Experiencing France

With its vibrant research community, France is an attractive destination for international researchers. It's also a beautiful country with a strong heritage and national identity. But two of the nonscientific reasons a researcher might view France as an appealing destination--the prized culture and the opportunity to learn a foreign language--can also make it a challenging mobility experience.

To get a taste of what it is like to go and work in France, we asked three European researchers--all funded by the European Union Marie Curie Fellowships scheme--to tell us about their experiences. All recently moved to France and are going through the teething pains and joys of living and working in a new country.

Meet Our Protagonists: Marie Curie Fellows in France

Christos Christoglou

Working at: Centre Inter-Universitaire de Recherche et d’Ingéniérie des Matériaux (CIRIMAT), a CNRS (National Scientific Research Center) laboratory, in Toulouse, southern France.

Research Field: Chemical engineering; designing catalytic microreactors that can be used in the automotive and aerospace industries.

Nationality: Greek. In France since: February 2005

Andreas Förster

Working at: Institut de Biologie Structurale in Grenoble, south-east France.

Research Field: Structural biochemistry; looking at the mechanisms of infection with the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Nationality: German. In France since: March 2005

Marcin Szwed

Working at: Unité de Neurosciences Intégratives et Computationnelles in Gif-sur-Yvette, near Paris.

Research Field: Neuroscience; investigating how tactile sensations are processed by the cortex in rats.

Nationality: Polish. In France since: January 2006

Why France?

An opportunity to do science relevant to their careers was the main reason our researchers came to France. But there were other factors, too. German national Andreas Förster says, "I was ready to leave the U.S. and come back to Europe, andI was tempted by the French lifestyle." Plus, he says, "learning French was something I've always wanted to do."

Making Contact With French PIs

French principal investigators hire many international scientists. But despite their interest in foreign scientific talent, securing a research position remotely still takes initiative and effort. All three of our Marie Curie Fellows obtained their positions through personal interactions with their future PIs. Greek researcher Christos Christoglou met his PI at an international conference. Biochemist Förster visited his host lab--whose work he was interested in--on a return visit to Europe when he was a graduate student in the United States. Polish national Marcin Szwed met his future boss when the latter visited the lab where Szwed did his PhD, in Israel.


One prerequisite imposed on these three researchers by their future PIs was that they had to bring their own salary and some research funding. Marie Curie Individual Fellowships--which they applied for together with their host lab--provided this funding. These grants fund a 2-year postdoc and 1 year's reintegration support in the country of origin for the following year. The salaries offered in a Marie Curie grant are generous relative to national equivalents in France. For his first year in France, Szwed also secured a Chateaubriand fellowship, which covered his salary from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The "Chateaubriand [fellowship is] not discipline specific, but it's not offered for every country," says Szwed. "Inquire at the Scientific and Cultural department of your country's French Consulate; they have many funding options at all levels."

Christos Christoglou in front of the Palais de Justice in Paris.

Dealing With Bureaucracy

In most cases, before any scientific experiment is even started, foreign researchers have to jump several bureaucratic hurdles.European Union scientists--and their spouses--are entitled to work permits, but for spouses from the new E.U. member states, getting one can be complicated, as Szwed found out. His wife does not get a work permit automatically, even though she would if they were coming from an "old" member state. "In theory, an option exists to get it for those who stay in France more than a year," says Szwed. "However, it relies on the prospective employer going through a veritable half-year bureaucratic [process], and, as a result, it efficiently scares off all potential employers." According to Antony Mauvais of the Alfred Kastler Foundation--an organisation that was established to help foreign researchers coming to France--this is likely to change in the next 5 years. Spouses of scientists visiting from non-E.U. states automatically qualify for a resident's card and visa that allows them to work in France.

Another bureaucratic headache Szwed is dealing with is his institute's decision to use part of his fellowship's mobility allowance--a supplementary payment aimed at compensating the researcher for costs associated with living abroad--for social security deductions (although this violates European Commission guidelines). The local European Commission representative has helped him make his case to his institute. "I am awaiting a response on that," he says.

Another vital administrative task for setting up life in a new country is opening a bank account. For a foreigner in France, this can be a Catch-22. In order to have a bank account, you need an address, but in order to secure an apartment, you need a bank account. Förster says, "I got away with not having an address or a financial history by approaching a bank that deals with foreigners on a regular basis, as recommended by my host institute."Christoglou says he used the lab address but really only managed to open an account because his research director was kind enough to accompany him to the bank and act as financial guarantor.

On the other hand, Szwed says he opened a bank account effortlessly, thanks to a partnership the Alfred Kastler Foundation has with some French banks. Szwed highly recommends the Alfred Kastler Foundation for help with bureaucratic matters; anyone can get it, he points out, and it's free. Szwed says the foundation assisted him in getting health insurance and housing aid (see below).

Marcin Szwed enjoying Parisian life.

Finding Your Feet: Accommodations

Finding reasonably priced and convenient accommodations is one of the biggest headaches for any mobile researcher. Szwed recommends applying for university accommodations as a starting point: "There is a large body of state-owned accommodation options established especially to meet the needs of researchers. [While] still in Israel, I was able to reserve (with a little help from my postdoc mentor) a place." This, he says, "was the single biggest stress-reducing factor of all my move." Christoglou's research director arranged for him to stay in a university dorm upon arrival in France. Förster, who searched the private market in Grenoble, says that real-estate agencies are best avoided; he recommends keeping an eye out for flats on university notice boards instead.

Szwed recommends inquiring about state housing aid, which researchers may be entitled to. "The actual amount depends on your family situation, where you live, and your past and present income. The Kastler Foundation can provide help on that,"he says.

Life as a Researcher

The French bureaucracy was sometimes a challenge, but, these researchers say, the scientific environment largely made up for it. Förster says his host institute "is rather small but extremely well equipped." In Grenoble, he found himself in "a cluster of research powerhouses including the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the European Molecular Biology outstation." Christoglou enjoys the atmosphere in his lab, but, he says, although many of his colleagues are passionate about their work, he feels that the French research system (CNRS) "doesn't value people who work harder. Here it is more like a job." Förster agrees: "People are as dedicated as elsewhere but see science as part of their life, not as their life."

Speaking the Language

In Förster's lab, like most in France, "French is the working language, but everyone understands English," he says. Christoglou still finds French "very difficult to use," but he found that in the lab, "language was no problem."He has noticed, however, that most people outside his group don't speak English with him. "I don't know if they don't speak it or don't want to speak it." Förster had a similar experience; before he spoke French, he says, people seemed shy about talking to him. "Although many students and postdocs were clearly proficient in English, most were reluctant to speak it to me," he says.

Even if life in the lab without French is feasible, "knowing French helps you a lot in everyday life. English will not get you through at the local bakery or at the swimming pool," says Szwed. He already had a good knowledge of French when he arrived but says about language courses, "be a smart consumer: Some of the courses teach you only grammar." Christoglou took a free French course available to CNRS researchers, which he found very helpful. His only complaint? "Nobody told me about it," so he started it much later than he would have liked; he advises people to ask straightaway about language courses that could be available to them.

A Tour de France: Andreas Förster wears the yellow jersey.

Making Friends

One of the hardest things about being in a foreign country is having no family or friends nearby. Is it hard to make friends with the French? "In the beginning, people [in the lab] were a bit reluctant," says Christoglou, "but after the first few months, they were more like friends." Förster says, "I have received nothing but sincere respect and warm affection in the lab and among my acquaintances." Still, he says, "I found most friends among internationals." "Doing a language course is a great way to making friends," Christoglou adds.

French Delights

"France is a country that makes living well easy,"says Förster. "The food is of outstanding quality; the fruits, cheeses, and wines kept me jumping with joy." As for Szwed, he especially enjoys "going to the local market on Sunday afternoon to eat oysters and drink white wine. "Christoglou says the landscape and relaxed atmosphere of the Mediterranean region of Toulouse is a delight. In Grenoble, Förster has discovered a " laisser-faire " attitude; people are easygoing and laid-back. And many cannot be found in their city during weekends because they are out enjoying the mountains."

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Anne Forde is European editor North and East for Science 's Next Wave. With contributions from Christos Christoglou, Andreas Förster, and Marcin Szwed.

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