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PhD Studies in France: Findings from a Government Report

13 November 2013

Last month, Emeric Bréhier presented, on behalf of the Commission of Cultural Affairs and Education, an opinion report called “Research and Higher Education: Higher Education and Student Life” (see Pdf & web, in French) at the French National Assembly. It was meant to discuss two particular points of the 2014 budget plans and presents some interesting points about being a PhD student in France.

Our country, contrary to our counterparts, does not value the PhD degree enough (excerpt)

One of the key points is that the private sector does not value this academic title, which is a French cultural specificity. Here’s a little more about being a PhD student in France.

The situation today

In the five minutes given to Emeric Bréhier in front of the French Minister of Education and Higher Education, he took 20 second to talk about doctoral students. From 04:35 to 04:55 in this video,  he explains (in French) that “Contrary to what one might think, our country does not form enough doctors, and has not finished – far from it – with the implementation of integration policies of doctors in our educational system as well as in the world of business and public office.

Originally published on PhDcomics.com on 03/10/2008

This does not explain a lot, but Deputy Bréhier had to be concise in front on the Minister. A week later, on October 30th, he had a lot more time to present his findings about the state of doctoral studies in France. Below are a couple of facts and statistics presented at the Commission of Cultural Affairs on October 30th:

  • A lot of brilliant French students prefer the more lucrative and recognized path of the Grandes Ecoles compared to pursuing doctoral studies. Anecdotally, he explains that (very) few people indicate “PhD” on their visit cards or email signatures, compared to other countries
  • Between 1998 and 2011, the number of doctors has increased by 1.4% in France, compared to an average of 2% in OCDE countries, 3.6% in the USA and even 4.7% in the UK.
  • In 2012, 42% of doctoral students have foreign origins. If we would not have so many interested foreign students, the number of PhD students would have gone down dramatically as the number of PhD students with French originas have decreased by 30% in the last five years
  • In the corporate world, 55% of “researchers” (I don’t know how that term was defined) have engineering degrees, 16% have a Masters or equivalent degrees, and only 12% have PhDs, which shows the lack of integration of PhDs in the French R&D departments
  • 32% of PhD students have no financing during their doctoral studies, which makes it harder to achieve their dissertations and, when achieved, to find a stable job at the end. With or without financing, on average, freshly graduated PhDs need 5 years to find a stable employment

 With a quantitatively problematic situation compared to our counterparts, a quantitatively insufficient aspect to ensure a permanent job, a hybrid and precarious status, and a poor recognition, the picture is relatively dark (excerpt)

Number of PhD Students in France (via assemblee-nationale.fr)

Possible solutions for tomorrow

How can France improve this “dark picture?” Without going into details, (Dr.) Emeric Bréhier suggests solutions such as:

  • Recognizing and protecting the doctoral degree, for example by counting the years spent writing the dissertation in the a person’s pensions contribution, or attaching fiscal benefits for companies who recruit PhDs.
  • Extenting the financing of doctoral studies (Emeric Bréhier even suggest universal financing by the State) along with the definintion of clear financing criteria, as opposed to today’s “profoundly opaque” financing system.
  • Communicating the benefits of PhD studies among the private and public sectors in order to break the belief that doctoral studies only lead to research and teaching activities.
  • Limiting the number of doctoral students per supervisor, and limit the duration of the thesis to a maximum of 3 years.

I think that our country needs to evolve, even to revolutionize its perception of the doctoral degree (excerpt)

Not a very attentive audience...

Not a very attentive audience…

To me, even though the overall idea of the report and the fact that someone has investigated the state of doctoral studies in France is great, not all of the above proposition make sense. For example, even if Emeric Bréhier insists on this idea in the subsequent debate, it is not realistic to force all dissertations to be mandatorily written in 3 years. Some subjects require a lot of intellectual maturation and some methodologies take many years of study. Besides, having this limitation might put unnecessary pressure on PhD students, who would have to wrap up their dissertations hastily to the detriment of quality.

Or, if we really want to impose this 3 years limit, aspiring PhD students should be better prepared to start these 3 years before entering graduate schools. For example, this preparation could be operationalized by methodological training to educate for research, or by starting to work on a literature review to use in the dissertation. This is not always the case here in France, even without the 3 years limit.

On a personal note, I don’t complain at all as I am lucky enough to benefit of a CIFRE contract, which allows me to write my thesis while working in a firm (which in turn receives State funding for that). This model is not only great to have access to data, but also to have a foot in the corporate world while writing my dissertation, which leaves doors open for the coming years.

What do you think?

French readers, do these findings reflect your experience? Do you have an opinion and/or propositions on how to value the doctoral degree in France and abroad?

International readers, do the above findings surprise you? Do you have similar situations in your respective countries? Have you ever gotten to experience the French system wih your outsider perspective? What did you think of it?

I’d love to read your thoughts!

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben Mallett permalink
    14 November 2013 22:40

    Hello Yannig,
    Thank you for your nice blog – especially for having written in English so that those who can’t speak French can gain some insight into the issues around PhDs in France.

    The topics discussed in your blog have been a passion of mine for a while. I am from New Zealand, and it would seem to me that NZ faces is in a similar situation to France; (i) a PhD is, generally, not sought-after or valued outside of academia, (ii) an increase proportion of our PhD students are from overseas (this in itself I personally have no problem with) (iii) many PhD graduates struggle to find stable employment. In NZ we have the situation that many of our PhD graduates leave NZ to find work (and perhaps won’t return), myself included.

    My hope is that in NZ, there can be formalised, meaningful links between a PhD student (and their research) and business – during and after the duration of the PhD. I see these links as being generally beneficial for the student, the business and the research. A colleague and I even started a small ‘company’ to do just this during our PhDs – chiasma.org.

    • 15 November 2013 09:55

      Thanks Ben,
      it’s interesting to hear from you, especially about the fact that the situation is not different in NZ. You guys have a clear advantage: the language. Any NZ PhD students start with the advantage of having access to the English-speaking journals, and after graduation they can easily go abroad to teach and do research. It’s not the case in countries like France, where not all PhD students or professors speak English well. It’s not a major issue if they want to stay in France, but in the global competitive field of academia, it’s not an advantage neither.
      Don’t get me wrong, the fact that many PhD students come from abroad is not a problem at all, it’s even quite stimulating as I get to meet people I would have never met in my regular business cursus. But it shows that good people don’t see a PhD, the highest possible academic title, as rewarding or “sexy” which is a shame. At the Sorbonne where I am, it is clear that many people from abroad are attracted by the name and prestige of the institution (which is great) but I wonder why the “local” people don’t feel that way?
      And you are right, the business-academia links are very beneficial, you just have to find a way to connect these quite different universes 😉 Your website is not public yet, or is it? I couldn’t retrieve info from it (“The web server software is running but no content has been added, yet”) what is it about? Seems like a great idea

  2. annabelle lever permalink
    15 November 2013 14:41

    As a professor in Switzerland, with a PhD from the States, and experience teaching in England and France, I believe that 3 years for a doctoral thesis is unrealistic – at least in the humanities and social sciences. In the UK three years’ funding used to be available, but was routinely supplemented by Junior Research Fellowships. Unfortunately, people applying for these fellowships nowadays, all have their PhDs and, often books as well as articles. As it is worse to have to abandon your thesis for lack of money, than not to have begun in the first place (or so I would have thought), realism about what students can be expected to achieve is essential. Even with state support, most students will need to engage in paid teaching and research in order to support themselves (some of them may have children, for examplle) – and it is generally desirable for doctoral students who wish to join academia to have some teaching experience, because this is what their foreign competitors will have.

    • 15 November 2013 15:19

      Thanks Annabelle,
      I believe we share the same observations. I must admit that I would hate to stop working on my dissertation for financial reasons, luckily it is not the case for now, and I hope it won’t happen either. Do you believe that having teaching experience is fundamental to get into academia?

  3. VNHarkat permalink
    20 November 2013 14:13

    Hello,
    Thanks Yannig for sharing this information as we’re really few in this situation and no one in France care about PhD. I was really surprised our deputies knew about PhD student!!!!

    I agree with all the things which were said.
    I begun my PhD in Business Administration without any financing then I managed to get a contract as “Research /Studies Engineer” for less than 2 years where I participated in a studie for French international companies. And then nothing until I got a Research and Teaching Assistant (ATER). This is not always easy to keep concentrated in working on the dissertation while looking for a job.

    Concerning the value of our PhD in France, I see it very hard if you are willing to work in a company (if not as teacher) because they have a very bad image of PhD :”a teacher”, no practical experience, no added value for the company, only academic knowledge, … which can be true but it’s always this way. The problem is that they don’t even give you a chance to evaluate your working skills. I face this problem when I was looking for a company to collect the data I need for my PhD. This was very complicated even if I had contact with companies while working as Research Engineer.
    I went to a training on “PhD students integration in the work place” and the conclusion was a student with a Master’ Degree have much more chance of being hired!!! They are many Phd students who go for a PostDoc contract abroad in order to come back to France with a better experience.

    Concerning the value of our PhD abroad you must have valuable communications, publications but the problem is french academic communications are not always recognized abroad. So better have communications/publications in English if possible.
    This part is important and it requires time to understand the “writing norms” depending on the Phd Supervisor, the laboratory, the university, as you can find support and training or you have to learn by yourself (basing on the comments you can received after the paper was not accepted).

    In my opinion, there are more opportunities abroad for a Doctor/PhD so I’m not surprised so many french leave the country to find a job after the PhD.

    • 20 November 2013 14:35

      Thanks Victor, your insights are very interesting and I think it reflects the reality of French PhD students. Maybe not of all, but of many. You have to be able to value your academic work in a way that appeals to some busy, narrow-minded managers. Thankfully not all managers have a bad image of academia, even in France. I agree that people easily put you in a “teaching” box but it might be also necessary to actively fight this cliché and to “sell yourself” no?

      • VNHarkat permalink
        30 November 2013 10:43

        There are only few managers open minded in France. In my opinion I have a high probability to work abroad where my skills and my profile will be much more appreciated.
        I don’t think that the problem is to “sell myself” because in other countries or with international managers, I personally don’t face this problem. I worked as freelance as Marketing Consultant in Belgium 2 years being PhD student so I really think we have a problem in our country.

  4. 12 May 2016 11:42

    it is more valuable information submit. I want to do PHD from France and i am afraid after read all comments about PHD. It is not more valuable in company.

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