To be a graduate student from America attending a French university has been filled with some unbelievable issues to overcome (administrative matters). Here are the top ten issues that American grad students might experience.
- Getting "registered" at the university has been a long, and sometimes tumultuous problem. The French clerk at the university (did I say "clerk") decided he wanted me to produce a "certificate" from CampusFrance. Problem: He is just a clerk, who wanted to make his own rules up and ask for a certificate that has NEVER existed from CampusFrance. This man was such a jerk, that he shut the door to his office in my and my counselor's face - RUDE right? Okay, no problem! My counselor here takes no enemies...and within a week I was registered. I can say one thing for my counselor and that he is an amazing man who works tirelessly for his international students. I am very fortunate to have him on my side here in France. Same goes for my research professor in Belgium...truly amazing men.
- You must have a "stamp" in your passport from the French office of immigration and integration (OFII) if you plan to leave/return to France after three months. The stamp costs 60 Euros for students. Problem: the appointment was suppose to be scheduled for me before thre three months. I wanted to come home for the holidays to the states, however without an OFII stamp, I will not be able to return to France. Solution: Make multiple trips to your assigned regional OFII office and make friends with the front desk workers. Chances are they will make arrangements to help you out in your return to France without the stamp, and then make sure your appointment is scheduled.
- French grading system....all I can say about it, is that it is bizarre. Best to seek advice frome your counselor if you have one, if not check out the Classbase website at https://www.classbase.com/countries/france/grading-system. Basically instead of A, B, C, D, and F...they use a number system, so 15-20 is considered the "A" range.
- Classes are condensed, which is not a problem, however it quickly becomes an issue when the university states that you get a week to study for their examinations, and you end up with only three days. Problem: in the U.S. most professors will offer study guides that focus on the most important lessons to understand for final examinations, some professors will hold a "review" session to ensure students understand concepts, and also available are teacher's assistants who are grad students that help tremendously if approached. Lastly, in U.S. universities you have access to tutoring, science labs and workshops. French professors do not offer such guidance. Solution: contact your French professors and hope that they can give you some advice (some will and few will not). Another solution is to stay in the U.S. and pay the ridiculous costs of a university education here and learn the material during a semester of 12-15 weeks opposed to the 5-6 weeks in France. Best advice: have the French professors organizing these exams tell you specifically which classes you received are included on the examinations. In the U.S. it is one final exam for each class enrolled. In France, you have several classes and they have 1-2 final examinations with certain classes on each exam.
- Housing has been great at the University of Lille. The international residence "Reeflex" is a newly constructed residence hall that features meeting areas, a gym, laundry, study rooms, and even an awesome staff on hand to help you. You have a choice between a 18 square meter room, or a 23 square meter room with private bathroom (my choice). Problem: the rooms can get very cold in the winter. I do not know if the walls are well insulated, but the windows have retractable louver systems that help block some of the cold air. Lighting in the rooms are not that great either. Solution: wear layers of clothing (including a knitted hat and gloves to bed) and buy a desk lamp for studying as the lighting the rooms are great as long as you are sitting on the bed or in the middle of the room.
- Insurance is a little different also. First you need to purchase medical insurance from a French insurance company. Thankfully, it was only about 600 USD for a year (MUCH cheaper than ObamaCare aka The "Affordable" Care Act of the U.S.). But you ALSO need to have "liability insurance" (about 36 USD) if you plan to do research at another university as a second-year Masters student. Solution: obtained both from same company in Paris. Easy online and great customer service. Despite the "insurances" needed to study in France, they are really affordable and easily obtainable.
- Research is not completed at the same university you take your classes. For instance, I took all my classes and examinations here in Lille, however my research will be done at the University of Ghent (Gent) in Belgium. Some of my peers are in Germany, Sweden, Russia, Armenia, and Switzerland for their research projects. Then, after research and thesis has been completed, you return to Lille for your defense. There is NO graduation ceremony, but there are private celebrations afterwards.
- Learning about the European mass transportation systems is very frustrating.
Airport in Paris (CDG) for example...at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, they have signage that will take you to hallways and other buildings in the airport, and then stop directing you to your final destination (e.g. getting on to the CDGVAL shuttle to get to the hotels near Terminal 3).
Trains: Getting a train in Lille depends on your destination. Why...because there is Lille Flanders train station and two blocks away there is the Lille Europe train station. So you need to learn which trains are out of which station...NOT an easy task when your French is not perfect. The Lille Europe train station does have a dedicated office with English-speaking assistance which helped me personally since I was not in France 24-hours before I had to find the right train to Boulogne-sur-Mer and later over to London's St-Pancras train station. The Lille Flanders train station, no such luck. You might find someone who knows a little English, but better to speak French. Fortunately, the train schedules are easy once you study them a little but, but be advised that these are not set in stone. Trains can be diverted due to track maintenance on the fly, and you might have to take a different route + bus ride to another train station. Not a big deal however, you need to allow extra traveling time.
Metropole stations have kiosks where you can buy subway train tickets...sounds easy right? Yeah, NO! You press the Union Jack flag for English, and everything regarding the descriptions of the various tickets are still in FRENCH! This is not unique to the Metropole, but pretty much everywhere you go in France. "English" is used to translate a title to English while the directions are all still in French. I learned to focus on the train numbers as those will help to get you transferred correctly. Metropole also has buses that you can hop onto that take the same Metropole pass (make sure you get the "complete" pass because some ticket choices are just for the train). To make it a little more complicated, (because this is the French way) they offer Metro tickets just for night or multiple nights, for 1 day, 2 days, or up to 7-days, and for even just for 4 hours...WTF France? Oh, not to mention the "ZAP" passes for those who are only using the Metro for only 2-3 stops from your origin. Prices of course vary greatly depending on the Pass. The saving grace of the Metropole is that it runs 98% on time, you can get pretty much anywhere in Lille and Villeneuve d'Ascq with the system with a little walking in between (usually under a mile).
Buses: so if you do not want to spend 80 Euros for a train ride you can take a bus for only 10-12 Euros. I wanted to take a train to Paris to fly home for the holidays however they wanted 80 Euros for a one-hour trip, compared to 11 Euros for a 2 hour-15 minute bus ride. Bus it was, and I highly-recommend "Ouibus" compared to Visilines. Ouibus have luxury buses and all the drivers I have experienced have been professional and great (compared to the scary guy from Visilines bus who vaped the whole way from Paris to Lille).
Walking: the one thing you will do guaranteed is walk...and walk a lot if you do not own a car. Walking around is easy however and thanks to Google maps you can navigate fairly easy. I liked walking because I got to see more of Lille and figure out the streets and locations firsthand of where I needed to visit (i.e. OFFI office and train stations).