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PhDs in France

PhD Programs 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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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in France

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

So you’ve chosen to do your PhD in France. Bravo! You may already know France, either from past holidays or through films, pictures, art, books. And here lies what can sometimes be a problem. Having experienced France as a tourist or as a Francophile back home is not quite the same as actually studying and living there. You may have your own ideas and pre-conceived opinions of France and of French people (hopefully positive!) and it may be difficult to approach your new adventure with fresh eyes as a doctoral student or “doctorant” as it is said in French.

Student life (“la vie étudiante”) is not that different from other European countries and further afield: there are halls of residence, canteens/student refectories, student parties, societies and student jobs. But the country itself is a fantastic resource for your research, with its art collections, landscape, worldwide experts, excellence in a number of skills and fantastic research facilities.

Settling in: What can your university do for you?

The idea of customer service in French higher education establishments is still a new concept. Universities being on the whole free/low cost to students and having welcomed French students from catchment areas (rather than through a competitive recruitment process) for years (ie: if as an undergrad you wanted to study law, you were meant to study in your closest university), the focus was mainly in teaching quality rather than other services.

The new reforms on higher education and increased autonomy (notably in generating their own income) have changed the mood and universities are increasingly recognising the value of student services to attract students, notably postgraduates. This was already fairly well established in Grandes Ecoles and private institutions. Arriving in a new country is always a challenge, but institutions will have student services adapted to new PhD students, from airport welcomes, to university accommodation service.

Visas and immigration

Visas are only required for students from outside the European Economic Area (EU countries + Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) with Switzerland having a special status. Two types of visas are available to PhD students: student visas and researcher visas. If you are going to France as part of a joint-PhD programme (or Erasmus Mundus programme), you may wish to check if a student visa is appropriate (depending on the duration of your stay in France). For more information, consult the Campus France visa information sheet in English.

VLS-TS

This visa is for most international students coming to France (except for students from Algeria whose immigration procedure is subject to a special system). This visa is normally for one year and renewable for longer study programmes. Along with your visa, you will receive a “demande d’attestation OFII” from the “Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration” allowing you to go the local authorities (“prefecture”) or the OFII satellite office in Paris to get your residence permit within 2 months of arrival. The cost is €58 which is a tax (so you will have to buy a special tax stamp which will be affixed to your resident permit). To obtain your visa, there are 3 different procedures:

  • For those in countries where Campus France have offices (procedure CEF), you basically open an online account on the Campus France and follow the procedure.
  • For international students already living in other European countries or in countries where Campus France does not have offices, the application process is done at your local French consulate or embassy.
  • If you are already in France (under a different visa system or are moving from Masters to Doctorate), speak to your institution or seek advice from the Préfecture.

All students have to demonstrate that you have an offer of admission from a French institution (or doctoral school), sufficient subsistence funds (equivalent to the French bursary levels of around €615/month) as well as the appropriate linguistic skills to succeed in their studies.

VLS-TS – “Scientifique-Chercheur”

This visa is for researchers and also for PhD students which are undertaking doctoral research as part of a Conventions Industrielles de Formation par la Recherche (CIFRE) (i.e. with a private sector partner) or other established frameworks. You will require a “convention d’accueil” which is an administrative document laying out all the conditions of a PhD for PhD students who are in receipt of a salary (as opposed to a stipend from your home country for example). As for a student visa, you will then have to get a resident permit. The cost is €340. It is possible to get a resident permit for up to 4 years.

Working while your studying

All international students are allowed to work as long as they are registered with a French institution and have a student status as defined by the French social security authorities. The regulations limit student work to 964 hours per year (or 60% of the normal annual hours in France). However, if you are already salaried and working full-time on your PhD, you may find it hard to undertake a heavy part-time job schedule. Minimum salary in France is €9.40/hour before tax (around 20%). Students no longer have to apply for a work permit to undertake paid work during their studies (except for students from Algeria for whom the procedure is regulated by a different agreement).

International students can find part-time work opportunities within their own university, for example in the following roles: welcoming service, support for students with disabilities, tutoring, administrative support for student societies or sports associations.

Accommodation (“le logement”)

Other than for student accommodation in your university or grande école, finding a place to stay from abroad can be difficult. You won’t be able to see the accommodation, cannot be guaranteed of the standards of the accommodation, won’t be able to sign the lease in person (a requirement in letting agencies) and you may find it difficult to get a guarantor currently residing in France (often a requirement in the private sector). This is why many students make temporary accommodation arrangements for the first few weeks after their arrival. Once on site, finding a place to stay (unless you have a university accommodation) is much easier.

There are several options for PhD students but each with their own procedure:

Les cités U (the equivalent of student residences)

Applications for student accommodation in public universities are managed by the Centre Régional des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires (CROUS). All students can apply for accommodation but priority is given to French Government bursary holders (which international students can apply to). You should apply as soon as possible and in parallel with any bursary application (also managed by CROUS). The application is online (although you will have to print the application and return it signed) and can be done up to April 15th of the academic year preceding your PhD start date. You do not need to have an offer of admission yet or to have completed your previous degree. While non-bursary holders are not prioritised, there are cancellations (or people who are unsuccessful in their previous degrees) throughout the year so it is worth trying. CROUS accommodation are a real economical option and some universities have the possibility of reserving rooms for international PhD students so ask the “service de l’hébergement” (the accommodation service of your university).

Individual rooms in halls of residence

You get a single room with shared facilities (bathroom, kitchen and study space). The price is around €200/month and the lease tends to be for 10 months (but there are possibilities to have a 12-month lease). This type of accommodation allows students to apply for the “allocation de logement social”, a means-based social accommodation allowance.

Student flats in residences

Studio, 1-bedroom (“T1”) and 2-bedroom (“T2”) flats are available (albeit in smaller quantities). Each has its own facilities and the average rent for a T1 is €400/month.

Student residences in Grandes Ecoles and private institutes

These Higher Education institutions tend to have their own student residences at the heart of their campus. Rooms/flats are often reserved for international students and depending on the type of accommodation, the rent is between €250-350. Information can be found on their website.

Private student accommodation

Private student residences can be found in most cities with a high concentration of students. Living standards tend to be high and a range of services (from cleaning to cafeterias and parking spaces) are on offer. These residences are situated close to university campuses and may welcome students from several institutions in their vicinity. Rents tend to be around €600-700 in Paris and €400-700 in other cities. You will have to pay a deposit (one month’ rent) and will need a guarantor (who is resident in France) although you also have the possibility of paying a year in advance. Some universities have systems in place for international students who may find it hard to find a guarantor so check with your accommodation service. It is possible to book accommodation while you are still in your home country but you may be asked to pay a higher deposit (equivalent to 2-month rent).

An organisation called “La centrale, LoKaViZ”, is an online database of private accommodation exclusively for students. To access these rooms and flats, you will have to prove that you are registered at a university (or equivalent).

Private accommodation

This is the most flexible option in terms of lease but it requires a good knowledge of the city where you’ll be studying and of French language (to be sure to understand the contractual requirements). If you go through an agency, you will have to pay a fee to the agency. If you choose this option, it is recommended that you do so once you have arrived. If you need help with the formalities, your university’s accommodation service or your fellow PhD students can help you. Individual ads offering accommodation or rooms in shared flats can be found in the international student office (if your university has one) or at CROUS offices. Sharing flats with other students (“co-location”) is a fairly new thing in France but it is gaining popularity as the availability of studio flats is limited. You may also benefit from an accommodation allowance but only if your name is on the lease.

Health Insurance

All students must have health insurance which is provided through universities. In 2012-13, the cost of this is €207 for the whole year. This gives you access to the French health system which is excellent. Note, however, that this public insurance does not cover the entire cost of healthcare. France has a system of “mutuelles”, an additional insurance covering additional costs (perhaps not for all dental care). If you wish to subscribe to a student mutuelle, you can do so when you register at your university. Medical checks and support throughout the academic year are also carried out by a dedicated university medical service.

Food

Being the culinary heaven that it is, France is not a difficult place to eat well. Food is a national treasure and French cuisine is as varied as the regions that make up the whole of the country. Influences from Vietnam, North Africa (try the Tunisian patisseries!) and the bordering countries add to the range of delicacies to enjoy.

Universities themselves have student eateries, the most common being les “Restos U” (short for “Restaurants Universitaires” or university canteens). In public universities, the prices are regulated and in 2012-2013, those with a student card can eat a 3-course lunch for €3.10! In the larger universities, these canteens are also open in the evenings and at the weekend. But outside of universities, you can eat a good lunch for around €6-7. Sandwicheries and bakeries can also offer a cheap range of food to eat on the go. Of course, prices can reach hundreds of euros for a dinner at some of the best-known French restaurants. If you are cooking yourself, there are many different ways of buying groceries, in supermarkets, small shops, butchers or open air markets (something to experience if you haven’t been before).

Student societies and social life

There are many sports and student associations, not all of them formally hosted by universities (so you may need to do a bit of research if your interests are unusual) but you can find something to suit you in all areas: culture, sports, volunteering, scientific or artistic. This is a great way to meet other students (PhD or not) outside of your research team. Students benefit from discounted prices in most cultural and artistic establishments (as well as restaurants and other eateries) such as museums, cinemas, concerts, bookshops or festivals.

Student parties (“soirées étudiantes”) are a real institution in France. Whether they are a small party in someone’s flat or in a club, student parties are a great way to meet other students. Alcohol is likely to be served but the drinking culture is not as it can be in other countries. Often student parties are more about music and dancing. In general, having wine with your meal is perfectly acceptable, but drunken disorderly behaviour is frowned upon.

By law, all shops, restaurants and cultural institutions must close one day a week. This is most often on a Sunday (except for bakeries which tend to close on a Monday). There are numerous bank holidays in France and if these fall on a Thursday or Tuesday, it is quite common for many organisations to “do the bridge” (“faire le pont”) and close from Thursday to Sunday or Saturday to Tuesday, respectively. So be aware of this, if you are planning to travel or if you need to go to your consulate, the town hall or your bank.

Banking

The currency in France is the Euro (€) which is the common currency of 17 out of the 27 member states of the European Union (which makes life much easier if you are in a border area or if you are travelling within continental Europe). International PhD students can apply for a bank account as non-residents given the duration of their studies. It may, however, be useful to ask your bank back home if they are part of a network of banking corporations which have branches in France. This may help when opening a new bank account or to transfer funds, even before you move to France. Payment cards such as Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted (although note that these are DEBIT cards, not CREDIT CARDS, the latter not being widely used in France). Card payments tend to be for amounts above €15.

Travelling around France

France is well-connected internationally with Paris Charles –de-Gaulle being the biggest French airport. Travelling by plane can be a good option within France if you are planning to cover long distances (such as Nice-Paris or Toulouse-Paris). The train network is well-developed and thanks to its super-fast trains (“Trains à Grande Vitesse” – TGV), it is easy to travel in France (although, as for the métro which is a public company, be aware of strikes!). If you wish to drive, the road and motorway network is of excellent quality but note that motorways are not free and you will have to pay toll charges (which may double your travel cost by road). Secondary roads are free and a good way to see the more rural and natural parts of France.

In town, there are many different options to get around: buses, trams, métro (Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Toulouse and Paris) or bike (notably the public bikes called “Vel’Lib” in Paris). Taxi prices are regulated at regional level but they remain fairly high and best reserved for exceptional cases. All genuine taxis have a meter. If a taxi doesn’t have one, avoid it at all cost.

Post-study work

Students from member countries of the European Union may work in France without restriction after they graduate. If you needed a visa to study in France and studied to doctoral level, you can apply for a non-renewable temporary residency authorization (“autorisation provisoire de séjour” - APS) valid for 6 months beyond the date of expiration of the student’s residence permit. An APS allows you to work at any job up to the limit of 60% of the official work week.

Students who obtain a job related to their academic program and with a salary equal or above 1.5 times of a salary paid at the national minimum wage can apply to switch from a student visa to a work visa. Including if you were on a researcher visa and have secured an academic post, as a researcher visa is only valid for a maximum period of 4 years.

For students who have secured a job outside of the area of their academic program, it is much more difficult to secure a work visa post-study as work visas are limited to a small number of employment in order to respond to skills shortages.

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