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I'm an undergrad student, and I intend to start assisting a senior PhD student with her research work. I'm really interested in the work (definitely don't want to let go of this opportunity), but I'm unsure if the position being offered to me is official, i.e. if I would be a research assistant or something, so to speak.

I was told by the PhD that if I'm to accept, she will have to seek permission from her PI / keep the PI in the loop - which makes me feel that it's probably official but I'm not sure.

What's a polite way of asking for the necessary clarifications?

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    What do you mean by "official"? That you are paid? That you have an official title? That you get a contract? And are you asking about the offer being official (i.e. formal), or is it about the job itself? – user151413 Sep 10 at 15:04
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    So she has offered an internship and you want to know whether you will be allowed to write intern on your resume? – Stef Sep 10 at 15:13
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    @Stef No one mentioned "intern"? Why do you bring it up in bold? – Azor Ahai -- he him Sep 10 at 15:26
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    You can mention any activity that you've been involved in on your CV. Are you actually clear whether it's a position (which implies that there will be a job contract, a job title and payment) or you're asked to conduct voluntary work? Both could be listed on your CV. – lighthouse keeper Sep 11 at 7:50
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    The crucial form of academic recognition you can draw from voluntary work is authorship of the resulting papers. You can surely ask if you're going to be involved as an author in the papers resulting from the work. This is the norm, but still, asking is absolutely OK, and the expected answer is "yes". (In fact, any other answer should be a dealbreaker.) – lighthouse keeper Sep 11 at 9:13
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I was told by the PhD that if I'm to accept, she will have to seek permission from her PI / keep the PI in the loop - which makes me feel that it's probably official but I'm not sure.

The PhD student likely has no authority nor budget to hire you. They're trying to establish whether you'd take a position if formally offered. If you will, they'll go and get permission/money from their PI. Whether the PI will hire you depends on the PhD student's sway with the PI and on the PI's budget.

What's a polite way of asking for the necessary clarifications?

TL;DR: Say, I'm interested, how do we proceed?

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I don't actually know what "official" means. If your institution has some definitions for such things then it makes sense, but people can't normally just make up titles for things. They can, of course, provide letters in which things are described informally using words that sound like titles. But "official" depends on some institutional backing.

But the way to learn is just to ask, not worrying much about "polite". Will you have a title of some kind that you can use on your CV? That is the question you want answered, and if, no, ask how you can/should present it on the CV.

But you are wise to want to have it clarified. Even if it isn't "official" it can be a good thing on the CV.

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  • "I was wondering if I would be assisting you in an official capacity, and whether or not I could mention this activity on my CV in the future." Does that sound about right? – strawberry-sunshine Sep 11 at 3:11
  • Also, I must mention, that this project is not based at my institution. Do you think that changes anything? Are there any additional clarifications I should make? – strawberry-sunshine Sep 11 at 3:12
  • @strawberry-sunshine Your proposed wording is fine but imho unnecessary. Unless something shady is going on, I would simply assume the answer is "yes" and instead ask if the PhD student's PI will provide a reference letter. I assume being payed is not on the table. – Roland Sep 11 at 8:26
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Be prepared to ask for what you want.

It might be that the PhD student had in mind an informal relationship. But if you would like some formal title or recognition, then the PhD student might be happy to try to arrange it for you.

Consider looking within your own university for recognition.

The PhD student might not know how to accommodate such a request. PhD students, and often even professors, don't necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about formal titles or "how the bureaucracy works".

Universities tend to offer formal recognition to their own students for a variety of activities. You might see if there is a suitable such program at your own university, which allows for an external supervisor, and ask the PhD student if she would be willing to serve in that role. Potentially, it might look good on her CV too.

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