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I've a PhD in pure math, with postdoctoral experience in theoretical/statistical aspects of machine learning, with over seven years of teaching experience in math in English, and currently a part time lecturer of math in an engineering school in France. This year I applied to 44 full time MCF positions (assistant professor) in France, and all the places that I thought had something to do with my research, didn't call me even for an audition. However, only a French engineering school specialized in mechanical engineering called me to audition - to my (somewhat pleasant) surprise. For reference, MCF comes with mixed teaching and research responsibilities.

I had applied to this school of engineering (this is one of the "Ecole Supérieures") in the CNU Section 26, just to take a chance. I also communicated with the people in charge and specified that my French was only intermediate and they replied by saying that nearly 100% of the teaching would be in French, and thus not being able to provide the lectures in French will be a unfavorable point of any application. I cannot obviously ask the school why they selected me, because that'd obviously negatively affect my application.

I looked the faculty research interests, that got nothing to do with mine, and on top of that the language would be a barrier at this point (not that I don't want to improve my French, but I'm just not there at this point...).

So my question is: why am I being called for an audition? I'd hazard a guess that they didn't get a lot of applications OR that they're planning to give me a lot of teaching load, having seen my teaching experience; both would be a point of serious concern, considering my professional goals and my passions related to it - which is research in theoretical machine learning, and not a lot of teaching (no more than 200 hours a year). I emailed the selection committee asking if I could audition in English, and the answer was no. Also, anyone looking at my CV would figure out that I'm not a statistician (although I do know a fair bit), and yet they asked me to present a teaching demo of inferential statistics, something where I've not published nor taught in a classroom setting!!! So I don't understand why the school is trying to have it their way and yet asking me for audition - seems genuinely confusing to me. I can't obviously ask the school why they selected me to audition, as that'd negatively affect my application (although in case, I'm certain that I'd not be offered this position anyway, perhaps for the better).

I'd appreciate responses, especially from people who were in the same situations so that I know how some assistant professor selection process goes - this is one of my goals to know, or those familiar with French higher academic system. Thank you in advance!

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    Seems impossible to answer. Only they know.
    – Buffy
    May 28 at 11:28
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    It isn't the question you asked, but I'd advise listening to what they have to offer and then decide.
    – Buffy
    May 28 at 11:43
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    As Buffy says, nobody will really be able to tell. However, given my experience with EU faculty search processes, my first tip would be that they have simply not noticed that you don't speak French fluently.
    – xLeitix
    May 28 at 12:00
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    I don't know the French recruitment system well, but in some systems an institution can have an incentive to interview some candidates they are sure are a bad match, in order to be able to hire their desired choice.
    – Arno
    May 28 at 14:33
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    Sometimes the hiring decision is made before the interviews. Go for the learning experience. May 28 at 16:40

2 Answers 2

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First, it's worth noting that to my knowledge most of the "Grandes Ecoles" do not belong to the same system as regular universities. They use the same job titles and similar procedures, but they have more flexibility in various aspects, in particular the hiring procedure. I don't know if this information is relevant here, but I assume that most of your rejected applications were for regular universities positions, so this might not be a coincidence.

About their motives, one can only speculate:

  • They might need to fill a teaching position which fits your profile, for example in pure maths. Especially for "Grandes Ecoles", the teaching part of the position may be given high priority compared to the research part.
  • The chance factor: one of the reviewers may simply have found your profile interesting enough to give you an interview, and convinced the panel.
  • A more unpleasant reason: some political move is at play, for example if they already have a favourite candidate that they want to select. This is not supposed to happen, but it could happen that they would purposefully fill the interview slots with plausible but inappropriate candidates to justify the final decision.
  • ...

Note that they could have decided to ignore the language issue for now in order to assess your French level at the interview.

In general there's simply no way to guess their reasons. When I was applying for MdC positions in France, whether I would get an interview or not seemed almost random to me. In fact, my guess was more often wrong than right about which universities would give me the interview, even though I was fairly well informed of the process and sometimes even had a bit of information about the places where I was applying.

If you're really interested to discover how the French selection process works, there's no harm going to the interview. People often say that it's worth doing it, if only for the experience (personally I question this point, to be honest). Of course, you probably know that the expenses are not reimbursed (unless this changed since I was doing it, but I doubt it). If you're not even interested in the interview, you can make up an excuse and withdraw your application (don't do this if you want to have any chance in the same institution in the future, obviously).

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Theoretical aspects of machine learning might just be in high demand. Machine Learning in general is now very attractive, students and industry demands it, and apparently, there is no-one else there with your knowledge.

You should go and see what they have.

They will want to know whether you can teach in French. If your French is truly terrible, then you should beg out. Presumably, they will just want it to be passable.

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