France is known for its elite universities and excellent higher education system. It isn’t surprising that France boasts the fourth highest number of Nobel laureates in the world (68) and the second highest rated student city (Paris).
Producing influential minds such as Descartes, Laplace and Monet, the French higher education system attracts the largest number of international students in mainland Europe. This is due to its well-funded institutions, affordable fees and excellent PhD research opportunities
This page covers everything you will need to know about studying in France this year, from the higher education history, to the application processes and how much it will cost you.
The French higher education system has a proud history and is home to one of the oldest universities in the world: The University of Paris (which has existed in some form since 1160).
France’s famous landmarks and rich culture also make it incredibly popular with tourists and international students (over 250,000 studied there in 2019).
Here are a few reasons why France could be the ideal place for you to study your PhD this year:
|Oldest University||Successors to The University of Paris (c. 1160-1793)|
|PhD Length||3-4 years|
|Typical Fees||€391 per year (public institutions)|
|Academic Year||September to June|
The French higher education system is unique in comparison to other countries, with larger education hubs housing smaller universities that share resources.
This has resulted in several different institutions within France.
The 140 public institutions are referred to as ‘Éstablissement public á caractére scientifique, culturel et professionnel' (EPSCP) (Public Establishments of a Scientific, Cultural or Professional Character).
The two main varieties of public university within the EPSCP grouping are:
These are the highly specialised, elite private higher education institutions, comparable in some sense to the Ivy League or Russell Group universities in the USA and UK.
Grandes Écoles are not part of the EPSCP and include more specific groups such as the elite publically-funded universities (Écoles Normales Supérieures) and high profiles business and engineering schools (Grandes Écoles de Commerce and Grandes Écoles d’Ingénieurs).
These are local networks of institutions, formed from the modernisation and development of the French higher education system.
The 27 Communities of Universities and Schools (COMUE) promote collaboration between public universities, Grandes Écoles and specialist research and training centres.
Students are typically enrolled at a specific university but can use the facilities and opportunities at partnering institutions.
The French higher education system has a rich history and boasts a brilliant reputation; therefore, it isn’t surprising that a significant number of French universities are globally ranked. With four of the institutions featuring in the top 200 in the world.
|University||THE 2020||QS 2020||ARWU 2019|
|Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris||=45||53||-|
|University of Paris||130||=253||-|
|École Normale Supérieure de Lyon||201-250||=160||301-400|
|École des Ponts ParisTech||251-300||250||301-400|
|Grenoble Alpes University||301-350||=351||101-150|
|Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines||351-400||-||401-500|
|University of Bordeaux||401-500||=458||201-300|
|University of Côte d’Azur||401-500||591-600||-|
|École des Mines de Saint-Étienne||401-500||-||-|
|Federal University of Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées||401-500||-||-|
|University of Strasbourg||401-500||=379||101-150|
|Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.|
University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.
The French capital, Paris, is frequently named as one of the best cities for student life in the world. However, there are several other large university cities in France, offering excellent opportunities for PhD study:
Since the adoption of the Bologna Process in 1999, a doctorate (doctorat) in France is a third-cycle degree.
It is usually completed after a Masters (or similar ‘second-cycle’ qualification) and is intended for students who demonstrate the necessary aptitude to pursue substantial independent research projects.
The Bologna Process brings together a range of countries to form the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Members of the EHEA share a common three-cycle framework that allows degrees from one country to be easily recognised within others.
Although French universities do sometimes advertise specific doctoral research projects, the majority of PhDs are conducted as part of a programme within doctoral schools.
There are 270 of these. They are affiliated with universities and operate in collaboration with associated research laboratories and other centres to provide doctoral training for PhD candidates and develop early career researchers.
A ‘doctorat’ is composed of six semesters for a standard 3-year PhD, resulting in two teaching (or research) semesters per year:
Institutions typically have exams at the end of each semester, and a three-month summer holiday from July-September.
You will usually be studying your PhD in France for 3-4 years as a full-time student.
A French PhD is slightly different to doctorates in other countries, with an emphasis on training professional researchers. Institutions will differ, but you will typically have to complete several other components alongside your thesis in order to gain your qualification.
During your doctoral training you will be required to take research courses, which include teaching sessions and seminars related to your project. These courses correspond to 150 hours over the duration of the Doctorate.
In addition, you may have to do several training sessions organised within the framework of your doctoral school.
Alongside this you will have to carry out your research to meet the aims of your project. Which will eventually result in the production of a thesis.
Many doctoral schools also encourage integration and collaborations between other institutions, as well as helping students find project related work placements.
If you are applying directly to a project this will already have a designated supervisor; whereas if you apply to doctoral school, you may be assigned a supervisor or be required to apply to one yourself.
Once assigned a supervisor you will sign a moral contract (thesis charter) depicting the preparation of your thesis, objectives and resources.
In France a thesis may be supervised by one or two supervisors. In addition, to further the collaboration and mobility prospects of a French PhD it is also possible to have international joint supervision.
Although you may be required to attend courses as a French PhD student, the primary form of assessment for you to obtain PhD status is the production of an original doctoral thesis fit for public presentation.
There are two stages to this process:
First, your thesis will first be examined by two external assessors appointed by the head of your doctoral school to determine whether it is fit for presentation.
If your intent to present your thesis is approved, a thesis jury will be appointed, consisting of 3-8 members specialised in your field of research. At least half of the members will be French and external to your institution and doctoral school, the other half will be members of the National university council (Conseil national des universités). After presenting your research methods and results you will debate and ‘defend’ them to the jury, this viva voce (oral examination) is public.
Prior to your presentation a description of your thesis is circulated and afterwards the full thesis is circulated within the university community.
The jury will grade your report as: honourable, very honourable and very honourable “cum laude”. The highest grade in France is reserved for students with exceptional qualities demonstrated in their thesis and presentation.
French PhD fees are currently the same for every student regardless of nationality. However, the price can vary significantly depending upon whether you choose to study at a public or private institution (such as a Grandes École).
Fees are significantly lower at public institutions as the State invests on an average of €14,000 per student, per year.
You can expect to pay the following depending upon your institution:
Universities may charge administrative fees (frais de dossier) which are typically low – tens of euros.
The French Government increased university fees for international (non-EU / EEA) students in 2019, but only at Bachelors and Masters level. The annual cost of a programme for these students is €3,770 for Masters courses at public universities. PhD fees will remain at €391, regardless of nationality.
You can check if your chosen institution receives government funding and therefore offers low fees directly on their website or on the French Ministry of Higher Education’s website.
A doctoral contract (contrat doctoral) is a job placement within a research laboratory. These are mainly offered within public institutions (to students of any nationality).
You will receive benefits such as a PhD salary and social security, however you will also be subject to income tax.
The contract is for 3-years and is renewable for 1-year. There are two types of contract resulting in two salary levels: research only (lower pay grade) and research + professional tasks (teaching).
The French Foreign Ministry awards several scholarships to international students for doctoral level study. With several programmes designed by the government to attract the top international minds.
The scholarships available are:
There are a number of other scholarships available for international students, such as the Horizon 2020 Scheme, Erasmus Mundus as well as scholarship from Regional Authorities for foreign students enrolled in programmes within their region.
For information on earning money, working whilst you’re studying consult our Living in France guide.
Institutes offer their own higher education scholarships to foreign students, to find out more you should contact their international relations department.
You must submit an application to the doctoral school you wish to study in (or approach a specific supervisor if your university doesn’t have a doctoral school).
Each institution in France is free to set its own criteria and make assessments on an individual basis. However, you will typically be required to have a Masters degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject to be enrolled as a PhD student.
You may apply if you are working towards your Masters degree and will have graduated prior to the doctoral programme start date.
You may also be admitted based on performance in entrance exams and preparatory classes such as the ‘Classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles’ (CPGE) commonly used by France’s Grandes Écoles.
Most PhD programmes in France are delivered in French, with language requirements set individually by institutions. Some may require international students to produce a thesis abstract in French (with the rest of the thesis written in their native language) as part of their final assessment.
Candidates will generally have to sit a French proficiency test (test de connaissance du français) unless you have studied in a country where French is one of the official languages or you already have a proficiency certificate.
It is recommended that you learn basic levels of French, even if your PhD is delivered in English. This will allow you to communicate well (and benefit from additional extra-curricular and cultural experiences during your PhD).
For PhD studies, French fluency may not be required depending upon your subject, it is therefore best to check with the institution you are applying to.
The application process is different depending upon your nationality.
For EU/EEA students there are no specific pre-application procedures to go through, you must contact your chosen doctoral school or supervisor and apply to the institution directly.
If you are applying for an advertised project, then you should simply follow the application procedure. You will typically need to provide the following materials with your application:
The national closing date for applications at public universities for all candidates is January 31st. This may be different for Grandes Ecoles and other private institutions.
If you get an offer from a doctoral school, you and your supervisor will have to sign a document called the ‘Charte des théses’ (Thesis Charter), which is a moral contract between you, your supervisor, director of the doctoral school and director of the research facility.
For non-EU/EEA students you will need to check whether you are from one of the 41 countries implementing the ‘Studying in France’ procedure.
If you are you will need to apply directly through the Campus France centralised application facility. You may create an account allowing you to submit an application to several institutions.
Some institutions in France will require you to have an interview for admission on to PhD programmes.
For international students this is typically conducted over skype and will involve questions about yourself and the project, to determine your suitability.
Depending upon your nationality you may need a visa to study your PhD within France.
There are two types of visa available for students a short-stay for studies (court sojourn pour études) for 90-days and a long-stay student visa (visa etudiant long séjour valant titre de séjour) for over 90-days. For PhD study you will need to apply for the long-stay student visa.
Students from any country may study in France; however, there are requirements depending upon your nationality:
There are three ways to apply for you VLS-TS for PhD study in France:
You will typically need to provide the following documents for your visa application:
You must validate your visa and receive a residence permit upon arrival, by sending your visa to the Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration with copies of your passport and your Demande d’attestation OFII (issued with your visa).
There is a €60 fee for validating your visa, as this is a tax, you must obtain a ‘fiscal stamp’ from news agents or the OFII website.
Registering for Student Social Security is mandatory in France if you are under 28 years of age, enrolled at an institute recognised by Social Security and are studying for a period longer than 3-months.
It provides you with social coverage during your stay and will be registered alongside your administrative enrolment at your institution.
There is a fee of €215 per year you must pay unless you are on a student bursary.
To study in France, you must have valid health insurance. For students from the EU/EEA this is covered if you hold a valid EU/EEA European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Other international students will have 70% of healthcare expenses reimbursed as part of their Student Social Security. You will have the option to take out an additional healthcare plan (Mutuelle) for €100 per year to have 100% of healthcare costs reimbursed.
If you are in receipt of a scholarship or bursary check the conditions as you may receive healthcare coverage as part of the funding.
The combination of highly ranked education institutions and doctoral skill training programmes will result in you becoming a capable independent graduate, with skills applicable to a range of different employment opportunities. But will you be able to remain in France?
With the French government trying to improve researchers and workers in areas of skill shortages, it is easy to gain a post-study work visa if you remain in your academic field. If you want to work outside of your field it is more difficult to obtain a visa.
The regulations for working in France after your studies is dependent upon your nationality.
Students from the EU/EEA can work in France without acquiring a work permit after you have graduated.
Other international students can apply for a non-renewable temporary residency authorisation ‘autorisation provisoire de séjour’ (APS) which is valid for 6-months after the expiry of your student’s residence permit. Your APS allows you to work in any job for 60% of the official work week.
If you obtain a job related to your academic profession with a salary equal to or above 1.5 times the national minimum wage, you may upgrade your student visa to a working visa.
last updated - 20/01/2020