Labels & PhDers

Whether it’s your bio, your academic profile or writing an email, what do you write after the ‘PhD’?

As a young woman in academia I stumble. If I write ‘PhD student’ it feels as if I’m taking away that initial word and regressing back to the common perception of a ‘student’ – where my friends in professional positions mock me for ‘not doing anything’ and ‘waking up late’ and ‘spending my afternoons at home’. Granted, I like a lay-in, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend the next 12 hours, isolated at my desk with questions and articles bouncing round my head, with no one to talk to because those who have done a PhD have been through this, and those who haven’t, haven’t. The isolation is another story but I don’t want to associate my tiresome research and dedication to my subject with ‘student’. Yes, I sound big-headed, but if I say ‘student’ and people jump to laying in bed and drinking until 3am, then I think we should be deemed with a more appropriate term.

This may be a complex of my own. Many refer to a common problem of people completing a PhD, Imposter Syndrome. A feeling that you shouldn’t be in the position that you are in, or you don’t deserve this position. If I write ‘PhD student’, I feel I am condoning this. A little niggle says to me that I’m too young to be doing a PhD and this is confirmed if I use ‘student’ to follow. Do academics or lecturers feel the same if they are doing their PhD? Do they use ‘student’ or avoid the phrase entirely. I am a lecturer, but am I a student first?

The second term I consider is ‘researcher’. “Hi, I’m a PhD researcher.” (Hmm, am I?) Doesn’t a PhD have to involve some kind of research? For me, researcher sounds like I am trying to justify what I do. I’m saying to my professional friends “Look! I am doing something with all this time.” It makes me sound like a scientist, with the sterotypical white lab coat and goggles.

Next we have ‘candidate’. Ooft. Doctoral candidate. The ever-faithful, academic source Quora suggests a PhD student becomes a PhD candidate once completing their transfer viva or ‘comprehensive exams’. In technical definitions, PhD candidates are those who have completed all the academic requirements for their degree, except their dissertation. This one makes me question whether I’m actually going to get my degree! But do we ever consider how these labels affect our standing or even our perception of ourselves? Does candidate give you a little more prominence and make you feel higher in the academic sphere than student?  You might or might not have the same luxuries as other academics or lecturers but at least you feel better about it.

At this point it sounds like I’m adding on a noun because PhDer doesn’t sound academic enough. I like PhDer but I think some academics wouldn’t agree.

These labels may seem superficial but Danielle Tran and Martin Compton at the University of Greenwich carried out a case study of the perception of people carrying out a PhD. Compton questioned both academics on their perception of PhDers and PhDers on how they perceived themselves within the University. Their results showed a variety of responses, which creates even more confusion!

I will stick with ‘student’, despite it’s problems, until I feel I can justify otherwise. Maybe another year of ‘student’ is worth the forthcoming Dr. Or perhaps this is a question that needs to be asked at a higher level. This may in fact reflect a deeper level of the complex hierarchies and relationships in higher education institutions. Could this be more than purely labelling – something few have considered but impacts so many?

And, if the label ever makes your hard-work feel lessened;

the best people are always learning, so aren’t we all students?



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