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Désolé, docteur

PhD students are sought after in most European countries, but in France they play second fiddle to their peers from the grandes écoles, as Safya Khan-Ruf reports.

Professors in France are often unsure whether to congratulate or console their freshly graduated doctoral students. French PhD holders are three times more likely to be unemployed than those in other OECD countries, and the government and industry consistently fail to understand what PhD holders have to offer. Graduation day can mark the start of a life of uncertainty.

There are two systems of higher education in France. Most students go to universities, which accept all who pass their baccalaureate. But the brightest students spend 2 years preparing for highly competitive exams to enter the grandes écoles, or elite schools. Dating back to the French Revolution and designed to enrol the best students into specific professions, the grandes écoles are where employers hand-pick top graduates and pay them higher salaries than PhD graduates in similar positions.

“Grandes écoles have a very good reputation,” says Ramesh Caussy, head of Partnering 3.0, a French innovation start-up. They have the support of large companies, “allowing them to understand industrial realities”.

The schools have powerful industry networks that fast-track their graduates into the best jobs, and the boards of French companies are filled with grandes écoles graduates. As a result, PhD holders struggle to get hired by industry as there are few of their peers there.

Philippe Gambette, a lecturer at Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, describes industry’s attitude towards grandes écoles graduates as “homophily”: the tendency to prefer people similar to oneself. “These people don’t have a PhD themselves and don’t know what a PhD will bring them or why it’s competitive,” he says.

But there are also problems with French PhD education and its reputation for disconnecting students from reality and the practical applications of research. Catherine Gayda, a spokesperson for Intelli’agence, an association which helps PhD holders find employment in industry, says: “They are bathed in an academic universe and the classic career for them is teaching and research.”

Unfortunately, the 12,000 PhD graduates every year are competing for only about 2,000 free roles in academia that allow them to focus on their area of expertise at research organisations such as the CNRS. Alison Wolf, a lecturer at King’s College London and a former adviser to the French education ministry, says: “The reality is that most employers want clever, well-educated people and not incredibly specific skills.”

Universities have responded by increasing the use of workshops to prepare doctoral students for life outside academia and international careers beyond France. But even international firms that seek PhD graduates in different countries are often reluctant to hire them from France if they can get grandes écoles graduates instead.

“They see universities as accepting people who didn’t make it into grandes écoles,” says Caussy. “University professors do not spend time in industry, so employers wonder who is going to train these students for it.”

France’s government is aware that the country’s PhD students are struggling, but has so far done little about it. There are no national laws on how PhDs should be recognised, and each government department makes its own rules on how to promote PhD employment. 

This year, the government rejected a proposal to allow PhD holders to apply directly to the École Nationale d’Administration, which holds a near monopoly over the most prestigious positions in the civil service. This demonstrates the government’s lack of understanding of what a PhD is, argues Ludovic Garattini, former president of Eurodoc, a lobbying group for doctoral researchers. “There is strong lobbying in favour of the grandes écoles,” he adds.

PhD holders are as underrepresented in government as they are in industry. A report published this year showed that only 1.8 per cent of people in France’s civil service outside research and higher education held a PhD, compared with at least 20 per cent in other OECD countries. Patrick Lemaire, who led a researcher protest against budget cuts in October, says: “A lot of the issues come from the fact that there is very poor scientific training among elected representatives.”

One measure introduced by the government to increase the number of PhD holders in industry is a tax incentive to hire them. Despite this, the percentage of researchers with a PhD when hired by industry has declined.

The number of people in France graduating with PhDs is increasing year on year, mainly because of a rise in international PhD candidates, who made up 40 per cent of PhD students in 2014. But unless the government does more to boost their recognition, their employment and identity crisis will only get worse.

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This article also appeared in Research Europe