Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

2018-11-10 17.40.18

Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller thesis), or submit an existing set of publications for a PhD by Means of Published Works (“PhD by Publication”).  There are also a couple of Professional Doctorates (“Prof Docs”): Doctor of Professional Practice in Health and Social Care (D Prof Prac) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).  Other subject areas are looking at developing these types of degrees, for example in Education.

Some of the “PhD students” who are registered on these degrees fit the mould of the relatively young academic, fresh from a first degree or a Master’s programme.  But many are older, especially on the Prof Docs (which attracts senior staff from business or the public sector), or might be members of staff at the university who teach and do research in areas where PhDs were not traditionally awarded.  And then there are those who are studying for an MPhil, also a Level 8 research degree.

The University of Northampton is not alone in this regard and over the past 20 years the range of doctorates and other research degrees has broadened enormously.  Those studying for a research degree even within the same Faculty may hardly be aware of one another, and some may be long-standing members of staff rather than “students” per se.  It’s important, therefore, to note that there is no single postgraduate community within an institution.  Rather we must recognise that there are communities of postgraduate researchers.

Not only that, but even those on a “traditional” PhD, who are not members of staff,  interact with the university in ways such as involvement in teaching, staff-style email addresses and security cards, etc., that reflects a status that is beyond “student”.  Members of academic staff who are registered for PhDs might certainly resent the idea of being called a “student”.

So for all of these reasons I’m going to try and stop referring to “PhD students” and instead use the term “Postgraduate Researchers” (PGRs).  Because that’s what they are.

As always, I’m happy to receive your comments and views on this.

23 thoughts on “Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

  1. Marco Mello

    Very nice discussion. That’s a big issue also here in Brazil. The truth is that postgraduates are a category in-between students and professionals. It’s a consequence of a career that requires incredibly long and complex training. Here, their situation is even worse, because virtually all postgraduates receive scholarships and not salaries. Therefore, they do not contribute to pension funds, public or private, and have no labor rights. To improve their living and working conditions, we need to acknowledge them as professionals in a special category. Nevertheless, even traditional careers and jobs are changing all over the world, as brilliantly discussed by Yuval Harari in “Homo Deus” and by Zygmunt Bauman in “Liquid Modernity”. We went from a contest between Fascism, Communism, and Liberalism in the XX century, to a world in the XXI century in which people do not trust any ideology anymore. Nobody really understands the world we live in nowadays. So what’s going to happen to labor, philosophically, in society and not only in academia?

  2. niekyvanveggel

    I am in a position where I am a senior academic in one institution, and undertaking an EdD in another. For doctoral purposes I refer to myself as an EdD researcher, rather than student, as I don’t feel like a student. My EdD department makes me feel like a peer, a grown-up, rather than a student. I have discussions with my supervisors, but these feel like peer discussions, not like a traditional student-supervisor tutorial… Anyway, I guess postgraduate researcher (PGR) works too, as it also differentiates from postgraduate students on taught level 7 degrees (PGT).

  3. Charlotte Chivers

    I’m a PhD researcher and completely agree; great blog post. I struggle with being referred to as a ‘student’ because people outside academia then make assumptions about what I do and what my workload constitutes; for example, people assume that I must get a ‘3 month summer’, when in actual fact I struggle to take much time off at all! The PhD experience feels completely different to a student experience, which is why myself and the majority of my colleagues have taken the stance that we’d prefer to be called ‘researchers’.

    1. Helen

      “The three-month holiday” must grate! I am not researching for a PhD (although I do research as well as teach) but the assumption is that over the summer I also have a three-month break, when in fact I don’t have a day off!

  4. naturalistoncall

    As a non-PhDer, I applaud your initiative. I’ve always found it strange/maddening that cultures of academia and professions structured around academic credentials believe the status of a contributor significantly outweighs the actual value of his/her contribution. Why even mention the academic status of a contributor? What value does that information add to the worth/significance/importance of the research? Either the quality/reliability/integrity of the work meets rigorous scientific/engineering/medical/etc. standards or it does not.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Glad you like it 🙂 It’s a street tree in Birmingham at night, under lit by the Christmas illuminations. Not really relevant to the topic but I liked the image too.

  5. disgruntled_phd_whatever-er

    If they paid us a fair wage for our teaching and research that we provide, they can call me whatever they want

  6. Dara Stanley

    Nice blog Jeff. And I agree! I much prefer the term PhD researcher rather than student, and often advise those working with me to use it (it also looks better on bank statements, applications for accommodation etc!). But I also think the model that we have in Ireland and also in the UK of giving PhD candidates a stipend rather than a proper salary is wrong (in the cases where this is applicable – I know not all PhDs receive a stipend, and that’s a separate issue). This means those doing a PhD do not pay tax, which also means they are not eligible for certain benefits. For example, this includes maternity benefit; if you are a non-Irish PhD candidate in Ireland and you become pregnant, you are not even entitled to the low level state maternity benefit because you haven’t paid any tax. In other parts of the world, PhD candidates receive a salary and therefore pay tax, and I would like to see this model here also. The counter argument is that then funders would need to spend more on each student and therefore be able to fund less. However, in reality, given that these stipends are often so low, they are in the lowest tax bracket and so the amount of additional funding that would go towards tax would be relatively little.

    1. Fabrizia Ratto

      Absolutely Dara! that is exactly the point I was going to add to this discussion. As a “mature” PhD student/researcher I was facing childcare costs but had no access to benefits such as 30hours free childcare, because although I was by all means in a full-time job (sometimes even more!), for tax purposes I was a student, hence not eligible for such benefits. Which makes it harder for those with families. Definitely agree PhD students should be classed as staff.

  7. Stein Joar Hegland

    I agree with you, Jeff . The student term is not the best although one mostly have to do courses as part of a PhD (30 ECTS with at least a B in Norway). In Norway we often call them ‘stipendiat’ as their funding is temporary, but that may inflict with the good point Dara made about the lack of decent salaries in many countries (not in Norway where stipendiat is a salary-type of starting at an ok level). But: isn’t postgraduate a term that sometimes refer to anything above bachelors This is of course not my expertise as we do not have this type of terms in Scandinavian languages as far as I can remember. Maybe the new term should focus on thta these PhD-candidates are researchers under training, but what that term should be I do not know.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for the comment Stein. Yes, practise and terminology varies widely across the world. “Postgraduate” is anything about Bachelors level, yes, so it’s important we distinguish between “Postgraduate Researchers” and “Postgraduate Students” doing an MSc or an MA.

  8. Dr Sally Westwood

    I quite liked being regarded as a “researcher” when I was a PhD student.
    Also liked the term of Research fellow after receiving my doctorate. I think the “research” concept is the most important point of being phd.

  9. Philip Moriarty

    Reblogged this on Symptoms Of The Universe and commented:
    I’m reblogging this important post by Jeff Ollerton on retiring the description of postgraduate researchers as “PhD students”. This has been something of a bugbear of mine for quite some time now. We ask that PhD researchers produce a piece of work for their thesis that is original, scholarly, and makes a (preferably strong) contribution to the body of knowledge in a certain (sub-)field. Moreover, the majority of papers submitted to the REF (at least in physics) have a PhD candidate as lead author. Referring to these researchers as “students” seems to me to dramatically downplay their contributions and expertise. I’m going to follow Jeff’s example and use the term “postgraduate researchers” from now on. The comments section under the post is also worth reading (…and there’s something you don’t hear every day.)

    Over to you, Jeff…

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  12. lucamarazzi

    Good points. So many PhD students / doctoral researchers / postgraduate researchers carry out a PhD without funding, no studentship, but usually some funding for field, lab, conference and course attendance: When I self-funded my PhD I felt like someone who was investing heavily on their higher education and career development; defining post-master’s researcher as ‘students’ will not help this system change. De facto, somehow I was paying to work at a prestigious institution, although I did not have to publish my research to obtain the degree, but I did have to produce an original, substantial, and coherent piece of work which contributes to, in my case, knowledge in aquatic / wetland / algae ecology. Early career or doctoral researchers are better terms that are not or should not be tied to age. But I also appreciate that PhD students pay fees and so, unless universities stop recruiting PhD researchers who do not have funding for their work…, universities provide a service to them or to the funding bodies that allow students to graduate / researchers to get their (academic) professional qualification. Another debate can be had about whether PhDs should evolve to offer programmes that make them more competitive outside of academia where there often are more jobs and more and more people end up working.


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