📓 Redefining my professional identity: From research assistant to doctoral researcher

For the first few years of my doctoral program, I defined myself as a “doctoral student” and “research assistant.” This seemed like an appropriate designation, despite my experience as an education and information professional, because I was taking classes. I kept calling myself that as I was working on my comprehensive literature review, because there didn’t seem to be anything better to call myself than that. It was very exciting when I got to change my email signature to “Doctoral Candidate” in December, because now I was someone who had met all the requirements for a doctoral degree except for the dissertation. But I kept the designation of “research assistant.”

This summer, though, I started thinking about how that designation doesn’t really communicate much to anyone not steeped in academia. And also that it doesn’t say anything about what I do. So as of this school year, I started referring to myself as a “doctoral researcher.” This fits much better. I am doing what researchers do: I am running my own study as PI (my dissertation study) and I work in a lab with two other researchers, designing interview protocols, collecting and analyzing data, and writing reports based on the data. There is no part of my work that is really the work of a student. While I am technically assisting the PI of a research lab, the work I do is not so much assistive as collaborative. So.

I am a doctoral researcher.

For more thoughts on the distinction between a doctoral student and a doctoral researcher, see Pat Thomson’s blog post, “what’s with the name doctoral student?

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay.

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Kimberly Hirsh, PhD @KimberlyHirsh
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I acknowledge that I live and work on unceded Lumbee, Skaruhreh/Tuscarora, and Shakori land. I give respect and reverence to those who came before me. I thank Holisticism for the text of this land acknowledgement.


We must acknowledge that much of what we know of this country today, including its culture, economic growth, and development throughout history and across time, has been made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans and their ascendants who suffered the horror of the transatlantic trafficking of their people, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow. We are indebted to their labor and their sacrifice, and we must acknowledge the tremors of that violence throughout the generations and the resulting impact that can still be felt and witnessed today. I thank Dr. Terah ‘TJ’ Stewart for the text of this labor acknowledgement.