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Researchers here and elsewhere: Meeting Mexico / Slovakia

Karen Miranda et Michal Valko ©Inria

Interview with Karen Miranda and Michal Valko, two young researchers in France. Each presents its course and viewpoints on multicultural research.

Please could you tell us about yourself, and why you chose Inria?

Karen Miranda: I obtained my masters degree in Science and Information Technologies from the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) in Mexico City. I am currently working on my PhD thesis at Inria entitled “Self-deployment algorithms for substitution networks”. I am in the Fun research team. I came to Inria thanks to recommendations by my professors in Mexico, where Inria is very famous, and feel lucky to be doing my research here.

Michal Valko: I finished my master's degree in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 2005 and then went to Lisbon in Portugal for a research stay. Afterwards, I did my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, USA, and during my studies I interned at Intel Research and Intel labs in California. I have been at Inria since September 2011, first as a post-doc and now as a researcher. I came to Inria because the SequeL project team, which I am part of, is one of best machine learning labs in the world. Moreover my thesis research was related since it was on sequential learning with graphs.

How is research in your country different from that in France?

KM: In Mexico, most research is carried out in universities and only a little in industry labs. There is no real equivalent of Inria there. In France, research appears to be of a more fundamental nature in general, and we have more freedom to investigate a wider range of subjects. There is also a greater synergy between industry and universities. Research foundations do exist in Mexico, but in certain fields only - for example, in the logic part of computer science.
Researchers in Mexico are paid by the government and basic salaries are not so good. A post-doc is generally hired for a two-year contract and full professors are tenured, which is more like the situation in the USA. Post-docs have to apply for funding and while the overall process appears to be the same as that in France, in Mexico it seems to be more difficult.
There are not many women in IT research in Mexico, but this is a general problem worldwide. The time it takes to complete higher studies is a limiting factor – by the time we finish our PhDs, we are nearly 30 years old and most of us would like to start a family at this time and have to reduce our work pace.

MV: The structure of research in France and Slovakia is very similar, but in France, research itself is given much more importance. Public research organisations (such as the CNRS), research agencies (like the ANR) and industrial labs receive much more funding here and there.

Scientists in Slovakia are often so underpaid that they need to take side jobs to make ends meet. Many good researchers are therefore forced to leave science altogether, find work in industry or go abroad. A professor in Slovakia, for example, earns less than a half that of a software engineer. However, PhD students are relatively well paid compared to neighbouring countries – in Slovakia they earn around €600/month, compared to just €200 in the Czech Republic. That said, funds are limited in Slovakia. Tenure posts do not really exist, but a university position is pretty safe.
In France, a researcher can obtain a tenured position much earlier in his or her career compared to many other countries. In the USA, tenured jobs exist mostly at universities and are very competitive.Compared to the USA, there are cultural differences in how research and researchers are evaluated, for example, the principal investigator assumes most of the responsibility, whereas in Europe, team work appears to be much more important.
Concerning gender equality - it is no secret that women are underrepresented in our research field. However, I did not encounter any inequality when it came to opportunities (either in France, Portugal, the USA, or Slovakia).


What advice would you give to young researchers wishing to come to France?  Did you encounter any good/bad surprises when it came to research, the centre, and administration?


KM: I would say that you really have to learn French to be closer to the culture and the French people – even though we are an international team at Inria and spend most of our day working in English. The biggest shock for me was the language, but we are fortunate in that Inria pays for our French lessons.

MV: We really work as a team here, are very well supported in our research. We have the freedom to study the subjects we find most interesting/important. If you like that, then Inria and France are very attractive.
To answer your question about negative experience, the biggest let down for me, was in the domain of administration and customer services. In the USA, customer satisfaction is crucial but in France, people often pass the buck when it comes to taking responsibility.