The Job Hunt in France

I am currently in Paris waiting to present a 12 minute talk that will help to decide whether I have a full time position with the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or the CNRS. I wanted to write about the experience briefly because it is quite unique, particularly with respect to the more common tenure-track experience that many of us go through.

The location and number of CNRS Labs, from the CNRS website.
The location and number of CNRS Labs, from the CNRS website.

The CNRS operates 10 distinct institutes, these include the INSB for biological sciences, and the INEE for ecological and environmental research. There are also institutes for chemistry, physics, computer sciences and earth and planetary sciences. Each of these institutes operates laboratories, or research stations within France – in fact, they operate over 1,100 research centers across the country.

The interesting thing about the CNRS is that these labs do not hire people individually.  As far as I know, you wouldn’t see ads for full time researchers at the Laboratoire des Animaux Méchantes in Nimes (if such a lab existed).  Instead, you apply to a particular section of the CNRS (one of 41) associated with your research background (and associated with one or more Institutes) in the hopes of getting a position in that section, and in your lab of choice.  These are full time, tenured positions. Each year the CNRS posts the number of positions available to applicants at various career stages (DR1, DR2, CR1, and CR2, in order of seniority) within each section. You submit your package (which also includes a ~10 page summary of research to date, a bunch of biographical information, and some other stuff) through a central website, citing the appropriate sections, and then you wait to see whether you are allowed to continue to the interview stage.

I want to make it clear that it is extremely helpful to have someone within the CNRS system to help you through this process.  There are instructions in French and in English that help walk you through the application procedure, but they do not discuss expectations.  Had I not known that the research proposal was expected to be very detailed I would have simply submitted something similar to my standard research statement.  The same goes for my statement of research to date.  It helps to have an insider on your side!

In January of this year I submitted a twenty-something page mid-term research proposal, detailing a set of research goals, outlining the methodologies I would use and providing some of the background for these proposed ideas.  This is your typical research statement on steroids.  It includes statements on your own abilities, your potential network of expertise and the reasons you would like to work in the lab that you’re asking to be associated with.  I applied within section 30, Continental Surfaces and Interfaces and I could probably also have applied to the interdisciplinary Section 42 (the sections numbers seem to change each year so be careful!).  I asked to work with the Centre de Bio-Archéologie et d’Écologie, the CBAE, in Montpellier.  A colleague of mine, Odile Peyron, is there now, and there is some excellent work being done in the lab, along with colleagues such as Walter Finsinger, Christelle Hély, and many others.  I’ll post the proposal once I find out how I did 🙂

I submitted this package in early January.  Out of approximately 120 people who submitted as CR2 applicants to Section 30 this year there about 40 selected to move on to the interview and I was one of them.  Now, this is the tough part:

  1. They don’t pay for you to come
  2. It’s a 12 minute interview in front of a jury of about 15 senior researchers
  3. Hardly anyone makes it their first time.

Okay.  Well, for me it’s still a better than 10% chance, the CNRS position is a full-time, tenured research position, it’s with an excellent group of highly productive researchers at the CBAE, and it’s in the south of France, so my elementary school French Immersion program will finally pay off.  But did I mention that the interview is only 12 minutes long?  And it’s going to happen in less than 4 hours from now?

Granted, they’ll ask questions for about 15 minutes afterwards, but still.  This is completely different from the successive phone interviews, reference letters and then sometimes multi-day interviews that people go through for tenure track jobs.  But that multi-day process is replaced by the need to produce a high-quality research document prior to selection.

So, I’ll say again, hardly anyone makes it the first time (although people have), which means that by the time you do get hired (if you’re not culled) they’ll have seen you talk for nearly an hour over successive years.  That’s long enough I suppose.

I’m not sure exactly what to expect.  I already walked down to the room at the Pierre and Marie Curie University where the interview will be held, just to make sure I don’t get lost, I’ve corrected and re-corrected my talk.  I’ve timed it (still a bit under time!) and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, or at least, as ready-ish as I’ll ever be.

I’d love to hear from other people who have gone through this process though.  It was a bit tough finding resources for foreign researchers about the CNRS process, so this could be a useful place to post tips, suggestions and comments.  I’ll be happy to expand on my experience if anyone is interested.

I’ll leave you with this.  Two of my favorite French (Canadian) songs, by the great Robert Charlebois and by the equally great Stereolab.