March 9, 2012

About faculty positions in Europe (and especially in French Grandes Ecoles)

I hear a lot of complaints from post-docs and near-end PhD students about the quasi-impossibility to obtain a faculty position in North America today: too few open positions and too many very strong candidates with impressive publication history and dithyrambic recommendation letters. When I ask these frustrated candidates "Do you consider positions in Europe?", they usually look at me strangely. Europe?

Since we have an open tenured faculty position in my lab, I think it is time to explain what a faculty position means in Europe / in France / at Telecom Bretagne.

Life for faculties in Europe. The vast majority of universities (and research centers) are located in the downtown of major cities. There is no university in the middle of nowhere in Europe. A typical city hosting an university is a major city in the sense that such city concentrates everything you need for a reasonably good urban life: shops in downtown, cultural events, and good public transport (metro, train, airport). In cities inhabited by more than 300.000 people, you can find everything, especially services and jobs. Smaller cities are generally also lively nice places to live. For example, the city of Brest (France, 170.000 people, 300.000 with suburbs) is incomparably more lively than Waterloo (Ontario, aggregated population of 400.000 people with Kitchener and Cambridge).

There is of course a language issue, since countries like France, Italy or Spain are still not exactly english-friendly. I think it is no longer a major issue for teaching. Most good universities have developed english-based courses, and recruiters prefer now a strong international candidate to fluent ones. Besides, I have three comments: (i) things change, the ratio of people speaking english increases, Europeans themselves travel more and get used to dealing with people from abroad countries. (ii) from my experience, kids are fluent in a new language in less than one year. It might be harder for parents, but people with a decent social life should be able to converse in a couple of years. (iii) multilingualism is one of the key assets of Europe. It is a chance for curious intelligent open-minded people. And faculties are expected to be curious intelligent and open-minded.

One of the major drawbacks of Europe is that every country has its own recruitment process. Since 2007, all European universities have the same curriculum. I think it is just a question of time that higher Education policies will be harmonized as well. But it is currently the main issue, typified by the crazy French system.

Faculty positions in France. All faculty positions in France are tenured: once you get hired, you can stay here forever. Moreover, the life in France is among the very top worldwide (in particular weather, cultural life, infrastructure and service quality). The combination of the above should place France as the first location for young scientists from all over the world. France however suffers from two critical drawbacks.

The first drawback is the recruitment process, which has been created by French for French. It is a ridiculous Kafkaian system, which actually prevents the development of competitive French research centers, In short, if you are not within the system, you have no chance to get in because you simply cannot know how to apply. There are in France four decent research places: universities (for traditional associate-professor and professor position), CNRS (full-research position in fundamental areas), INRIA (full research positions in Computer Science) and Grandes Ecoles (traditional professor positions but teaching only to small population of graduating students). Each of these places has its own recruitment process, with a lot of specific French acronyms and terms. They all require candidates to dive into websites with no guarantee that the English translated page is accurate and updated. For example, the recruitment at CNRS is based on the concept of Sections. Should you be able to know your Section, you might face some terrible issues like understanding this wonderful PDF. Universities have the worst recruitment process. Go to this portal if you are crazy enough to candidate, but please don't forget that if you want to apply for 2012 recruitment process, you first had to apply before Dec 31st 2011 in order to be authorized to actually apply four months later. No kidding. INRIA has the best recruitment process (with a LaTeX template for the application). Grandes Ecoles are autonomous small entities without much visibility. For the brand new Institut Mines-Telecom, the new recruitment website is still under construction, with a lot of infamous 404 pages and various links toward webpages in French.

The second drawback is the salary. In France, you cannot be a rich scientist. For CNRS and traditional university positions, it is even worse. A young scientist with a tenured position in an university cannot live decently at Paris. The salary (around 2000 euros monthly after tax) ruins your chances to find any apartment in Paris and nearby. INRIA and Grandes Ecoles are a bit more reasonable with monthly salary starting around 2500 euros. For example, after five years of experience, my salary is slightly higher than 3000 euros after tax. In all French cities (except Paris and Nice), such a salary allows a comfortable life, but it is still borderline for a family. The comparisons to other countries are not in favor of France. On the one hand, there are still many candidates despite the low salaries. On the other hand, best candidates, especially those who know the US system, are reluctant to apply.

This particular position at Telecom Bretagne. For young scientists with young (or upcoming) kids, Telecom Bretagne is an outstanding place, with a scenic oceanic coast, a kid-friendly climate (temperatures ranging from 5˚C to 20˚C), and cheap housing (a 4-bedroom house near the beach can be rented for less than 1000 euros per month). Brest is considered as one of the ugliest French city, but, with respect to world standard, it is still a nice lively city with an attractive homogeneous downtown. I would argue that Brest is typically a better place than the majority of cities in US, Germany or Japan.

Telecom Bretagne is one of these strange typically French "Grandes Ecoles". In short, the best French students go to Grandes Ecoles for graduating as engineers. Since Grandes Ecoles are dynamic small entities, specific partnerships with the best institutions all over the world have also been created in order to attract excellent abroad students (one third of students at Telecom Bretagne are not French). Hence, professors teach to small-size international population of smart students with whom it is possible to experience new pedagogical processes, including active learning and project-based education. However, these students will become engineers (the ratio of students willing to go to PhD is less than 0.1) and they are highly-demanding in average.

Fifteen years ago, Grandes Ecoles were only about teaching. The recent development of research activities explains the diversity of profiles in the so-called "departments". Professors with academic ambitions are free to develop their own research agenda, but they will have to find grants in order to hire PhD students and post-doc. Fortunately, the school has strong industrial relationships and good connections with major French research centers, therefore it is not that hard to find money if the research activity is within a hot area.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Gwendal. I had considered applying for university positions in France while I was a PhD student, but found the whole process daunting (applying to get on a list of people who are allowed to apply???) and was basically told that I had little chance of getting a position if I wasn't already in France. When I applied to TB, the process was quite easy by comparison.

    I think it's important to point out what you have to pay for with your salary here, as compared to North America. We have very little in the way of child care expenses, for example. We also are not having to set aside a few thousand dollars (euros) a year for when our children get ready to go to university, as opposed to the US, for example. Those two things alone make a huge difference in our bottom line.