What’s in a name? For PhDs, everything

Are you a student, a candidate or something else? Whatever title you choose can have an impact on how academia views you and how you see yourself, argues Jenny Mak

April 14, 2019
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As PhDs, we often introduce ourselves and our research to different people. But have you thought about the specific words you use? Do you call yourself a “PhD researcher”, “PhD candidate” or “PhD student”? Being alert to these labels can impact how you conduct your PhD.

These labels can have different associations specific to the university and country you are in, especially regarding the choice of calling yourself a “candidate” or a “student”.

For instance, in the US, “PhD candidate” can signify a student who has completed all of the academic requirements for their degree, except their dissertation. Here, the term acts as a milestone.

In the Netherlands, “PhD candidate” can act as a method of differentiation, because the candidate is not considered a student but a paid staff member of the university.

Alternatively, if you are undertaking a finite duration PhD, like a three or four-year programme in the UK, the titles “PhD candidate” or “PhD student” do not tend to suggest significant differences in status, they instead become descriptive.

And it is in the UK context that we need to reflect on how this descriptive tool can affect our self-identification: are these labels supporting our growth as academic researchers or holding us back?

The words we use can reveal how we see ourselves. In turn, our perceptions of ourselves can determine our actions.

Self-identifying as a “PhD student” might embody modesty – someone who is an eternal learner. But, for some, could hinder them from realising their independence as a scholar. Especially considering that PhD scholars often have to defend their ideas before critics, such as supervisors: people who are not really teachers in the conventional sense of being people from whom we expect instruction.

Self-identifying as a “PhD candidate” can cement this independence, as “candidate” suggests being deemed suitable for a certain level of study, often determined through some form of examination in an upgrade process. But some might find “candidate” too neutral or reliant on external validation to be effective for self-actualisation.

Meanwhile, self-identifying as a “PhD researcher” pre-upgrade might seem presumptuous. But this label could induce feelings of responsibility and a determination to realise research projects, helping scholars identify actionable academic tasks to this end.

Whichever title you prefer, I believe it is your right to choose how you see yourself. Indeed, when you introduce yourself to others, you are also re-introducing you to yourself.

Whether these labels should change at an institutional level, however, is another question. Talking to my fellow PhDs in the UK, it would appear the debate here lies mainly between using the terms “student” or “researcher” – as the term “candidature” doesn’t carry as much weight in the UK. This is where things get tricky.

Being a “PhD student” at a university formalises the relationship between you and the institution (perhaps more explicitly than if you were a “PhD researcher”) in terms of university accountability to you, the student and the student’s code of conduct. Students pay tuition fees, as do local and international “PhD students” – except they also have access to scholarships and visa sponsorship. Also, the university supports “PhD students” to conduct their research, offering high quality resources and an extensive network to a global research community.

However, in issues like fair employment and anti-casualisation the term “student” might prove limiting as it implies a junior standing. The lens through which institutions view the value of PhDs’ contributions – raising the research profile of the university internationally, developing original knowledge, providing research and teaching support  – could also be diminished with this title. This, in turn, influences institutional practices, including university support for PhD professionalisation.

The varying contexts where institutions might choose to use the term “PhD researcher” instead of “PhD student” need to be part of a wider debate. It is important to recognise that these labels and their perceptions have material impact, affecting the “vitality and sustainability” of the university research environment – which carries a weighting of 15 per cent in the research excellence framework.

But interchanging “PhD researcher”, “PhD student”, and “PhD candidate” at an institutional level will not have real significance if perceptions are not adjusted accordingly.

This readjustment must also be an internal one, in the attitudes we PhDs have towards ourselves. So ask yourself, when you first meet someone, are the words you use to present yourself empowering, effective and self-actualising? If they aren’t, can you do better?

This blog is based on a post originally published for the University of Warwick’s PhD Life blog. 

Jenny Wing Haang Mak is a PhD researcher and tutor in the department of English and comparative literary studies at the University of Warwick.

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