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  • Writer's pictureAine Dougherty

A Masters in France: What's it Really Like?

Where I spend the majority of my time as a Masters student in France.

October 2021.

Who would’ve thought? Time is practically a blur, flying by faster than I can keep up.

I came to France almost exactly 2 years ago, thinking that I would be staying for seven months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a French high school. Look how wrong that turned out to be! Some of you might be wondering how I managed to stay and start to build a life abroad, even during a global pandemic. The short answer is, I decided to continue my studies and go to graduate school in France.

I’m currently in my second year of a Masters at the Université de Haute Alsace in Mulhouse, France. When deciding on a program, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to study, but I knew that flexibility and freedom were important to me – especially because I’ve been working alongside as an English assistant and now lectrice (more on that in a future blog post!). So, I decided to embark on an English research degree. Through this Masters, I get to research anything I want in Anglophone world, from literature, to civilization, to linguistics…

In my blogging rentrée of 2021, let me tell you a little bit about how I applied and began this (relatively inexpensive) Masters, what exactly a day in my life looks like, and some of the differences I’ve noticed between French and American higher education.

After reading, feel free to comment below or on Instagram to tell me what else you’d like to know about studying in France!

A Masters in France – Where to start?

Presenting some of my research at my soutenance in M1.

Let me set the scene for you. It's mid-2020. My year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant has been cut unexpectedly short, but I can't imagine leaving France after only a few months, somewhere in-between getting my bearings and beginning to truly enjoy my life abroad.

My visa's been extended, and I'm renewing my contract at Lycée Albert Schweitzer as a TAPIFer, but I'm tired of the constraints. Other opportunities, like a few hours teaching here and there, are opening themselves up to me, and I start to look into ways to make everything I want to take on a reality. Already having some friends and connections at the local university, l'Université de Haute-Alsace in Mulhouse, I decide to apply for a Masters program (and thus a student visa).

I studied French and journalism at Northwestern, but UHA's options are slightly limited (no J-school, for example), so I consider the English MEEF Master, which helps prepare college students for the concours to become secondary school teachers in France. It's not exactly what I'm envisioning, though, so I look next door in the department and discover the English Research Masters, which can pave the way to PhD's and much more.

So, I round up my CV, cover letter, diplomas and more, try and fail to understand the Campus France process, end up applying directly with UHA in June, and am eventually accepted in July! Once in, second guessing things, I think to myself... I'm a native English speaker! What's the point in studying English in France?

Well, I console myself with a few important details:

  • I love living in France and hope to stay here for the foreseeable future

  • A Masters in anything, anywhere, is usually a good step for one's career (especially when it costs 243 euros vs. several hundred thousand dollars)

  • I have several years of teaching experience, now, and one day I might want to continue teaching English in high schools or even at university (remember, teachers get summers off!)

  • I get to make even more connections in academia and in Mulhouse, which can only be beneficial

  • Through this Masters, I get to research things that I'm passionate about and actually spend time dedicated becoming an expert on one specific topic

  • A Masters thesis could definitely be useful in the future if I want to attempt to break into the media industry or write a book, which I've always wanted to do

  • A doctorate, one day?

  • When I tell people what I'm researching, it sounds cool and then I seem smart

I'm just kidding about that last point (kind of).

A day in my life as a Masters student in France

In my first year of my Masters at UHA, I wrote and defended a 50-page TER (Travail d'Étude et de Recherche) – basically a precursor to my thesis. In my second year, I have around 12 hours of class per week. Next semester, I'll have much less time in the classroom, with more time to put the final touches on my thesis and to prepare to present at a conference in the spring of 2022.

P.S. In case you're wondering what field my research is in, let me tell you! I'm researching personal narrative in American contemporary cookbooks from a cultural studies lens.

Alright, I can practically hear your brain going, "Huh?"

Basically, I'm studying how cookbooks have acted as a space for women to tell their life stories, especially as they relate to "taboo" topics. Consider M.F.K. Fisher, for example. Her extremely personal food writing is full of sexual innuendoes and not-so-subtle references to female pleasure. In the past, cookbooks haven't typically been seen as a place for this kind of writing, but I'm here to show how that idea has been turned on its head.

Without further ado, let's talk about a typical Monday in my life.

I wake up reluctantly at 8 a.m., eat breakfast and get ready for the day before taking a bus and two trams to the university (about 45-50 minutes in total).

My first class, English Literature, is at 10 a.m. with my thesis director. We're talking about utopias. Then, lunch with my wonderful friends from my year (there's only nine of us in the promo, which can have its pros and cons). I get some lesson planning done before our next class at 1:30 p.m., Histoire des Idées, or History of Ideas – it's a bit like a philosophy class mixed with socio-politics. This year, we're focusing on the many changing ideologies in Europe during the 1860s. Both of these two hour-long classes are a mix of lecturing and discussion, where we're often called upon to share our points of view and analyses (same goes for my Linguistics and Civilization classes later in the week). Usually everything is interesting, although those two hours can move slowly, indeed.

Just enough time for a quick snack, and then I head to German class at 4 p.m. We're required to take a second language course as a part of our curriculum, and I thought German would be useful, considering we live 20 minutes away from Germany and I don't speak a single word of Deutsch. It's been weird but interesting to learn a completely new language from scratch, and I especially like it because it helps put me in my students' shoes.

I finish at 6 p.m. and grab a ride home from my boyfriend J. to make dinner, unwind, finish up homework and prepare my lessons for the rest of the week. Being a Masters student is really exhausting on its own, let alone alongside my job as a lectrice, or English teacher at the university. I'd love to say that I spend an hour or so per night working on my thesis, but I'm usually way too tired. Procrastination transcends borders, people. I'll deal with that later.

I try to go to bed around 11 p.m. so I'll be fresh for the next day of learning and teaching and answering emails and stressing and and and a-.

And, scene.

Differences Between U.S. and French Universities: My Top Three

Disclaimer: Obviously, these are all based on my own experiences and opinions!

  1. The Organization

Sure, sometimes I struggled with understanding my credits or getting into a class or figuring out my meal plan at Northwestern, but nothing compares to the red tape that encompasses you when you go to university in France (at least at UHA).

NU was a private school with an enormous endowment. UHA isn't, and it shows. It's small, so the admin is appropriately understaffed and only available a few hours out of the day. The professors are wonderful and kind, but perhaps don't communicate between themselves as much as they should. Basically, if you email three different people about the same question, it's highly likely that you'll receive three different answers. I have had so many lovely people help me with my questions here, but I have definitely noticed a big difference in organization as well as choice. NU had many course offerings, but as a Masters student at UHA, our curriculum is extremely narrow and strict – we get barely any choice in the matter, which can be frustrating.

2. The Campus and the Student Life

Campus is green and bustling, with colorful street art and benches where students laugh and eat lunch together. It's close to a McDonald's and two tram stops, so even though my building is at the top of a giant hill, UHA's setting has grown on me. However, as I mentioned before, NU (where I had financial aid and worked four student jobs!) is wildly different. Campus was bigger, the buildings more recent and taken care of. There were dozens of residence halls and a generous handful of dining halls. There were three gyms and three libraries, if I remember correctly.

UHA is much smaller. Few students live on campus and many commute for an hour or more just to get to class. There's really only one Resto U to eat at (so you can imagine the lines at 12:05 p.m.). Basically, campus is a place where you attend lectures and maybe grab lunch with your classmates. Sometimes, you can stop by the Learning Center to study for a bit. Extracurriculars, clubs and student orgs are practically nonexistent. Again, this is just my experience at a smaller university in Mulhouse, and I know some are trying to improve the sense of community, but the change can feel stark compared to the privileged life we led at NU.

3. The Network

Both NU and UHA have networks, but in different senses. The journalism grapevine at NU was strong. Once you graduated from Medill, you had thousands of alumni in the media industry to reach out to for interminable "coffee chats" or whatever else you needed – sorry, wanted. That's cool!

On the other hand, UHA, like some universities in the U.S., is a part of a partnership with other universities in the area. EUCOR, which encapsulates UHA, Freiburg University in Germany, Basel University in Switzerland, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the University of Strasbourg, allows us to take classes at any of these partner universities (in fact, we are encouraged to do so as a part of our curriculum). At the end of the year, the Masters students from each of these schools host a conference together to present our research. Although the admin process is not nearly as seamless as it should be for such a partnership, I was nonetheless able to take advantage of this network by taking a class called "Food and Culture" at Freiburg, which ended up being one of the highlights of my experience so far.


I hope you found this master list of Masters information interesting and informative! Bisous !

Have any of you studied at university in France? What did you think? Could you relate to my experience? Let me know here or on Instagram!
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