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French Ph.D.s Need Luck as Well as Talent


More than 60,000 young researchers are currently preparing Ph.D.s in France. This is the only thing that many of these people have in common, however, because their individual situations are far from homogeneous. Some have dedicated funding; some do their research work in parallel with jobs; some are an integral part of research teams; and some work alone, without any financial or moral support. But 40% of those who start a Ph.D. do share a common fate. Due to the problems they encounter along the way, they will never complete and be awarded the doctorate. Importantly, many of those problems are not directly related to the research itself, and they should be readily solvable with a little imagination and will on the part of policy-makers and senior scientists.

First, lack of funding is a major problem (see sidebar). This problem is more severe in some fields, such as the humanities--in which more than 70% of students have no dedicated funding--than in others. But no matter what the discipline, as rewarding and fulfilling as research can be, students still need to pay their rent. Sebastien, who is preparing a Ph.D. in mathematics, says: "I've been able to work on my Ph.D. during the last 2 years because I've found lectures to give at the university. I won't have that opportunity next year, and I am seriously considering giving up my Ph.D."

Even for those who have financial support, the situation is far from perfect. The value of the main funding source, a 3-year fellowship granted by the Ministry of Research (see sidebar), has not increased in the last 10 years. It pays just 6100 FF (910 euros) per month in living expenses. Renting a one-room apartment costs between 2000 and 2500 FF (about 300 euros) per month, except in Paris, where it is much more expensive, although the allocation amount remains the same. Particularly in fields such as information technology, this fellowship cannot compete with the salaries offered to young graduates or postgraduates outside the academic world, which are often double the research stipend. The number of Ph.D.s started in this field has fallen by 28% during the last 5 years. The government's recent decision--after two demonstrations by Ph.D. students--to raise the allocation's amount by 5.5% in 2002 is far from sufficient.

Nevertheless, those who benefit from allocations at least have social security insurance rights and can claim unemployment benefit once the Ph.D. is over. This is not the case for those who receive a grant. They have to rely on the students' social security system, which offers no specific protection in case of accidents at work. Moreover, they have no right to unemployment benefits at the end of the Ph.D. Laure, who recently received her doctorate in biology, explains: "I had a grant from a nonprofit organization for my 4th Ph.D. year, after a 3-year allocation. I lost the unemployment benefit I could have gotten from the allocation, as well as some associated advantages for women who are pregnant, which I was when I finished my Ph.D."

Yet, this funding problem is not the only one that Ph.D. students have to tackle. Lack of supervision is another issue, with several aspects. Some students see their supervisors only once a year or have supervisors who are stretched too thin as the result of supervising too many other Ph.D. students. Others must abandon their Ph.D. because their supervisor, without providing any explanation, will not let them register with their universities (which is mandatory) or will not agree to the renewal of funding. For example, to get the 3rd year of an allocation it is necessary to ask the Ministry of Research for it, with the approval of one's supervisor (most funding sources--see sidebar--are based on this procedure of asking for the funding regularly with the support of one's supervisor and/or research team). Most of the time this is just an administrative procedure (the 3rd year of allocation is always granted) designed to ensure that someone who is no longer working on his or her Ph.D. does not continue to be financed. However, problems can emerge toward the end of a Ph.D., often as the result of a lack of communication between student and supervisor: At long last the supervisor accepts his or her responsibility for the student's work, and, having supervised nothing, refuses to stand as a guarantor for research work in which he or she has never been involved and which he or she judges, for whatever reason, to be insufficient.

To avoid such situations, in 1998 all universities were required to establish a Ph.D. charter. The charter defines the rights and duties of the young researcher, his or her supervisor, and the head of the research team (see sidebar). By stating that Ph.D. students are part of research teams, the charter recognizes that they should be treated like the other researchers instead of being considered as students and therefore should have basic research tools: a desk, computer access, and so forth. A conciliation procedure is suggested as a means of solving any problems that arise. Funding for all Ph.D. students is also highly encouraged; one of the supervisor's roles, according to the charter, is to seek funding for his or her students.

But the charter has no binding power in and of itself, and so its impact is difficult to evaluate. Nevertheless, by providing a description of the behavior expected from each of the parties involved in a Ph.D., the charter is apparently prompting a change in mindset. Victor, a Ph.D. student in applied mathematics, was in conflict with his supervisor: "He's never supported me, and I've worked alone for 3 years. In May, he refused to let me defend my Ph.D. by not designing a jury. But thanks to the mediation by the head of the doctoral school, I think I will complete my Ph.D. in September."

Finally, what happens to the fortunate 60% who overcome the problems of funding and supervision to complete the doctorate? Only 35% of those science Ph.D.s will find jobs in universities or public research institutions. Recruitment for such positions is carried out on a national basis, and it occurs just once a year. With the pressure of more and more Ph.D.s applying, required standards are getting higher and higher. One postdoctoral experience is a minimum requirement these days, but postdoc positions in France for French researchers are almost nonexistent. Therefore, French Ph.D.s who want to continue in research but cannot get permanent positions immediately have no other choice but to go abroad. But coming back to France can be very difficult. Claire, a postdoc in the United States, says: "After a year in the U.S., I tried to enter CNRS [the French basic research agency]. It cost me 8000 FF [1220 euros] in airplane tickets, hotels, and so on, to go through the recruitment procedure. For nothing. This year, I tried again and lost 7000 FF [1070 euros], again with no result. I really feel like my own country has let me down. I get more support from my American supervisors than from anybody in France. My postdoc will end in August, and I have to find another one."

This situation has arisen because, for historical reasons, the French research system is based on only Ph.D. students and researchers with tenured positions, who have civil servant status. However, more researchers are needed than the number employed in tenured posts, so labs have begun to hire postdocs from abroad, as a kind of exchange--foreign postdocs in return for French Ph.D.s. Thanks to this " compromise," the morality of the research system is safe: Because the foreign researchers are not supposed to stay, one cannot say that insecure employment among young researchers is encouraged. The dilemma faced by Claire and other French postdocs abroad could be resolved by creating more postdoc positions in France for French applicants, which could provide stepping-stones for those returning or could even remove the need to go abroad in the first place.

The other alternative after a Ph.D. is to leave academia and join the private sector. This is not always easy, because businesses, especially smaller ones, do not recognize the value of a Ph.D. degree. Ph.D.s often feel they have to compete with engineers in the job market, and the engineering degree is well known and understood by companies. The 5000 new Ph.D.s who apply for jobs each year are lost among the 60,000 new engineers, which makes it hard to promote the doctorate. But things are changing. The nonprofit Association Bernard Gregory has been working on this issue for more than 10 years, and, with the help of the doctoral schools (see sidebar), Ph.D. students should learn how better to explain to employers the value of their training and their specific qualities. Eventually, getting a Ph.D. and building a career should be less a matter of chance and more the well-deserved result of hard work and talent.