I'm graduating from my master's degree at MIT this summer and I have a chance to stay for another year as an employee in my current lab while I apply for PhD programs. I'd love to do that because I love the current grant I am working on, I love the topic, the people and the PI.

My only hesitation is that there seems to be very limited titles in academia for one who is not a graduate student and does not have a PhD. The truth is, I do not want to be a "lab tech." I want to start becoming autonomous in the field I did my master's and becoming a lab tech is the exact opposite of being an independent researcher (based on my understanding).

I feel like if I start my year-long employment with the agreement with my PI that I'll continue work on my current research but with the "lab tech" title, the post-doc who supervises my work will treat me like a lab tech!

Therefore, I'd like to be a "research scientist" for the next year, but do I have to have a PhD for that? Or, what other titles are there besides a lab tech for people who wants to do research without a PhD in academia?

  • 2
    Just to make sure I understand. You only want a better title?
    – user9646
    May 30, 2018 at 23:33
  • yes, @Najib. I added the details to the last paragraph of the question above as an edit.
    – qwerty
    May 30, 2018 at 23:45
  • @user93363 Your question was fine before, you should focus a little bit on editing it down to be more concise and remove the rant at the end. May 30, 2018 at 23:50
  • All I meant to say in that verbose paragraph was that I want the responsibility and the title that comes with it, which is not a lab tech (also, I do not want to be derogatory towards the labtech title, it's just not what I want).
    – qwerty
    May 31, 2018 at 0:00
  • @user93363 I suggested an edit that will make your question more readable and more inviting to others to respond. May 31, 2018 at 0:51

5 Answers 5


Titles depend on institution. In industry, you can be a "research scientist" with no particular degree. In a university, a "research scientist" may be a catch-all term for scientific employees, or it may be a parallel track with similar prestige to a professorship (with similarly high standards). I do not know what MIT's system is.

Your job responsibilities will depend on your boss (advisor) far more than your title. If your advisor is on board with you continuing your current research, then great; this will be true regardless of your title. If they are doing you a favor allowing you to remain employed while you apply for PhD programs, then they may expect you to do "lab tech" type work.

It's certainly a good idea to discuss your title, responsibilities and goals with your advisor before accepting the position. But I wouldn't be too concerned about the title. If this were a permanent position for you, I might agree that "lab tech" would be an unfortunate title, and might have unfortunate implications about your ability to participate in original research (especially since you would have to consider your position if your supervisor moves on). But since this is just a temporary stop-gap until grad school, I would focus this conversation on your responsibilities and goals.


The short answer is no. You only need someone willing to hire you for the role to have it. I know people with only a BS who transitioned from technician in an academic lab to research scientist there (and got a big pay increase in the process). Conversely you don't need a different title to be given independence. I know of technicians (who went on to grad school) who were relied on to make major decisions and suggest new projects.

A longer answer is that you will always be at a disadvantage in the research world without those letters, and constantly feeling like you must prove you are deserving of independence before you get it. A PhD is commonly described as training to be an independent researcher. Some of the smartest people I know never advanced beyond the BS and as a result were beset by headaches such as your concern about the postdoc. In academia such pecking orders tend to get taken to the extreme, too.


I could not find a description for MIT specifically, and I'm sure this varies by university and country, but no, a PhD is not a universal requirement for the title "Research Scientist."

At the University of Washington, the only requirement is a bachelor's degree to be a Research Scientist I. In fact, it's not until Research Scientist IV that a PhD is a minimum qualification, and even then, "Bachelor's degree candidates with exceptional qualifications may be considered." A PhD is required to be a Senior Research Scientist, however.

On the flip side, at Harvard, a PhD is required to be any level of a "Research Scientist."

So, in short, this will depend on the policies at your institution, and you should look them up before you bring up with your PI about her hiring you on as a "Research Scientist" and not whatever the official title for a "lab tech" is.

Personally, I wouldn't be as dismissive as Najib is in the comments. Having a conversation about your role/responsibilities is a good thing to have, and if you don't want the role of a lab tech, then you'll know you should look elsewhere.

In terms of other titles, you may also look for a "Research Analyst" or "Research Technologist."

  • 1
    I am not sure what the last paragraph of your answer is for. My comment is asking if OP really only wants a better title, as some parts of the answer say, or actually additional responsibilities/tasks, as other parts of the answer say. Hence my question, "You only want a better title?", to which you will note that OP answered "yes". If you view something dismissive in these six words, it's only in your eyes.
    – user9646
    May 30, 2018 at 23:56
  • Thanks for your response Azor, I did check the MIT policies on "research scientist" positions, but it was a bit ambigious (policies-procedures.mit.edu/node/45/#sub2).
    – qwerty
    May 30, 2018 at 23:58
  • Oh also, I did not take Najib's comment as dismissive at all. Thanks you both for the responses.
    – qwerty
    May 30, 2018 at 23:59
  • @NajibIdrissi I didn't mean to cause offense. I thought it was fairly clear the OP didn't want to be a lab tech, and wanted their title to reflect that. I don't think any part of the original question suggested they "really only wanted a better title" (did you mean "question," btw?), which may explain why I interpreted your comment differently than you intended it to be read. May 31, 2018 at 0:50
  • @user93363 check out section 5.2.3 your title would probably be technical assistant or research specialist
    – StrongBad
    May 31, 2018 at 1:50

Job titles and the associated requirements will vary from university to university (and possibly within schools of the same university). For MIT those policies are given at https://policies-procedures.mit.edu/. For your type of position, the relevant sections are 5.2.2 Research Scientist, Research Engineer, Research Associate and 5.2.3 Research Specialist, Technical Associate, Technical Assistant. The wording of sections is very similar, with the key difference being Research Scientists

contribute significantly to the design and execution of experiments in research projects. They work in collaboration with the principal investigator.

and Research Specialists

provide professional, technical, or other support service to a research project or program under the direction of a principal investigator.

For the position you are describing, while a PI may informally say you are a collaborator, when push comes to shove it is an unequal relationship and you are working under the direction of the PI.

That said, what you do is generally more important than the title you hold. Your treatment within the group will not depend so much on your title as on the roles and responsibilities your PI assigns you (possibly through the post doc). If the PI expects you to do your own thing, then you will be independent, regardless of the title. If the PI expects you to turn the crank while observed by the post doc, then you will be a monkey regardless of the title. You need to discuss your roles and responsibilities prior to taking the job.


The other tittle is "research assistant" Yes, people with master's degrees do get hired as research assistants. I know one person who was hired by the Oklahoma Geological survey as research assistant while he was working on his M.S. in geology and he remained employed as a research assistant. "Research assistant" is his job title, or was.

How you are treated by someone else often depends on how you treat them, if you have no personal respect for the post-doc who is directing your research, why should that post-doc respect you. The post-doc has more life experience in academia than you do.

You don't HAVE to stay in academia. y\ou CAN go to work for the federal government I am assuming you are in the United States) or industry or businesses with master's degree. I talked to someone within the last month whose daughter got two bachelor's degrees and master's degree and her mother says she LOVES her job.

I have THREE bachelor's degree AND an M.S. in geology. Yes, i wanted to get Ph.D 18 and 15 years ago. but I would have had to apply and to another university's Ph.D. program AND be admitted and then i would have to MOVE to another state... I've come to accept the fact that i no longer have the physical stamina to get a Ph.D. and now my knowledge is OUTDATED because i haven't really kept up with academic literature. Even second master's degree may not be worth the investment of another 3 years of TIME, especially since i might end up in assisted living before i could graduate., and that master's degree program REQUIRES at LEAST 2 internships. In August, 2003 i was told by an assistant graduate college dean that if i wa NOT admitted into college degree program, the university did not need ow want me because Everyone was going back to school. that was !5 YEARS ago. That is still true TODAY.

You HAVE a job. Do you want to keep that job, even if you are doing SOMEONE ELSE'S research, or not just because you think you will be treated and not get the respect YOU think you deserve/ Respect is EARNED, not granted. You CANNOT DEMAND respect and kindness form someone else. I've had that happen TO ME, and it was the MOST INSULTING thing that I've EVER had happen to me.

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