This note tries to answer the frequently asked question ``I'd like to do a Ph.D. at INRIA within your research group; how should I proceed?''. It is intended to complement, and not to replace, other information available on the INRIA web site.
The first thing to be aware of is that INRIA is not a university: it is a governmental research agency, and as such it does not dispense graduate courses, nor delivers Ph.D. degrees. However, INRIA hosts hundreds of Ph.D. students within its research groups, where the students carry out the research part of their Ph.D.s. Likewise, many INRIA research scientists teach in graduate programs. This takes place in the context of formal agreements between INRIA and the graduate schools of French universities.
Therefore, Ph.D. students who wish to join an INRIA research group have to be registered at one of the French universities associated with that research group. They will follow graduate courses at this university, and obtain their degree from it. However, the research part of their Ph.D. work will be carried out within the research group at INRIA, under the scientific supervision of an INRIA research scientist.
While doing their research at INRIA, Ph.D. students are considered fully-fledged members of the INRIA research group. INRIA provides them with (adequate) office space, (good) computing facilities and (generous) travel funds, and they participate actively in the scientific life of the research group. Conversely, Ph.D. students are expected to work full time at INRIA and honor normal working hours. We don't want Ph.D. students who work at home and show up once a month, or who do their Ph.D. in parallel with another job.
The French university system recently adopted a structure called LMD (Licence, Master, Doctorat) which is broadly similar to what is done in other European countries and in the US. (The EGIDE association provides a wealth of information on the French university system.)
The Licence is a 3-year undergraduate curriculum leading to a diploma comparable to a US or UK Bachelor's degree.
The Master is a 2-year graduate curriculum leading (you guessed it) to a Master's degree. The so-called "professional Masters" are great if you plan to stop your studies there and start working right after graduation. To pursue a Ph.D., however, you should select a "research-oriented Master". The difference is most apparent in the second year of studies, which, in the case of research-oriented Master, involves a 4-5 month research internship carried out within a research lab, either at a university, a CNRS or INRIA research lab, or a corporate research team. A 20- to 40-page report on the research internship must be written, submitted and defended, generally in September.
The Doctorat is a 3-year work period leading to the Ph.D. degree. During this time, students work nearly full time on researching their Ph.D. topics and writing their Ph.D. dissertations. Little or no course work is expected, beyond participating in research seminars and the occasional summer school. Depending on the kind of funding, some teaching as teaching assistant can be required.
Like the Master's internship, this research is carried out within a research team, either at a university, a CNRS or INRIA research lab, or a corporate research team. Often, the research topic and the research lab are the same as those for the Master's internship, but this is not mandatory: it is possible to change topics or lab between the Master and the Ph.D. itself. Even if the research lab is not physically located in a university, the students are registered with a graduate school (École Doctorale) of a university.
At the beginning of the fourth year of Doctorat, the Ph.D. dissertation is completed. The manuscript is examined by two external reviewers (rapporteurs de thèse), and once they approve, the Ph.D. is defended in public and awarded if everything goes right.
A note on the duration: while not all doctorats are completed in 3 years flat, funding becomes very hard to find beyond the first three years of doctorat, and Ph.D.s that last too long are strongly discouraged. So, don't drag it.
The Gallium team at INRIA is deeply involved in the MPRI, a Paris-based Master program in fundamental computer science that is very strongly oriented towards research. Most of our recent Ph.D. students followed this curriculum.
During the Ph.D. years, our students are usually registered at University Paris Diderot (Paris 7), or sometimes at École Polytechnique.
We strongly encourage our future Ph.D. students to follow the MPRI programme, or at least the second year of that Master programme. Exceptions can be made for students who followed another strong Master curriculum that covered much of the same material as the MPRI.
Registration fees and tuition are very low in the French university system: generally less than 500 Euros per year. This includes social security, but no housing or food plan of any sort. Hence, additional funding is needed to cover living expenses.
Funding for the Master years. Unfortunately, there are few grants available to support graduate students through their years of Master. Some pointers can be found on the MPRI web site. For foreign students, consider also exchange programs such as the Erasmus grants.
Funding for the Ph.D. years. Most of our Ph.D. students are supported through their doctorat years via the following Ph.D. grant programs.
INRIA doctoral grants. These grants are attributed and paid directly by INRIA. The money comes sometimes from INRIA's own funds, more often from a contract that the INRIA team has with a corporation or a European project. No citizenship restrictions; no teaching obligations. The net amount of the grant is approximately 1500 Euros per month.
Ph.D. grants from the Ministry of Education (allocations de recherche du Ministère de l'Éducation Nationale). These grants are attributed and managed by the graduate schools (écoles doctorales) of the universities. The student must either be a citizen of a European Union country, or have completed a Master degree in France. The net amount of the grant is approximately 1300 Euros per month, without any teaching obligation. An additional 300 Euros per month is given to students who take a teaching assistant charge (monitorat).
Ph.D. grants for foreign students. Non-French students can be supported via a variety of grant programs, such as European Union ``training and mobility'' programs, and bilateral agreements between France and various countries. There are many such programs and they change all the time, so it is hard to give more details here. Perhaps the best sources of information are the embassies (of your country in France and of France in your country). See also INRIA's department of international relations and the EGIDE site.
Like all scientific institutions, INRIA is a rather international place. While French is the common language, all scientists and part of the staff speak English. Likewise, Ph.D. dissertations and Master internship reports can be written in English as well as in French. However, Master courses are given in a mixture of French and English, and a basic knowledge of French is needed for daily life throughout the graduate studies. INRIA provides French courses to interested Ph.D. students.