EUA Council for Doctoral Education


Doctoral education in France: the views of doctoral candidates and their supervisors

A national field survey in France provides valuable information for enhancing the quality of doctoral training. Conducted by the French national network of doctoral colleges (France PhD) in 2021, the survey also highlights the essential contribution of doctoral candidates to national research production, their high level of satisfaction, and the importance of teamwork in doctoral supervision.

Between September and October 2021, the French national network of doctoral colleges (France PhD) conducted a countrywide field survey on doctoral education in France among doctoral candidates and their supervisors.

The primary motivation for this unprecedented survey was to gather feedback from those most concerned with doctoral education and to provide input on actions to improve the practices and conditions of doctoral training in France. The second motivation was to update the general public perception of the functions of a doctorate, its importance for research, and the conditions under which it is obtained.

Over 11,000 doctoral candidates and nearly 6,000 supervisors participated in the survey. They expressed their views on and presented their visions for doctoral education, and also provided valuable feedback on a number of important issues relating to doctoral training. These included doctoral supervision, financial and material conditions, contributions to research publications, preparation for further career development, and other equally important issues.

The results of this survey highlight three key facts:

1. Central contribution of doctoral candidates toward research: 72% of supervisors across all fields and up to 85% in the field of science and technology state that at least half of the research publications they have co-authored in the past five years are associated with a doctoral project.

2. High level of satisfaction: 68% of doctoral candidates across all fields consider that their experience corresponds to their expectations and vision of the doctorate, 11% are dissatisfied and 22% are neutral. Furthermore, 78% of doctoral candidates across all fields are satisfied with their doctoral supervision; the remaining 22% are either neutral (11%) or dissatisfied (11%).

3. Importance of teamwork and co-supervision: 67% of doctoral candidates are co-supervised. This is appreciated by these candidates, as long as the team members interact and coordinate well, which is the case for 82% of them. Relatedly, 85% of doctoral candidates whose supervisor is in charge of one to five doctoral candidates consider that being part of a team with their peers is an advantage, since it allows them to foster positive collaborations and collaborative interactions. Some 39% of doctoral candidates consider that having more than five doctoral candidates linked to the same supervisor is a disadvantage owing to the supervisor’s lack of availability.

The survey also provided data that offers the opportunity to draw observations and propose recommendations on a number of issues. These include the conditions of doctoral training, the quality of doctoral supervision, international attractiveness, recognition of the doctorate and its valorisation, and future careers of doctorate holders.

The following points include some of the more significant observations and recommendations:

- Among the 5–15% of doctoral candidates who have a number of difficulties or more structural reasons for dissatisfaction, some do not benefit from appropriate supervision. Others report that they are sometimes or regularly under financial stress. These stresses are tied to a lack of resources necessary for carrying out their research or for writing their thesis.

- Information on these difficulties and dissatisfactions will be provided during the doctoral supervision training courses for supervisors.

- A large majority of doctoral candidates had one or more follow-up committees during their thesis research and more than 83% were satisfied. Only 6% said they were dissatisfied. The most satisfied respondents were those who had a voice in the choice of their follow-up committee. Doctoral candidates and supervisors agree that the follow-up committee should provide an external and independent viewpoint on the progress of a doctoral candidate’s work, and that it would be useful for it to convene from the first year onwards (possibly annually).

- Some 31% of international doctoral candidates wish to settle eventually in their country of origin, 23% in another country and 45% in France. The majority of those wishing to remain in France arrive at an earlier stage (master’s or bachelor’s degree).

- More than a quarter of doctoral candidates say they do not have a choice of language for writing their dissertation. It would therefore be useful to adopt a national position in favour of tailor-made solutions and to communicate this position clearly to international students from non-French-speaking countries, who seem to favour research fields in which they are sure they will be able to write their thesis in English.

- Doctoral candidates and supervisors are generally in favour of systematising interviews for doctoral admissions using an official and well-defined framework for all candidates. They consider such regulation to be necessary for two reasons. Firstly, it affirms the selective nature of the doctorate. Secondly, it is a significant factor for determining the relationship between doctoral candidates and their supervisors, placing doctoral candidates in a central and responsible position from the time of admission onwards via the defence of their project. Of the doctoral candidates who had an admissions interview led by a doctoral school, 72% say they were satisfied or very satisfied.

- The valorisation of the doctoral degree also depends on the visibility of thesis manuscripts; unfortunately, around (30%) are not published online. Including the permanent URLs of theses for doctoral diplomas (for example in the form of QR codes) would enhance their visibility, ensuring their online submission and securing doctoral diplomas against possible falsification. More generally, actions in favour of open science should include access to doctoral theses.

- More than a third of doctoral candidates are worried about their professional future, and their concern increases with the duration of the doctorate (significantly beyond four years). However, surveys on the future careers of doctoral candidates show that the situation is improving, albeit that academic employment is limited. Meanwhile, doctoral candidates who say they have information on job opportunities consider this information useful and appropriate. They are less worried about future employment than other doctoral candidates who are unaware of such information relating to job prospects/opportunities. We recommend the creation of a doctoral employment web portal that would consolidate, at national level, the results of institutional surveys on the employment of doctorate holders. This web portal should be structured to allow interactive analysis of the data from these surveys.

“The Doctoral Debate” is an online platform featuring original articles with commentary and analysis on doctoral education in Europe. Articles focus on trending topics in doctoral education and state-of-the-art policies and practices. The Debate showcases voices and views from EUA-CDE members and partners.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.

Mossadek Talby

Mossadek Talby is professor of physics at Aix-Marseille University in France. He worked in several international collaborations on particle physics at CERN (Switzerland) and at SLAC and Fermilab (USA). Since 2006 he has been a member of the ATLAS collaboration at the LHC at CERN. In addition to his research and teaching activities, he has been and continues to be actively involved in education and research management activities at institutional, national and international level. He is currently deputy vice president in charge of doctoral education at Aix-Marseille University, and since 2016 has been a member of the EUA–CDE Steering Committee.

Sylvie Pommier

Sylvie Pommier is deputy vice president for doctoral research at Paris-Saclay University and president of RNCD, the primary academic association for French doctoral studies. She is also professor of mechanical engineering at École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay. She coordinated the pooling of doctoral studies of Paris-Saclay University’s constituent faculties, institutes and component institutions and the development and implementation of a common doctoral training policy for the university. She also coordinated the countrywide field survey on doctoral education conducted by France PhD in 2021.