A successful research career depends on the ability to pursue the right opportunities, wherever they may lead. For today’s young researchers, this often means moving country, with all the logistical and emotional challenges it implies. So every day, scientists leave home to go, well, pretty much anywhere that scientific opportunity waits. France is one common destination.
In France, spending on science has grown slowly in recent years, as it has in many European nations. France doesn't rank at the very top by any standard measure of scientific effort or achievement. But despite some claims of a scientific malaise ( Science news story, subscription required), the country remains a scientific powerhouse, and its well-established system of national labs offers many opportunities for scientific visitors. And in a number of narrow niches, French laboratories lead the world.
For scientific travellers starting anew in a foreign place, getting used to another culture and learning a new language can be exciting experiences, but nonetheless, they add up to a demanding (if sometimes only temporary) life change. Even as young scientists struggle to adapt to their new life, they must also get used to their new host lab and its different culture and conventions, get a new research project up and running, and develop new and fruitful collaborations. If they want to extract the maximum benefit from their move, they need to settle in to their new work and life as quickly as possible.
So Science’s Next Wave put together an insider’s guide that should make the move to France a little smoother. In Finding Your Way Around the French System , Alexander Hellemans describes the French academic system and explains how and where visitors should look for opportunities to enter French science, with a focus on recent changes.
The research system isn't the only system France’s visitors need to get acquainted with. As in any other country, going to live and work in France involves a series of administrative and logistical hurdles, and non-Europeans certainly have it harder. For example, non-European PhD students need to have--and renew every 9 months--a student resident card; this makes them vulnerable to administrative hitches like the ones Morgane Gorria of the Confederation des Jeunes Chercheurs (CJC) describes. "They can’t go back to their country because they are not sure whether they can come back to France," she says. And "it may be difficult to have a flat because you often need someone to say that he guarantees he will pay" if you don’t, which may be hard to arrange in an entirely new country.
After hearing about the difficulties some young foreign researchers have in France, the CJC decided to launch a survey to find out how widespread these difficulties are. In a little more than a month, the CJC gathered 700 responses. A preliminary analysis indicates that more than half said they were dissatisfied with the French administrative system, against only 20% feeling satisfied. That's not a very good score.
Still, France is trying. Help is provided by various French and European organisations, including the Alfred Kastler Foundation (FnAK), which offers free services to foreign scientists to help them with practical issues related to their move to France. We spoke to Antony Mauvais, director of the Alfred Kastler Fondation, and he gave us a A Troubleshooting Guide to Landing in France .
Another difficult issue for foreigners wanting to gain research experience abroad is finding money to support them during their stay. The CJC found that "about 10% of the people who replied resort to an additional job to fund their doctorate" in France, says Gorria. Often, PhD students "have some grants from their country, and they do not realise it will not be enough," she explains. PhD students from Brazil, for example, commonly get 600 euros a month. "In Brazil, this budget is enough, but in France, you can pay your flat and some heating, and that’s all."
To help North Americans and others secure funding before they leave their country, Managing Editor Alan Kotok put together a funding guide, Funding to Be an American (Scientist) in Paris , and Andrew Fazekas, our Canadian correspondent, investigated some of the special funding relationships that exist between France and his country.
If one comes well prepared, the practical issues associated with landing in a new country need not spoil the fun. And most certainly, the professional and personal enrichment that come with experiencing a new lifestyle and meeting people from another culture are well worth the effort. People visiting France may not like the French bureaucracy, but "more than 65% were satisfied or very satisfied with the way they were made feel welcome by their laboratory," Gorria concludes from the survey, against 15% who were not.
Based on our--completely anecdotal--research for this feature, we're prepared to go even farther: a few had quibbles about this or that, but most scientists we talked to enjoyed their time in France. This was equally true of Europeans and American young scientists, as North and West Europe Editor Anne Forde and Next Wave Editor Jim Austin found out. Most young scientists look back on their French experience very fondly, and French visitors regard their visit to France as something between "very positive" and "life-altering."
France has spent years reforming the bureaucracy to make visiting scientists feel at home, decades creating a world-class scientific infrastructure, and centuries evolving a lifestyle that is the envy of much of the world--all of which makes it a fine place for a young scientist to visit, or even to stay.
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Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe .