Open up a French window to a new opportunity

October 31, 2003

What about making your next move one that crosses the Channel? Ruth Morse has some advice for Francophiles.

Ayear in Provence? Why not a year teaching in a university in Provence, or somewhere else in France? When I made that move, it began with a fluke. A friend wrote to a friend about a department that urgently needed someone in my subject to fill in for a year. I applied and was invited over, only to discover that the department didn't teach my specialty.

Nevertheless, after two visits of a year each they asked me to stay permanently.

Besides the pleasures of French culture, I have acquired an enhanced vocabulary for talking to the plumber; experienced the prevention-oriented health system; endured strikes that took me back to the winter of discontent; attended conferences; and marked a lot of essays. My specialty has shifted, too, with the benefit of renewing my research and teaching interests. Above all, I have had to think afresh about my Anglo-saxon education and its presuppositions.

Learning about French higher education is difficult, but getting easier, especially as many websites offer their information in English. In contrast to Britain's variety of funding bodies and North America's NSF, NEH and Canada Council, French education and research, in all subjects, is organised under one ministry, making the rules and regulations (at least theoretically) more transparent, if not easier to understand. "Higher Education and Research" doesn't imply complete identity or overlap, because of parallel structures: the universities, which teach, and the postdoctoral Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, which doesn't. CNRS units, mainly in the sciences, have provided the scholars and the sous for major research, in actual and virtual labs all over France, often located in universities, sharing personnel and offering temporary attachments.

English is the language of big science now, and it is the lingua franca everywhere. Economists and other social scientists regularly publish in English, and a hybrid English is the language of their conferences. International mobility has never been more fashionable; but for those looking across the channel, knowledge of French is de rigueur .

Unfortunately, the rightwing Raffarin government has recently slashed funding, especially in the humanities, with cuts of more than 20 per cent in one year. But if you're a doctoral student looking for the next step, you could study the site for "recent doctorates", , which provides information, conferences, new initiatives and links. The CNRS gives details of its labs, their projects and posts of different kinds (" target="blank">"> ). But in the big science village, head honchos expect to send their best students to other honchos elsewhere, all over the world, and breaking in is hard.

Reading their newsletter is a good way to begin, and it's easy to subscribe to. I should also mention that CNRS salaries are as much as a third lower than university stipends (themselves far from princely). There is also effectively no provision for paid study leave or sabbatical as of right. The universities' recruiting method each year is a bit like those recipes that tell you halfway through to add that ingredient you prepared last week. Almost all posts are advertised at the same time, usually March (in the Bulletin Officiel de l'Education Nationale , ). To apply, candidates have to have been through a vetting procedure, which begins several months earlier. In all fields there are centralised national committees to which would-be applicants need to apply as a first step (these have electronic newsletters that circulate information). To apply as a lecturer, one needs a doctorate and experience, including presenting papers at conferences and, ideally, some publications.

Professors need the continental " habilitation " or equivalent, such as proof of major publications and graduate supervision. Applicants willing to make a serious investment in planification will find that the time has never been better for mobility, and that British higher education and its graduates are envied and appreciated over the water.

Ruth Morse is professeur des universités at Université Paris VII

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