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)
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.”
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)
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)
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!