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I have tried to avoid asking a "soft question" on here because I'm not sure if they are appreciated or not. However, this is one that has been bothering me. I was recently talking to a few friends of mine about my desire to study in France. I have a B.S. in Math, and am working towards a Master's degree.

We poked our noses around and posted various threads on different websites. So far we have gotten a lot of advice such as "Don't waste your time." Or other things such as "French universities have terrible math programs." However, constructive advice has eluded our questions. We are just generally met with antagonism towards the idea of studying in France.

My question is specifically this: what is a reasonable French university at which I can study mathematics. I would like to study in France. I have a reasonably strong command of the language. However, I may be hamstrung by the fact that I had only had ok/good grades in my math courses. Lot's of B's and B+'s. Anyway, I'm not looking for the oppurtunity to study at the grande ecoles. At the same time, I would not want to go to their equivalent of some sort of third-rate state university. I'm just interested in trying to seek out an oppurtunity to be abroad while studying mathematics.

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Perhaps this is the place where Eric Naslund should be commenting ; he is a student at UBC who is currently doing his last year of B.S. at Ecole Polytechnique de Paris as we speak. @Eric Naslund : You gotta answer this one =) –  Patrick Da Silva Nov 23 '11 at 6:11
The first warning I want to make is that the splitting points (=degrees) of a person's math education vary from one country to another. I don't know about France, but for example my Uni confers two levels of undergraduate degrees, and the upper one is translated as M.Sc. In terms of math exposure that master's degree is somewhere between a US bachelor or master's degree depending on A) how serious the student here was with his/her selectives and B) how much ivy your US college has. If you look for graduate programs, they usually mean doctorate only, and then a lot of B's becomes a problem. –  Jyrki Lahtonen Nov 23 '11 at 7:59
It would help if you state your field of interest, so recommendations can be more tailored. –  Willie Wong Nov 23 '11 at 9:18
Pure mathematics, specifically problems that exist within Topology and Geometry. –  emka Nov 23 '11 at 9:33
the ENS Lyon has a very good group of geometers, as does the university of grenoble. also, as gunnar pointed out, you'll have all the choice you want in paris –  Glougloubarbaki Nov 23 '11 at 9:55

3 Answers 3

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I came to France to study after my bachelor's (which I did in Iceland). So far I've done my master's here and am finishing my PhD. I've spent my time here at the university in Grenoble.

I mostly concur with Glougloubarbaki. If your main objective is to study math, then try to go to a grande école, or go directly to a "Master 2" in a public university. This is the second year of masters, where you start specializing. The difference in dedication and skills of the students in public universities vs. grands écoles levels out during the M2.

If you want to take some time to see more of the culture and the country, then do the first year of master's in a public university as well, but know that if your background is strong you won't profit much from it.

As was already said, it is non-trivial to get into a grand école, but I recommend you try. You have about a 90% chance to get into any public university you want. I suspect the 10% failure rate is mostly due to papers getting lost along the way.

With these caveats in place, the question of which university to go to starts to depend an awful lot on what field you want to study for your masters. Different universities have different research groups. Paris has the advantage of having a lot of maths departments, so there is choice there, but other cities have good groups as well. For example, Grenoble has active groups in topology and algebraic geometry, some good analysis is coming out of Toulouse, etc. We might be able to give you some more detailed pointers if you tell us what you're interested in.

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Gunnar: your enumeration of active groups in Grenoble is cute. –  Did Nov 23 '11 at 22:22
@Didier: I meant no offence, I was just talking about the groups I know well. –  Gunnar Magnusson Jan 17 '12 at 13:38

The french system is a bit weird. The best places to go are not the university, but the so-called "Great schools" (ok, I don't have any better translation). So if you want the best, you should go to either the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris, or the the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon, or the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Cachan or the Ecole Polytechnique. Beware that the selection level is quite high.

Now the second best places to go are big universities, which are not so bad. I recommend Jussieu (Université Paris 7), or Chevaleret (Paris 6). The main difference is that there is almost no selection at the first year undergrad level, whereas for the "Great schools" the selection is a huge national exam 2 years after high school... (you have to be in the first 200 out of several thousands to be in the ones I mentionned).

Hope that helps ! You should come, France is a nice country to study in ! =)

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How is the competitiveness of admissions at such places. I'm not saying that my grades are terrible (B+'s and B's), but I am aware that they are not amazing either. Would places like Paris 6 and Paris 7 be reasonable places to apply to for a master's degree? –  emka Nov 23 '11 at 7:06
I don't know about the admission rate for foreign students. but I can tell you the level at Paris 6 in master 2 (I didn't see that at first) is very good, as lots of students from the Grandes Ecoles I mentionned go to this master when they're interested in academics. (it's a bit less true for paris 7). so expect to work hard ! –  Glougloubarbaki Nov 23 '11 at 10:00

French system is unique regarding other countries in that fact that it is generally considered as a shame and a disgrace for a student to enter at 1st year of French public universities. This means that this student has failed to all the 'Grandes Ecoles' entry tests (Big Schools) but also to all the less prestigious engineering schools and the technology institutes - which are really like a thousands -

The paradox is that the teachers in these public universities come often themselves from the Elite Grandes Ecoles.

The other paradox is that a great deal of very good mathematician and scientists comes from public University despite this bad reputation.

For example Grothendieck did not come from the Ecole Normale Superieure but directly from the university of Montpellier.

At Phd level , students from Grandes Ecoles often enter directly public University.

Note that the mathematics taught at Msc level in Parisian Universities are often themselves quite good.

The French system is based on a sort of cruel and hard elitism which ages from Napoleon !st and most of the Grandes Ecoles do not provide Mathematicians but Engineers. Almost all Elite French Mathematicians come from one only ultra-selective school which is the Ecole Normale Superieure of Ulm.

This system seems a bit outdated by now and frankly a bit stupid ( I am from one of the top Grandes Ecoles myself )

With regards to the U.S system, the U.S system is for me unable to produce mathematicians on their ground, they need to constantly import them either from India, China, Russia or even France.

I wish we all could be like Grothendieck!

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I wish there are more men like Grothendieck! –  awllower Mar 8 '13 at 14:56

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