In addition to various US-based positions, I am currently considering (applying for) several research positions at a couple of well-known UK universities. While I researched the topic somewhat, I am not too familiar with specifics of academic system in UK and, thus, would appreciate clarifications.


  • Despite being offered at the same salary level, I assume that a position of researcher is higher in rank, responsibilities and expectations than the one of research assistant. Is my assumption correct universally or it might depend on department or specific research project?

  • Is employment at UK universities at-will? Specifically, I am interested in the context of (postdoctoral) researcher positions. If the academic employment is at-will, is it ethical to leave early a research position, associated with a multi-year project (for valid reasons and assuming no teaching is involved)? If not, how such issues should be handled gracefully? I don't expect such things to happen, but it is better to have some situational awareness in this regard.

  • Are there any differences between positions with the titles of researcher or research assistant and the ones with the same titles, but prefixed with "postdoctoral"? (You can answer from both UK and US perspectives or either one, whatever environment you have knowledge about.)

  • 3
    Can you explain what you mean by "at-will"? I think this may be an American term.
    – Flyto
    Aug 7 '15 at 5:44
  • @SimonW: You're right - it is indeed a largely US term. I just assumed that there exist a similar concept elsewhere, including UK. While one of the main points of the at-will concept is the employer's perspective (right to terminate employment), my question is focused on the employee's perspective (right to interrupt the employment contract), obviously, in the academic environment context. Aug 7 '15 at 6:14

Re the middle point: on anything but a casual labour contract, "at-will" employment does not exist in the UK. You cannot be fired by your employer without a reason, although note that many of the protections do not kick in until you have had a certain number of years in the job, and hence may not apply to fixed term contracts (IANAL).

From the employee's side, legally, there is nothing to stop you leaving at any time, after the period of notice specified in your contract. That does not mean that it might not have career implications - but I will leave that for more experienced people to discuss.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer - much appreciated (+1). I realize that leaving early (even for acceptable reasons) might potentially have some negative career implications, but, as I said, I don't plan that (should I be offered a job in UK, that is) - just wanted to get a sense of the range of options and their consequences. I look forward to hearing others' opinions. Aug 7 '15 at 6:46

1) There is a variability in naming conventions between different institutions, I would say that "researcher" and "research assistant" are equivalent ranks if at the same salary.

2) It is generally difficult for UK companies to sack employees, it requires a significant amount of effort to show you are not suitable for the position. I've seen a case of lying on a CV that got a person sacked, but only after several months of investigation. On a fixed-term contract with no further funding they are able to let you go after the term finishes, although most UK universities seem to have a Redeployment policy, where you are given preferential access to new jobs as your contract comes to an end.

For you choosing to leave, your contract will include a notice period (typically 3 months from my experience), you can leave with no legal issues after giving that much notice. It isn't uncommon to leave a few months before the end of your fixed-term contract (as you should be looking for other positions suitably in advance). There is generally a probationary period at the start, where you don't need to give notice.

The ethics of leaving a position early will depend on the situation, if you have a valid reason then it should be ethically fine. The PI will probably be able to employ someone else to finish working on the grant (unless it is only a few months left, but at that point I don't think you have an ethical obligation when you'll be unemployed afterwards), the research output will be diminished as the new person gets up to speed but not lost entirely. The amount of documentation you provide will play a significant role in that, and how willing/able you are to continue communicating afterwards.

Taking a job with the intention of leaving part way is a different ethical matter.

3) A postdoctoral research position is one which requires a PhD (or one nearly completed). Research positions at universities which don't include postdoctoral often will be while also completing a PhD on the research. To go back to point one, I've been a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and a Postdoctoral Research Associate at different institutes, on the same salary scale.

  • 2
    I greatly appreciate your detailed answer (+1, will likely accept). Now I have a much clearer understanding of the topic, especially the aspects of titles and notices. As I said, I certainly do not have intention of leaving early, which would be even strange, considering all the effort of temporary relocation from US to UK, not to mention that it would defy the whole purpose of looking for a job. Aug 7 '15 at 10:08

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