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Third-cycle (PhD) programmes


7.Higher education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 27 November 2023

Organisation of Doctoral Studies

The "doctorat" (PhD) is prepared in six semesters (it corresponds to 8 years of study beyond the baccalauréat diploma). The diploma is awarded after presentation of a thesis.

This third level is one of high specialisation and research training. After the master's degree or a recognised equivalent, students showing aptitude for research can access PhD studies within the framework of doctoral schools. These schools allow the preparation of a doctorate (PhD) in three or four years (presentation of a thesis or of a set of work). In compliance with the commitments taken in the "Pacte pour la recherche" (Pact for research), expressed by the planning law for research no. 2006-450 of 18 April 2006, doctoral training has been renovated: the new order of 7 August 2006 bearing on doctoral training is consistent with the orientations set out in the "European Charter for Researchers" especially as regards the status of PhD students.

Moreover, attention paid to the implementation of the "thesis charter" guarantees quality insofar as it defines the rights and duties of each party. The preparation of a thesis should be part of a personal and professional project clearly defined in its objectives and resources.

Consecutive to this reform adopted by the order of 7 August 2006, PhD training should offer young PhDs excellent training, attractive nationally and internationally, and the best possible career prospects. Four major orientations are defined: reassertion of doctoral schools as places to structure French doctoral training; primacy given to "quality assurance"; recognition of the doctorat (PhD) as "a professional research experience" and strengthening of measures to guarantee excellent training; creation of doctoral schools made accessible to all higher education institutions.

Doctoral studies allow:

  • a scientific framework guaranteed by recognised research units or teams;
  • training useful for steering their research project and elaborating their professional project;
  • international opening, that enables multi-year residence permits and the setting up of unique portals on campuses;
  • the possibility of doing a work placement;
  • integration monitoring.

During their doctoral training, PhD students take support training courses and pictograms in teaching sessions, seminars, missions or placements organised within the framework of the doctoral school.

Admission Requirements

Admission to a doctoral school with a view to preparing a PhD is open to holders of a national master's diploma or another diploma conferring the grade of master, an engineering diploma or equivalent diploma through the validation of acquired experience. Enrolment is confirmed by the head after proposal by the doctoral school head and validation by the thesis supervisor and research unit director. It confirms admission to the training dispensed by the doctoral school. Enrolment should be renewed at the start of every university year.

For the first PhD enrolment:

  • the head of the doctoral school ensures that the scientific, material and financial conditions are brought together to ensure the smooth operation of the candidate's research work and this preparation, after validation by the director of the research unit supervising the quality of the project;
  • the thesis charter is signed by the PhD student, thesis supervisor, head of the doctoral school and manager of the host unit or team.

For information about tuition fees please refer to chapter 3 "Funding of Education".

Status of Doctoral Candidates

Since 2007, the State Secretary for Higher Education is committed to ensuring that the PhD becomes the flagship diploma of the national and European training system and has taken various initiatives in application of the planning law for research of 18 April 2006 which recognises PhD students as young research professionals

To reinforce the appeal of the PhD further, a new contract for PhD students has been proposed with more guarantees and which can be adapted for each individual case. This new "doctoral contract", created by the ESR Law on higher education tends to reinforce doctorate recognition in the public and private sectors (Article 78 and Article 82 particularly). Moreover, the objective of the Fridenson mission is to ensure recognition of the doctoral degree by companies in their competency and pay scales. Finally, doctors will have access to the 3rd ENA competition, an acknowledgement of up to three years of professional experience.

The other status for PhD students may be students benefiting from a study grant (scholars). There are several sources of grants for PhD studies:

Grants or Allowances from the Department of Higher Education and Research

Every year, the Department awards a continent fund of allowances to the Doctoral School which it makes available after having defined the thesis subjects and host teams. Allowances are attributed by the Doctoral School to the best candidates after examination of their applications: the results of the master's degree are particularly decisive. The aim is to allow PhD students to dedicate themselves fully to research work for the preparation of their thesis. The allowances are for three years. Applicants should be aged under 25 but a dispensation is possible for under 30s. Prerequisite diplomas are: master's degree or an equivalence/dispensation. Applicants should be French (or naturalisation in process) or citizen of a member state of the EU or have gained the Master's degree in France. It is possible to work as a supervisor/tutor (see below). For social security, the general system applies as for pension contributions.

Grants through the Convention Industrielle de Formation par la Recherche (CIFRE - Industrial training research agreement)

These are agreed as part of a partnership between a public research laboratory and a company. A laboratory receiving a CIFRE grant usually publishes a call for applications from students liable to be interested. The aim is to be able to prepare a thesis while working for a company in a research and development programme in liaison with a research team outside the company and at the same time reinforce the company's technological capability. The candidate should be under 26 but may be of any nationality. Two directors (an HDR teacher-researcher and person working in the company's studies or research department) should supervise the PhD. The allowances are for three years.

Bourses de Doctorat pour Ingénieurs (BDI - Engineer PhD grants)

These are awarded by the CNRS which totally or partially funds them with another research organisation (a company) or a public local authority (e.g. a region). They are awarded (or not) to laboratories associated with the CNRS which have filed an application to the CNRS detailing the thesis subject, host team and the CV of the PhD candidate. The candidate should be under 27 and preferably should have an engineering or equivalent diploma (in addition to the DEA).

Regional grants or public authority allowances

Public local authorities (mainly Regions) can offer thesis grants or allowances to research laboratories on subjects deemed to be of priority to them. Depending on the region, allowance awarding conditions are subject to the same aforementioned BDI process (subject, laboratory, candidate's CV).

Grants from other research organisations

Like the CNRS, other research organisations or agencies (INSERM, INRIA, INRA, INED, CNES, IFREMER, ONERA, ADEME, ANVAR…) can fund or jointly fund thesis grants. Allowance awarding conditions are subject to the same aforementioned BDI process (subject, laboratory, candidate's CV).

Funding by private organisations

Within the framework of their partnership with the private or semi-public industrial sector, some laboratories can benefit from grants or wages for PhD students. To obtain this type of funding, candidates are invited to contact laboratories and consult the websites of major state-of-the-art industrial companies: automotive, aeronautics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, electronics, petroleum, etc.)

Grants for foreign students

The Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) awards a grant to foreign Master's graduates. Furthermore, depending on the country, it is possible for certain foreign students and in certain conditions to obtain a thesis grant from their government and/or the French government.

Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA - Atomic Energy Agency) grants

The CEA can sign a thesis contract with PhD students preparing their thesis in its laboratories. This thesis contract is designed to allow selected young PhD students to conduct a research project in one of the CEA's many fields of expertise: fundamental research in physics and life science, technological research for industry, R&D for nuclear energy, nuclear defence, protection and safety activities (research themes of CEA laboratories). The fulfilment and performance of the research project, supervised by a confirmed engineer or researcher, as well as a thesis supervisor approved by the University (universities having signed a framework agreement with the CEA) allow the presentation of a thesis and awarding of the University PhD diploma. In all cases, the thesis contract is 3-year fixed term work contract for which the CEA is the employer.

Supervision Arrangements

The order of 7 August 2006 opens PhD training to all scientific partners with the sole goal of achieving excellence in research. Attention paid to the implementation of the "thesis charter", a genuine moral contract between the PhD student, his or her thesis supervisor, the doctoral school head and the director of the host laboratory, guarantees quality insofar as it defines the rights and duties of each party. The preparation of a thesis should be part of a personal and professional project clearly defined in its objectives and resources. In the preparation of his or her thesis, the PhD student is an integral part of the research unit. A thesis may be supervised jointly by two thesis supervisors.

The order of 6 January 2005 stipulates that to consolidate the construction of the European higher education and research area and develop international cooperation, a French higher education institution authorised to award the PhD can sign an agreement with one or several foreign higher education institutions, benefiting in their countries from the same status, aimed at organising joint international thesis supervision as per the terms set in the order hereto. International joint supervision aims to strengthen the international dimension of doctoral schools, favour mobility of PhD students in different scientific and cultural environments and develop scientific cooperation between French and foreign research teams.

The agreement can either be a framework agreement accompanied, for each thesis, by an application agreement or an agreement signed specifically for each thesis. These agreements should specify the name of the contracting higher education institutions and, for each thesis, the name of the student in question and thesis subject. They bind contracting institutions on the basis of a reciprocity principle.

PhDs awarded within the framework of the order hereto are rightfully recognised in France. Agreements should mention the forms of recognition in the other country or countries. When the rules applicable to PhD studies in the relevant countries are incompatible with each other, French institutions are authorised to dispense from the provisions of the aforementioned order of 25 April 2002 on these specific aspects, while respecting the provisions of the order hereto as per the terms defined by the agreement.

PhD students conduct their work under the responsibility, in each relevant country, of a thesis supervisor who undertakes to exercise his or her supervisory role in cooperation with the other thesis supervisors. The thesis supervisors and PhD student sign the agreement mentioned in article 3 for the relevant thesis. The thesis is prepared in periods alternating between the relevant institutions according to a balance and terms defined in the agreement.


PhD training consists in training through research, in research and innovation. It is a genuine professional research experience, opening up the way to a career, in variable conditions and with variable responsibilities depending on the sector.

Obtaining a PhD can also be followed up by registration with the Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches (HDR - research-supervision accreditation), a diploma confirming the aptitude to implement original high level research and ability to supervise young researchers. The key purpose of this diploma is to allow access to university professors' body.


PhD students conduct their work under the control and responsibility of their thesis director.

The functions of thesis supervisor or co-supervisor can be occupied by:

  • lecturers and assimilated staff as set out by the provisions bearing on the designation of members of the Conseil National des Universités (national university council) or by equivalent ranking teachers not supervised by the Department of Education; by personnel of higher education institutions, public research organisations and research foundations, qualified to supervise research;
  • other personalities, PhD holders, chosen owing to their scientific competence by the head, as proposed by the head of the doctoral school and validated by the institution's scientific committee.

The institution's scientific committee decides on the maximum number of PhD students to be supervised by a thesis supervisor, possibly according to the relevant subject fields, after approval from the doctoral schools' boards. With respect to this, the provisions agreed by the institutions are taken into account in the regular assessment of doctoral schools.


Authorisation to present a thesis is given by the head, after approval from the head of the doctoral school head and proposal by the thesis supervisor. The candidate's work is previously examined by at least two assessors appointed by the head, approved to supervise research or belonging to one of the categories set out in article 17 above, by proposal of the doctoral school head after approval from the thesis supervisor. The assessors should not belong to the doctoral school and the candidate's institution. Assessors belonging to foreign higher education or research institutions could be called in. The assessors will notify their decision in written reports on the basis of which the institution's head authorises the thesis, after approval from the doctoral school's head. These reports are given to the jury and candidate before the presentation of the thesis.

The thesis jury is appointed by the head, after approval from the doctoral school head and the thesis supervisor. The jury can be composed of 3 to 8 members. At least half of them are French or foreign personalities, external to the doctoral school and candidate's enrolment institution and chosen owing to their scientific competence, subject to provisions bearing on international thesis co-supervision. When several institutions are qualified to jointly award the PhD, the jury is designated by the relevant heads of institution as per the conditions set out by the agreement that binds them. At least half of the jury should be composed or lecturers or assimilated as per the provisions bearing on the designation of members of the Conseil national des universités (National university council) or teachers of equivalent rank not supervised by the Department of Higher Education. The members of the jury choose a chairperson from their members and, if applicable, a thesis reporter. The chairperson should be a lecturer or assimilated teacher or teacher of equivalent rank as per the previous paragraph. The thesis supervisor, if he/she participates in the jury, may not be chosen as the thesis reporter or chairman of the jury.

The thesis is presented publicly, unless a dispensation is exceptionally issued by the head if the subject of the thesis contains proven confidential material. Before the presentation, the summary of the thesis is circulated within the institution or institutions benefiting from joint accreditation. After the presentation, the thesis is circulated within the university community. As part of its deliberations, the jury assesses the quality of the candidate's work, his or her aptitude to position it in its scientific context and his/her presentation qualities. When the work corresponds to collective research, the personal share of each candidate is assessed by a dissertation that he/she drafts and presents individually to the jury.

The admission or adjournment is announced after the jury's deliberation. The chairman signs the thesis report which is countersigned by all the members of the jury. This report can indicate one of the following grades: honourable, very honourable, very honourable "cum laude" (this mention’s deliverance is highly discipline-related). The highest grade, which is reserved for candidates with exceptional qualities demonstrated by their work and presentation, may only be awarded after a secret and unanimous ballot of members of the jury. In this case, the chairperson of the jury drafts an additional report justifying this distinction. The thesis report specifies, if applicable, that the institution does not award a grade. The thesis report is communicated to the candidate.

The national PhD diploma is awarded by the head or heads after the compliant proposal by the jury. The name and seal of the institution or institutions awarding the PhD are featured on the certificate. The subject field, title of the thesis or name of the main work, the name of the doctoral school and the names and titles of the members of the jury and, if applicable, indication of an international thesis joint supervision are also mentioned.

The awarding of the national PhD diploma confers the grade of PhD or Doctor. In the specific field of healthcare, the total term of training, also organised into three cycles, varies, depending on subjects, and leads to the awarding of the following diplomas:

  • In medicine: 9 to 11 years of study are required to obtain the State doctor of medicine diploma and specialised study diploma (4 years for medical specialization and 5 years for surgical specialization);
  • In odontology: the State diploma in dental surgery is obtained after 6 years of study or 8 years when completed by a certificate of further dental surgery studies (training taken by house physicians);
  • In pharmacy: the State diploma in pharmacy is obtained after 6 years of study or 9 years when completed by a certificate of specialist studies.

Besides these national diplomas approved by the Department of Higher Education, universities can set up diplomas under their own responsibility (university or institution diplomas). These diplomas fall under the exclusive competence of institutions without the State being able to intervene on their recognition or control their quality. Institutions can resort to this practice to satisfy specific or transitory needs, professional in particular. However, the policy conducted by the Department of Higher Education aims to favour the national diploma system which provides students with better guarantees.

Organisational Variation

There is not organisational variation for this level of studies.