As somebody who wasn't born or raised in North America, is there a schematic explanation what those various terms are supposed to be mean? Does it differ between the types of institutions? Are there specific fixed meanings to keywords such as

  • Assistant
  • Associate
  • Visitor
  • Fellow
  • Research

If there are not specific meanings, how do committees decide what to call a position?

  • 1
    No, there are no universally agreed standards for those titles. – Jon Custer Nov 16 '20 at 1:36
  • Are you asking about titles or job descriptions? They are not the same. And ultimately neither means much. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 16 '20 at 3:13

As Jon Custer mentioned in the comments, there are no standards whatsoever, however generally speaking:

  • "Visiting" is a short-term position (I've never seen a post-doc with this title), probably even shorter than a usual postdoc, probably 9 or 12 months.

  • A "fellow" is usually a prestigious assignment, it may be a university, college, or departmental soft-money position. For example, my university has "President's Fellows" although I'm not sure if they are funded specially or if that's just an award. However, nothing stops anyone from calling anything a "fellow."

  • An "associate" professor outranks an "assistant." However, I do not think there is any meaningful difference between "postdoctoral research assistants" and "postdoctoral research associates." One doesn't outrank the other. Probably, people just try to avoid using "research assistant," since that somewhat connotes an junior position.

  • Certainly not universal but it seems like "research assistant" tends to mean "graduate student" and "research associate" tends to mean "post doc". Anything else and you'd want to specifically say it is a post-doctoral position. – Bryan Krause Nov 16 '20 at 16:22
  • @BryanKrause Perhaps. "Research assistant" sounds to me like an undergrad without qualification – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 16 '20 at 16:26
  • True, it does sound that way, but it goes with other graduate funding source titles like teaching assistant, program/project assistant, research assistant. TAs PAs RAs. – Bryan Krause Nov 16 '20 at 16:27
  • @BryanKrause Maybe. I don't have the same sense as you, it seems. I just looked it up, and a staff member in my dept (I'd hesitate to call her a postdoc because it is permanent) does seem to be a "research associate." – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 16 '20 at 18:55

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