As I'm currently pursuing an academic job search (in parallel to the industry one), which includes potential postdoctoral positions, I would appreciate some clarifications on the following aspects.

Positions (terminology). I have seen various titles for postdoctoral positions, i.e., postdoctoral scholar (or researcher), research assistant, research associate and similar. Question: Are there any essential differences, implied by these titles, or they are just terminology variations (perhaps, geographically- or university-dependent) for essentially the same type of position?

Note: My field is Information Systems, a discipline, which can be considered as a sub-domain of Management Science, which, in turn, is a social sciences discipline.


2 Answers 2


Contrary to StrongBad, I would say there are important non-terminological differences. While both are junior positions that a recent PhD grad may hold, at my university, a postdoc or Postdoctoral Researcher is intended to be a temporary position for 2-ish years. On the other hand, the Research Associate title is the first in a sequence of permanent full-time research staff positions that goes Research Associate, Research Scientist, and then Senior Research Scientist. While there is no tenure for these positions, the levels are intended to parallel the professor levels here (Assistant, Associate, (full) Professor), and the requirements for promotion are similar (minus teaching).

These permanent positions are expected to continue as long as there is funding to cover them, whereas postdocs are expected to move on after a few years. Given the commitment, most professors, especially the junior ones, will not have Research Associate positions to offer. These are more often affiliated with large labs, centers, or institutes that are large enough and diverse enough to be able to offer long-term funding stability.

There are other differences as well. Postdocs at my university require a special exception to be allowed PI their own grants while Research Associates may PI them from the start without special permission. RAs usually not involved in teaching, where postdoc positions seem to be more flexible in this regard. Also, given the permanence, RAs come with considerably higher status than postdocs, though the respect doesn't really kick in until Research Scientist is reached. Postdocs are a further training position intended to allow a recent grad to finish publishing things from their thesis, branch out into some new areas, and get ready for a faculty position.

  • Excellently formulated and extremely useful answer - very much appreciated (+1 and, likely, will accept). Great points - some clear, some more subtle - which make much more order in my head as I'm trying to circumnavigate the ocean Academic Job Market for the first time :-). Would appreciate your opinion on the rest of my most recent 4-question series of questions on academic job search. Jun 10, 2015 at 12:39
  • This does not seem contradictory to my answer, unless you are claiming that all, or even most, universities use the same terminology as your university/department. You are just giving an example of a department/university that is consistent on the titles it uses.
    – StrongBad
    Jun 10, 2015 at 12:59
  • @StrongBad, your first sentence seems pretty absolute. I wanted to give just one example, which is pretty common in my experience, where the titles have important meaning and distinction.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 10, 2015 at 14:48

It is all just terminology. Within a single university/department there might, but not necessarily, be consistency on what the titles mean, but across universities all bets are off. Some postdocs have teaching requirements while others do not and sometimes departments try and use different title. Same goes for using title to highlight differences in how the position is funded. Sometimes the title is specified by the funding agency.

  • Thank you for the clarification (+1). Pretty much in line with my expectations. By the way, are RA positions, which mostly imply supporting roles for one or more faculty members, considered as respectful as more traditional research projects-focused postdoctoral positions (perhaps, I should add this to my question)? Jun 10, 2015 at 10:32
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    @AleksandrBlekh I would not discount a position just because of job title. If you have questions about the expectations, ask whoever is running the search.
    – StrongBad
    Jun 10, 2015 at 10:50
  • You misunderstood me. In my question in the comment above I expressed a concern in potential difference in respectability for a position, based not on title, but on position duties and focus: (more individual) faculty support versus (more team-focused) research projects. Jun 10, 2015 at 11:00

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