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Finding Your Way Around the French Research System

In the last couple of months, the proposal for a new law aimed at relaxing the hiring and firing of young employees in France convulsed the nation. The Contrat Premier Embauche (First Employment Contract, or CPE) was intended to boost recruitment of people under 26, but it was widely criticised for allowing employers to lay them off without a reason during their first 2 years on the job. On 10 April, the government withdrew the proposal.

Even if it had passed, recent science graduates would not have been affected directly by the CPE, but other changes threaten to affect early-career scientists in similar ways. Young researchers in France have traditionally been able to secure a permanent position earlier than their peers in other countries, but critics fear that the new Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) will shift research employment away from long-term research positions toward short-term contracts. A likely impact of these changes is that scientists working in France will have to wait a bit longer than in the past for employment stability. These and other recent changes in France have implications too for how and where foreign scientists should look for opportunities to join the French scientific community.

A Dual Research System

Permanent academic positions are mainly of two kinds in France. In addition to the assistant professorship ( Maîtres de Conférence) positions offered by French universities to cover for research and teaching duties, national research institutes such as the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) also offer full-time research appointments as Chargés or Directeurs de Recherche. Unlike most Anglo-Saxon countries, the hiring of new researchers is centralised and takes place at the national level, both for university and national research institute positions.

For example, the CNRS--the biggest French national research institute--issues a single call each December for positions all over France, based on their nationwide needs in specific disciplines. The numbers of newly available positions have remained stagnant over the last few years, with about 410 positions being offered this year. Candidates respond by submitting a dossier that includes a CV, a list of publications, and a description of their current research projects and future plans.

The CNRS then publishes the names of the candidates who were preselected, and these candidates present their research plans individually to a jury for about 10 minutes in a system called concours. Successful applicants are then appointed to a research lab according to their preferences, research profile, and the availability of positions. Competition is intense; in physics, for example, each year there are between 20 and 40 candidates per open position,Mounir Tarek, a CNRS physicist at the Université Henri Poincaré in Nancy, estimates. Of course, the chances of landing a position increase if the candidate's profile fits that of one of the laboratories.

Applying for a position as a full-time researcher in a French research institute is a good way for foreigners to land a job in France because knowledge of the French language is not required. Projects can be written and presented in English, a trend that increasingly is becoming de rigueur in France. "This system is more open than in other countries; in France you have more foreign researchers in permanent positions than in Germany, for example," says Frank Hekking, a Dutch national and physicist at the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble.

As for research and teaching positions within French universities, every November the Ministry of Higher Education and Research issues a call for applications, based again on nationwide needs in specific disciplines. Positions are attributed during the next spring, and employment starts for the academic year in September. The application procedure is centralised, like the process for the CNRS, but the research project weighs less and teaching capabilities are taken into consideration. Here, knowledge of the French language is important because of the teaching assignment (192 hours of lecturing per year), so the percentage of non-nationals finding a permanent position is lower than in the national research institutes.

Although most candidates are selected in nationwide calls, universities may also initiate job openings and recruit directly. And whereas CNRS candidates always have to go through the Paris headquarters, sometimes laboratories will lobby the CNRS for candidates they are interested in. So sometimes it's a good idea for young scientists to try to contact individual laboratories or research groups which may then agree to ' sponsor' them--by writing a sealed recommendation letter that accompanies the dossier--or even to help them prepare a research proposal.

Short-Term Versus Long-Term Contracts

In France, traditionally, most newly trained researchers have been able to find a permanent position quickly, either as a full-time researcher in one of the national research institutes or as an assistant professor. But this situation has changed over the last decade. "Now only about 30% of new graduates obtain a permanent position within 1 year of completing their Ph.D.," says Jasmin Buco, who is preparing his Ph.D. at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées in Lyon and is president of the Confédération des Jeunes Chercheurs , an organisation defending the professional status of young Ph.D.s in France.

Increasingly, the first employment option for new Ph.D. graduates reflects the situation found in many other countries, in that those who don’t succeed in getting a permanent position straightaway usually go for a postdoc. Up to now, postdoc positions have been made available by the national research institutes in France, where applicants prepare a dossier (a research project is not required) and are selected by a national selection panel. But laboratories can also directly recruit postdoctoral researchers if they have arranged with the CNRS to look for postdocs themselves, and they often advertise positions on their Web sites.

Another option for short-term employment, this time within universities, was launched in France in 2001. A programme called ATER ( Attaché Temporaire d'Enseignement et de Recherche) allows researchers who have already obtained a Ph.D. to apply directly to universities for 3-year teaching positions. Both full-time and part-time contracts are possible; the full-time contracts require 128 hours of teaching and the part-time contracts can be limited to 64 hours. Although Ph.D. students may also get such a contract for 1 year, the ATER positions allow young researchers to receive a salary for their teaching while carrying their research on the side and applying for a permanent position within universities. Although here again the language may be an issue, foreigners may also apply for these conditions provided they have a doctorate or have been a teacher or researcher for at least 2 years.

Direct entry into the French research system is now likely to be further delayed with the recent removal of the age limit of 31 to get a junior position at the CNRS and other national institutes and the creation of the ANR in February 2005. The ANR is modelled after the National Science Foundation in the United States in that it reviews research proposals from all research groups in France--within public research institutes, universities, and industry--and distributes government funding to support individual peer-reviewed research projects. Before then, government funding for research was mainly distributed to research teams through the peer-review boards of the research institutes and universities.

The change will greatly increase the opportunities for research groups to select postdoc candidates themselves, because the ANR grants now often include funding for postdoc positions. The ANR promised that about 2500 new short-term jobs--with an average length of 18 months--will become available that way in 2006, in addition to the 3000 permanent positions that the government already said will become available in the recent Pacte pour la Recherche . Groups receiving the grants can then, for example, put the grant proposal on the Web and advertise for postdoc candidates. "This will facilitate access to positions in France for foreign young researchers," says Laurent Puech, a physicist at the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble.

Many French scientists are concerned that funding which previously would have gone directly to research organisations for permanent positions may now be used by the ANR to create short-term positions. "Traditionally in France, people got a permanent position around age 30, but with the intermediary temporary positions, there is a good probability that this age will be delayed," says Georges Debrégeas, a physicist at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and a member of Sauvons La Recherche (Let's Save Research), an association lobbying for increased support of science. Edouard Brézin, president of France's Academy of Science, is more optimistic: The temporary positions will allow young researchers to acquire scientific independence, he says, and allow research groups with understaffed laboratories to hire postdocs. Bernadette Arnoux, who is responsible for the Young Researchers Programme at the ANR, adds that these short-term employment contracts should have little if any impact on the overall number of permanent positions that are to become available in the future in France.

In spite of the recent changes, many believe that France is still leading the world in opportunities for young scientists to find permanent positions early in their careers. "France still makes the choice to spend more money on permanent positions than on congresses, buying of hardware, or infrastructure," says Frank Hekking, a Dutch national and physicist at the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble. For many young scientists, this may mean a golden opportunity.

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

Alexander Hellemans is a freelance science writer based in France .

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