Vive the open PhD viva!

October 12, 2001

Ruth Morse advocates the French system of appraising doctoral students and appointing new lecturers

All over France, doctoral students are struggling with their last revisions because they know they will be examined in the next three months to comply with the deadlines ahead.

These days, Europe's official goals and cherished ideals are transparency and mobility - but how easy is it in practice to understand other national procedures?

In France, posts of maître de conferences (lecturer) in all subjects, in all departments, in all universities, are centrally advertised on the same day, usually in March, in the Bulletin Officiel de l'Education Nationale . But one cannot simply open the relevant pages next spring, find attractive possibilities and apply. A series of hoops must have been jumped through in the previous six months for appointments that will begin a year from now.

Centralised efforts to make entering the system fair, to keep standards high and to minimise favouritism and maximise strict scrutiny, have resulted in a procedure that is ostensibly open, but almost as difficult for outsiders to understand as the advertisements for British Academy postdocs, lecturers A and B, and other avenues of advancement in the British system.

That we are living through a period of renewal, with the beneficiaries of 1960s expansion making way for a new generation, is obvious. Less obvious to outsiders, perhaps, are the potential barriers in a system where all university teachers are civil servants, in a national public service. It is difficult to create a transparent process that is open and sensitive to local circumstances. External recruitment is now occasionally enhanced by specific encouragement of non-French candidates, especially in those globalised disciplines such as mathematics, the natural sciences and economics. But they, too, must be guided through the same long bureaucratic process. The French call this being pistonné , not quite having strings pulled, more a leg up, or, in these post-horse days, having a powerful engine behind one.

Doctoral vivas cluster in December and January. Defences are public, and the examiners (traditionally five senior figures) write a report that is for ever after included in an application. Assessments of British doctorates seem, by contrast, to be cloaked in secrecy.

Once the dissertation is in hand, the aspiring academic must immediately submit to the scrutiny of the national committee in his or her field for qualification (permission to apply), usually by February. This is a serious and time-consuming business for everyone concerned.

Who serves on those committees? They are a mix of members elected from the ranks of university teachers, or appointed by the ministry, or delegated by teachers' unions (often explicitly aligned with political positions) to which teachers in Education nationale (state education system) belong.

Large parcels arrive on their doorsteps, and must be assessed quickly because the pressures of the recruitment season mean that a recently qualified candidate will have little time to assemble the necessary dossier, with its curriculum vitae, copies of articles, theses and accompanying reports, and evidence of participation in the culture of conferences and papers. The rapporteurs (assessors) determine whether the candidate is of the requisite standing and ready to apply for university posts.

Rapporteurs must know and understand foreign institutions. The dossiers usually begin to arrive in time to ruin Christmas, and continue to dominate the following weeks until the publication of the list of successful candidates, when of course the dossiers must be repacked and returned.

Not only do the rapporteurs provide a formal written decision, but, since the process is not anonymous, informal requests for advice - as well as sometimes irate reproaches - are not unheard of. The greater the number and variety of applicants, the harder it is to assess diplomas and the ability to function in France, in French.

At this point, successfully "qualified" candidates may apply to university departments, where their dossiers will again be independently assessed; and all over France interviews will take place in late May and June.

In any system, candidates thought to be the best percolate to the top. "Golden" CVs are recognisable whatever the national coin. It is the eccentric or unusual candidates who give their rapporteurs sleepless nights. The same "top" candidates will be offered multiple interviews and, because the period is so short, they may have to make hard decisions about which ones they can attend - travel expenses are not reimbursed.

Appointing departments, by the same token, must offer five potential names in rank order, because their preferred candidate or candidates may have been ranked high at several universities. Those top candidates can then choose among the offers. Thus the unpredictability associated with committees everywhere (and their simultaneous competition for the same candidates) makes for the same surprises as anywhere else.

What is missing from this picture? Most unexpectedly, to Anglo-Saxon experience, there are no references. Nor can departments - or candidates - bargain over money or terms and conditions: French universities are a national bureaucracy with national pay scales and national obligations to teach 192 hours a year.

Does it work? Of course it does. Everyone knows what posts will be available in a given year. Does it encourage and support the free circulation of European candidates? It will.

Ruth Morse is professor of literature in English at the University of Paris VII.

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