This thing happens in the USA. I am working as a R&D research engineer in the industry, not academia.

Recently, our group recruited a research scientist, and we finally made an offer to a guy. In this guy's resume, he claimed his title/position as "Senior Research Associate" for his previous job in a university. However, after doing the background check, we found this guy's real title for his previous job is "Postdoc." His salary is a public record, and it showed us his salary is a regular salary for the Postdoc in the USA

The background team pointed this out to us. So I wonder if this title problem is a big deal? To our job review team, we don't really care about the title, and "Postdoc" or "Research Associate" are same to us, we care about applicants' research experience and competence.

I don't wanna make people feel that I am making a mountain out of a molehill. But in my opinion, I believe resume should be accurate and honest for all the experience and titles, and sometimes a resume is even considered a legal document. I wonder how the community think of this

  • 1
    In my opinion, the word "Senior" makes it CV fluff. However, whether CV fluff is a big deal or not is not really an academia-specific question. Apr 29 at 10:34

2 Answers 2


The terms "Postdoc" and "Research Associate" are essentially used interchangeably in the natural sciences. Postdoc has come to mean any research position after PhD but before having full formal independence as a researcher. With very few exceptions Postdocs in the natural sciences do research associated with a principal investigator.

Whether the use of senior or not is justified depends on the actual role they played. Assuming they had been in the lab for a while they likely did play a more senior role than more junior postdocs. (But even if they had been there only for a year it could be that due to their previous experience they played a more senior role.) The distinction between senior and junior is not clear-cut / formally defined and not worth putting under a microscope.

In general, for postdoctoral researchers, job titles in academia mean very little, are used interchangeably, and often not even formalized (e.g., it is not unusual for postdocs to not even have a formal contract).

Your concern is thus unfounded. This is not even a molehill to make into a mountain. There essentially is no difference between calling yourself a "Postdoc" and "Research Associate" within academia.

  • Here's an example how UCSF defines postdoc "What is a postdoc? A postdoctoral scholar or "postdoc" is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing. (Medical residents and clinical fellows are not considered postdocs at most universities, including UCSF.)" postdocs.ucsf.edu/postdocs-ucsf Apr 29 at 13:09
  • 4
    And here are two example job ads for "Postdoctoral Research Associates": postdocjobs.com/posting/7139297 postdocjobs.com/posting/7139297 but there are many other postdoc ads in which different formulations are used from Postdoctoral Fellows, to Postdoctoral Scholars, Postdoc, Research Associates, Research Fellow, Postdoctoral Appointee, Research Scientist, Postdoctoral Associate for positions that all involve the same basic duties. Apr 29 at 13:17
  • Employing someone without a valid work contract would be not only very unusual, but actually illegal in most developed countries, so the answer should perhaps specify which country(-ies) you are talking about.
    – Kostya_I
    Apr 29 at 20:07
  • My HR folks would disagree with this.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 30 at 1:15
  • @JonCuster How so? Apr 30 at 19:46

The applicant is using the correct, formal term for his last position. Whereever the "Postdoc [sic] researcher" title comes from, it is casual slang. I suspect it's from a clueless PI's website, who doesn't understand the academic structure below lecturer/ ass't professor, which many PI's don't.

There are essentially three "ranks" for non-tenured academic staff:

  1. Research Assistant
  2. Research Associate
  3. Research Fellow

Sometimes these have a modifier before them. Formally, a Ph.D. student's job title is "(Postgraduate) Research Assistant," for example.

A Research Assistant does not, by definition, have a Ph.D. It covers the whole gamut upto "Postdocs" who have yet to formally receive their Ph.D. A Research Associate is someone who has formally received a Ph.D. Finally, a Research Fellow is essentially an independent researcher, without a teaching post.

A "postdoc" is essentially a funding mechanism rather than a real job title.

A job title of "Senior Research Associate" is very clear to me. It is the correct title for someone who, (a) has a Ph.D., (b) has worked in the research group of someone else for more than 2-3 years but (c) did not get their own major grant to give them independence.

Whoever gave a title of "Postdoc Researcher" should be slapped on the wrist for being sloppy and your new hire is correct.

  • 6
    Depends on the place, I was hired with the title "Postdoctoral Research Fellow" (which I checked and is the title given on the offer letter) so postdoctoral is not just casual slang. Apr 29 at 9:20
  • 7
    This needs a location tag - possibly country level, maybe even institution-specific. Literally no part of the discussion around titles in this post is accurate for my institution. Most relevant for this question, we do have many postdoctoral researchers whose official title has "Postdoctoral researcher" in it. Apr 29 at 9:20
  • 6
    Postdoc is not a funding mechanism. There are many different ways in which postdocs are funded/paid. Apr 29 at 13:19
  • In Britain, which of these you are is obvious from your paygrade: Grade 6 = Research Assistant Grade 7 = (Senior) Research Associate Grade 8 = Research Fellow Loose terms like post-doc will be used, but they aren't official positions. In the USA, a research assistant doesn't have a PhD, whereas a research associate/fellow does. The difference there is their funding mechanism. Associates are salaried employees, and fellows aren't. The modifier "postdoctoral" is used sometimes, but is technically only correct if in a training period just after PhD completion. It is oft misapplied. May 1 at 7:22
  • In short, are the following true of the OP's applicant: Did they have a PhD? If yes, they are either a Research Associate or Fellow. Were they salaried? If yes, they are a Research Associate. Is their seniority beyond a normal "post-doc" period of 2-3 years? If yes, then they are a Senior Research Associate. May 1 at 7:27

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