Words hold power, especially those that we use to introduce ourselves and our doctoral research to different audiences. Jenny Mak considers the implications behind the words that we select and their potential to direct our academic goals.
While doing a PhD, we get many chances to introduce ourselves to different people— other academics, the general public, a new social acquaintance—and talk about our research. But have you thought about the specific words that you use to introduce yourself? Do you call yourself a ‘PhD researcher’, a ‘PhD candidate’ or a ‘PhD student’? These differences might seem insignificant, but being alert to the words that you use in your self-introduction can have a big impact on how you go about your PhD.
These labels do sometimes carry varying associations that are specific to the country and the university where you’re doing your doctorate. The choice of calling yourself a ‘PhD candidate’ versus a ‘PhD student’, in particular, seems to have quite specific underlying reasons.
For instance, in the US, you might call yourself a ‘PhD candidate’ to signify that you’re a student who has completed all of the academic requirements for their degree, except their dissertation. In this case, the term acts as a milestone. In the Netherlands, the term ‘PhD candidate’ (as translated from Dutch) can act as a method of differentiation, because the candidate is not considered a student but a paid employee (staff) with the university. Alternatively, if you’re undertaking a finite duration PhD, such as a ‘typical’ three- or four-year PhD programme in the UK, the labels ‘PhD candidate’ or ‘PhD student’ don’t tend to suggest significant differences in status— these labels might, therefore, be used freely as a form of description rather than anything else.
In this post, I’m primarily talking about these labels in the last sense—as a descriptive tool that you might use when you’re identifying yourself as an academic researcher to other people. My tips are also grounded in the UK context, as I’m most familiar with that from my own experience.
More importantly, I’m inviting us to reflect on how this descriptive tool can affect our self-identification: are the labels that we’re using supporting our growth as academic researchers or holding us back? The words that we use to introduce ourselves can reveal how we see ourselves. In turn, our perception of ourselves and our endeavours can determine the actions we take.
For instance, self-identifying as a ‘PhD student’—often a phrase we carry on reflexively from studying previous degrees—might embody a modest and commendable attitude of being an evergreen learner. But it might also hinder us from fully realising our independence as academic scholars who have to defend their own ideas before critics, such as our supervisors, who are also not our teachers in the conventional sense from whom we expect instruction.
Here, self-identifying as a ‘PhD candidate’ can remind us of this independence, as the word ‘candidate’ suggests the intention of being selected and being deemed suitable for a certain level of study, often determined through some form of examination (such as an upgrade process). But some of us might still find the label ‘candidate’ slightly too neutral or too reliant on external validation, to be effective for purposes of self-actualisation.
Self-identifying as a ‘PhD researcher’ from the get-go might feel presumptuous when we’re trying to find our footing at the beginning of our PhDs and haven’t gone through our upgrade. But if we state it humbly yet with inner confidence, we might begin to induce within ourselves the feeling of being responsible and determined to make our chosen research projects come into fruition. We might, then, find ourselves more easily identifying the various tasks to take action on to reach this goal e.g. books to read, conferences to go to, academics to network with, sub-topics to research on etc.
Ultimately, whether you choose to identify yourself as a student, a candidate, a researcher, or any other term, I suggest that you always have the power to choose how you see yourself in this role. Indeed, when you introduce yourself to others, you are also re-introducing you to yourself. The attitude that you have towards yourself can affect how you chart your PhD research project over the next three to four years, as well as your other academic activities. So ask yourself: in your self-introduction, are you choosing words that are empowering, effective, and self-actualising? If they aren’t, can you do better?
What are some words that you use to introduce yourself and your research project to different people? Are they working for you or holding you back? How might you tweak them so that they can better serve your PhD goals? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.