What is the difference between a researcher, a research analyst, a data analyst, a research engineer, a research scientist and a research associate? This was a question posed by one of the PhD participants of a career workshop I ran this year. It’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer! Recently, a survey conducted on the destinations of postdoctoral researchers was particularly frustrated by the variety of job titles bestowed on this role – I think they identified over 20!
In my former days as a university careers adviser, we had to track the career destinations of our graduates using a standardised list of job titles. This had been a logical strategy up until around the 1990s when new and more elaborate job titles began to emerge, including a wide range of ‘manager’ posts. This made our tracking system more and more obsolete until it was eventually updated with more modern job titles replacing the old ones (such as radio operator and bank clerk). I imagine this operation is still a difficult undertaking, especially when you consider new roles that now exist such as quant analyst, MSL, medical affairs, blogger and influencer. A favourite job title of mine that I came across a few years ago is “Maker” – someone who designs and builds exhibitions for museums and science centres. I also know someone who had a colon in her job title (Programme manager: researchers). If you try out a quick ‘people search’ yourself on LinkedIn, for example, you’ll find a cacophony of roles* yourself.
So how do you distil out the key activities and job requirements of these roles so that you can make sense of them and decide whether they are potential career opportunities suited to your interests and skills? Going back to the original question posed in my workshop, how can you decipher between the role of a research engineer and that of a research analyst, data analyst or researcher? Well, I would say that the answer lies in the question: research – research – research ! Just as you need to be creative in your literature searches during the course of your scientific research to identify papers of interest and relevance to your own research, so you need to do the same for your job search. A limited keyword search limits the breadth of results you obtain in any research exercise, and it will also stifle your job search strategy.
Returning to the original question concerning job titles, my first quick internet search has revealed the following:
*Interestingly, if you do a search for ‘Scientist’ on LinkedIn, the majority of people who identify as a scientist work in business and industry, whilst those working in academia tend to identify as postdoctoral researchers, postdocs, research fellows, assistant and associate professors. Remember that question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As children, we were almost all faced with this question at some time or other. But how many current PhD researchers answered “Postdoc” or “Academic”? I’m guessing none. So, when you title yourself on LinkedIn and other social media, why not consider returning to those childhood dreams and use job titles such as Scientist, Research Scientist, Biomedical Scientist, Ecologist, Plant Scientist, etc. With a good profile, this may help companies, head-hunters and recruitment agencies to find you and who knows where that may lead …
Certainly, I never answered “Careers Adviser” when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up (I don’t know of anyone who did). I wanted to be a vet, but only much later did it occur to me that the underlying impetus for this career aspiration was to help, do good and improve quality of life. Many years later and after an initial Bioscience-related career, I started my transition to where I am now … but that’s another story and job title 😊