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Recently I ran across an international postdoctoral opportunity, which seems quite interesting to me. While I would prefer to stay in academia in United States, there are various factors that enable me to consider that opportunity, including potential for work on an interesting and important topic as well as an opportunity to immerse myself in somewhat different cultural, language and, perhaps, academic environment (thanks to my relative freedom from family obligations at the present time).

The problem is that the opportunity is at one of the universities in France, which creates several issues (beyond the obvious one of being accepted). The issues (and corresponding questions) are somewhat specific to my situation, but, at the same time, likely rather common to many people, who are originally from non-Francophone countries. Specifically, I'm concerned about the following.

  • How feasible is to consider such an opportunity from the foreign language perspective? I am talking about the fact that I practically do not speak French (discounting a very limited number of popular words and phrases)? While English language is considered a de facto universal language of science, I expect this aspect of academic environment to vary significantly from country to country (probably much less from university to university, even in major cities).

  • Combining that assumption with my, perhaps, incorrect knowledge that English is not as popular second language in France as in some other European countries, such as Sweden, this aspect brings an additional potential challenge of everyday living in a foreign language environment. I am aware of the fascinating approach of learning languages by immersing yourself in different cultural/language environment, but I'm not sure that it is such a good idea under the circumstances, considering that a postdoc position is demanding enough already. Thus, I am curious about the following question: is that a real challenge and to what extent?

  • How feasible is to consider such opportunity from the perspective of me being a US citizen without French work visa or similar documents in hand. I realize that, typically, AFAIK, selected international candidates' visa documents are processed by hosting universities. However, the question is this: how significantly the potential burden [financially and time-wise] of visa processing and, perhaps, relocation negatively impact hiring committees' decisions and, thus, reduce international postdoctoral candidates' chances to be offered a position of interest? I am interested in answers to this question from both general and local (France) perspective.

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    Actually I believe you couldn't commute - a working visa in France does not provide any residential rights in UK
    – JenB
    Sep 17 '15 at 15:38
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not specific to academia.
    – Cape Code
    Sep 17 '15 at 17:04
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    @CapeCode: Really? A question about aspects of international postdoctoral experience is not specific to academia? If I remember correctly, this site even has a tag postdocs. Isn't this fact alone telling you that you are wrong? Sep 17 '15 at 17:13
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    You are probably more worried about these than you need to be, but one thing needs to be said: it is definitely true that in France the language is a bigger problem than in most other European countries. While the language of academia is English, as usual, in a certain research institute I did find more than half of the talks to be in French; all internal mass-email communication to be in French only; and even being required to attend weekly French-only talks, regardless of your ability to understand the language.
    – Szabolcs
    Sep 17 '15 at 17:57
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    @CapeCode: That would be likely true, if I was asking about a boat, a shirt or a credit card for a postdoc. However, my question is about postdoctoral experience and its aspects, which all are essential to the nature of being a postdoc. You wouldn't be arguing with my statement that, for example, human language and communication are essential to performing research and scientific collaboration, would you? Sep 17 '15 at 18:41
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I recently did exactly what you were describing. Spent two years in Paris as a postdoc.

1) Not speaking French will be an issue because of collaboration. Some will be very open to working with you, but many others will not. Do not be surprised when group meetings are conducted in French. The more international the lab, the better the experience will likely be. Most of my collaborators and friends ended up coming from other countries outside of France; though they all also spoke French.

2) In a major city like Paris, day to day living is not really an issue. Getting around the city and running basic errands are really not that difficult.

3) Getting the work visa is a non-issue. The host organization will handle this and provide you with the paperwork (though probably not promptly). At some point you will have to visit a French Embassy in the US to file the paperwork in person. You will likely get something called a Scientific Visa which is very permissive in what it allows.

4) Here is the bad news. Bureaucracy is an absolute nightmare in France. If you want to navigate it, you will either have to speak very good French or have a friend willing to help you. This help will require multiple full day commitments, so it is a lot to ask. Once you arrive, you are supposed to apply for a resident permit and are technically not allowed to leave the country until it arrives. Mine took over a year and I know people who have gone 2+ years without receiving one. In the meantime you get a paper stating you are waiting on this permit. It expires every 3 months, so you have to present yourself in person to renew it (actually a renewal usually takes two visits). I never received proof of health insurance. That means I could receive healthcare, but I had to pay full price. From the people I know, this is a very common situation. They will still deduct money from your paycheck every month though.

5) Obtaining an apartment and bank account in France are quite difficult too. It is sort of a Catch-22 situation. Before arriving, I was put in touch with Science Accueil. They help setup foreign scientists with apartments, bank accounts, and things like that. Hopefully you will also have access to something like that.

Living in France as a non-EU citizen is very difficult. I don't regret doing it, but I don't think I would do it again. There are positives though. Your situation may be different, but I received 9 weeks of vacation per year (including holidays). It is easy to travel throughout Europe and that experience is amazing.

Good Luck!

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    If you think French bureaucracy is a nightmare, try the Italian one ;-)
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Sep 17 '15 at 18:59
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    @MassimoOrtolano Every European thinks their country has the most nightmarish bureaucracy. I've yet to meet a European academic in France that doesn't concede the title to the French, though. Including Italians. I hear tales that the Chinese put the French to shame, but I've yet to meet non-French non-Chinese academics who have spent meaningful time in both countries. Sep 18 '15 at 2:37
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    @MassimoOrtolano I'm Italian, I've got several friends living in France, and believe me I would never swap our (horrible) bureaucracy with theirs.
    – o0'.
    Sep 18 '15 at 8:44
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    @Lohoris: actually I was basing my (not to be taken too seriously) comment on the experiences of a few friends who moved from Italy to France, and on my limited experience in following a few foreigner students here in Italy. But really, different people is annoyed by different aspects of bureaucracy, according to their personalities... and their capacity for withstanding queues :-)
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Sep 18 '15 at 8:54
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    To elaborate on the Catch-22 mentioned in the answer: you need a bank account to sign a work contract. You need a French address to open a bank account. You usually need proof of employment (say, in the form of a work contract) to be able to rent an apartment in France...
    – user9646
    Sep 18 '15 at 9:15
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Let me answer from a French academic perspective.

Concerning the language inside academia: English is everywhere, and as long as you do not have teaching duties, you should be (mostly) fine; you would have to cope with terrible pronunciation (I had a funny talk with an American, where I admitted putting 'h's in front of many words that don't have them, and he add to tell me that 'h' is precisely said without an 'h' in front) and people talking in French at lunch, probably not much worse. Teaching duty would be an almost sure no-go, as very few courses are taught in English.

Concerning language outside academia: the problem is not so much that English is an unpopular first foreign language, it is that all foreign languages are pretty badly mastered by almost everyone in this country. We are one of the very few countries that would dare appoint a minister of foreign affairs not talking any foreign language, so I guess there is some cultural issue at work. There are English-talking people in quite a number of places (train stations, etc.) nowadays, easing some things up. Basically, you should struggle a bit in everyday life, but it should still be doable.

Concerning the visa issue: I do not think it would harm your chances to get the job, but it will definitely cost you quite some time. France paperwork can be daunting, and I do not think that universities help that much. I mean, ultimately you should get the political help needed for your visa to receive permission, but I am not so sure you would get much help with the paperwork. The bright side is that the visa policy is probably not too harsh to US citizen; I know a mathematician from a BRIC country who, even if there are many very good French math departments, prefers spending a large tuition from his grants to send his masters students studying one year in England, rather than spend 400€ at a French university but have to cope with the whole French visa procedure.

My conclusion is that if the job is interesting, you should apply. Despite all I said, we have a lot of international postdocs in labs (including a fair amount from outside UE), and they seem to survive these inconveniences.

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    Thank you very much for your rapid, detailed and insightful answer (+1). I guess, it might be a good idea to contact professor, who is in charge of the project, and try to assess my chances as well as potential time frame (which could be an issue). Sep 17 '15 at 10:59
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    English is everywhere in Academia, and most professors with similar scientific interests than yours would most likely do their best to converse with you in English, but be aware that there is a large chance that most seminars will be in French. French universities invite foreign academics for seminars, but the majority of the invited speakers are from French universities.
    – Taladris
    Sep 17 '15 at 15:38
  • @Taladris: Thank you for the warning (+1). I guessed that your comment is directed at me, not Benoît :-). Sep 17 '15 at 16:38
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    From my experience, the problem a lot of French people have with speaking English is that they insist on putting the stress on the last syllable, which makes it really hard to understand what they are saying at times, and unnatural at others. The h thing, I have never noticed (granted, I have only had limited exposure to English-speaking French).
    – tomasz
    Sep 17 '15 at 19:37
  • @tomasz: you are quite right that the tonic accent is quite confusing for us French native speakers, and our confusion makes our English quite confusing. Sep 18 '15 at 13:51
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I can't speak to France, and Benoit has done a good job there. However, as a US citizen I did my post-doc in the Netherlands in the early 1990s (more years ago that I can believe).

  1. All science was done in English (planning, discussion, papers). All socialization (coffee hour, outside of work) was done in Dutch. So, I learned Dutch - it only seemed proper since I was the outsider. Consider it a bonus of the position to be able to learn another language. I would suggest finding a place to take real language courses. I did an intensive 2-week intro course, than several evening courses. Your fluency in English will be an asset, and you will get to see more of the institutes work through reading drafts. Yes, you have your own work, but it is a great way to get to know everyone.

  2. Outside of work, learn and use French. My experience there (I also learned French, partly in Paris, but earlier in my life) is that they appreciate people trying to use French. The Dutch, who were extremely good with languages, often preferred to speak English with me as practice for them, which meant I didn't get to practice my Dutch so much. As you mention, when else will you be able to do this?

  3. Visa - this will likely be very dependent on the institute. Where I did my post-doc, they routinely had visitors from all over the place, and had a standing arrangement with the 'foreign police' office responsible for work permits. So, I had appointments made for me that bypassed the long lines to go get my residence/work permit entered in my passport. You mileage may vary. Since foreign scientists and post-docs are pretty normal in the EU, it is unlikely to be a huge uncertainty that you would get the required permits, but your paperwork effort might be higher than mine was.

  4. Life. I went into it expecting things to be different. Big things, like the language. What catches you by surprise is all the little things that are just done differently in France, in Europe, just elsewhere. Roll with it, laugh about it, enjoy it. Also, be sure to play tourist on occasion. After the first 6 months (where I traveled around each weekend to some town or other) I settled down into a more 'normal' life with friends and things to do on weekends. In retrospect, I should have done more touring around.

If it is a good group and you think the work would be interesting and productive, really, what do you have to lose?

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    Another excellent and thoughtful answer (+1). Your retrospective and advice are much appreciated. However, I would be lying, if I'd say that a perspective of immersing myself in a quite difficult language environment (not to mention relocation) doesn't scare me, at least, to some degree. The (not so) funny aspect of my comment is that I do sound like I already have an offer in my hands, which can't be farther from truth. But I decided to clarify the situation for myself just in case... Sep 17 '15 at 14:03
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    Just forgot to mention that I very much agree with you in that an opportunity and a perspective to learn a new language is indeed quite exciting. Sep 17 '15 at 14:16
  • As a language enthusiast, I am curious about how long did it take you to become conversationally (basics) fluent in Dutch (AFAIK, the language is more difficult than, say, English or German)? Sep 17 '15 at 18:49
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    @AleksandrBlekh - I believe it depends a lot on your background. I studied Latin for years in school, and then French (getting to good conversational fluency, even reading technical papers in it). A two-week intensive (immersion) course pretty much got me started. Others in the class, who had not learned another language well, had a much harder time. You need to overcome any fears you have of feeling stupid in the new language, and that is easier if you've done it before. Dutch is slightly harder than English, but not that different from French in complexity.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 17 '15 at 19:31
  • Very interesting - thank you very much for sharing this and for the encouragement. Sep 17 '15 at 19:36
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Some institutes in France function entirely in English. The best way to find out the French/English proportions is to communicate with someone working in that particular place. Ask the department to put you in touch with, perhaps, a fellow foreigner in the department. If none, try a different but related department.

My memories of paperwork for living in France are that I had to apply for the visa in the French embassy by filling out eight copies of my application, by hand. (I suppose that has changed by now!) That was the worst part. Standing in line at the Préfecture wasn't too bad -- but I wasn't living in Paris.

You say you are a language enthusiast -- is there some reason why you feel daunted about French in particular?

The main thing to consider, in my opinion, is whether this particular placement is likely to strengthen, substantially, your publication list. Keep yourself focused on that question as you are considering your options.

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    Well, I suppose you might go rather quiet for six months while you're finding your footing. Really, I think you should be basing your decision entirely on commonality of interests, how excited you are about this professor and this group. Think of all the scientists who show up in the U.S. not speaking English very well, and managing to do very good science. (And some of them leave some years later still not speaking English very well!) Sep 19 '15 at 5:01
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    Ah. Well, French is phonetic, believe it or not. Once you've cracked the code, you will see that. I have studied, in this order, French, Spanish, German, and then French again. (I actually agree with your Scandinavia remark. In between the German and the second round of French, I lived in Scandinavia for two years (everyone spoke English, so there wasn't a lot of pressure to learn the language, but in my limited attempts, I was frustrated by not being able to find a dictionary with a pronunciation key -- that was before the internet could easily give you recordings of each Sep 19 '15 at 18:18
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    word in the dictionary.) Anyway, my point is that French is no more difficult to learn, objectively, than Italian or German. As to whether the experience would be unpleasant for you or not, that is something that varies from one person to another. I have seen foreign students come to the U.S. with limited English and gradually get comfortable, and benefit from the experience of overcoming a challenge; but I've also seen some that found it just as stressful to call for a doctor's appointment at the end of their stay as at the beginning. It's very individual thing. Sep 19 '15 at 18:20
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    Bottom line: figure out how compatible that situation would be with churning out strong publications; if you decide to go, learn some French before you get on the plane. Even three weeks of an intensive class would be helpful -- just concentrate on the present tense to begin with. Sep 19 '15 at 18:23
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    To figure out the academic thing, make sure to read papers from French researchers, written in English. There is one thing about French that I haven't noticed as much with, say, Spanish or German. Sometimes, no matter how well translated the text is, I still don't understand what they're trying to get across -- and yet, a native French speaker gets it. Sometimes I do get the feeling I was brought up on the wrong planet. In the hard sciences, this would be less of a problem -- so take a good look at the papers in your area. Sep 19 '15 at 18:27
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Just for the record, I'd like to address some of the formal issues that were brought up by other answers.

  • Catch-22 (it looks like you need an address for almost everything, including finding a place to live). Actually, pretty much in everywhere you can rent an apartment for 1-3 months with little to no paperwork: in an apartment hotel, in a student house, via airbnb, etc. This gives you an address that allows to sort out the arrival formalities (bank account, immigration paperwork, etc).

  • Visa and residence permit. From my experience, nowadays as a researcher, you get a 1-year visa in the passport that also acts as a residence permit, after you register with some agency called OFII. After the first year, you get a residence permit card which you then renew every year. For me, the initial registration and renewal would take about 5-6 weeks, and I did not have any travel plans overlap with renewal. But this may depend on where in France you are, and also procedures change with time. While waiting for renewal, you get a temporary document called "Récépissé de ...", which supposedly allows you to travel, but this is risky, because border control officers in other Schengen countries may not consider it a valid document.

  • Health insurance. In theory, you are going to almost immediately get a temporary social security number (numéro de sécurité sociale), which should make you eligible to be partially refunded for your medical visits. Later, you get a permanent number and a "Carte Vitale". In practice, insurance agencies (for a non-EU researcher, that will be MGEN I think) may "forget" about the latter two stages, so you'd have to at some point visit their office and remind them to do their job.

  • Housing. There's lots of pessimism on the Internet regarding finding a place to live in France. From what I see, at least outside Paris, postdoc salary is enough to find without any problems an apartment for a single person or for a couple without kids. As long as your rent is about 1/3 of your net salary, you're fine. Above that, owners become suspicious, start demanding guarantors, and it does not seem a normal practice that, say, your boss becomes your guarantor.

Overall, my experience is that French bureaucracy is not particularly bad. The rules are not meant to kick you out of the country asap or make your life unreasonably difficult.

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  • Thank you for your answer (+1), though you are "a bit" late to the party. :-) Meaning that the question is not relevant for me personally (just for the record). Having said that, I realize that all answers could be useful for many people - the premise of StackExchange - hence, your feedback is appreciated. Mar 12 '18 at 1:39
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I am a native English speaker from a non-EU country working as a postdoc in the United Kingdom, so I can't address the language difficulties. As a general comment though, a greater cultural difference would make the job more attractive to me, though I would not be able to pursue it because my partner would be unable to work.

In terms of the visa issues and attractiveness of you as a candidate, universities typically expect and want international researchers and are unlikely to hold it against you. They have well established systems to negotiate the visa requirements and often have relocation allowances to assist with costs. Some also prioritise staff accommodation for international visitors, but this is less common and finding out how to find a place to live can be tricky. But there will probably be a postdoc group you could email, or perhaps international student office that could help with some of the day to day practicalities.

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  • Thank you very much for valuable insights and encouragement (+1). By the way, I was curious enough to take a look at your profile and, while it is not too detailed, it seems that have some common interests, including complex socio-technical systems. I would be glad to collaborate or share knowledge. Sep 17 '15 at 15:09
  • you're right, we have complementary interests. I have sent LinkedIn connection as more appropriate forum
    – JenB
    Sep 17 '15 at 15:44
  • Thank you. I just confirmed the connection. Your LI profile is indeed impressive :-). Sep 17 '15 at 16:24

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