So You Want to Work for the EC?

The European Commission needs scientists to work both in research and in research management. Direct research is carried out by the Joint Research Centre, which has its headquarters in Brussels and laboratories at its sites in Ispra (Italy), Karlsruhe (Germany), Petten (the Netherlands), Geel (Belgium), and Seville (Spain). Meanwhile, DG Research and Technological Development, based in Brussels, manages ?indirect" research, which means promoting, managing, and coordinating through financing schemes (e.g., shared cost actions) research projects in laboratories and research organisations throughout Europe. DG Information Society also uses in-house scientific expertise.

The Commission offers a stimulating multicultural work environment, as well as the opportunity to be at the centre of European research policy. But if such a situation appeals, it is not a case of looking out for a job advertisement calling for your particular skills, or even writing a speculative letter. The EC has a very specific appointment procedure, and in walking you through it here, I hope to make it appear a little less daunting!

The procedure for recruitments is consistent throughout the Commission, irrespective of the field of activities and type of staff required and is centred on what are called ?open competitions?. These have been used for many years for identifying and selecting suitable candidates for employment, and although at first they might seem lengthy and complex, they have been found to be the best and fairest way of attracting candidates from all EU countries and assuring the recruitment of high-quality staff.

Currently there is an open competition aimed at creating a reserve of administrators in the field of research. Any DG requiring staff with scientific backgrounds will then be able to recruit from this pool. The competition-- reference COM/A/3/02--the closing date for which is 27 September, is aimed at encouraging applications from candidates in the fields of:

  • Life sciences and technologies

  • Sustainable development: Environmental, energy, and transport sciences and technologies

  • Technologies for the information society and industrial technologies

  • Socio-economic and ethical aspects of research and technological development (RTD) activities

  • Before such a competition is launched the Commission will have undertaken one of its regular reviews aimed at predicting future recruitment requirements in all the sectors in which it is involved. This review takes into account foreseen retirements and mobility of existing staff, future plans, category of staff necessary (A, B, C or D), and so forth. The open competition system is lengthy and costly to organise, so the aim of the process is both to recruit for immediate needs, and to create a reserve list of candidates that will supply the Commission?s needs for at least a year afterwards. Therefore it is conceivable that there will not be a similar open competition to recruit scientists for another 3 years. However, it is also possible that there will in the meantime be other competitions in specific scientific fields that fall outside of those covered in this competition.

    Once its requirements are defined, the Commission launches, by publishing in daily newspapers in all EU member states and in the Official Journal of the European Communities, the open competition procedure, which is aimed at encouraging applications from the largest possible number of candidates. The objective of open competitions is, after a selection based on a combination of written and oral examinations, to create reserve lists of successful candidates from which any Commission Directorate General may recruit. So even if they make it on to the list, it could be anything up to a couple of years before a candidate is offered a post, depending on staffing requirements.

    Before making a formal application, potential candidates must obtain a paper copy of the Official Journal where the full notice and details of the open competition, including the mandatory optical reader application form, are available. Application forms downloaded from the Internet are not valid, but valid forms can be requested by e-mail. The notice gives the specific eligibility requirements regarding the minimum level of educational qualifications, professional experience, and language ability. Because the Commission is multilingual, all successful candidates must be able to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of one official EU language and a satisfactory knowledge of at least one more. If interested candidates are not able to satisfy these minimum requirements, they risk wasting their own time and effort by submitting an application.

    Once the deadline for the submission of applications has passed, the Commission?s first task is to verify the applications received and that the general admission conditions, such as nationality of one of the EU Member States, have been met.

    Next the Commission invites all applicants who have satisfied the general admission conditions to a set of preselection tests. These consist of multi-choice questions that test the candidates? knowledge of their specific scientific area, assess general ability in verbal and numerical reasoning, and examine their knowledge of the main developments in European integration and Community policies, this last in a second EU language of the candidate?s choice.

    The candidates with the highest scores (generally the first 200 to 380 depending on the research field chosen) that have obtained the minimum pass mark in each of the three preselection tests will be invited to submit a full application with a view toward admission to a second written test. Candidates must return these forms together with all supporting documentation for educational qualifications, professional work experience, etc., within the time limit specified. The Commission then examines closely all the candidates? files to ensure that the specific requirements have been satisfied, and those who do will be invited to the second written test.

    The second test, which involves a timed essay-style exam, is based on the preparation of a case study on a subject of the candidate?s choice. The subject, however, must be related to the field chosen and connected with research policy at European and international levels. The highest scorers in this test will then be invited to an interview with the Commission?s selection board.

    Finally those whose combined case study and interview scores are the highest will be included in a reserve list, which, as mentioned above, will be used by the Commission for recruitment as and when necessary.

    The duration of all stages of the open competition has been estimated by the Commission to be approximately 12 months, depending on the number of applications received. This would seem to be quite lengthy. However, it must be remembered that managing and organising a competition of this entity in all 15 member states of the EU takes an astonishing amount of time and manpower. Selection committees of Commission staff need to be created and organised, the test papers have not only to be established but also translated into all official languages of the EU, the tests have to be held in all member states--at the same time and on the same day--tests marked, candidates invited to interviews ? and so on.

    Candidates enthusiastic to embark on the European adventure, after making their application to the competition, would be well advised to prepare themselves to be quizzed not only in their chosen sector, but also on European current affairs, the history of EU integration, the role of the various EU institutions and clearly, for this specific competition, research policy in Europe. There is not only a great wealth of literature in all of these topics, but also much information can be gained through the Internet. Good starting points for surfing would be:

    Good luck!

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