The ratio of staff/students is an important factor for university rankings. How are postdocs and non-faculty researchers considered in calculating this ratio?

I am referring to researchers who have an official contract with the university such as postdoc fellowships (which are competition based), higher level researchers like Senior Scientists (some universities give such titles) and even Research Professors?

To rephrase my question: Are research staff considered part of "staff" in staff/student ratio? They are not academic staff but they can do teaching jobs too!

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    This is a difficult question for a globally valid answer. For a start, I suspect even the concept of "academic staff" is not clearly enough defined world-wide to generally allow for the statement "[research staff/postdocs] are not academic staff". And of course, the same question can be asked about doctoral candidates, who are, depending on the place, officially registered only as students, officially registered only as employees, or sometimes even both at a time (with either one or both being obligatory). Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 8:41
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    @user40951: That is one of the reasons why such rankings should be taken with caution. Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 8:50
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    @user40951: As an afterthought, note that if you find a "normalized system", you should still take the resulting ratio with caution. Depending on the university system and culture, the way e.g. a Bachelor student is taught differs extremely from the way e.g. a doctoral candidate is "taught". Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 8:56
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    @user40951: there is really no general answer. In some countries, yes, PhD students are considered university employees, in others not. For example, in Italy where I live, PhD students and postdocs are not considered staff because these are not permanent positions. Permanent researchers are instead considered staff, and are considered in the student/staff ratio because researchers can (and somehow should) teach classes. Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 9:05
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    @user40951: I really don't know, I never cared about rankings, so I never analysed which factors go into defining them. Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 9:12

2 Answers 2


For the US, there is actually a fairly standardized answer, though it's complicated. The short version appears to be:

Postdocs who teach count as 1/3 of a staff member. Postdocs who do not teach are not counted at all.

First, note that the number usually used in the US is student-faculty ratio. (Not "staff": in US academic parlance, "staff" typically refers to non-academic university employees: administrative assistants, accountants, gardeners, cooks, etc.)

We can pretty quickly eliminate the possibility of postdocs being counted as students - I've never heard of postdocs being considered students anywhere in US academia. They don't enroll in classes nor work towards a degree. (Even for PhD students working exclusively on research enroll in classes each term until they graduate, typically a 12-credit course called "Independent Research" or something similar. Postdocs do not.)

So, are they counted as faculty?

There is an organization called the Common Data Set Initiative which sets forth standard definitions for university statistics like student-faculty ratio. CDS doesn't actually gather data or publish survey instruments, but their set of standards and definitions is written in questionnaire form.

Item I-2, "Student to Faculty Ratio", says:

Report the Fall 2014 ratio of full-time equivalent students (full-time plus 1/3 part-time) to full-time equivalent instructional faculty (full-time plus 1/3 part-time). In the ratio calculations, exclude both faculty and students in stand-alone graduate or professional programs such as medicine, law, veterinary, dentistry, social work, business, or public health in which faculty teach virtually only graduate-level students. Do not count undergraduate or graduate student teaching assistants as faculty.

For the definition of "instructional faculty", we refer to Item I-1, which has a table explaining how various types of faculty members should be counted. For

instructional faculty in preclinical and clinical medicine, faculty who are not paid (e.g., those who donate their services or are in the military), or research-only faculty, post-doctoral fellows, or pre-doctoral fellows

it says they should not count as full-time instructional faculty, and should be counted as part-time instructional faculty "only if they teach one or more non-clinical credit courses".

So this is the answer. A postdoc or other researcher who does not teach any non-clinical credit-bearing courses should not be counted in the student-faculty ratio. A postdoc who does teach at least one such course should be counted a part-time instructional faculty member, and contribute 1/3 of a person to the denominator of the ratio.

Of course, it should be kept in mind that this data is provided voluntarily by each institution, and it is ultimately up to the institution to decide how they classify each of their employees.

With regard to rankings, the best-known rankings in the US are the US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings. They explain that they generally follow the CDS definitions when collecting data from institutions.

  • And here I was thinking the three fifths compromise was a thing of the past... Thanks for the information. Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 19:33

In the UK post-doctoral researchers are staff, and their research is included in the REF (UK research rating table, which is bogus and biased due to oxbridge domination (separate issue)).

Technically if you are paying income tax then you are a member of staff not a student. Students get stipends or nothing.

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