what’s with the name doctoral ‘student’?

One of the things I’ve been trying really hard to get over is the notion of the doctoral ‘student’. This is by far the most common way to refer to people doing a PhD, and it’s pretty hard not to use the ‘s’ word when it’s all around you. I think of myself as a recovering ‘s’ word user. I lapse occasionally, but I’m trying hard not to.

I want to use the term doctoral researcher instead – or dr for short. So, dr – not yet Dr but on the way. Just insert title (case) and the transition is complete.

Now, there are good reasons why the ‘s’ word persists. There is a fee for doctoral study, and yes, doctoral researchers are enrolled at a university. So this makes them students, just like any other students, right?

Well yes. But on the other hand…

One reason I dislike the term doctoral ‘student’ is that it downplays the level and quality of thought, knowledge and work that is required to achieve the Dr. Apart from mandatory methods training, there is no set doctoral syllabus. While there is lots of learning, and continuous formative assessment, a thesis is not an assignment – it is a substantive piece of independent research judged by senior peers. While there has been guidance and coaching from supervisors, the doctoral researcher has been required to make up their own mind about any number of issues, including, quite often in the arts and social sciences, the choice of topic.

And, by and large, most doctoral research is not judged as ‘student’ work. Doctoral research is generally publishable. This publication frequently happens during the period of candidature, and sometimes actually IS the PhD, as in the case of PhD by publication. So the output of doctoral research – papers and sometimes books – stands in the field equivalent in status to that of any other research and it is judged by the field using the same criteria as is applied to any other publication.

Furthermore, doctoral research is now generally considered to be part of the overall research effort of a university. In many countries, including the UK, universities count – and financially benefit from – the number of doctoral researchers they have, the number that complete, and the publications done by doctoral researchers. And doctoral researcher papers, those co-written with supervisors, lab teams or singled authored, add to institutional citation figures and thus to league tables. So while doctoral researchers might be paying fees, they also help to generate income for the institution they are attending. Just like staff researchers. Maybe the idea of doctoral researchers, drs, is not quite as fanciful as it first appears.

However, I most dislike the term ‘student’ because it is about not being there yet. The notion of ‘student’ constructs a binary between supervisor and supervisee that magically disappears when the thesis is successful in examination. This is not really the case – we supervisors all say that while the supervisor knows a lot at the start of the doctoral research process, it is the doctoral researcher who is the expert in the topic at the end. It’s been a long process of growing from dr to Dr.

It is actually pretty hard to successfully write the thesis with the required amount of authority if the writer does not already sound like a researcher. It is not easy to get through a viva if the researcher does not act and talk like a researcher with considerable command of the literature, methodology, methods, results and contribution. The doctoral candidate is already a real researcher before they get to examination.

I would like to see this acknowledged more and thinking about a dr being a process of getting to Dr is one way to do this.

And I suspect that there is an important identity issue attached to being called either a student or a researcher, but I haven’t investigated this in any detail. I just know from conversations I have with the generally already professionally experienced drs I work with that they find the notion of ‘student’ pretty problematic. Going from teacher, lawyer, company director to doctoral student is somehow more difficult than going from teacher, lawyer, company director to doctoral researcher…

What do you think? Are you happy with doctoral ‘student’ or does doctoral researcher have a better ring, and if so why?

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in authority in writing, doctoral research, identity, student or researcher and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to what’s with the name doctoral ‘student’?

  1. Kip Jones says:

    I try to use the term, ‘PhD or Doctoral Candidate’ when I can, but I still slip into ‘student’ on occasion.

  2. dguzys says:

    I like to be referred to a doctoral scholar personally.

  3. Felicity says:

    I use term ‘doctoral candidate’ partly because of the identity work involved, going from being senior clinician to ‘student’. This term is increasingly used at my university (in NZ). At a Canadian conference, I noticed many students placed PhD(c) after their name to signify candidature.

  4. Academic Skills, Melbourne says:

    I too slip too often into the s word, but I agree, doctoral candidates or (as we now officially call them at the Universiry of Melbourne) graduate researchers are NOT students–for exactly the reasons you mention. I like the ideal of being a dr who becomes a Dr–it might encourage candidates to understand themselves as nearly-peers, which is what they are (and in the last 6 months, they are often already peers who just haven’t finished the thesis).

  5. Subhi says:

    I used to have “PhD student” on my Linkedin profile and email signature. I think it was internalised and I didn’t even think much about it until a friend of mine who was finishing his PhD in business and strategy pointed out that I should use “doctoral researcher” as it conveys a sense of seriousness and purposusefulness. Another reason would be to start presenting one’s self to future employers in a stronger way, especially at conferences, workshops or seminars.

    I contacted several gatekeepers of educational instittions both in the UK and outside to get access for my PhD. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I was not. Despite that, I still think since I started pitching myself as a ‘researcher’ rather than ‘student’, people have started taking me more seriously.

  6. Robin Hadley says:

    Hi Pat.
    Doctoral candidate is a term that has made its way across from the USA. This term had been adopted to cover the issues you identify in your post. However, from my own perspective as a ‘mature’ PhD candidate there is something comforting in the term ‘student.’ Possibly something around the fact that, although I may have specialised knowledge, both the research and I are still a work in progress. Perhaps there is also some comfort in belonging to the tribe of ‘student’ rather than in the ‘no person’s land’ between ‘student’ and ‘Dr.’ Also I qualify for a railcard and discounts at venues as a student!

    • Subhi says:

      @ my university, it’s only the name of the student -without titles- printed on the id card, but you can ask the security to print you a new card with ‘research student’ on it so that you can get discounts on campus!

  7. Paul Spencer says:

    As usual Pat, you’ve got right to the the heart of the issue. I think it is about identity. For far too long UK institutions treat doctoral researchers as staff when it suits them and as students when it doesn’t. Things are slowly evolving, in part because of the pressure exerted by how doctoral research is conducted elsewhere in Europe and beyond. The pace of change toward professionalising doctoral research is agonisingly slow.

    At UWE we have now started to issue ID cards with “PG Researcher” on them (because you can only have 11 characters in the ‘category’.. grrr) yet still the grey area of status crops up in all sorts of different contexts.

    There’s lots more to do on this to change the perception of doctoral researchers being merely postgraduate students.

  8. meg says:

    Doctoral researcher every time! That’s what I do: research.

  9. I secretly like the term “apprentice researcher”. I think that describes us more accurately than “students” (which I wrote about here http://ksoanesresearch.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/whats-the-point-of-a-phd/). Like wizards … but for research… I don’t think I could bring myself to put it on a business card though!

  10. Natalia says:

    I use the term ‘doctoral candidate’ as it gives some acknowledgment to the esteemed nature of the degree. However, being a PhD candidate over a few years – and in financial hardship – I dont mind being a full-time student when it comes to concessions. I tend to think that even part-time PhD’s are actually full-time, especially those with children, and low income.

  11. Just Frances says:

    It’s a hard one. At nearly 40 years old and with more than a dozen years’ professional work in addition to my bachelors and masters degrees, I feel that “student” is a bit of an understatement of my abilities. Added to that, I come from a working class background where there is very little understanding of higher education – or in some cases, the need for it. And that means that my family and friends think of me as an immature, unaccomplished, lazy dreamer with no plans to ever really work. They think that I spend my days doing nothing because I am “just a student”. Because I am a “student”, some people think I don’t work; that my days are spent in the lap of luxury. When I explain that a PhD is a full time JOB, I am mocked and laughed at by some people.

    However, I am still learning. I am still learning the process of being a researcher. I rely on my supervisors (my teachers!) to guide me through the process. Yes, at some point I will be the expert on the TOPIC, but they will be there as the experts on the PROCESS. So yes, I am a student.

    Plus that, as someone else mentioned, as a student I get discounts and savings on all sorts of stuff. And as a “starving PhD student”, that’s a great thing!

  12. Julie Allan says:

    Hi, like some others who have responded, I am a mature student/candidate/researcher engaged in an academic doctorate. I am wondering to what extent that differs from undertaking a professional doctorate (DPsych it would be, in my case). I don’t think I’d be called student then, and I would probably be construed by others as being properly busy rather than improperly lax in (not) attending to matters of business and home.

    I’m currently of the view that Dr-in-progress is a matter of praxis or professional practice, and this notion is incorporated into my research, which concerns metacognition in adult learners (especially Drs-in-progess). There are implications for supervision, too, I think. It’s interesting to think about the notion of lifelong learning – I’ve been studious and a student of others while following a couple of different professions; as they were not related to academic work I was not called a student. I’m interested by Paul Spencer’s allusion in his comment to a changing environment and a need for professionalism. And I’m mindful of Nicolas Maxwell’s most recent call for what he terms an academic revolution (How Universities Can Create a Wiser World). His ‘what’s it all for?’ challenge is a question that, depending on its answer, influences the names of tasks and roles, and how they are seen. It’s a process that goes well beyond the walls of academic institutions. Good to know it hasn’t hit the walls from the outside and stopped there.

  13. In Canada, the process is usually to enter a PhD program as a student. This title changes after finishing coursework, defending comprehensive exams, and defending a thesis proposal. After accomplishing these tasks (ideally taking about 2.5 years) your title shifts to PhD candidate. The new status indicates that the ‘student’ tasks have been finishes and that you are now ready to finish the hardest, and most serious work, involved in receiving the full title.

  14. Rusty says:

    I am a doctoral student and I have the tuition receipts to prove it. However, I do prefer doctoral candidate. I have a career in addition to my dissertation writing, so in a sense researcher is only part my identity.

  15. Jay Cee says:

    Absolutely agree. I was a professional for five years before I went back to get a PhD, and it’s a little weird to be treated similarly to undergrads by university staff sometimes. Plus degrees aren’t always equivalent between countries, so PhDs dont always represent the same amount of work everywhere.

  16. This is very interesting! I do prefer ‘doctoral candidate’, but ‘student’ does sometimes slip in. I don’t have massive issues with being termed (or, indeed, terming myself) a ‘student’, but I think that the independent working aspect isn’t reflected by students.

    PhD-ers (off the hook there?) occupy a weird middle-ground between staff and student. I think age definitely comes into it. I entered my PhD programme at the youngest I could possibly be after completing my Masters, and I do sometimes sense my relative youth as a bit of a ‘hey, you’re a student’ magnet. Just Frances says above about the understatement present in this, and I do agree. Sometimes it is a bit of a ‘putting someone in a place’ kinda thing.

    Great article & interesting comments!

  17. Reblogged this on shakespearescholarinprogress and commented:
    Interesting post on a provocative topic. What do other people think?

  18. Ahh Pat, you put it so well. I’m a PhD candidate (like that phrase, I’ll be keeping it), yet if I describe myself as a PhD student to anyone outside of academia they automatically assume it’s like being an undergrad because that’s generally what they’re likely to have some experience of. But as we all know, it’s nothing like that! It’s full time work doing independent research, that as you rightly point out, counts towards the University’s research programme. I’m going to use the title Doctoral Researcher on my CV when it comes to leaving academia at the end of this – I was reading a selection of careers posts talking about how to frame your identity when moving into the job market.

    The fact that universities count us as students lets them ignore us when it suits them and means we don’t get the recognition we deserve. Particularly in large science research groups, the PI/Professor may not have done any bench work in 30 years and the only reason they have anything to present at conferences is because of us. They need the student turn-over to keep their labs running but there’s little incentive for the University and system to create the jobs they need to stay on after the PhD, let alone anything resembling middle management posts so that the seasoned post-docs can progress in their careers.

    Oh and Robin and Hadley, wouldn’t it be nice if they paid out enough in stipend packages that we didn’t need student discounts? But since that’s never going to happen, I’m quite happy having a discount rail card and no council tax bill!

  19. M-H says:

    I had to make a decision about the use of the ‘s’ word when I wrote my thesis about the experience of doing a PhD. I went with ‘PhD student’, ‘research student’ or ‘HDR student’ – the usual term in Australia (HDR standing for Higher Degree by Research) for several reasons. The main one is the you are a student: you are enrolled, and should (at least) have all the rights and responsibilities of an enrolled student in the eyes of the institution. As Paul points out above, students are betwixt and between categories (which was the point of my PhD!), but I think it’s helpful to treat them as students administratively, and as researchers in terms of what they are actually doing. I’m not sure if this makes sense, so I’ll use an example. Say you’re enrolled in a PhD, and you feel that your supervisor is not listening to your concerns about the way your work is going – you are being brushed aside. As a fellow researcher, you would confront them as equals; as a PhD student you are not in an equal-power relationship with your supervisor, no matter what you are called. In this situation your power comes from being a student and having avenues of redress, not as a researcher, and you can call in a ‘higher power’ – a HOD, or Student Dean, or other person who will be administratively concerned by your lack of progress. This might not be available to you as a fellow researcher.

    I think this is much more than a semantic point, and I’m interested to read all the views. To me, Research Student is the title that carries both the student status and the researcher status that are the necessary realities of the life of a person doing a PhD.

    • Julie Allan says:

      M-H and anybody else who has written about, or is writing about, their experience of doctoral research as part of their research, I’d enormously welcome being in touch. Likely I shall be doing this as my research is about metacognition in adult learning/ doctoral candidacy. Do please say hello at jsa1@sir.ac.uk. Thanks. Julie.

    • Julie Allan says:

      Corrected email address: M-H and anybody else who has written about, or is writing about, their experience of doctoral research as part of their research, I’d enormously welcome being in touch. Likely I shall be doing this as my research is about metacognition in adult learning/ doctoral candidacy. Do please say hello at jsa1@stir.ac.uk. Thanks. Julie.

  20. Brian says:

    Weirdly enough I had this dilemma last year when having cards printed to take to a conference last year. I went with student as I have not done my candidature seminar. I also like student as it has a degree of humility and a reminder that we are all still learning.

  21. pat thomson says:

    Interesting discussion… I wonder if it makes a difference who is naming and for what purpose? I write as a supervisor of course, and I think it could be an issue about whether I think of the people I work with as researchers or students, and/or how I think of the transitioning.

  22. In Italian, a doctoral “whatever” is called a “dottorando” – it is a gerund which captures the idea of a ‘process’ but functions as a noun (so something finite but in transition?). Not sure how we could nominalise that process in English ….

  23. I agree with ksoanesresearch’s comment — I see it as an apprenticeship. I would not make it too independent, because there is a strong need for guidance in my view. For example, getting into the community, how to ask the right questions, stop mistakes in the planning phase before they become costly in time, effort, and money (see http://www.organizingcreativity.com/2012/09/workshop-scientific-work-positions-advisers/ ). So “apprentice researcher” or “apprentice scientist” would be nice, perhaps even “doctoral apprentice”. It would be different enough from student.

  24. ailsa haxell says:

    I enjoyed the freedom that ‘student’ encompassed. it was liberating, i was allowed ignorance, liminal learning experiences, of being allowed to make mistakes which i found essential to progress. But maybe i also liked it so much because i already have tenure, I was already an academic in one sense having worked in a polytechnic for a good number of years before enrolling in a doctorate. I had the privilege of being a student without negative connotation as I was ‘lucky’ to have a supervisor who always treated me with respect: as a colleague in a learning scenario, and never as inferior.
    Sadly i think ‘luck’ is a big part of this process.
    The process taught me so much about supervision and the positive role modelling is something i hope to carry forward.
    I do not mean to imply it is a one way relationship at all. I am sure there were things i also did that made for a good working relationship. (However, this did not include obedience. It was more about sustaining contact and asking for help when needed. At the same time my supervisor would also take responsibility for sustaining contact and checking for clarification). A mutuality of respect is perhaps the best way to describe it.

  25. After 10 years as a research associate then fellow, I love being a student, because of the emphasis on learning and finding stuff out,
    compared to research employment’s emphasis on money -applying for funding and shoehorning your research into a funded project/ framework and generally spending half your time haggling

  26. Loren says:

    I definitely prefer the term doctoral researcher. I think it shows that doctoral researchers are valued and that their research is valued. I am aware that I am still learning and require guidance but doctoral researchers (including myself) are undertaking a lot of activities equivalent to that of experienced academics including producing independent research. I was recently recommended by an academic in my department to call myself a voluntary research assistant or a PhD student (on the project info sheet) when calloborating on some additional research. I wasn’t allowed to be a ‘researcher’. This wasn’t particulaly encouraging.

  27. Pingback: How do you want to be known? | SASS PhD Researchers Society

  28. Is there a sense in which there are different underlying notions, expectations, understandings of ‘responsibility’ involved in whether we see ourselves as ‘students’ or ‘researchers’? When I think of myself as a ‘student’, I somehow feel I have an excuse to get things wrong or to not push the boundaries of what I am studying, or at least not be that accountable if i misunderstand what i am reading; but when I think of myself as a ‘researcher’, I feel more exposed to scrutiny and feel much more accountable for what I say. Maybe this is symptomatic of the interim nature of being a phd-er.

  29. kargraham says:

    I’ve always thought “alternative” titles like doctoral candidate were pretentious and misguided attempts to inflate the egos of the individuals involved. I do not have any of the responsibilities of a member of staff at my University – nor should I have – and therefore am perfectly described as a student. I think that this is a lot of pearl clutching about being labelled a student, something that can be seen in society at large as a negative. I think changing the term we use is pandering to this notion rather than challenging it.

    • ablogbyerica says:

      However, I do – I teach as a requirement of my doctoral funding and am not considered a staff member by the university. And this might be part of the complications of having this fascinating conversation over so many countries and institutions. In some countries doctoral students, excuse me, researchers are staff. In my department because of different funding streams you can have two doctoral researchers teaching but one is paid as a sessional staff member, and one is not. It all gets very complicated – but I think I’ll be going with doctoral researcher in future. Thanks Pat.

  30. nickhopwood says:

    Reblogged this on Nick Hopwood and commented:
    So what’s in a name? This great blog from the ever-reliable Pat Thomson sparked lots of comments – in the blogosphere and on twitter!

  31. Cerridwen says:

    I started out referring to myself as a “doctoral candidate”, both because I had the MA (which was when I was a “graduate student”) and because as a slightly older individual who already had a decade of classroom experience “student” didn’t seem to fit my state of being. I was told by several individuals that I was not a “doctoral candidate” until I had successfully passed comps and become ABD — in other words, formally advanced to candidacy. I think some of this is just basic, old-fashioned academic hierarchy being enforced, but their explanation did make sense in that light, so back to “doctoral student” it is — at least, until next fall. but I agree that “doctoral student” seems problematic for all of the reasons delineated in this excellent post.

  32. Barbara says:

    I would also agree that “doctoral student” is problematic, as I have eight years of teaching experience at the university level. Working at an educational institution you begin to notice the hiearchy and who pays attention to it and who is more about you as a person and life long learning. I discovered early in this learning process that I am fortunate to have an adviser who is interested in the candidate and treats each of her “students” as researchers. I will be defending my Comps this spring and will continue to reflect on this query. I consider myself fortunate to be where I am in the process at this point in time. Thanks for the thoughtful and timely topic.

  33. StepsInShadows says:

    My uni uses the “phD student” construction. How dare you make it sink in that I’m doing Doctoral work? :) That makes it feel even heavier than it already is, as if it deserves to be taken seriously from the start, by all parties involved in forming this dr of anthropology into a Dr. of Anthropology, including myself. Being a ‘student’ means… actually yeah, I see your point.

  34. Ian Sharman says:

    I agree that the terminology is more than semantics, and reaches to identity. But I fail to see the inherent insult/ dissonance in being referred to as a student – unless the person using it intends it as an insult (in which case – if you care – it is their opinion of you that is problematic rather than the term ‘student’). Surely part of our PhD process is about being able to deal with complexity and liminality – such as multiple identities that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I am older and have returned to study after other jobs and life experiences. That is not incompatible, though, with my using the term ‘PhD Student’ to describe myself. It seems to me that much of what has been said has an essence of arguing that you are “Number 2″ rather than “Number 6″ instead of adopting the stance: “I am not a number”. But then what would I know: I’m just a PhD student.

  35. Pingback: the accidental technologist » Blog Archive » Metaphors, damned metaphors, and extended metaphors

  36. When I was working part-time and doing my PhD fieldwork part-time, I described myself as a ‘doctoral researcher’ to colleagues.

    Today, I undertake some work with the Association of Engineering Doctorates, and I know that their preferred term is “Research Engineer”. This seems to be the preferred term for most EngD candidates, and is often included on their business cards – they spend 75% of their time working with an industry sponsor, after all – highlighting that they have a particular role to play (and usually a particular problem to solve, or product or service to develop).

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