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Masters in France

by Mark Bennett and Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

From philosophers to authors and from mathematicians to artists; from Descartes to Dumas and from Laplace to Monet, intellectual and creative pursuits have always been part of the fabric of French society.

It's no surprise then, that the French Higher Education system is well known for its long tradition of excellence. In fact, France boasts both the fourth highest number of nobel laureates in the world, the largest number of international students in mainland Europe and the top modern student city (Paris).

French universities are also well funded, with successive governments investing heavily in the quality of their country's higher education. This is reflected in the cost of tuition in France, with fee caps making French Masters programs some of the most affordable in Europe.

On this page you can read all about studying a Masters degree in France, including an introduction to the French university system, advice on applying for postgraduate study in France, university rankings and visa guidelines.

Elsewhere you can read our guide to postgraduate life in France (with tips on finding accommodation, budgeting for living costs and working whilst studying) as well as our detailed overview of French Masters fees and funding.

We've also put together a guide to language tests for international students.

Finally, you can, of course, just get started searching the hundreds of French Masters degrees in our extensive course listings.

The French higher education system an introduction for postgraduates

The French higher education system is quite unique, with networks of smaller universities sharing resources as part of larger higher education hubs. This approach lends itself particularly well to postgraduate education and the demands of more specialised degree programs.

This means that even medium-sized French cities, such as Grenoble have 2 or 3 universities as well as a number of more specialised higher education establishments. In Paris, meanwhile, there are 13 research universities, as well as many smaller institutions.

Modernisation and reform of higher education in France

Historically, French universities were much larger and more independent institutions, controlling their own resources and working to expand their own reputations through teaching and research activities.

This model was similar to that of other top higher education countries (such as the UK) but a series of ambitious (and occasionally controversial) reforms have dramatically reshaped it, leading to the development of one of the world's most unique (but equally successful) approaches to university education.

Instead of developing a smaller number of elite (but isolated) providers, the French government has invested in developing partnerships between local institutions - creating critical masses of excellence with shared expertise and resources.

As part of this, many of France's historic large universities have separated into a number of smaller institutions. You'll see the legacy of this in French university names. Paris Descartes University, for example, is also known as 'Paris 5' (or 'Paris V') - alluding to its heritage as one successor of the 12th century University of Paris.

The result of all this reform has much to offer students, with institutions small enough to be incredibly specialised, but benefitting from their place within larger networks - and the expertise brought by universities and research centres with different areas of focus.

The aim is to create larger, more comprehensive higher education communities. The first phase of this process involved the planning of Pôles de Recherche et d’Enseignement Supérieur (PRES), but this system has now been superceded by a new set of Communautés d’Universités et d'Etablissements (Communities of Universities and Schools, or 'COMUE').

What all of this means for international students is that individual French universities have the opportunity to deliver truly innovative and unique postgraduate programs, supported by a research and investment profile that far exceeds their apparent size.

Of course, France is still home to incredibly prestigious individual institutions, including its famous Grandes Écoles - characterised by a highly selective admissions process.

Public universities

Though they take various individual forms, public higher education providers in France are collectively referred to as Établissement public à caractère scientifique, culturel et professionnel (EPSCP) (Public Establishments of a Scientific, Cultural or Professional Character).

There are over 140 individual EPSCP. The majority are universities, but others are usually deemed to be 'university-grade' institutions, with the power to conduct public research and training and to award academic degrees.

The two main varieties of public university within the EPSCP grouping are:

  • Universities - France's 83 public universities are comprehensive academic research and training institutions, offering degree programs in a wide range of subject areas. All can award Masters degrees (as well as other more advanced postgraduate qualifications, such as PhDs).
  • Major Public Establishments - The EPSCP category also includes a number of 'Grands établissements publics'. These are France's top public universities, governed under ministerial charter by branches of the French government. They are often specialised within specific academic disciplines and admit students based on performance in entrance exams such as the CPGE used by France's Grandes Écoles.

Grandes Écoles

In addition to its universities, France is also home to groups of elite higher education institutions. The most famous are the country's Grandes Écoles.

These are not part of the main Établissement public à caractère scientifique, culturel et professionnel (EPSCP) category, but nor are they an official grouping of their own.

There is no 'hard and fast' list of Grandes Écoles, but the category is conventionally held to include more specific groups such as the Écoles Normales Supérieures (elite publically funded universities) as well as high profile business and engineering schools (Grandes Écoles de Commerce and Grandes Écoles d'Ingénieurs).

What unites all of these institutions is their highly specialised nature and incredibly selective admissions process (some Grandes Écoles only admit a few hundred students each year). Most will require applicants to complete preparatory classes and entrance exams known as Classe Préparatoire aux Grandes Écoles (CPGE).

This process normally requires two years of university-level study specifically for the examination program, or a suitable amount of time on an undergraduate ('License') program at a French university.

The degrees awarded by Grandes Écoles are generally advanced, taking the form of Masters or equivalent 'graduate level' qualifications.

It is also possible to apply for specific postgraduate study at a Grandes École, provided your existing qualifications are deemed sufficient and you can pass any required entrance examinations.

Communautés d’Universités et d'Etablissements

The modernisation of French higher education and the emphasis on collaboration between institutions has lead to the formation of local networks known as Communautés d’Universités et d'Etablissements (Communities of Universities and Schools).

These 'COMUE' have succeeded the previous system of Les Pôles de Recherche et d’Enseignement Supérieur (Centres for Research and Higher Education) which ceased development in 2013.

There are around 27 COMUE currently operating in France. They include public universities, Grandes Écoles and other specialist research and training centres, all of which offer their own particular facilities and expertise to the local network.

As a Masters student you will normally enrol in a specific university (rather than the COMUE it might form part of) but membership of one of these groups can have many benefits for your degree program: allowing you to benefit from the input and opportunities available at partner institutions without sacrificing the specialism and focus of your 'host' university.

French university rankings

The French higher education system is one of the most respected in the world - a fact that is even more remarkable given its historically non-Anglophone focus. Unsurprisingly, France's Grandes Écoles lead the way in league tables, but public research universities also perform well in university rankings.

What are the top-ranked universities in France?

Two universities feature in the top 150 of all three university league tables: the École Normale Supérieure Paris (one of France's premier Grandes Écoles) and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (one of the country's top public universities). Other French universities also take up prominent positions in each major global ranking.

French universities in the QS World University Rankings

There are five French universities in the top 200 of the 2015-16 QS World University Rankings:

French Unis in the QS Rankings
University Ranking Place
École Normale Supérieure Paris 23
École Polytechnique 40
Pierre and Marie Curie University 137
École Centrale Paris 156
École Normale Supérieure de Lyon 188

For advice on using the QS World University Rankings system as a Masters student, check out our detailed guide.

French universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings

Five universities in France also place within the top 200 of the 2015-16 THE World University Rankings:

French Unis in the THE Rankings
University Ranking Place
École Normale Supérieure Paris 54
École Polytechnique =101
Pierre and Marie Curie University =113
University of Paris-Sud 188
Paris Diderot University 199

For advice on using the Times Higher Education World University Rankings as a postgraduate, see our postgraduate guide.

French universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities

A total of eight French higher education institutions feature in the top 200 of the 2015 ARWU league table:

French Unis in the ARWU
University Ranking Place
Pierre and Marie Curie University 36
University of Paris-Sud 41
École Normale Supérieure Paris 72
University of Strasbourg 87
Aix-Marseille University 101-150
Paris Diderot University 101-150
Université Joseph Fourier 101-150
Paris Descartes University 151-200

For more information on using the ARWU rankings as a prospective Masters student, see our guide.

French Masters degrees program types and course structure

Higher education in France follows a three-cycle system, with undergraduate Licence (Bachelors) degrees followed in turn by postgraduate Masters and Doctorate (PhD) qualifications.

This set-up is sometimes referred to as the 'LMD' (Licence-Masters-Doctorate) system. It is fully compatible with the common degree structure operating across many European countries as a result of the Bologna Process.

Traditionally, two varieties of French Masters degree have been available:

  • Research Masters focus on independent project work at the expense of taught units. They are intended for students who have determined on further study at PhD level.
  • Professional Masters are taught courses, traditionally designed for students who are studying a Masters as a final qualification and will go on to work after receiving their degree.

In practice, the distinction between Research and Professional Masters degrees (and their career outcomes) is not always rigid. In many cases a Research-based program can provide a route into professional roles for which some research experience is desirable (but a full PhD degree would be unnecessary). So-called 'Professional' programs can also include theoretical knowledge and practical work preparing students for more advanced academic study.

As a result, most French universities now offer 'undifferentiated' (generic) Masters programs, in which theoretical and practical knowledge is delivered through taught units, before students apply this training on an independent research and dissertation task.

Course length

A Masters in France is normally 2 years in duration. Unlike UK Masters which are delivered over 12 months without a break, postgraduate programs in France break down into individual academic years, separated by holidays.

The academic year in France runs for 9 months from September or October to May or June. This period is further divided into two semester, with a Christmas break. Examination periods usually take place at the end of semesters.

The greater length of a French Masters degree may seem strange if you're coming from a system such as the UK's, in which one-year taught postgraduate courses are the norm. However, this two-year format also brings a range of benefits and opportunities.

Programs can be less intensive, with a summer vacation providing the opportunity to travel, complete internships or undertake additional projects and field-trips related to your Masters.

A longer Masters can also make an impressive contribution to your CV - particularly if you intend to work or study in a country where two-year postgraduate degrees are more common.

Course content

French Masters degrees are normally organised into individual modules or 'teaching units' (TU), with the opportunity to focus on different topics within a wider subject area, or approach questions from different angles.

These modules will usually be delivered through practical workshops, theoretical discussion and independent project-work, as appropriate.

Most French Masters programs also involve a dissertation (or similar extended research project). This will be prepared for with research training (or appropriate practical preparation) and usually forms the culmination of a postgraduate program: the opportunity to put your advanced skills and training to use!

ECTS credits for French Masters degrees

France uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and a French Masters degree is normally worth 120 ECTS credits (60 per year).

This weighting will be distributed across the individual components of your degree, including teaching units, practical projects and your dissertation.

Assessment of French Masters degrees

There are two modes of assessment for French Masters degrees:

  • Continuous assessment involves regular testing and grading of work completed as part of individual teaching units. This can be achieved through essay assignments, seminar presentations or in-class tests supervised by course tutors.
  • Final examinations involve sitting a formal test under exam conditions at the end of a course. This process is more common for subjects where grounding in a certain amount of core knowledge is essential to receive a degree.

Continuous assessment is the most common method, leading naturally towards a student's dissertation work. However, some programs also include a final examination in key concepts.

Alternative Masters-level qualifications in France

Since adopting the Bologna Process, France no longer offers traditional 'long-cycle' Masters degrees. However, some full or partial qualifications are awarded that differ slightly from the standard two-year postgraduate Masters degrees described above.

Specialised Masters

The term 'Specialised Masters' (Mastère Spécialisé) is sometimes used to refer to advanced programs awarded by Grandes Écoles. Like other Masters degrees, they tend to be four semesters (two years) long, but place a great deal of emphasis on advanced professional training and technical expertise.

You can expect a Specialised Masters to be highly intensive, with the aim of providing a greater degree of training and expertise than a more conventional French Masters program. Applications will also be more competitive.

MBA programs

The Master of Business Administration or 'MBA' was originally developed in America, but France was the first country to offer such programs in Europe.

French business schools continue to be some of the most prestigious and competitive, with institutions such as HEC Paris being particularly highly regarded.

You can read more about MBA study in France at FindAnMBA.com.

The Maîtrise

The Maîtrise is not a degree as such, but a diploma, sometimes awarded after a student completes the first 60 credits (the first half) of a Masters degree.

It pre-dates the adoption of the 'LMD' system as part of the Bologna Process, but is no longer studied as a terminal (final) degree.

Applying for a Masters in France

All holders of a Bachelors degree (or 'Licence') are eligible to apply for admission onto a Masters degree. However, each university is free to set its own criteria and makes decisions on an individual basis.

In the case of Grandes Écoles and similar elite universities, application processes can be very rigorous, with only a small number of students making it onto each course.

Admissions requirements

The following may be additional requirements for admission to a French Masters program (varying according to the requirements of individual universities and courses):

  • An interview may be required for courses with limited places or a competitive admissions process. This is particularly likely for Grandes Écoles, which will shortlist applicants across several stages of their selection process.
  • Admissions tests are also likely for competitive courses. University business schools will often require MBA applicants to submit a score from a standardised admissions test such as the GRE or GMAT. Grandes Écoles may set their own admissions examinations.
  • Academic transcripts may be requested if a university wishes to check the content of your undergraduate degree (this is more likely for international students from outside Europe) or if a university is seeking further ways to distinguish between applicants to courses with limited places. Transcripts should be properly certified by the institution that granted your existing degree.

Other requirements may include evidence of language proficiency, along with satisfactory visa and immigration arrangements for international students.

Application deadlines

The normal closing date for applications to a Masters degree at a French university is January 31st in the year you wish to commence studying. Don't worry if you haven't yet completed your undergraduate degree at this point. Universities will be happy to accept a projected result (with or without transcripts of your progress so far).

Note that application deadlines for Masters at Grandes Écoles and other elite institutions may be more variable - particularly for competitive courses with a lengthy selection process.

Language requirements

France is a major recruiter of foreign students and offers large numbers of 'international' degree programs in English (particularly at the postgraduate level).

However, French is still the main language of instruction and interaction at universities, making it highly advisable to have some French language proficiency when seeking to study abroad in the country.

Universities are free to set their own language requirements, but most will require applicants to sit a language test for any academic program that isn't in their first language.

For courses in French, the most commonly accepted tests are the DELF and the DALF, both of which are administered by the French Ministry of Education. You can learn more about these in our guide to French language tests.

Note that courses in English may also require a language test for applicants studying in a second language. There are several internationally accepted English language tests for postgraduate study.

Whatever the requirements of your institution, some knowledge of French is highly desirable if you want to be able to communicate and fully experience the French way of life. Some people in France may be linguistically competent in English and other languages, but they will appreciate if you make an effort yourself.

And don't forget that French itself is an international language, used in educational, professional and business contexts around the world. Developing French language skills is a great way to really capitalise on your postgraduate study abroad experience and reflect its value on your CV.

Most institutions will offer French language courses - why not try and take advantage of them?


The French immigration and visa system welcomes international students - just ask the 240,000 already studying in the country.

As a member of the EU, EHEA and Schengen Area, France actually has no visa requirements for students from other EU countries and maintains an open border with all of its neighbours.

Who needs a visa to study in France?

All genuine international students can study in France, but actual requirements vary according to nationality:

  • Students from the EU, EEA and Switzerland can study a Masters in France without a visa.
  • Students from other countries will normally need a VLS-TS extended-stay student visa, with residency permit. See below.

Applying for a French student visa (VLS-TS)

There are two ways to apply for a VLS-TS visa to study in France:

  • Via Campus France's CEF Procedure - Campus France is the official French portal for international students and education. If yours is one of the 33 countries in which Campus France maintains an office you should apply for your visa through their website.
  • Via a French consulate - if Campus France does not maintain an office in your country, you should contact a French consulate or embassy and apply through a process known as the Demande d’Admission Préalable (DAP). This involves submitting an application form to the French Service de coopération et d’action culturelle (SCAC).

If you are already present in France (for study or other purpose) you should seek advice from your institution or local Préfecture (the administrative office responsible for your French department).

Application requirements

Regardless of how you apply for your visa, you will normally need to provide the following documents and information:

  • Your passport.
  • Proof of university enrolment (at a recognised higher education institution). This should normally include the length of your course (including start and end dates) which will be used to determine the length of your visa.
  • Evidence of sufficient financial resources to support yourself in France. The French government recommends that students have access to at least €615 a month (the amount paid to French students by government maintenance grants.
  • Proof of valid health insurance (see below).

Depending on your course and circumstances you may also be asked for proof of French language proficiency and accommodation.

Validating your VLS-TS visa

Once you arrive in France you will need to validate your visa and receive a residence permit. This is done by sending your visa to the Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration (OFII) along with a Demande d’attestation OFII form (issued along with your visa) and copies of identity pages from your passport.

The fee for validating a VLS-TS visa is €58. However, because this is a tax, you will need to pay it in the form of a special 'fiscal stamp'. You can purchase this stamp from various newsagents in France, or from the official OFII website.

Health insurance

You'll valid health insurance to study in France as a postgraduate, but the good news is that EU and EEA citizens will already be covered if they hold a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

Other students may also be covered by existing private healthcare plans or reciprocal agreements between France and their home country. You should be able to check details with your normal healthcare provider, or with a French embassy. You can register for French student health insurance through your university.

If you don't have existing healthcare cover, you'll need to purchase some through the French social security system (Sécurité sociale). Student rates are normally a little over €200 per year (meaning the full cost of mandatory health insurance for a French Masters degree will be €400-500).

You can register for French student health insurance through your university.

A standard Sécurité sociale policy will cover you for up to 60% of any healthcare expenses you incur whilst studying in France (normally this will be refunded to you after paying for services 'upfront'.

If you wish to purchase further cover you can opt in to an additional student healthcare plan known as a Mutuelle. These policies are normally available to students under 28 and cost around €100 per year. Combined with your Sécurité sociale cover they will usually meet the full cost of any healthcare and treatment you require in France.

Some scholarships and other funding arrangements may already include full health insurance cover. See our guide to Masters funding in France for more information.

After graduation careers and opportunities with a French Masters degree

As you'd expect from the country that brought the MBA to Europe, employability and professional value are at the heart of the French higher education system.

In fact, most French universities maintain a specialist (Bureau d'Aide à l'Insertion Professionnelle (Office for Employability) ensuring that students receive appropriate careers guidance as they graduate.

Individual degree programs often include practical training and placements (often referred to as missions or thèse professionelle and students are encourage to use the summer vacation period between the two years of their Masters program to pursue additional vocational opportunities.

The focus on networking and partnerships between universities, research centres and other organisations also fosters a culture of exchange and collaboration, with 'cross-pollination' between academic programs and the needs of business or industry.

All of this means that, whatever you study as a Masters student in France, you will come away with an internationally recognised qualification and the experience and guidance necessary to put it to use.

Can you work in France after completing a Masters degree?

As a member of the EU, France normally allows citizens of all other EU countries to seek employment in the country without requiring a work permit.

If you aren't an EU national, don't worry: as a Masters graduate you're actually entitled to work in France under a separate arrangement.

This is referred to as the autorisation provisoire de séjour (APS) scheme. It entitles graduates of French Masters-level degree programs to stay in the country for one year after their course ends. During this period you can work for up to 60% of a normal full-time equivalent without a permit.

This permission can be expanded and extended if you find a job related to your degree subject that pays at least 1.5 times the French national minimum wage (approximately €1,457.52 per month in 2015).

Can you remain in France for further study after a Masters degree?

French Masters programs provide an excellent preparation for further postgraduate study at PhD level. You may also find that your course is associated with a doctoral program or research centre as part of a wider academic network.

For more information on postgraduate research in France, see the guide to French PhD study on FindAPhD.com.

Last updated - 22/10/2015

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