Recently, I received an application that was asking for a postdoctoral research assistant.
I thought, “That’s odd. Normally, we would talk about a ‘postdoc fellow’.”
Then I thought about all the requests that I’d fielded lately for funding research assistants.
My first question when working out the budget is: “Do you want someone who has a PhD already?”
If they have a PhD already, then doesn’t that, by definition, make them postdoctoral?
What exactly is the difference between:
- Research assistance;
- Research associate;
- Research fellow;
- Research assistant?
It is important to know, as they have very different budget implications.
‘Research assistance’ isn’t a term that I see much anymore. I have a pretty clear idea of what I think research assistance means.
Research assistance: a small pool of money for general help to further the aims of the project.
Generally it is not big enough to list as a part-time salary, so it is a pretty small amount of money. It is designed to give the researcher some flexibility. You might use research assistance to hire someone for a day or two to help set up a conference, for example.
I actively discourage people from applying for research assistance because it is usually so vague that it undercuts the precision of the rest of the application. It is hard to describe precisely and justify well. It tends to look like lazy planning (or lack of planning). As a result, it becomes so ill-defined that funding agencies invariably cut it.
This is another term that I feel like I have a pretty good feeling for.
Research associate: someone who has been brought into the project to provide specific, high level expertise.
A research associate is often a mid-career researcher or even a senior researcher who can ‘plug a hole’ in a research team. It might be someone with specific methodological expertise, such as quantitative research methods or statistical expertise. It might be someone who has expertise in a particular topic related to the research. They might have specialised expertise with respect to a specific country, region or demographic group.
The question is, if they are so good, why aren’t you including them as a research leader in the team? Sometimes this is quite clear: you only need their expertise for a limited amount of time or a specific part of the project. Sometimes they are not part of the academic system, so it may not be appropriate to include them on the ‘front page’. Other times it isn’t so clear.
It needs to be clear because a full-time research associate will constitute a large chunk of your budget. This person will probably be a mid-career researcher, an associate professor or occasionally even a professor. They don’t come cheap.
On the other hand, their CV and their experience should speak for themselves, so it should be relatively easy to argue that they will bring significant intellectual assets to the project. If they aren’t doing that, then maybe they aren’t a research associate.
Note that some people abbreviate ‘research associate’ to RA. Other people abbreviate ‘research assistant’ to RA. This is completely and utterly confusing. The simple solution is to not abbreviate anything. Spell it out. Be precise.
Most often, I encounter the title ‘research fellow’ embedded within ‘postdoctoral research fellow’. This second term is relatively easy to define.
Postdoctoral research fellow: Newly minted PhD (early career researcher) employed to undertake full-time research on a specific project.
By extension, a research fellow is
Research fellow: Researcher employed to undertake full-time research on a specific project.
That’s pretty straight-forward. If you are budgeting for a postdoctoral research fellow, you are probably planning to employ someone within five years of finishing their PhD. Often it will be someone who has literally just finished their PhD, as that is a time when people are looking for jobs.
You need someone with the level of thinking and background expertise that comes from doing a PhD. You will be employing them to do research on the project and nothing else.
If you are budgeting for some other level of research fellow, then the same general rules apply. You need the level of expertise and thinking that comes with the indicated level of fellow. You are asking them to spend all the time (or all the time that you are paying for, if it is a part-time position) on research related to the project.
When you budget for a postdoctoral research fellow, you are looking for someone who will actively contribute to the project. They might take responsibility for a particular aspect of the project. They are involved decision-making related and are contributing to outputs like journal articles. You are looking for someone who is a fellow, as in ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’, or ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ (or perhaps ‘fellow-traveler’).
If the research fellow is senior enough, the question can arise if this person should be listed as a research associate. This is where the definitions can get fuzzy.
Definitions definitely get fuzzy when ‘research assistant’ is used as a catch-all term to describe anyone who is not a research leader. By eliminating the categories above, we can begin to see how a research assistant might be defined.
Research assistant: Someone who isn’t a research leader, often doesn’t have a PhD (but might), but still has skills that will be useful for the project.
My problem with this definition is that it is a definition by negation. It draws a circle around the edge of what a ‘research assistant’ is, but doesn’t really fill in the center. Also, there is that pesky business of whether a research assistant should have a PhD or not. Sometimes, you need someone who has the necessary research skills. Other times, you don’t.
When you budget for a research assistant, you are looking for someone to assist, someone who will do the work under your direction. They might need a PhD to do that work, but they aren’t expected to develop methodology, take an active lead, or necessarily contribute to research papers. They might – good research assistants can do all these things. However, that is not their primary role. Their primary role is to assist.
In the end, for me, the difference between a postdoctoral research fellow and a research assistant with a PhD comes down to the role that they are going to take in the project. If you are looking for an assistant, call them an assistant. If you are looking for more, consider a fellow.
This is really me just thinking out loud – I’m happy to take advice on how others think about these terms. What have I missed? Are there funding agencies that provide formal definitions for some of these terms?