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My understanding is that postdocs, research assistants (which I understand are master's level analogues of postdocs) and PhD students are all paid positions except for self-funded PhD which I hear is rare, but regardless, PhD students like postdocs and research assistants are expected to assist with the specific research that the professor is doing.

But, considering that a PhD studentship is the pursuit of a degree rather than the application of acquired knowledge from a degree, how much is expected of background knowledge for a PhD applicant?


There was this quora post that I can't find anymore that asked why professors took on PhD students to assist with research instead of hiring a research team or something. I was supposed to link it as an introduction.

Anyway, my question is different from the following because I'm asking specifically for PhD students relative to postdocs or research assistants.


I'm going to use math for examples.

  • If I know elementary topics of complex analysis, abstract algebra, algebraic topology, algebraic geometry and differential geometry, can I apply as a PhD student of a professor who specializes in complex analysis? Complex geometry? Functional analysis? Differential geometry?

  • For location: I don't mind if people post an answer for US or Europe, but in case I really need to say: I live in Country A, which is somewhere in the middle.

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I will only attempt a partial answer here as your question is a bit convoluted. Doctoral students on the first day, are expected to know less than a post-doc or research assistant on the first day. But they are expected to know relevant things. How your specific case would be judged would be up to a specific judge (i.e. a potential advisor).

But note that universities (as opposed to commercial/industrial labs) have a dual purpose. It isn't just to support the research interests of the current faculty, but to also educate the next generation(s) of scholars and researchers. Without that second purpose there would be no need for graduate students at all. But then scholarship would end in a generation or two.

Universities are long term contributors to the future and take the role seriously, both in research and teaching.


The other links in your question seem to be pretty good for answering your other concerns.

  • Thank you so much Buffy! I wasn't sure I would get a posted answer. About "It isn't just to support the research interests of the current faculty, but to also educate the next generation(s) of scholars and researchers" That's kind of what the answer in the quora question said. Please check if I understand: Bachelor's and master's students are part of the educating, postdocs and research assistants are part of supporting, PhD students are somewhere in the middle and how much in the middle depends on the location, professor and research area? – Jack Bauer Sep 6 '18 at 13:12
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    @JackBauer - no, postdocs are still learning. "Research assistant" is a multi-purpose term, as many grad students are supported as RAs, which is different than a research person (has PhD, likely completed a post-doc) supported (often on soft money) by a professor. – Jon Custer Sep 6 '18 at 13:36
  • @JonCuster Thank you! Really? Is that even in Europe? From what I've seen locally, research assistants(usually bachelor's/master's level)/postdocs/research fellows(not sure how this is different from postdoc apart from this 1 post I saw that said "master's or PhD")/research associates (usually master's level) are advertised the way industy jobs are and so candidates are expected to have very specific high-level knowledge. Anyway, your answer is that PhD applicants should have about the same level of knowledge as a postdoc or research assistant applicant? – Jack Bauer Sep 6 '18 at 13:59
  • Buffy and @JonCuster , I reduced the examples in my question. – Jack Bauer Dec 16 '18 at 10:25

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