The French Higher Education System from a Foreigners POV

Life as a graduate student in France can be tricky, especially if you’re new to the French higher education system.

If you can get past the French bureaucracy and almost non-existent customer service, among other things, France could turn out to be a great choice for graduate studies. I’ve been living in Paris for 7 months now and the opportunities in my field – ecology, climate, etc. – are as diverse as they are plentiful.

Here are four things you should know about the French education system.


  1. Grandes écoles and public universities: What’s the difference?

If you’re considering studying in France, you should first have an idea about the differences between grandes écoles and public universities.

In simple terms, grandes écoles are considered “elite” schools that have high tuition fees and you’re almost guaranteed a good job in your field upon graduation. French students must pass a competitive entrance exam (les concours) to enroll. Even before taking les concours French students must be accepted into preparatory classes called prépas to train students for enrollment in grandes écoles. Prépas classes are two years.


Paris-Sorbonne (Photo from wikimedia commons)

As for public universities, any student who passes the major baccalauréat examination is guaranteed acceptance into a university. Universities are significantly cheaper than grandes écoles and fall in line with France’s motto, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Access to education is very important to the French. France is currently increasing fees for international students so make sure to look into the updated tuition fees!

There is also a third option for the more specialized and technical institutions in France.


  1. The application process.

The process to apply for a Masters program here can be very confusing and it can be different depending on the school or your situation. You can either write a project proposal for your research topic, contact a professor and apply through your local CampusFrance OR you can apply directly to the school. If you already speak French, that’s perfect. If you don’t, there are quite a few English programs offered in France, as well. If you apply to a French program, they will likely ask you to submit proof of your level of French from a recognized French exam, e.g. the DELF. You will likely need to have a B1 or B2 level.

In France, undergraduate studies are only three years and masters programs are two years. Masters programs are broken up into a M1 and M2, for the first and second year of the masters. You will need to choose a pathway or ‘parcours’ for your speciality. As a Canadian, with a 4-year undergraduate degree and a few years of work experience, I was able to apply directly into the second year of the masters program. Masters programs here put a large emphasis on work experience as you will complete various internships throughout your masters. This serves as an important tool for students to network and secure a job after graduation.


  1. Grading in France is very different from Canada.

France has a very different approach to assessment than you would have experienced in Canada. You are graded out of 20 and no matter how hard you work, no matter how excellent that report is, you will never get a 20/20… or a 19 for that matter. The highest possible grade in most cases is 18. I’ve been told countless times that the French do not believe you can get a perfect score because “there’s always more to improve.” C’est comme ça. Most students will get scores around 13 or 14 and this is considered a good grade… You are also graded on attendance so, no skipping class! Class sizes can be very small so it’s easy to notice who is missing – my class had a grand total of 16 students.


My class of 16 at the Grignon-AgroParisTech campus (Photo by Varunesh Chandra)

What’s even more surprising to foreigners such as myself is that grades technically don’t matter. What matters is your grade average in all your classes, weighted for the number of European credits (ECTS) each class is worth.  Grades are not private. Oftentimes, professors will share a list of everyone’s names and grades or post it online.  Moreover, providing students with criticism or critiquing their work in front of others is quite normal here in France. Just as grades are not private, neither is feedback.

In my program, there was a significant amount of group work which can be an adjustment for some. It definitely was for me, so you should try to pick your groups wisely.


  1. The internship: France places a high value on practical work experience.

In France, it is illegal to not pay your interns. YAY! There is a legal minimum that all interns receive in France so you won’t be a broke student throughout your student life here. My internship is part of my thesis project so, essentially, I can directly apply everything I’ve learned into my job. In France, there is a high value placed on practical experience, so most education systems tend to follow a study-work-study-work model.


A very old sign of the genetics lab I work in (Photo by Micheline Khan)

I work at a genetics and evolution laboratory with INRA. INRA is essentially a nation-wide set of research facilities committed to researching issues on agriculture, the environment, food security and more.

One big difference I noticed while working here is how collaborative the different departments are. There are many individual lab groups, but everyone seems to work together. If I want to learn how to read SSR genotypes, I can just walk over to the gene expression and polymorphism team and ask for help. This type of collaborative expertise makes getting experiments done really efficient.

The camaraderie here is also refreshing. When anyone has a presentation, workshop, thesis defence, you name it, the entire building clears out to attend and support.

The scientific community in France is very interconnected so that once within the group many different avenues of pursuit become available.

GQE lab

Sorting seeds in lab (Photo by H. Bina)

There’s a wide array of opportunities all over Europe that becomes available and accessible through pursuing your masters in France. I receive emails from my professors daily about PhD positions, jobs, training courses abroad, seminars and conferences, and more. There are many opportunities to travel across Europe for workshops or training programs, and many are either free or very affordable for students.

An interesting (and unfortunate) thing that I realized while living here is that science communication doesn’t seem to be a “thing” here. I’ve received so many weird looks when discussing #SciComm or One of my French friends told me that “blogs are considered to be the things that teenagers use to write about their feelings online.” So, there’s lots of work to do over here with respect to engaging the community in science!

French higher education can seem very challenging, but it could be well worth it for some. Given the low tuition fees, practical work experience and vast network – it could be the right fit for you!

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