A New Consulting Experience for Doctoral Students in France

Nicolas Bozon may still be in the final year of his Ph.D., but he already has experience as an industry consultant and good employment prospects at a start-up company. Bozon, an applied mathematician at the Agricultural and Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Cemagref) in Montpellier, France, is part of a new initiative launched by the French government in the summer of 2007 to broaden career avenues for academic researchers. “The idea … is first to make universities and companies become closer. But another goal is to provide to Ph.D.s more opportunities to enlarge their professional network … and to find a job after their Ph.D.,” Bozon says.

For students who did manage to find an assignment, the program “has been a real professional experience.” –Djimila Canet.

Still in its early days, the so-called doctorants-conseil program attempts to place Ph.D. students as consultants in companies for which their skills can be utilized. Not all the participating students have had experiences as positive as Bozon’s: Many doctoral students have had to invest many hours in securing a consulting assignment, sometimes without success. But even those students say the program, which the French government intends to expand next year, has been a positive experience overall.

Promoting young researchers outside academia

Over the past 2 academic years, Ph.D. students funded by the French government have been given the opportunity to become doctorants-conseil–“a kind of junior consultant,” says Djimila Canet, who has been involved in implementing the program at the University of La Rochelle as the director of its Career Services Department. Despite the career-development aspect, being a doctorant-conseil is not a training phase, writes François Forest, director of the Information, Structure, and Systems doctoral school at the Montpellier 2 University, in an e-mail. The goal, rather, is to create opportunities for companies to benefit from academic research expertise–proving, in the process, the value of these researchers to French industry. “Here, the doctoral researcher has some skills the company wishes to benefit from to reach an objective,” Forest says.

Admission to the program is based on the applicant’s curriculum vitae, a letter from the student explaining his or her motivation, and a description of the skills the student believes offer value to companies. Once recruited, the doctorants-conseil receive a fixed, monthly allowance of about €335 from their university. Universities in turn may charge companies for the students’ consulting services.

Some difficulties …

So far the results are mixed. The Ministry for Higher Education and Research describes the outcome of the program’s 1st year as “very positive.” Yet in spite of the €2.8 million allocated to the creation of 500 doctorants-conseil positions, universities recruited only 158 students into the program. Of the 158 students who participated in the program’s 1st year, 74 were recruited without first having secured an assignment, and only 85 participants eventually found and completed consulting assignments.

This difficulty participants had locating clients is due at least in part to a problem the program aims to address: the low value of the Ph.D. as a credential for employment in French industry. In French business culture, management and other high-level jobs usually go to graduates from the French Ecoles d’ingénieurs, which offer prestige, more hands-on training, and an extended network of potential employers. Another reason clients proved hard to find is because “companies have not been made sufficiently aware of this program,” Canet says. Many companies “didn’t understand what young researchers could bring them” and were reluctant to bet money on them.

Another negative was the extra workload. At the University of La Rochelle, where in the 1st year of the program students were recruited without having an assignment to start with, students spent an average of 2 days per week just trying to find a consulting opportunity, Canet says: “They found it difficult to manage their time between their thesis work and the search of company assignments.” Once they find an assignment, students are expected to dedicate up to 32 days a year to their industry work.

“Up to now, this program has been functioning fairly badly because it is difficult to establish a correspondence between the skills of a doctoral researcher and an identified and limited need of a company,” Forest says. The problem is likely to get worse as the burden of payment shifts to industry: For companies to justify the expense–ranging from €6000 to €10,000 per consultant–the student participants must offer a real service during the consultancy’s short duration, Forest says.

Still, the program is set to expand. The French Ministry for Higher Education and Research recently announced plans to offer the opportunity to work as a doctorant-conseil to most Ph.D. students through the doctoral contract they typically sign at the beginning of their Ph.D.

A positive experience overall

Even though experiences have been mixed, most Ph.D. students found the program beneficial. From the moment they signed on, student participants were taken through a soul-searching process aimed at helping them assess their skills. Doctoral students “often find it very difficult to say in a concrete way what they are capable of doing in a company, because many of them do not know industry,” Canet says. Students also receive training in how to identify suitable companies and how to contact them and advice on how to negotiate consulting deals and navigate intellectual property and confidentiality issues. 

Olivier Zaouak, a Ph.D. student in analytical chemistry and environmental science at the University of Pau and the Adour Region, says he learned a lot about industry just by knocking on industry doors. For his proposed consultancy, Zaouak offered to implement training courses for industry employees about environmental issues. As he looked for a consulting assignment, “most of the time the first question I had was ‘How much will it cost us?’ ” In answering those questions, he says, he learned a lot about “the way to sell this kind of project.”

Yet Zaouak “was left a little hungry for more,” he says. “In the end, I can’t really judge and compare” industry and academia, he says–because he is one of the many students who never secured a consulting assignment. Zaouak pulled out of the program in June so that he could concentrate more on his research, yet he doesn’t regret his decision to participate. Through his participation, Zaouak saw his network and his job prospects expand. He now feels less intimidated by industry.

For students who did manage to find an assignment, the program was “a real professional experience,” Canet says. For his part, Bozon turned an existing connection into a successful consulting engagement applying his geomatics expertise to help 3LIZ, a start-up company developing GIS technology.

Bozon’s experience has allowed him to “really see how a small company is working.” He discovered a more product-oriented approach to research, learned how to speak to clients and win contracts, and expanded his network. Today, Bozon–who considered starting his own company before he embarked on his Ph.D.–feels better prepared than ever to enter industry.

A future under contract

The doctorant-conseil program’s growing pains are, in a sense, an indication of the program’s potential. A successful consulting assignment is a hard thing to achieve over a short period of time–so “success would be a telltale sign of a real potential for industry,” Forest says, adding that it could also benefit people who choose a more traditional path. “Such an experience certainly wouldn’t be negative when considering an academic career, which nowadays and in our fields commonly involves strong collaborations with industry on research projects.”

Whichever their career aspirations, many program participants have seen new horizons open, Canet says. “Some of them picture themselves working as lecturers or in a research laboratory, but … they are aware that … there won’t be a position for everyone,” he observes. “This will definitely help them in their future job search. … They have broadened their employment possibilities thanks to this program.”

Photos. Top: Kelly B. Middle: courtesy, Olivier Zaouak.

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