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Applying to CNRS

September 23, 2019 | by Nathanaël Fijalkow

This post gathers some information about applying to CNRS for a permanent researcher position (chargé de recherche, junior position, or directeur de recherche, senior position). It includes links to my files for the two times I applied.

Disclaimer: All information below are gathered through (past) experience and may not be fully accurate. I do work at CNRS but I do not have access to insider information.

First of all, do not censor yourself if you do not speak French! Every year several positions are offered to non-French speaking people and they become happy and successful researchers at CNRS (learning French is not necessary even then).

The official website is here, but you will find most relevant information here, called the “section”. They in particular announce how many positions there are, and whether there are “special” positions (called “fléchées” or “thèmes prioritaires”).

The section handles the whole application process, it consists of about 20 computer scientists whose expertise cover (most of) theoretical computer science (for “Section 6”). Their names is public information.

If your work is of a more applied nature, you may consider Section 7, and if you are a mathematician then yours is Section 41.

Chronologically, the “concours” goes as follows:

  • the deadline for sending your application is somewhere in the end of December / early January (they receive about 200 applications)
  • admission à parcourir consists of about 100 names, comes in January
  • admis à poursuivre comes in February, it is the selection for the interview (roughly 40 to 50 names), which are over 3 to 4 days in March in Paris
  • admissibilité is the ranking given by the scientific committee, a week or two after the interviews (roughly 25 names)
  • admission is the very final ranking agreed by the administrative committee, which may differ from the previous one. If you get there, CNRS will contact you to offer you a position (congratulations!).

Labs. You need to choose three (CNRS affiliated) labs where your research proposal fits. Officially it says up to three labs, in my understanding it is frowned upon to put only one, two may be OK. It is very important to contact these labs somewhere in October / Novembre / December, meaning write to the researchers there, send your research program, and offer to give a talk. Each lab is asked to send a letter about which candidates they would be happy to hire. This is of course only a consultation, but it is very important as it helps the section to see how you will in effect integrate the labs.

Academic age: CR or DR?. CR is the junior position, DR the senior position. There are two separate competitions. Typically CR positions are offered to researchers with PhD + 2/3y, and to DR with PhD + 7/12y. Here I mean PhD graduation, but the official way of counting in CNRS is from the start of the PhD, so they typically hire CR about 7 years after starting their PhD. If you are hesitant about which track you should apply to, do not overthink it: apply to both, and the section will choose for you one of the two.

Documents. You have to write two documents: “past” and “future” (if I recall correctly they are called “travaux effectués” and “projet de recherche”). Past presents your research output so far, and Future explains which directions you would like to take if hired. There is no recommended format, but there are non-strict page limits (I think 6 to 10 pages). In my understanding, Past serves as evidence that you know what you are talking about and that you can present it to a wide audience in an accessible way. The most important is Future, it should be a structured research programme with short-term (a few years) and mid-term (5 to 7 years) objectives. I do not think anyone believes you will actually achieve these things in the time you predict. The exercise is rather to show that you can make a rational case about where your research is going. Blue sky talk (also known as BS) should be avoided, you should convince your reviewers that there is a technical content supporting your objectives.

You may consider adding a section explaining how your research programme fits in each of the lab you are applying to.

Some extremes to avoid at all costs:

  • I plan to continue working on my PhD topic
  • I plan to do whatever the team is doing
  • I plan to work on a flashy new topic about which I have no expertise

Here are my files (in French, sorry!):

Reviewers. Typically each application is assigned two (three?) reviewers from the section. Bear in mind that they may not be fully versed in your research topics, so both documents should contain an introduction to your research area and very little jargon. (On this point, opinions diverge. I have seen very technical applications getting high appreciation. My advice is the opposite.)

Conflict of interests. Something very strategical to keep in mind. If you apply to a lab X, anyone in the section from lab X is in conflict with your application, hence cannot review it. This may deprive you of your (potential) best supporter, so in choosing which labs to apply to you may consider this point.

Slides. When I applied the format was 15mn presentation of your research plus 5mn presentation of your research project, with additional 15mn questions. This may change as well. The interview is very constructive, they will do their best to make you feel comfortable. Keep the following in mind: the questions are asked by the reviewers for them to have arguments to put you on the final list. In other words, the reviewers are your supporters, and they have the duration of the interview to convince the rest of the panel to hire you. Questions are opportunities for you to show your understanding and ability to discuss research at different levels, both technical and non-technical.

Here are my slides (still in French…):

Checklist. I like to think that the following checklist is what the section is after:

  • committed: you are determined to engage in various scientific activities beyond research (includes teaching, supervising, communicating, liaising with industries)
  • independent: you can carry out research by yourself and with different groups of researchers, ideally nationally and internationally
  • aware: you have a vision not only of your research interests but you can also place them inside your field and TCS in general
  • involved: you have an understanding of the academic world (labs, grants, scientific communication, career evolution)

Recommendation letters. There is a limit on how many you are supposed to ask for (in my time it was 3), please check carefully on the website of the section, as well as the procedure for sending them out (for now, directly to the head of the section, this may change in the future!).

My personal advice for the choice would be: one letter from a research advisor (PhD / postdoc advisor), one letter from someone with whom you have collaborated and can expertly evaluate your work, and one letter from an expert who doesn’t have conflict of interest with you. Of course the latter is the hardest to come by, because the letter may be vacuous. Choose advisedly!

Another criterion to keep in mind for the choice: you should show at the same time that you are recognised for your research in France (in particular in the labs you apply to!) and abroad.

Special positions (called “thèmes prioritaires”). Recently most of the positions were given a priority topic. It is in your best interest to fit in one of these, so you should explain in your research project and during the interview whether and why you do fit. Do not overdo it: if you do not fit, they will not buy your fake arguments, in which case it is better to abstain on this point.

Cross positions. There are often positions of the form “Section X to Section Y”, for instance “a computer scientist in a maths lab”. Look out for these, as if they are a good fit for your profile then it’s generally easier to get one of those.

Good luck!