The Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), which lies on the Rue d'Ulm in the Cinquième Arrondissement of Paris, ranks at the top among the prestigious French Grandes Ecoles. It is known all over the world for its research. Its alumni include Louis Pasteur, six Nobel Prize winners, and eight Fields Medallists. For the 800 or so students at the ENS-Ulm--half of whom are in the sciences--a degree from the institution combined with a Ph.D. practically guarantees a swift rise to a successful career in research.

About half a mile from the Rue d'Ulm lies Jussieu, the University of Paris campus hosts the Pierre et Marie Curie University, Denis Diderot University, and the Paris Institute for the Physics of the Globe. Called by some the "largest factory in Paris," its 40,000 students and researchers toil in cramped classrooms, labs, and libraries. Many students at Jussieu, and at many other French universities, have come to expect that they will not end up having the careers they were seeking. For university students, "once you have a Ph.D., you often have to wait 4 to 5 years before obtaining a research position, and even the good students are never sure to end up with a professional position," says René Lasserre, a researcher at the Information and Research Centre on Contemporary Germany (CIRAC) and former president of the University of Cergy-Pontoise. "Delivering pizzas or driving a taxi with a Ph.D. is not a rarity," says Lasserre.


Library at École normale supérieure (credit: ENS - Antenne graphique)

It is a paradox that France--which is proud of its égalité--operates such a hierarchical higher education system. At the top of the French system are the 200 or so Grandes Ecoles, which prepare students mainly for careers in government and public administration, business, industry, and higher education. About 144 of these specialise in science and train ingénieurs for management positions within companies. The vast majority of the students in higher education are taken on by the 83 public universities, which are far from giving their graduates equal career chances. "The Grandes Ecoles with about 3% of students receive about 40% of the national budget for higher education," says Lasserre. Recently, France's research and higher-education minister Francois Goulard proposed to bring the Grandes Ecoles and universities closer together, but there is much catching up to do.

Getting through the gate

In France, the two-tier system for higher education begins right after the Baccalauréat. Anyone with a Baccalauréat can enter a French university, but only the best are permitted to take the so-called classes préparatoires, which are taught in about 200 of the French high schools. These students are selected based on the marks they obtained during their high-school years. Two to 3 years of intense training in maths, physics, and--for some--biology ensue, in preparation for the nationwide competitions to earn the right of entry to a Grande Ecole. And the higher they rank in the examinations, the more prestigious the Grande Ecole students may enter. According to the Boivigny Observatory, only 6% to 7%--about 100,000 for the Grandes Ecoles d´Ingénieurs--of France's upper-level students study at a public or private Grande Ecole, whereas about 1.35 million students go to universities.

The title obtained from a Grande Ecole d'Ingénieurs is equivalent to a master's degree, and although students are referred to as ingénieurs, they are expected to assume greater responsibilities than most engineers would in other countries. Although the main function of the French ingénieurs is to apply science to technical problems, they usually take on managing and high-responsibility roles in industrial or service companies. Career prospects for those coming out of a Grande Ecole are usually excellent; it is said that the majority of France's top engineers and managers--and even many top scientists--are graduates from the Grandes Ecoles.

Most Grandes Ecoles have remained quite independent of the university system. Lasserre argues that the best people are "skimmed off" to serve other functions and don't enter research careers. "The most brilliant elements are turned off research right at the beginning," says Lasserre. Even though "nothing prevents you, once you have your engineering degree, … to continue in research … only a few percent do this," adds Jasmin Buco, a Grande Ecole graduate who is now preparing a Ph.D. at the Institut National de Sciences Appliquées in Lyon.

The separation of the Grandes Ecoles from research training is not universal, however. In contrast to most other Grandes Ecoles, the main aim of the four Grandes Ecoles that belong to the ENS family is the training of researchers and teaching personnel in higher education. Elisabeth Logak, a mathematics professor at the University of Cergy-Pontoise in the north of Paris, found that studying at ENS led her to engage into mathematical research, something she did not plan at the outset. "All my professors were researchers, and I got interested in research very quickly," she says.

She did a Ph.D. at the Pierre et Marie Curie University, but her ENS connections--such as access to prominent people in her field--gave her a large advantage over other university students working on a Ph.D. thesis. Most importantly, "professors would look for us, 'normaliens,' to become our thesis director, because they know they would get good people," says Logak. Coming from the ENS, she says, has greatly accelerated her career.

The big difference with university students is that their selection doesn't take place at the gate like for the Grandes Ecoles, so there is less recognition of their merit to pursue academic studies. Yet they go through a kind of natural selection as students drop out. "Most students have disappeared at the level of the master or Ph.D. thesis, and the ones that survived are as good as those from other educational directions," says Emanuel Dupoux, a researcher in cognitive and brain science at the ENS.

Nevertheless, opportunities for a research career are much more restricted for those following the university circuit than those from the Grandes Ecoles. For a start, university students have a harder time finding supervisors and securing funding for their Ph.D. They are also more vulnerable when it comes to getting a permanent position, as they will compete head-to-head with students issued by the Grandes Ecoles. With tenured positions and funding being scarce in the French universities and public research organisations, university graduates are the ones who most often lose out.

Many have to abandon a scientific career around the age of 35, says Sophie Pochic, a sociologist at the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) who is researching the evolution of careers in higher education and in industry. This is an irony of the French education system: that students within universities--who do far more research than Grande Ecole students--find it more difficult to establish and sustain a research career.

As for industrial jobs, "they"--industry employers--"don't value the Ph.D.; it is viewed as a negative signal of too much specialisation and the absence of understanding of the business world," says Pochic. "Companies prefer to engage ingénieurs from the Grandes Ecoles instead of those graduating from the universities because they don't understand their selection and training methods," says Jean-Claude Lehmann, who until last year was the director of research at the Saint-Gobain Group near Paris, a large construction and structural-materials manufacturing company that employs about 500 staff researchers in France. As a consequence, the majority of researchers in industry are engineers, who have less research experience than university Ph.D.s.--another irony. "When I finished my thesis, it was not easy to find a position in industry; … they expect you to stay within research at universities," says Mounir Tarek, a CNRS researcher who works in a mixed research unit at the Henry Poincaré University in Nancy and trained through the university circuit.

Bridging the gap

A few bridges exist between the universities and industry. A major one is the Conventions Industrielles de Formation par la Recherche (CIFRE), a programme of the French higher education and research ministry that gives subsidies to encourage companies to hire people for at last 3 years while they are preparing a Ph.D. thesis. Ph.D. candidates under the CIFRE agreement are equally divided between graduates from universities and from the Grandes Ecoles. According to the National Association for Technical Research (ANRT), 13,000 Ph.D. degrees have been awarded to CIFRE participants since 1981, and 80% of those degree recipients have remained employed by industry.

Some universities, such as the University of Technology of Compiègne (UTC), aim to increase the odds that their graduates will land jobs in industry by preparing them to adapt to a professional environment and take managing roles. UTC delivers 5 years of training inspired by the Grandes Ecoles and other European engineering institutions; they call their students ingénieurs. But the prestige of the Grandes Ecoles still makes it difficult for UTC graduates to be recognised. "The fact that they are at a university has not yet allowed them to built up a reputation," says Buco.

But attitudes seem to be changing. Saint-Gobain's current research director, Didier Roux, says that it is not whether your career started in a university or a Grande Ecole that now counts. "What for me counts the most, and this is important from an international point of view as well, is that you have a very good Ph.D. thesis that results from work in a good laboratory; the laboratory is the most important," says Roux.

With the governmental elections approaching, the state of the universities and the low funding for research is being hotly debated in France. Higher Education and Research Minister François Goulard recently proposed, in an article published in French newspaper Le Monde , bringing universities and Grandes Ecoles closer together. So far there is no concrete plan, and it probably would not be a smooth move. "There is an enormous gap between the two systems, and it will not be easy to bridge it," says Logak. Much resistance is also expected from the Grandes Ecoles. "The Grandes Ecoles hold on to their power," she says.

Changes may be coming, nevertheless. Reforms are under way to unify university degrees within the European community, in line with the Bologna process. "The 'LMD' "--Licence, Master's, Doctorate--"will change a lot the French system: the quality of a university education will increase," says Emanuel Dupoux. And because the Grandes Ecoles don't deliver master's degrees, they will have to partner with the universities to accomplish this. "This will close the cultural gap that exists between these two worlds," says Dupoux.

Alexander Hellemans is a freelance science writer based in Paris.

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Alexander Hellemans is a freelance science writer in Antwerp, Belgium.