What’s in a name? Postdoc or research staff?

According to good-old Wikipedia “A postdoc is a temporary position that allows a PhD to continue their training as a researcher and gain skills and experience that will prepare them for their academic career”, with the term also referring to the individual holding that position.

There are several issues with this, which may vary across disciplines and institutions (and countries, although we’re only really focussed on the UK here). At Lancaster, the term is sometimes used to refer to all research staff, which is also potentially problematic.

Research staff can be appointed at Grade 6 (Research Associate) prior to the completion of a PhD, on a ‘development grade’ (hopefully) with the intention of re-grading to Grade 7 on gaining their doctorate.  Not postdoc.

Research staff appointed at Grade 7 (Senior Research Associate) typically do have a PhD, although the ‘or equivalent experience’ criteria may mean that some do not.  Often research staff come with years of experience, sometimes in policy, practice or industry, but without a PhD. Not postdoc.  There are EDI issues to consider here too – it is often women, or those with caring responsibilities, that are more likely to have non-traditional career trajectories, or stay in (or return to) these posts for longer.  Lancaster have recently introduced new guidance about job titles and removed postdoc from the recruitment vocabulary.

The term postdoc also comes with certain connotations – these are generally seen as young, non-independent researchers learning ‘the tricks of the trade’ before moving onto an academic career (more on the term ‘academic’ in a moment).  This is not always the case. As mentioned above, some may enter research after another career (such as in social work).  Sometimes, research staff may enjoy research more than the prospect of teaching and desire to stay on a research career trajectory, elevating to Grade 8 (Research Fellow) or the elusive Grade 9 (Senior Research Fellow).  Not Postdoc. At these levels there is a requirement to secure research funding as an independent researcher, often necessitating supervision of other, more junior, research staff.  It is just confusing (or plain silly) when both supervisor and supervisee are referred to as postdocs.  And despite, to all intents and purposes being an academic, there are none of the benefits, such as job security, access to conference funds and sabbatical leave.

And the problems of identity continue …

There is no specific contract type for research staff – all are on Professional Services contracts.  Re-grading from 6 to 7, and promotion from 7 to 8 are dealt with at faculty level as ‘researcher promotions’, whereas promotion to grade 9 is handled within central ‘academic promotions’.  PDRs are another example – there are different objectives for Professional Services staff and Academic Staff, with no specific mention of research staff, who are included under the academic scheme.  OED lists development opportunities for Professional Services Staff and for Academic and Research Staff, although some courses, such as career development, are then run separately for research staff and for academics.

What is also important here is representation. Some departmental, faculty and university-level committees still have named ‘postdoc representative’.  There is a concern here about who is being represented, and how the needs of other research staff – those without a PhD and those at more senior levels – are heard and responded to.

We suggest that use of the term postdoc should be phased out, and that identity, recognition and representation of research staff, at all levels, be improved, at department, faculty and institution-level.

The Research Staff Association endeavours to represent all researchers at all levels, from Research Associate to Senior Research Fellow – and we would encourage you to get in touch to raise any concerns or issues, to meet others in the same situation, and generally because we’re quite a nice bunch of people!