PhD student vs PhD researcher – Are they the same thing?

There is often some confusion amongst PhD students and members of the public about what a PhD student versus PhD research really is. This is mainly because there is no standard definition for what either of these terms really means.

Having spent 15 years in academia I can tell you that there is generally a rule that can be followed.

There is some overlap between the roles of a PhD student and a PhD researcher, but they are not exactly the same thing. A PhD student is a student pursuing a doctoral degree, while a PhD researcher can be anyone who is conducting research at the doctoral level, including PhD students, postdocs, and faculty members. However, in practice, the terms PhD student and PhD researcher are often used interchangeably.

The confusion comes from the fact that a PhD research is the broadest term that can describe:

  • PhD students
  • postdoctoral researchers
  • PhD qualified research assistance
  • in any other PhD qualified researcher

PhD student is a much narrower descriptor and can be described as a PhD researcher.

PhD student can meanPhD researcher can mean
PhD studentPhD student
PostDoctoral researcher
Research Associate
Research Assistant
Research Fellow

Not all PhD researchers PhD students, but all PhD students on PhD researchers.

What is a PhD student researcher?

Although there is no strict definition for what a PhD student researcher is, here is what I believe most academics will understand it to be.

A PhD student researcher is a PhD student who is pursuing a PhD qualification through research, typically at a university. They have a masters degree and are pursuing higher education. 

The primary role of a PhD student researcher is to conduct independent research that leads to the advancement of knowledge and understanding within their subject area.

The research will be conducted will be under the guidance of a PhD supervisor.

This may involve:

  • studying existing literature,
  • developing new theories,
  •  conducting experiments or surveys,
  • analyzing data, and
  • writing papers for publication.

A PhD student researcher is expected to be an independent thinker who can work collaboratively with other researchers and use evidence-based approaches to problem-solving.

A successful PhD student researcher must be able to think critically, creatively, and analytically about problems and have excellent communication skills.

These skills will be built up with the support of your PhD supervisor throughout the course of your degree.

However, is it right for PhD should students to call themselves academic researchers?

Can PhD students call themselves academic researchers?

In my experience, people who call themselves academic researchers typically already hold a PhD.

If you feel comfortable calling yourself an academic researcher while you are pursuing PhD – by all means you should be able to do it.

Just be aware that some people will find this description of your current academic situation in accurate.

But this is not a hard and fast rule and I think that once you have a peer-reviewed publication under your belt it is reasonable to call yourself an academic researcher.

After all, your research has been reviewed and assessed by your peers and deemed good enough to appear in the peer-reviewed literature.

That is probably one of the most important signals which shows that you are capable of independent academic research and therefore you are an academic researcher.

What is the difference between PhD student and PhD researcher?

A PhD student and a PhD researcher are ALMOST the same things.

To some, they are the same.

For most people in academia, however, there would be a slight but important difference between PhD students and PhD researchers.

A PhD student is typically a person who is undertaking their doctoral studies and is actively working towards completing their degree. They may be taking courses, writing papers, or conducting research in order to fulfil the requirements of their program.

On the other hand, a PhD researcher can also be someone who has already completed their degree and is now engaging in further research activities in order to advance knowledge in a specific field or topic.

While both roles involve engaging in research activities, a PhD researcher often has more autonomy over what they are researching as well as the resources available to them for conducting said research.

A person with a PhD and called a PhD researcher often engages in more high-level analysis than what would be required of a PhD student.

You may also call these types of researchers ‘associates’.

Can you call a PhD student a researcher?

Yes, you can call a PhD student a researcher.

The goal of a PhD student during their thesis is to contribute to the knowledge base in the particular field that they are studying.

As such, they are actively engaging in research and should be considered researchers.

They can also do a range of other activities including:

  • teaching
  • academic writing
  • mentoring (senior PhD students)
  • grant writing
  • attending conference and symposia and much more.

However, conducting and reporting on research is the most important activity if they are to graduate with a PhD via the submission of a thesis or peer-reviewed papers.

PhD students often collaborate with other researchers and mentor junior faculty members and graduate students in their department or organization.

It is completely appropriate to refer to PhD students as researchers due to their activities advancing knowledge in their chosen field.

Wrapping up

This article has been through everything you need to know that PhD students are usually researchers.

All PhD students are PhD research is not all PhD research is our PhD students.

PhD students are free to call themselves academic researchers if they feel comfortable however some people find that this is a little bit misleading because academic researchers tend to have already completed their PhD.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.