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For what I know, one finishes PhD with only 3 years in France which is rather efficient, but one may suffer if one's research interest gets changed in the mean time, because the thesis topic is locked by the funding and by the advisor right from the beginning of the PhD, which could be disturbing in a fast changing field like cs. Besides, PhD programs in France don't seem to get global recognition as the ones in the US or even some in the EU, with one or two exceptions. Even within France, PhD is condemned to belong to the academia and is rather ignored in the industry (if there's any).

Could anyone familiar with the French system correct me on this? Is it possible/typical to research on a different topic from the one that I'm getting paid for, to change the PhD topic, or even to quit the PhD in France?

Thanks.

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    It is not entirely true that "one finishes a PhD in 3 years on France" even if that is what the law says. See this 2016 official report (in French). Page 45 shows the duration of PhDs according to domain (CS would be in the blue bars "STEM minus biology"). It is shorter than typical elsewhere (looking at you Germany) but 60% are completed in "3 years" (up to 40 months), less than 2/3. ~7% take more than 4 years. – UJM Jul 5 '20 at 12:14
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    Recognition depends on the quality of your work and the reach of your advisor. As far as recognition is concerned, INRIA and CNRS are world famous institutes, and their researchers are doing some really good research work which is recognized everywhere. In the US, you will find a big range of universities, from MIT, Stanford etc. to run-of-the-mill universities as well. So they really can't be clubbed into 1 group, which is better than the rest of the world. – Jihadi Jul 6 '20 at 4:04
  • I'm not sure about the topic and advisor changes. One of the main reasons that PhD programs are longer in the US compared to those in the EU is because of the flexibility they give with regards to choosing the advisor and research topic. This takes time, about 1-2 years. You work with different groups, do a lot more teaching (compared to the EU TA duties) and a lot more coursework (compared to the EU) as well. – Jihadi Jul 6 '20 at 4:08
  • This is far too brief to be an answer, but France has a special type of PhD, called "Thèse Cifre", which is done in cooperation between a University (usually) and a company. The PhD student spends half (or some other combination) of his or her time at each institution, and is usually offered a position at the company afterwards (though the student may pursue an academic career of course). A PhD in France (especially in CS!) is really not condemned to a life sentence to Academia without parole. – user115868 Jul 7 '20 at 8:36
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Most of your questions are field-specific, so as a physics PhD student I might be a bit off the reality of CS. Still, here are a few hints:

the thesis topic is locked by the funding and by the advisor right from the beginning of the PhD

This is only true in principle. If you don't have any obligation of obtaining a particular result, things are not that black and white: a PhD is about investigating some ideas, which for instance might turn out unfruitful and need some more or less drastic changes. Depending on the advisor and funding entity you may also simply switch your research topic (if this is a relevant move -scientifically and timewise-, of course!).

PhD programs in France don't seem to get global recognition as the ones in the US or even some in the EU, with one or two exceptions

Recognition first comes from (i) the quality of the work, and (ii) how you communicate about it. That's where working in a team with good connections with the community can help getting your work known in your field. Attending conferences is also a must!

PhD is condemned to belong to the academia and is rather ignored in the industry

If the skills acquired during your thesis can be exported to industry, finding a position in industry afterwards is far from impossible. As an illustration I've seen quite a few students in theoretical physics move to data science or machine learning straight after graduating. Doctoral schools are aware of this, and some (if not all) organise events to put students and people from industry into contact.

Is it possible/typical [...] to quit the PhD in France?

Afaik, there is no official data on the dropout rate of doctoral students in France. But quitting is absolutely possible a not to be ashamed of. A PhD is a three years contract, which you have the right to resign by formally notifying your employer. (Note that you can't just notify them and leave, there is a legal period to be respected.) On such kind of matter, checking on this official page can be helpful.

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    There is some data on the droupout rate but it is not easy to find. This 2010 evaluation (in French) gives a ~5% dropout rate for STEM PhDs. I remember having read somewhere in 2015/2016 that the fraction of people who register as 1st year students and do not eventually get a PhD at the end is more like 10-15%. There might be methodology tricks regarding what counts as "dropping out". – UJM Jul 5 '20 at 11:58
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I agree with aRandomName's answer, to be clear the assumptions made in the question are wrong or at least misleading.

For what I know, one finishes PhD with only 3 years in France which is rather efficient, but one may suffer if one's research interest gets changed in the mean time, because the thesis topic is locked by the funding and by the advisor right from the beginning of the PhD, which could be disturbing in a fast changing field like cs.

While the official PhD duration is three years and naturally the funding is also for three years, the actual duration is often more than 3 years. This depends a lot on the domain and a bit on the institution. In CS the average duration was a bit less than 4 years last time I checked (probably a few years ago).

The flexibility of the topic has nothing to do with the country, it depends on the supervisor and the type of funding (by this I mean that it's more or less the same in France as in other countries). if the supervisor or funding organization has a very specific goal for the PhD, then the topic is pretty much fixed. But broad and vague PhD topics are also common, and in this case there's a lot of flexibility about the precise direction of the research. Mind also that a PhD is not as long as it seems (any PhD student will tell you that!), you don't have that much time to change your direction many times.

Besides, PhD programs in France don't seem to get global recognition as the ones in the US or even some in the EU, with one or two exceptions.

It's the first time I hear this, I don't think this is true. There are many people who have done their PhD in France and have had a successful career abroad. I assume that this impression is based on international rankings, there are lots of reasons not to to take these rankings too seriously.

Even within France, PhD is condemned to belong to the academia and is rather ignored in the industry (if there's any).

This is a stereotype based on a tiny bit of truth: traditionally French industry had a tendency to favour Grandes Ecoles graduates, and consequently it wasn't necessarily worth doing a PhD for a career in industry because the income difference between PhD/non-PhD was not as high as in other countries. But it was never the case that somebody with a PhD in CS could not find an industry job! Additionally this discrepancy tends to disappear, especially with big multinational companies which compete for skills at the international level where a PhD is highly valued.

Could anyone familiar with the French system correct me on this? Is it possible/typical to research on a different topic from the one that I'm getting paid for, to change the PhD topic,

Be very careful about starting a PhD with the thought of doing another PhD, it's much better and safer to have the right topic and advisor from the start (that's true anywhere).

or even to quit the PhD in France?

Of course! Do you imagine that doing a PhD in France is like entering the Mafia, you can't leave alive? ;)

Historically some PhD contracts used to pretend that the money had to be paid back if the PhD student didn't finish in time. These were likely illegal contract terms, I never heard of anything like this being enforced (and I've known a good few people quitting their PhD).

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