The diary of an old student since 2007


When I retired in Oct. 2005, I decided to start a new life (see my resume) and part of this life would be to study History at the Sorbonne. After a first and second (very happy) years, this is the diary of my third and fourth years back to school. Then, my PhD and another cursus8

Philippe Rochefort

September 2016 : a new project ?   Writing a thesis for a "doctorat" (PhD.) in France : my first year 2008-2009....



















  • The first step is the application file which includes : a 300-word abstract, a 5-to-10-page description of the project, signing a "PhD Charter", the opinion of the "Directeur de Recherche" (thesis director) and of the head of the History Department, and many biographical details. To be handed in before October 7. My subject is : "The history of American firms in France and technological transfers" (since 1894 and as seen through the archives of the American Chamber of Commerce in France).
  • My subject is accepted (Nov.6, 2008) and I have to pay the tuition fee of Euros 346,57 ($460). Still pretty cheap, isn't it ?
  • Now I'm on my way (and on my own...) for the next three years, digging in archives, reading books and reports and trying to figure out how to handle my subject ... For the moment, I work on the (very rich) archives of the American Chamber of Commerce in France, the (very well organized) archives of the French Senate and the National Assembly and a few others.
  • I also contact big American firms in France. Some of them are helpful but, for most of them (especially the banks and the law firms), the answer is always the same : "unfortunately, the archives have been destroyed a few months ago and there is nothing left ...". It's hard to be an historian in the corporate world....
  • Today (April 10) is the begining of Easter vacations ; the Sorbonne has been blocked by students "on strike" against a new law which grants autonomy to universities (so they can have their own policy and raise private money if they wish: read an amazing anecdote about that) and sets new rules for the evaluation of professors (if they do not publish, they'll have to teach more). The government does not want to withdraw the law and this strike has lasted 9 weeks (sofar). Will the students be able to take their exams ? Every year, since I started studying History, the university enjoyed a long strike....
  • This strike does not bother me too much (except I cannot go to the excellent library of the "Ecole Doctorale", which is blocked).
  • The situation is back to normal by the end of May, after 14 weeks of strike. It is interesting to observe that all the professors (strikers or not, anyway no course was given) will be paid normally (the president of the university, Georges Molinié, having declared at the very begining of the strike that he refused to make lists of strikers. It is also interesting to observe that applications to the Sorbonne are down by 25% for the next year and several foreign universities have cancelled their Study Abroad Program with the Sorbonne. Any relation with this very intelligent strike ?
  • At the end of this first year, I am not very happy, neither with my work, nor with the environment, guidance, etc.. I'll try to be happier next year......
Writing a thesis in France : 2009-2013 !    A French school year 2007-2008...
  • 2013 : my last year ? In May 2013, a big hope : finishing this year ! I rarely see my advisor but the last time we discussed it, he said it would be in June or in September. Youpee ! I'll keep you posted.
  • 2011-2012 : solitary work, discouraging contacts, disappointing sources, etc.
  • Only in Sorbonne…….. Today, December 16, 2010, a big event was scheduled : a seminar for the doctoral students of my Ecole Doctorale (ED), the first in two years (or, if my ED has organized others, it has managed to keep them secret …). Let me remind my readers that in each French university, there is an "Ecole Doctorale" that is responsible for its doctoral students. My ED includes about 220 students who are writing their doctoral dissertation and around 15 professors. In November, some of the doctoral students decided to organize a seminar to discuss their research. Like many others, I responded enthusiastically : in the past 15 months, I have not had ONE single opportunity to discuss what I am doing with a human being, professor or student. Shortly after the student's initiative, the ED (by some coincidence?) decided to organize its first seminar for its doctoral students and merge it with their seminar, at a different time, with a prominent foreign historian, in a different room that was twice as small (Probably to to honor the foreign guest : you have to be a Sorbonne graduate to understand this…). Understandably, when I arrived, the room (for 20) could not accommodate more than the 35 people already standing up in it and I had to go back home. Very frankly, this would never have happened in a "Grande Ecole", where students matter, and this is why so many people defend this so-called "elite system" , which is simply normal, compared to the Third World system of the French university.
  • October 2010 : still lonely but slightly progressing. The spirit of a PhD in France is to learn how to work independently and I am experiencing it.....
  • September 2010 : First step : pay the tuition fee Euros 370 ($450). A slight increase over last year : student associations protest !
  • As a result of the (stupid) strikes last year, the registration of new students this year shows a dramatic change : roughly -10% in "universités" and +10% in "classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles". See what it means on my page Education
  • I feel lonely and nobody helps me! After a year and half on my subject, I am still interested but I am feeling very isolated and I'd like more opportunities to discuss it (Jan.2010).
  • 2011-2012 : work, desillusion (when US corporation lie to me and pretend they did not keep any archive of any kind etc), excitation (when a little detail about a person or a company seems to lead to something new), impatience (to finish the project),... I submit a complete draft to my advisor in October 2012.
  • Jan. 2013 : my advisor tells me that I can defend it this year. Corrections and aditions, ... Until Sept.30, I don't when I'll be admitted to defend it, then I'm told that it will be Nov. 21.
  • October-November, total panic: printing, binding a 982-page, 3-volume piece, sending it to the members of the jury (two professors "rapporteurs" who write two evaluation reports, two other professors and my advisor), doing all sorts or bureaucratic tasks (deposit a digital format at Sorbonne, pictures of me for the 2013 directory of the new PhDs of the Sorbonne, finding a room in the Sorbonne at a time which is the high season for PhDs' defense, etc.
  • And also hiring a "traiteur" for the traditional cocktail party in the university building after the defense.
  • Nov. 21, 2013 : the big day. Traditionally, in History, the juries are very mean. They spend three hours demonstrating how stupid you are, how weak are your sources, how can you ignore the major books in the field you are trying to cover and, at the end, they conclude that yours is an excellent thesis and you deserve a good grade. My jury was so nice that, at moments, I thought they were speaking about someone else. After I presented my thesis in 20 minutes, they asked me good questions and I answered for two and an half hours and finally I was, of course accepted, with the highest grade. This is a nice ending for a seven-year adventure ! Now I'll have to turn it into a book.

The candidate facing the jury of five for the defense of his thesis !

The grades
To defend your thesis you submit, with the approval of your advisor, an application to the Directeur de l'Ecole Doctorale (who is responsible for all the theses of your university). There is a procedure with a special committee which decides whether or not this thesis deserves to be defended. Then, a jury of four minimum (mine was five) is constituted and the candidate defends his/her thesis in front of it. It is exceptional that the thesis is not accepted but there are several different grades : Passable (i.e. just average, in the US, it would be C or less), Honorable (i.e. good, like a B) and Tres Honorable (which is a A).
With the last grade, one can in addition get the Felicitations du Jury (i.e. Congratulations from the Jury) after a secret ballot vote by the jury. The top grade is Tres Honorable aver Felicitations Unanimes du Jury. That is the one I obtained!

The official ceremony, June 14, 2014, with the President of Sorbonne Universites.


Click here to my page containing a short summary of the dissertation.



  • We were around 22 students in our class in the fourth year (called M1) last year : it is now down to around twelve. Some students dropped out and the "mémoire" of others was not accepted. In French universities, students are not selected when they enter the university (in the name of equality and democracy) but year after year, by a traumatizing and discouraging process. They do not seem to understand how unfair and cruel it is : see my comments on equality in France.
  • Strikes again ! November, once again, French students go on strike. This year, the pretext is quite interesting. Not by chance, the strike begins the very week transport employees go on strike to oppose a change of their retirement system (incredibly advantageous : full pension at age 50 : read more). Students demand the abrogation of the law, voted in July by the Parliament, which give a little bit of autonomy to universities and makes it possible for them to raise some money other than state funds. Their motto "NO to autonomy ! NO to privatization!". Stimulating, isn't it ?
  • Today, Dec.15, the doors of the Sorbonne are still locked and I realize that I could count on the fingers of my hands the number of courses and seminars I have attended since the beginning of the academic year. Once again, a few students and a few professors managed to block the whole Sorbonne and keep the others from studying and teaching. Back to History, its reminds me the previous times the Sorbonne refused to change : each time, a more efficient organization was created OUTSIDE of it :
    • 15th. century against the ideas of the Renaissance, which led to the creation, outside of the university, of the Collège de France, still prestigious and active
    • 19th cent. against the Industrial Revolution, leading to the creation of the Grandes Ecoles, whose alumni dominate the French society
    • 19th-20th cent. against modern economy, leading to the creation of the business schools
    • 1930s-1940s against scientific research, leading to the creation of CNRS and the other reasearch organizations (INSERM, CEA, etc..)
  • Exams and grades :
    • April : I am finishing my final thesis ("mémoire") : around 400 pages, and less boring than I feared.
    • June 1 : I just handed in my dissertation on "L'amenagement du territoire de 1969 à 1993 : le role du CNER et des comités d'expansion économique" ("French Regional planning from 1969 to 1993 : the role of..." 360 p.)
    • July 3 : the final exam is an oral presentation of my dissertation in front of a jury which seems very pleased and grants me an excellent grade (19 out of 20) ; my professor tells me that he considers having it published in a very good collection of a well-known publisher where he is the scientific director (very flattering!)
    • August : I receive (through the mail) my final global grade for the Master in History : 18.3 i.e. Maîtrise Mention Très Bien ("Summa cum laude"). I am of course very happy but there is nobody to share my satisfaction with : no ceremony, no party, no human being to congratulate the students, et... Quite different from the USA, isn't it ?
    • I am amazed by the proportion of students who give up and do not finish writing their dissertation : maybe half of the class (which was already half the class of last year) ? After 5 years of university studies, all they'll have is a "Licence d'Histoire" (i.e. BA).
  • A funny detail : to receive the diploma (I'll frame it eventually!), I have to write to the Sorbonne (department "grades") and ask for a copy my official grades and then write to the Sorbonne (department "diplomas", i.e. next door) with this copy to ask for my diploma. Funny.....
  • What's next ? I am going to write a PhD, which will keep me busy for the next 3 years. The subject ? I'll disclose it when it's approved by the University, but it relates to some aspects of the American history ! Keep posted.

    2007-2008 : courses, grades and exams

  • The program is very light, for this fifth year of the History cursus (called M2) ; it includes only :
    • the research seminar of the professor (Pr.Pascal Griset) : once or twice a month
    • a course of methodology (Pr.Georges-Henri Soutou)
    • attending to two research seminars outside the Sorbonne : one on transport and mobility at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées (once a month) and one on history of technologies at the Ministry of Finance (every two months)
    • The reason for a lighter program is that students are expected to finalize their "Mémoire" this year, unless they had decided to go faster and finish it in one year, generally because they need time to prepare difficult exams like Agreg or journalism schools. I did it, and my mémoire is finished, but it's because I found it boring and wanted to get rid of it....
  •  Learning Japanese ? As I expect that my work in History will not be too heavy in the coming academic year, I decide to take a new challenge : learning Japanese. I love Japan and the Japanese culture but I know nothing about the language. I'll try and see if if survive two hours a week (+ homework) at "Espace Japon", a private organization. First impression : it is VERY difficult. No wonder the Japanese are so successful : if they can speak and write, they can do anything.
  • Mai 17, the same day, the best and the worst of the Sorbonne! The best : a forum in the glamorous Grand Salons for the post-graduate students in liberal arts and history (the most hopeless to ever get a job) with ten big companies (including PWC, CocaCola, ...) and a large offer of interships, evaluation tests, pre-hiring interviews. Very helpful. The worst : my grades for the first semester are not on-line (we are in April....). I queue a half-hour in a remote corridor and a grim bureaucrat tells me my (only) grade is 17 (that's an A) but she can't give me a copy of the record because only Department So&So is in charge of calculating the average of the grades (there is only one....). I don't have the courage to queue one half-hour more.


To related pages : to last year and the year before,to my resume,to my Franco-American site and the page on education in France, etc...

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