15 July 2013

CNRS positions: tips for foreign candidates

[Post first published on 14/01/2013; updated with a few comments on the 2013 campaign]

The CNRS, or Centre national de la recherche scientifique, is the largest French research organization, employing more than 10000 permanent researchers. It opens about 300 tenured junior positions (CR - short for chargé de recherche) every year, with no nationality restrictions. Knowledge of French is not required and the entire recruitment process can take place in English. As a result, foreigners represent an increasing fraction of the number of applicants and of successful candidates. There is a lot of information about the competition (mostly on the CNRS web site), but navigating it can be challenging. More critically, there is some unwritten "common knowledge", which is however less common outside the French research system. I will blend both of them, with no claim to completeness.

I did my PhD in France and have been employed by the CNRS since 2005. All statements below are entirely my own and do not represent the official position of the CNRS. I am mostly familiar with the physics community, and some of the following advice might be less relevant in very different domains (e.g. social sciences), but I believe all candidates will find some useful information.

 

Requirements

Candidates need to:
a) have defended their PhD or
b) hold an equivalent diploma or qualifications
More details on case b).
Keep in mind that these are admissibility conditions. Fulfilling them is only a first step. There are usually more than ten admissible candidates for each open position !

 

Schedule

The available positions are all announced on the same date, generally in early December of the previous year, with a deadline for applications in early January. It is therefore advisable to start preparing well before the official announcement (I would suggest beginning no later than September of the previous year.) The candidates chosen during a pre-selection step (based on the application file) are invited for an interview with an eligibility committee, some time during spring. This committee ranks a number of eligible candidates for each competition, usually a few more than the number of opened positions; this list becomes public the following week. The final decision is taken by an appointments committee which defines the final list, generally published in July.

- The pre-selection was added in 2012, year when few candidates were rejected at this point, but it is not clear how things will evolve. [UPDATE 15/07/2013: In 2013, a substantial number of candidates (30-50%) were rejected at the pre-selection stage in physical sciences, even more in mathematics (section 41)]
- The eligibility committee does not mark the candidates, nor does it provide a motivation for its decision.
- Changes between the eligibility lists and the appointment lists are very infrequent.
- Most positions are at the CR2 level. For CR1 (more experience required) competitions some restrictions apply. Normally, all CR2s are promoted to CR1 after four years.

 

The section (defining the research area)

The CNRS employees and the various laboratories they belong to are evaluated by an organisation known as the Comité national de la recherche scientifique. Confusingly, it has a very similar name (and exactly the same initials) as the CNRS. It is usually referred to as the National Committee or the CoNRS. For scientific and administrative purposes, the CoNRS is divided in a numbers of sections corresponding to the various scientific disciplines, from mathematics to political science.

The first decision for a potential candidate is the choice of the appropriate section(s), as a function of his or her scientific profile. This is extremely important, since the eligibility committees and the open positions are specific to each section. The section list describes their areas of expertise. In addition, the list of members can give you an idea of the range of topics considered.

- There is some overlap between the scientific domains of some sections (e.g. 5 and 11), but I think only a very atypical candidate would be competitive in more than two sections. You can also readjust your section choice in the next step.

 

The laboratory (choosing the team)

The second choice is that of the laboratory you would like to be appointed to. Normally, this will be one of the labs examined by your chosen CoNRS section (select the desired "Section" and press "Rechercher"). I am not aware of any rule forbidding one section from choosing a candidate who intends to work in a lab examined by a different section, but there are no incentives for doing it. If the lab is large and covers several research topics you should also choose the group you would like to join (henceforth "the team") and contact its members about your intention to apply. It is practically indispensable to visit the lab and give a talk.

 

The project

In close collaboration with the team, you will then develop a research project that you could reasonably complete in a few years (3 to 5, say) and which will combine your own expertise and that of the team. The balance between these two components varies widely as a function of your experience and your particular research community.

- Consider the financial needs of the project. If it requires purchasing some expensive equipment or hiring PhDs or postdocs you must identify the potential funding sources and estimate your chances of success. Talk this through with the team.

 

The audition

Alongside the résumé and the research project, the audition is an essential element of the selection process (at least in physics; the situation might be different in other disciplines). It consists of 10-20 minutes of presentation (covering previous professional experience and the research project) followed by several minutes of questions. This is an unusual format and you should prepare for it thoroughly: try to get feedback from people who have experience with the auditions, as candidates or as committee members.

- You will of course need to present interesting and sound scientific results and projects. However, this should not shift your focus from the main goal: getting hired. The audition is not a technical talk, it is a job interview !
- Do not exceed the allotted time.
- This is your opportunity to inform the committee of changes to your résumé since having submitted your application (e.g. a newly accepted paper, a distinction etc.) Be aware that you will not be able to update your application between the submission deadline and the audition.
- You must convince the committee that the project is interesting and feasible. Feasibility involves both financial aspects (see above) and scientific ones (your own expertise, that of the team and the relation between the two: common ground, complementarity etc.)

 

Success !

- The successful candidates are appointed starting with October 1st; the date can be postponed by a few months.
- Normally, you will be appointed to the lab indicated as first choice in your application, but this is not officially guaranteed.
- The position becomes tenured after one year.
- The starting salary varies with the rank or "class" (CR2 or CR1) and with the work experience (from the beginning of your PhD). UPDATE: see this post for more details.
- Unlike university professors, CNRS researchers do not have teaching duties.
- There is no "startup package" (funding for personnel or equipment) included with your position. Defining the financial needs and means as discussed above is thus all the more important.
- In order to act as PhD advisor, French researchers need to have the Habilitation à diriger des recherches (HDR) diploma. Until you obtain it, you can however act as co-advisor, alongside a more senior colleague. If you already have substantial experience after the PhD (in particular if you apply for a CR1 position) you might consider applying for the HDR relatively quickly. Check the HDR requirements in your particular community.

 

Or not...

The competition is very tough, so you should not necessarily give up if you do not succeed on your first try. Being on the "reserve" list (ranked by the eligibility committee, but beyond the number of available positions) is already a very good result. A possible way of getting feedback is to contact the committee president or the member in charge of your application, the rapporteur (make sure this is acceptable in your particular community). In particular, the rapporteur will have followed your application closely and might give you some ideas on how to improve your project or your performance.

 

Evolution during the last years

- Until 2006, CR2 positions were reserved for candidates less than 31 years old (with extensions to compensate for the military service and for maternity leave). Since the removal of this limit, the average age of the laureates has been increasing slowly but steadily. As a consequence, the candidates are perceived in the labs less as "promising young researchers who will join an existing project" and more as "experienced researchers who can bring something new to the team or even develop an independent research topic". Again, this may not be the case in all sections.
- Historically, available positions were all open (banalisées), meaning that they were only restricted to the scientific discipline of the given CoNRS section, and the candidates needed to estimate (or rather divine) how the lab choice would influence their chance of success. Over the last few years, more and more positions are targeted (ciblées) to well-defined research topics and laboratories. This removes some of the uncertainty, but the list being published very late you will need to estimate the chances of a targeted position being opened in your chosen lab. [UPDATE 15/07/2013: In 2013, many CR-level positions were targeted: up to 50% in some sections, e.g. 14 or 16.]

 

Conclusion

CNRS positions are open to foreigners, since there are no requirements of nationality or knowledge of the French language. The selection process has some peculiarities, first and foremost the need to join an existing team. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting in early contact with this team and, more generally, with the relevant research community in France.

 

Further information

- The CNRS site (already cited extensively above)
- The site of the National Committee (mostly in French)
- The unofficial sites of the various CoNRS sections (mostly in French) have more and more information concerning the selection, sometimes including the eligibility lists for previous years. These might give you an idea of the level of competition you will be facing.
- Two recent posts (1, 2) by a Computer Science Professor, with very useful info and some links.
- Valuable advice for CNRS candidates in social sciences (in French).

41 comments:

  1. That's a pretty good description! One point that should probably be mentioned more explicitly is the salary and the consequences of being hired as a CR2 vs CR1.

    The highest net salary (what you get on your bank account, after national insurance has been paid, but on which you still have to pay income tax; ~8.5% for the salary I mention here) you get as a CR2 is ~2200euros (2287euros for me in Paris with the help for public transportation). That is roughly where you end up if you're hired with 2-3 years of postdoc and 3 years of Ph.D. Then you HAVE to wait 4 long years before you can hope of seing any increase in your salary (apart from corrections due to inflation which we did not have anyway for 2-3 years...).

    The reason dates back to 1984, when people could be hired really really young and thus had to spend few years as a CR2 before being promoted CR1. Why this still applies nowadays when people are hired around 31-32 is beyond my understanding but the result is that you can end up being 35, tenured, and paid so low that you can't aford a reasonable flat in Paris.

    Alternatively, if you're hired CR1 (which is tougher in Physics, since there are very few positions, but easier in biology where it can be 50/50 between CR2 and CR1) you don't have this problem...

    Good luck !

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    1. Very good point, Julien! Young researchers in France are not exactly rich (especially when living in the Paris region).

      I'll try to add a post with detailed info on the CNRS salary as a function of rank and seniority.

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  2. Very nice post. Your explanations are very clear. I just hope I remember it next time I have to explain the admissions procedure to the CNRS!

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    1. It will not also hurt to say that the most important part of the admission procedure (in the real world, not the ideal one described so beautifully in that post) is that you have strong connections to the scientific community in France well in advance of your application. If the members of the committee that will presumably examine your eligibility during the interview do not know you, your chances are very slim, not to say non-existent. In section 13, for example, selection practices are, i dare to say, so unorthodox that one needs to make sure that he has strong support from the members of the committee before the actual interview. In all cases, the above post describes an ideal admission procedure. The reality is really sad, not to mention largely unfair (at least in section 13) and in some cases can be hardly described as a selection procedure based on scientific merits. Btw, speaking french during the interview is nevertheless important, although it might be not the most crucial factor of all.

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    2. Your remark concerning the need for connections with the French scientific community is very true, and I realize I have not emphasized it enough in the post (it's only briefly mentioned in the Conclusion.) I am not sure, however, that one should identify this community and the committee members, who need not know you personally. However, if you come to France and give talks in the labs of your community, talk to French scientists at conferences and build a solid research program with your host team these people will at least know about you.

      I'm not very familiar with the community represented by section 13 (physical chemistry), but if you applied this year you may want to contact your rapporteur (see the main post) for more details. One thing to keep in mind: the goal of the CNRS competition is not to rank the candidates in order of scientific merit, it is to fill some positions under a large number of (mostly unwritten) constraints: thematic and geographic diversity, reinforcing some groups or research topics etc. An overdetermined selection process is not ipso facto fair or unfair, but even in the fairest of circumstances the jury will not simply make a list based on grade average and take the first names.

      I am intrigued by your mention of the French language: do you have a concrete example? I know quite a few people who auditioned in English and got a position.

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  3. Thanks for this info, very handy. Can you tell me if the interviews can take place in English? (My French is rusty...).

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  4. You can indeed do the interview in English, with no adverse consequences (at least in sciences). I am not sure about the humanities.

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  5. Please, let me understand... I must wait December to know what position are free and then contact a Lab and write a project with it in 1 month?

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    1. My advice is not to wait until December to get in touch with the relevant laboratories and start preparing your research project. Once the list is published you will have to decide exactly which positions to apply for (open and/or targeted; see above for the distinction), but -hopefully- by then you will have done most of the legwork...

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  6. Hello,

    I got a CNRS ranking such that I will get a job if the second committee does not change the ranking.

    I am wondering if you can give me an official source where it says it is okay to defer for a couple of months. (I want to start Jan 1 rather than Oct 1.) Do you have any (pointers to) official information about deferment of starting dates?

    Thanks!!

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    1. Congratulations! Changes in the ranking only very seldom occur.

      The deferment (by 3-4 months) is common practice, at least in physics. I found no reference in English, but you can have a look here (search for "report de prise de fonctions"). For more information you can contact the Human Resources service (DRH or SRH) of the CNRS regional delegation corresponding to your future lab (it is also a good idea to inform the lab director and your team).

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  7. This post is quite useful but doesn't talk about the most important things in the process: the 'unwritten rules'. I have talked with several CNRS researchers (French and foreigners) and they all mentioned to me that there is a lot of politics involved.
    You make it sounds as if a complete stranger can apply for a position and get it just because he is better than the others. This is not true. He must be known to the lab, get involved with people there, being co-author of some publications. Better if he did his PhD in that lab. It's not just that you get in contact with a lab. You must be a collaborator, bare minimum.
    And then try for at least 4 years in a row (nobody gets it for the first 2 or 3 times).
    Also, the sections are so broad in scope that you end up competing with people that have a completely different background, e.g. theoretician vs experimentalist.
    So, it's really a lottery, and an unfair one. It's a (non-well-paid) tenured position though, and there aren't many around.

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  8. Some of the points you make are recurrent in discussions of CNRS jobs, so I'll try to address them in more detail:

    > there is a lot of politics involved.

    Yes, there is, at two different levels:
    1) The candidate's getting the support of the lab.
    2) The lab's influence in the given section.
    The main goal of my post was to help foreign candidates with point 1). Point 2) depends on a lot of parameters (size of the lab, its presence in a specific sections, hiring history etc.) which are more difficult to quantify.

    > You make it sounds as if a complete stranger can apply for a position and get it

    My conclusion is the exact opposite: you need to define a research project that integrates well within the profile of the lab (and group); this requires thorough preparation.

    You do not need to be co-author of publications, and having done your PhD in that lab can even be a weakness, since it is more difficult to prove that you are bringing something novel to the group. [This may not be true outside my limited area of expertise].

    > And then try for at least 4 years in a row (nobody gets it for the first 2 or 3 times).

    It's not very common to get a position on the first try, but if you do not get it the second or third time around I would say that the chances of getting it the fourth time are pretty slim (not to mention that for CR1 positions you can only apply three times, unless ranked twice.)

    > the sections are so broad in scope that you end up competing with people that have a completely different background

    This is true, and I do not know how the section commissions deal with it. In some cases I heard there is an informal splitting of the open [as opposed to targeted] positions between sub-fields.

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  9. Hello! I was so happy to stumble upon your posting! This question is kind of outside the purview of your post but I was wondering if you can provide any insight to our situation.

    My husband has been asked by a mentor, who is returning to his CNRS position, to apply for a PostDoc position with his team in computer science. We are an American family of four (2 kids under 3), currently studying in the UK, and considering moving to Paris for this opportunity. What we are looking for is some salary and tax estimates, understanding there is a wide range, so we can start estimating a budget and determine if the PostDoc opportunity is actually affordable. I have done numerous searches but can't seem to find any formal salary estimates for PostDocs for 2014+ or estimates for tax brackets to give me an idea of what the gross salary would be. I (as the wife and mom) am trying to estimate realistic housing options and budgets. We just want to be prepared and while extremely excited about the opportunity, my husband doesn't want his first question to be - how much does it pay.

    We are enamored with the multitude of French social services, especially for young and school age children, and are eager for the opportunities the CNRS may present. I would be very grateful for any insight, thoughts, basic estimates or suggestions you may offer.

    Many, many thanks!

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    1. CNRS salaries are determined by seniority, see for instance: www.koyre.cnrs.fr/IMG/xls/tableau_couts_cdd.xls (this is from 2010, but I think there has been no change ever since, due to the salary freeze).
      If your husband defended his PhD less than two years ago, he qualifies as a "postdoc", with a net salary of 2065 €/month (see the first table). If he defended between three and five years ago, he would be an "associate researcher", at 2451 €/month. To give you an idea, the minimum salary for full-time employment (the SMIC) is 1120 €/month.
      In France, the "net salary" is what employees receive in their bank account at the end of the month, after deducing all social contributions (retirement, unemployment, basic health insurance etc.) and before income tax. If your husband's salary is to be your unique source of income, I expect you would not pay any income tax. You might even be eligible for some housing assistance:
      http://www.caf.fr/sites/default/files/cnaf/Documents/international/pdf/anglaisALE.pdf
      Best of luck!

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    2. Thanks tremendously for your response. This helps a lot! If I could, a second, related question.

      Given the salary tables, etc. I would imagine the application process, despite being "offered" a position by his mentor, is quite formal. Is there a timeframe that these interviews and subsequent offers of contract follow? Do these positions follow a standard CRNS guideline or does the hosting researcher have discretion in all things? As it always makes sense to have back up plans, I am wondering when we would need to lean toward another opportunity in order to secure our plans for next autumn. Ie. in your experience (after successful interviews, etc) would formal offers come in the Spring or the Summer.

      Many thanks, I very much appreciate your insight and information! c

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    3. For non-permanent positions, the application process is not at all formal, and the "scientist in charge" (the host) has a lot of discretion. The candidate must of course fulfill the administrative conditions (such as hold a PhD), but that's about it.

      If the money is already available (and I think this is quite an acceptable question to ask of the prospective employer), signing the contract can go pretty fast. I cannot give you a definite limit, since I know nothing about your particular situation, but it realy should not take until Spring!

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    4. Thanks again for your response! We greatly appreciate it!
      c and d

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    5. I hope I can join the discussion, despite the posts beeing two years old. I am in a similiar situation to the described above, although I'm the husband ;) and I was offered a post-doc position at a CNRS-related institute in Toulouse.

      I would be very glad, if you could do any follow-up of the situation - did your husband receive this position? how was It?

      Moreover - does CNRS participate in the costs of moving? I know that some institutions (like AMOLF in the Netherlands) do pay some extra on the first month to help with the process.

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    6. Hi Nikodem,
      The link I gave above does not work anymore, but you can find the
      same document here: http://www.iemm.univ-montp2.fr/IMG/pdf/TABLEAU_COUTS_CDD
      The useful part is the first table, in particular the line "net mensuel agent" which is the net salary you will receive in your bank account after all contributions (health insurance, retirement contribution, unenployment etc.) but before income tax.
      For instance, if you are a "young" postdoc (less than two years after having defended your PhD) you will receive 2035 €/month.
      To my knowledge, the CNRS offers no relocation aid.

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    7. Thank you Doru for the answer. As I will be living in France with my wife (who will not be working) and two kids I omit most taxes (as far as I know) so this will be my income, right. Is this enough to make a good living (so not to count every cent) in Toulouse (that is significantly cheaper than e.g. Paris)?

      Moreover - where I can read something (preferably in English) about social assistances? As far as I know you can gest relatively high assistance for kids and a wife, that is at home.

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    8. Hi Nikodem,
      Your most important expense will be the rent, so you could check the going rates in the areas you would like to live.

      For social assistance you might check caf.fr, but after a quick look I did not find the relevant info in English. You can try the link below:

      http://www.caf.fr/sites/default/files/cnaf/Documents/international/divers/Anglais%20Pr%C3%A9sentation%20branche%20famille_2015.pdf

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    9. Thank you, Doru. This paper was helpfull, despite lack of any real figures.

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  10. Thanks for writing this post. Although I found it too late, this and the follow-up post on CNRS wages are the two most useful pieces of information I have found to date regarding this rather complicated process.

    Your advice is spot-on, and I would add one small tip. I applied to two sections at CNRS (biological sciences), and each section determines their own interview process. One section allowed a 12 minute talk, the other 15. This may not seem like much, but they will literally cut you off mid-sentence if you exceed the time (there are many applicants to interview...). Moreover, both sections required me to use the computer in the interview room for your presentation. One section required a PDF only presentation, so if you have videos/media/etc, beware! All of this was clearly laid out in the invitation to interview letter, but despite that I heard about several people who wasted valuable time with technical difficulties...

    Finally, it's useful to note that in between the audition and success is one other stage, where the candidates are ranked for admissibilité. This was rather odd for me (American), since many more candidates are ranked at this stage than there are positions. However, once you know the number of positions for your grade and section, you know pretty well where the cutoff is. This ranking can apparently change, but I understand that if you hold one of the top few spots this is unlikely. Moreover, I understand that your ranking may have some bearing on your next appearance before the committee should you fail that particular round (committees are stable for 4 years I think).

    Now, if I could only figure out the HDR...

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, and for the extra details. In the original post, I had not emphasized enough the strict time limit. I think this is due not only to the large number of candidates, but also to the concern of maintaining strict equality between them.

      The two stages (admissibility and admission) reflect the peculiar nature of the process: officially, the CoNRS commissions only have an advisory role, so their decision (in the admissibility step) must be validated by the CNRS direction (admission).

      Ranking more candidates than available positions is useful in case some laureates decline the offer (it has happened) or some extra positions are made available. It is also a way for the commission to send a message to the good candidates (and to the community).

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  11. Thanks for this info. Very helpful. I have a practical question for you.

    I did my PhD in Canada and have been post docing for 2 years in the US. I'm payed pretty well here (on my own money, so about 4000 USD/month, although it's in the most expensive part of the city. For a while, at least, we can assume that I'll be single income as my wife will have to adjust to her career to being in France. My two options are Paris and Montpellier. IS it possible to live comfortably on what is offered for a CNRS? I have to assume that researchers are not living in abject poverty but a few thousand euros before tax in Paris seems like grad school wages. My basic question is: assuming that one does not want a fancy car, large house, or any of that, how well do CNRSs generally live? What kind of lifestyle can one expect?

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    1. Whoops, just to clarify, my PhD was 5 years (long American style) and I meant the most expensive city (or one of them at least).

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    2. From the post above (and the comments) I hope you could get a clear idea what your income will be. I think that "net salary" (see Julien's comment) is quite different from what "before tax" means in the US.

      The answer to your question is very subjective. Can two people live on twice the minimum wage? I would say yes, but not in Paris proper. However, this depends a lot on your expectations.

      My advice would be to define the area where you would like to live and check the rent level (housing will be the major part of your budget).

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    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    4. Thanks for the advice. One more question if you don't mind: Does a typical CNRS supervise other researchers or perform the research directly themselves?

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    5. That depends quite a lot on your field and on your ability to get funding (no surprises here). Keep in mind however that the ratio (PhDs + postdocs) to permanent researchers is much lower than in the US.

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  12. Very clear. This is for permanent researchers I guess. How about post docs ?

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  13. Hello,

    Thank you for this very useful post. I realize that it was written a couple of years ago, but I've seen that someone has recently joined the discussion so I'm trying to do the same.

    I would like to know if there are specific guidelines to prepare the application documents. For example, it would be very useful to know if there is a template, page limit, or recommended structure to write the research proposal and the report on previous research. I have not been able to find those guidelines, so I'm not sure if those documents simply have a totally free format. Even in that case, it would be very useful to have a general idea of what is expected.

    Also, it would be important to know if applicants who have got their degrees in countries that are not French- or English-speaking need to send translations to French or English of official application documents, such as the copy of the PhD certificate or the PhD dissertation itself.

    Thanks for your help!

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    1. Hi,
      I do not know of any guidelines or templates. The application is relatively short (below 10 pages for CR2, if I remember correctly) and should emphasize the candidate's fit in the host team. This is one of the reasons you should contact that team as soon as possible. They could also help you with the research project

      For the diploma, I don't see any details in the guide:
      http://www.dgdr.cnrs.fr/drhchercheurs/concoursch/pdf/Guide-EN.pdf

      I suggest you contact the CNRS administration with your question.

      Best of luck!

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    2. Thank you very much for your answer! I contacted the host team long ago and have its support, but I thought I'd try and find general guidelines before asking them to review the project.

      Thanks again!!

      Delete
  14. Hello,

    thank you very much for the post, the information is really helpful!

    What do you think are the most important points for the interview?
    And who are the jury members? CNRS researcher from the field? Can they change within one section (as the topics are so broad)?


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  15. Concerning the interview, I cannot add very much to the few points above: more specific advice would depend on the particular commitee (and on the personality of the candidate). This is where the team you intend to join can help quite a lot, by reviewing your presentation slides and by helping you rehearse.

    The committees do not only consist of CNRS researchers; you can find their composition by following the link to the "list of members" above.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "changing" but I think that some committees work as sub-juries, each one interviewing some of the candidates.

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  16. Thanks a lot. Yes this answers my questions about "changing" jury members.

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  17. Hi,
    I found this blog extremely useful. I wonder if anyone can help me. I worked for CNRS as a postdoc for around 2 years. and I know that there was a deduction from my gross salary for retirement plan. Now I am in USA and quite settled here. Is it possible to transfer my retirement fund to USA, as I am one in USA. If yes how and where to contact. I remember that, secretary who helped me during the very first day of my work there mention it is possible. but she is no more working there and her email is not active anymore. If anyone knows any information please write me. thanks.
    Shaik

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    1. Hello Shaik,
      After a quick look I found two links that may prove useful:
      https://www.ssa.gov/international/Agreement_Pamphlets/france.html
      https://www.ssa.gov/international/Agreement_Texts/french.html

      Cheers,
      Doru

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