Just don't call me a post-doc

Sarah Davies (7 October 2009)

I’m a little bit obsessed with the fact that I appear to look younger than I am. After spending my teenage years successfully getting served alcohol, retribution has caught up with me: in my thirtieth year, I get IDed buying wine at the supermarket and mistaken for an undergrad on campus.

Now, I know I should be flattered. I seem to have hit 18 on my thirteenth birthday and not aged since. But it does get a little bit wearing – and maybe this ties in to another obsession of mine.

I really don’t like being called a post-doc.

If asked I tell people I’m a researcher – it’s what I do, after all. But often the label gets applied to me whether I like it or not: oh, they say, a post-doc researcher. It’s taken me some thinking to work out just why it bugs me so much.

I find it patronising. The assumption is that you’re post something – your PhD – but very much pre something else – presumably the giddy heights of a lectureship. It places you halfway up a scale which everyone is assumed to be eager to ascend. You’re better than a student, but not as good as ‘real’ academic staff.

But this just isn’t my experience. Why shouldn’t research be a career, rather than something you do until you get a permanant contract and are faced with the dubious joys of teaching? Why should it be situated ‘post’ one thing and ‘pre’ another?

I’m quite prepared to admit I may be being over-sensitive here. I’d be interested in what other people think: is the term annoying, or just descriptive?

In the meantime, though, just call me a researcher. And, if I’ve left my ID at home, buy me a drink.


When I contact the insurance company to renew my car insurance I always take pains to record myself as a 'scientific researcher'

Angela Mortier
In the giddy world of academic jargon, it's hard to imagine everybody being happy with a single solution to the job-title problem. However, when I contact the insurance company to renew my car insurance I always take pains to record myself as a 'scientific researcher' to reduce my premiums :) To me, getting credit for what you do is more important than what you are called.

Richard Mead
Post-Doc and Proud (do you think a T-Shirt would sell?) Apparently we are all 'Career Development Fellows' now anyway (see other thread) so this article is of historic interest only. ;) For what its worth I describe myself as 'Research Scientist' also when speaking to the uninitiated.

Elizabeth Dodson
I don't think I have ever been referred to as a Post-Doc. I'm not sure whether that should make me happy or sad lol.

Dave Filipovic-Carter
I'm really keen to see this thread unfold. Just about every training session I lead for non-PhD, non-lecturer, research staff begins with the 'job title discussion'. It is a sad indictment of the lot of most researchers that the debate needs to occur. It always leads me to feel that there is an institutionalised (Yikes - US English spell-checker...) lack of value/respect for the positions, irrespective of individuals. And as for CDFs - presumably just another fadish name that will slowly fade..?

Sarah Davies
I have to say 'CDF' is new to me. I'm starting to wonder whether this is to a degree institution/discipline specific? I'm a social scientist, and the 'post-doc' position - ie a project researcher on a fixed term contract - doesn't seem to be such a standard career path as it is in natural science. My guess is that in the arts, it's more unusual again. Plus institutions will, I guess, try and impose some homogeneity across particular job titles - at mine we have 'research associates' (who generally have a PhD) and 'research fellows' (who are not neccessarily driven by project work). It's a minefield...

Elizabeth Dodson
I work at a research institute within a university and a large proportion of the research team do not have PhDs. For my position, although a PhD was desirable, it was not essential - therefore it has never been referred to as a post-doc. We do a lot of field work, and experience is valued very highly, therefore some of the highest positions are held by people without doctorates. I went to a talk recently which was meant to be focused on building a research community, but the speaker focused entirely on post-docs. Maybe this is just semantics, but it felt like researchers without PhDs were being unfairly excluded. We also use "research associate" and "research fellow", but I am very aware that the definition of these roles varies between institutions (particularly research fellow - which can denote a very senior role, or a fairly junior one). We also use "research assistant". I too had never heard of CDFs before this thread! It would perhaps be useful to see more consistency in the use of titles across different institutions...?

This is why we named this a 'research staff blog' rather than a 'postdoc blog'

Tennie Videler
This is why we named this a 'research staff blog' rather than a 'postdoc blog'. Coming from a physical science background the two terms seemed pretty synonomous but I am now aware that they really are not! Again, terminology might be discipline specific, but I was under the impression that a career development fellow was a particular type of fellowship one might get from research councilsand other funding bodies?


I believe the focus should be less on the job-title and more on the prospects of the job for future career development

Matthew Salois
I too have only heard the term CDF only recently and that was in regards to a specific fellowship from the MRC (like Tennie stated). I am in the social sciences (economics to be specific) and the term post-doc is not quite the "dirty" word that it seems to be in the physical sciences. Increasingly, with a larger number of PhD graduates chasing fewer available university positions, the post-doc has become a rather comment career stop in economics. However, there is the expectation that you do not remain a post-doc any more than a few years. Of course, a permanent tenure-track position (e.g. lecturer or assistant professor) is the more attractive job no matter what your scientific discipline. Still, I believe the focus should be less on the job-title and more on the prospects of the job for future career development. I would much prefer to be a post-doc for a university with a great reputation in teaching and research than a lecturer or assistant professor with a university that only a so-so reputation.

Elizabeth Dodson
But this goes back to what I believe was one of the central themes of Sarah's post - that some people aspire to make a career out of research and it can be very frustrating when it is so often assumed to be a stop-gap. Although the structured career progression and job security of a lectureship is appealing, this is an entirely different job needing a very different skill set. There are of course many people who both teach and do research well. There are also some exceptional researchers who have no aptitude for teaching, and some exceptional teachers who have no aptitude for research. I find it a strange assumption that having a good publication record would make a person good at engaging with students. It is sad therefore that many researchers see lectureships as the only way get security and career development even if they have no personal aspiration to teach...

George Whale
I agree. I like to refer to myself as a professional researcher. I have no interest in becoming a lecturer because I'm not very good at it. I do not take kindly to being patronised by academics.

George Whale
@Elizabeth Dodson: 'We also use "research associate" and "research fellow", but I am very aware that the definition of these roles varies between institutions (particularly research fellow - which can denote a very senior role, or a fairly junior one). We also use "research assistant".' I feel strongly that job titles need to be standardized if we are serious about providing meaningful career paths for contract researchers. In academia, everybody understands Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Principal Lecturer and the differences between them, so why not a similar hierarchy of Research Assistant, Research Fellow and Principal Researcher, with corresponding levels of experience/qualification, pay, responsibility and seniority, consistent across institutions? During my job hunting of the past few years, I have come across a plethora of titles for junior to mid-range research positions, including Junior Researcher, Senior Researcher, Postdoctoral Researcher, Research Officer, Research Associate and Research Fellow. Only by looking at the salaries do you get an idea of what they really are, and of course even that method is unreliable. My favourite job title so far was for a bog-standard print technician post at a well-known university, described in the advert as Print Research Laboratory Manager. I kid you not.

Martin Whittle
The longer you stay in Universities as a researcher and the further behind you leave that thesis that caused so much grief the more you will see post-doc as patronising. It s a job title that does not recognise experience and seems to be having a resurgence to me. Or maybe it depends on department. I have worked in several (taking pay-cuts back down the scale on each move!) and I think that the term has been used more in engineering and science than it was in information studies (where RA was used more). New doctorates are, of course, quite pelase to be called "post"; which is how it sticks.

Matthew Salois
Hi Martin, yes I agree the title can sound patronising at times. Maybe that's why Sarah and others just prefer to be called "researcher". It is afterall what we do, well most of the time anyway! As Sarah has also explained, this is sometimes not the case! (See her recent post: http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/156431-273041/Why-researchers-cant-research.html

Simon Smith
This got me wondering whether the term 'post-doc' is peculiar to the English language, as researchers don't go by this name in the few other languages I know. In French the term 'chercheur' is the generic term used, and in fact the French wikipedia entry on researchers seems bemused about the English term post-doc, observing (with impeccable logic) that: "le qualificatif étant peu pertinent car tout poste de chercheur, hors doctorant, peut être évidemment qualifié de « post-doctoral »" (loosely translated, 'what a meaningless term, since every research post up to professor could evidently be called a 'post-doc'!') http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chercheur

Matthew Salois
Nice job on the translation, Simon! How many languages do you speak, by the way? You've peaked my interest!!!

Sarah Davies
Cultural differences are certainly key on this - Matthew and I have already had some exchanges about the fact that in the US, the 'post-doc' is the only position between the PhD and a faculty post (so if you say you're a 'researcher', people get confused). Whereas I've never heard my colleagues in continental Europe use the term...

Simon Smith
Yes, there are strong cultural differences, even within Europe. In Czech and Slovak (the other languages I speak fluently, Matthew) people chuckle sometimes if I (a social scientist) describe myself as a researcher (výzkumník), because that's really a term associated with lab research. A social scientist would normally give their professional field if asked what they do. But there's certainly no equivalent of the term post-doc either!