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Doctoral Education in France


Before the Ph.D.

The French higher education system is divided into three cycles: 2 years for the first cycle, 2 years for the second cycle (to complete the first degree), and then a third, postgraduate cycle of 1 year, plus 3 years if a Ph.D. is added. This cumulative 2-4-5-8 scheme is currently evolving toward a 3-5-8 scheme. The first year as a postgraduate differs, depending on whether the student chooses a professional track (which leads to the DESS--"Diplôme d'Etudes Supérieures Spécialisés," or Specialized Higher Studies Diploma) or a research track (which leads to the DEA--"Diplômes d'Etudes Approfondies," or Thorough Studies Diploma). This year of DEA consists of both lectures and a 6-month research project. The DEA is mandatory before a Ph.D., but equivalents can be recognized, especially for foreign students.

Besides this training in the university sector, there are also the "grandes écoles," designed to train highly skilled professionals. This high-level education is either technically oriented (e.g., chemistry or computer science), leading to an engineering diploma, or business oriented. Students enter the grandes écoles after the first cycle, for a 3-year training period (in all, 5 years). Some graduates, mainly engineers, go on to Ph.D. study after a DEA, which can often be obtained during the third and last year in the school.


France's 66,000 Ph.D. students are each affiliated with a doctoral school. Here they have to attend some courses that either are related to their research domains or are designed to prepare them for the post-Ph.D. period. Some doctoral schools have existed since 1992, but because all Ph.D. students have been attached to such schools only since 1999-2000, the kind of training the schools should deliver is not yet well defined. Almost every DEA program is now part of a doctoral school, and some of these schools belong to several universities (although this is not common). Depending on its size, a university can have one or more doctoral schools. When there are several in a single university, they are generally thematic (e.g., one for physics, one for biology, and so on). One big role of doctoral schools is to distribute allocations (ministry funding) to students, whereas this was the role of DEA programs before. This is a great change, because allocations are very important to labs, but sadly the procedure is no clearer than before.

Since 1998 all universities have been obliged to establish a charter, setting out the rights and responsibilities of all the parties involved in a Ph.D.--the student, supervisor. and head of the research team. (See main story.) A model charter was provided by the Ministry of Research, and several of the charters subsequently adopted by universities have been gathered on a single Web site by the Guilde des Doctorants and the Confédération des Etudiants-Chercheurs.


Most funding sources provide living costs for 3 years, but the average length of the Ph.D. is 4 years. There are significant differences among fields, with the average Ph.D. in chemistry taking just 3.3 years, compared to 5 years in the humanities.

The main funding source is the Ministry of Research allocation, which is worth 6100 FF (910 euros) per month for a period of 3 years. The number of new allocations available each year is slowly increasing, from 3600 in 1996-97 to 4000 for 2001-02. The main French research institution, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique ( CNRS), offers engineers the BDI ("Bourse de Doctorat pour Ingénieurs," or Doctorate Grants for Engineers), worth between 7900 FF (1200 euros) and 10,400 FF (1590 euros) per month for a period of 3 years. Both these types of grants can be topped up to the tune of 1800 FF (275 euros) per month with "monitorat," paid teaching responsibilities. People benefiting from an allocation have a greater chance of getting a monitorat; this trend is confirmed by the recent decision of the government to link allocations and the monitorat, so that eventually only those with an allocation will have access to a monitorat. In combination with the Ministry of Research, companies also sponsor Ph.D.s through a 3-year short-term contract called CIFRE ("Convention Industrielle de Formation par la Recherche," or Industrial Agreement for Training Through Research). This is worth not less than 8900 FF (1360 euros) per month for the 3-year period. All these funding sources include social insurance and are subject to taxes.

Alternative sources of funding are French regional governments, which sometimes provide grants and salaries, worth between 5500 FF (840 euros) and 10,000 FF (1525 euros) per month for 3 years, as well as charitable organizations, which give grants of up to 10,000 FF (1525 euros) per month--with no social insurance and no taxes--for 6 months or for 1, 2, or 3 years. Especially in the social sciences, people have jobs and work (for example, as teachers or psychologists) while doing their Ph.D.s.

Half of all students begin their Ph.D.s without dedicated funding, and 30% of those who finish their Ph.D.s do so without ever benefiting from long-term, dedicated Ph.D. funding.

Completion and Post-Ph.D. Life

40% of students do not finish their Ph.D.s. The average age of those who do complete them is 31.5 years.

After the Ph.D. only 35% eventually find stable positions in the academic system in France. Eighteen months after the Ph.D. is over, 27% of Ph.D.s are in academia with stable posts, 26% are in business, and 26% are in unstable postdoc positions. (See the Rapport sur les études doctorales 2000.)