Belgium: A Particle Physicist On Track

On 1 November, Caroline Collard (pictured left), a 29-year-old Belgian national, will join the French CNRS Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics with a permanent Chargé de Recherche position. Getting one of these positions is hard enough for French nationals; foreigners have the added difficulty of understanding the French system. "For me it was really a possibility to apply because I was [already] working inside France, so I had lots of advice about it," she says.

Collard earned a 4-year degree in physics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, then stayed on to do a Ph.D. in fundamental particle physics, analyzing electron-proton accelerator data. She finished in 2002, then left for a postdoc at the École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, where she contributed to the building of a new detector, laying the foundations for future data analysis while "taking part in more experimental work."

The next career step for Collard was to obtain one of the six CR2 positions available at CNRS this year in her section. CNRS scientists are assigned a definite project and host lab, according to their preferences and the needs of research departments; Collard was appointed at the Laboratoire de l'Accélérateur Linéaire in Orsay to search for the Higgs boson. "I will go to a lab that is doing exactly the kind of research that I want to do; I am really happy about this."

If a permanent position has advantages over a postdoc, a job at a public research institution in France also has advantages over the typical academic post. Although some CNRS scientists choose to teach, a job at CNRS has no teaching obligations. Chargés de Recherche also enjoy greater mobility and after a 1-year probationary period can choose to move to another project, even a different research centre.

Collard was successful the first time she applied, partly, she reckons, because she has been thinking for a while about how to improve her chances. "It is important to look objectively at your CV and see if it is complete," she says, and to ask others for advice. Other than that, "you have to be lucky, because there is a lot of good people, and they [too] deserve the position."

Elisabeth Pain is Contributing Editor for Europe, South and West, for Science's Next Wave.