 euros.
  • Eiffel bursaries are a prestigious award based on excellence which aim to attract international students. Application for these bursaries is normally in September annually.

Scholarships from research institutes and from regional councils

Research organisations all offer scholarships which are more aligned with employment contracts and are often to conduct a structured research project which will have been designed by the research supervisor. These are highly competitive.

All regions of France offer doctoral scholarships (again more of an employment contract with a monthly salary in tow) to attract PhD researchers to their midst. Some of them will have scholarships which are for priority areas (although they may have some for non-priority areas which may carry a lower salary level) relevant that that region.

Private sector scholarships notably the Conventions Industrielles de Formation par la Recherche (CIFRE)

CIFRE allow PhD researchers to undertake their doctoral research within a company in collaboration with a research team outside of the company (either in a university or a research centre/institute). The PhD student is given an employment contract for 3 years from the company where the research is to be conducted and receives a monthly salary (around 2000 euros per month subject to tax). Students who are interested in doing so should contact the Association Nationale de la Recherche Technique (ANRT) in liaison with their Ecole Doctorale.

Joint-PhD/Co-tutelle scholarships and Erasmus Mundus

A Jointly-supervised PhD, double-PhD, and jointly-awarded PhD are often synonymous of co-tutelle - a French concept which has existed for decades and allows a PhD student to undertake a research project between two institutions. While it is not strictly a way to finance a PhD, in France international co-tutelles are quite common and there are scholarships available dedicated to them. For more information, please see our articles on joint-PhDs and Erasmus Mundus.

How to apply

All holders of a Masters degree (or Diplôme d’Ingénieur) are eligible to apply for admission onto a doctoral degree, although each university is free to set its own criteria and make assessments on an individual basis.

The national closing date for application in public universities for all candidates (this may be different in the Grandes Ecoles and other private institutions) is January 31st. You do not need to have completed your Masters degree at the point of application but if you do not have your Masters already, you will need to be studying for one at that point. To apply for a PhD, you will have to contact a doctoral school (or a supervisor if there is no doctoral school attached to the institution within which you want to do research) and submit a research proposal or explore the research project on offer.

  • If you are applying for a defined project, then simply follow the application procedure.
  • If you are submitting your own research proposal and you are from one of the 31 countries where Campus France has offices, then you can use the centralised application facility. You just need create an account allowing you to submit an application to several institutions without having to start a new application form.
  • If you are applying for your own project and your home country does not have a local Campus France office, then you are advised to contact your university and/or doctoral school of choice.

The doctoral school will identify a supervisor and explore funding possibilities for the whole PhD (whether it comes from the French institution or elsewhere).

When you get an offer from the doctoral school, the supervisor and the PhD researcher sign a document called the “Charte des thèses” (Thesis Charter) which is a moral contract between the PhD researcher, the supervisor, director of doctoral school and the director of the research facility hosting the PhD researcher. The Charter sets out the subject of the research project, the employment conditions which will support the research and the responsibilities of each party.

Language requirements

Minimum French language requirements are set individually by institutions. For entry into PhD, French fluency may not be required depending on the subject area. It is advisable to check with the institution you are applying to. Candidates generally have to sit a test of French proficiency (test de connaissance du français) unless they have studied in a country where French is one of the official languages, if French was the language of instruction for previous studies or if candidates already have a proficiency certificate such as DELF or DALF. In countries other than France, these tests will take place towards the end of February in French embassies, Instituts or Alliances. If you are in France, the test will take place between the end of February to the beginning of March.

Also be aware that while a basic level of French may be sufficient for admissions purposes, there may be requirements such as the production of a thesis abstract in French as part of the final assessment of your thesis. If you do need to show evidence of French proficiency, you may wish to read our article on French language tests. However, whatever the requirements of your institution, and while English may be sufficient to conduct your doctoral research, some knowledge of French is almost essential if you want to be able to communicate and to fully experience the French cultural and way of life. Some people in France may be linguistically competent in English and other languages but they will appreciate if you may an effort in their own language. Most institutions will offer courses and you are advised to take full advantage of them.

Careers

Doctoral training offered by universities are becoming increasingly focussed on employability and on exposure to a working environment outside of the research lab. Placements are more and more common with around 30% of PhD students going on placements to private and public sector partners. Most universities now will have an office (Bureau d'Aide à l'Insertion Professionnelle – Office for Employability) specialising in helping students finding placements opportunities and to help them at the end of their PhDs with job searches.

These offices also organise presentations and workshops aiming to initiate and inform PhD students on the business sector. The main aim is to allow PhD researchers to meet business leaders and to make that PhD students are aware of the potential of their research in a professional context.

Doctoral studies in France also include an evaluation of competences throughout training and the development of professional training plans. So whatever your plans are post-PhDs make sure you take full advantage of the opportunities offered.

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