For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow

A beautiful white teddy bear with a ballon tied to it by ribbon. The balloon has a butterfly drawn on it, and 'Arcadia' written on it.

Balloon and bear, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

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

‘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.

Research associate

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.

Research fellow

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.

Research assistant

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?

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

13 Responses to For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow

  1. Pete Rowley says:

    My experience is Europe, but I would say this: Postdocs generally seem to be split into two types – PDRA positions and Fellowships. The PDRA is variously called a post doc research associate or assistant depending on funding council or institution phrasing, no real difference in role. The funding is attached to the project, and a person is recruited to fulfill the role. A Postdoc Fellowship is one where the funding is tied to the person, not the project. So fellowship is generally more prestigious.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That was my understanding of ‘postdoc fellowship’, too, Pete. And thanks for the clarification about PDRA – I’ve seen that acronym around a bit and wondered what exactly it stood for!

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Pete. I like the distinction of a fellowship salary travelling with the person.

      The ambiguity around ‘PDRA’ is exactly why I discourage people from using that terminology in a grant application. There is too much chance of dissonance between the applicant’s idea of what a PDRA is and a reviewer’s idea of what a PDRA is.

  2. After the funding is won… Differences can also be in what else, beyond the research, is apt to be available to or required of a person in a research associate versus research assistant position etc. Effectively, whether the person is considered an ‘academic’ with all that the employing organisation might make available to or require of a person in that position / with that title, beyond the core job description that relates to the project. This is particularly relevant when the appointment is less clearly defined than a project, such as when funding is for a research position, unit or centre. I’d guess there might also be implications in appointment processes to get from having funding to having a person. Advantages and disadvantages each way – including some that likely vary with organisational funding cycles and politics :-)

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I was about to respond to this, then I read Kat’s comment below, which overlaps with what I was thinking. In my experience, a ‘research associate’ is more likely to be invited on as co-author for publications and conference presentations. They are also more likely to be treated as a peer than a ‘research assistant’. But there are no absolutes and, as you rightly point out, it can depend on the specific dynamics of a particular team (and institutional context).

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Jennie. Some grant applications ask you to spell out the role of each person listed in the budget. As you say, that generally only gives an indication of what the person will be doing in relation to the project.

      People employed by universities should be covered by the university employment conditions. However, as you point out, that can vary between part time and full time, permanent and temporary (or casual) appointments. That’s a topic for another post.

      In some cases, the flexibility is good. You can grow into the role which, as Tseen has said, can be great for the CV. In a lot of cases, though, the flexibility can be a terrible thing. This is especially true in the United States and other countries where there is an enormous divide between tenured and non-tenured staff.

  3. Kat says:

    I have been a casual research assistant for an ARC project for the past 18 months and it is pretty much as you describe – they needed expertise (foreign language, knowledge of the area, good record keeping skills, good IT skills) but didn’t want me to shape the project or work out methodology. Mostly I did what you might call ‘grunt work’ of going through and compiling databases based on instructions. I was paid a higher rate because I had a PhD. Also might be different in humanities, this project was just the CI and me, no one else involved so my role was quite flexible.

    In terms of the others in my area (history/ art history) research associates are usualy taken on to work on an established project, they have autonomy but have to work within the theme and may be expected to work on specific documents/areas whereas research fellow usually devise their own project based on more general guidelines (i.e. particular historical period, geographical etc).

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      My response to Jennie B (above) is shaped by having read your comment here. Good to hear of your experiences and how the role was shaped. I have known research assistants who have been asked to pick up the proverbial dry-cleaning, so I think RA tasks can run the full gamut!

      I have often seen research associates acting in project manager roles for the research team, which is a double-edged sword, but can work very well on a CV if all turns out OK!

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  5. Reza Mohammed says:

    When my brother submitted his PhD at Imperial College London, he was employed as a ‘Research Assistant’. A few months later when his doctorate was conferred, his job title changed to ‘Research Associate’. What was confusing, was that the acronym for both positions was the same: RA!!

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Which is exactly why I urge people not to use the acronym in grant applications!

      • Reza Mohammed says:

        Here’s another one for you: what’s the definition of a ‘postdoc’? Surely its literal translation is ‘after doctorate’, and therefore even a professor who got his/her PhD in 1970 is a ‘postdoc’ doing ‘postdoctoral’ research?

  6. Thanks for the post! At least I know who am I in academia role definition. Although my workload overlaps between Research Assistant and Research Fellow, I am definitely a Research Fellow (my employment contract states that I am a Research Administrator). And…I am definitely not an ECR since I am just starting out on my PhD (can only be called one, when I am done with it!).
    Now it makes so much of sense! :)

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