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What’s in a name? Or a job title?

    I keep tabs on what jobs are going out there in research-adjacent land. It’s part of my general interest in this weird and wonderful world we find ourselves in. This week I was struck by a notification from which landed in my inbox. What caught my eye was the job titles.

    One was for a ‘Research Assistant – Network Administrator’ and the other was for a ‘Research Associate/Project Manager’. They are jobs at two entirely different organisations. I’m not going to name names – I’m sure a quick search will turn that up if you care to check.

    Now ‘slasher’ job titles are not new, but this was the first time I’d noticed such a blatant mash up of research and professional roles. For those who are not as into this stuff as me, research assistant and research associate are job titles given to junior graduate or postgraduate research roles. They are the first rungs on a ladder that goes up to the more coveted roles of research fellow, associate professor and professor. Administrator and project manager are job titles usually found within the more office-based parts of the university.

    So I wonder, what do these job titles say about the state of the research-adjacent job market? Is this an acknowledgement that universities know the current job titles are inadequate but still have no idea what to call them? Or are they hedging their bets – hoping that people searching for one or other job title might find them so there is a bigger pool of applicants? Or are they implying that they don’t think someone can do these jobs well unless they have a research background? I’d love to think it was conceived as a way of nudging researchers into the research-adjacent world giving them the experience they need to build an alternative career. But I fear not.

    Who decides and why?

    When I see questionable decisions out in the world, I’ve always wondered about the conversations that went on behind closed doors. You know when you see something hideous in a shop – I can’t help but wonder about all the design and production meetings where people sat around a table and actually chose that hideous thing because they were so sure that people would buy it.  

    I can’t help but think about the conversations that went on before these jobs were put out into the world. Someone, somewhere, I’m sure with the best of intentions, consciously chose these job titles. And I fear that conversation centered around one of two things. One, that the only way to make these jobs attractive was to make them sound more like research. That reinforces the tired old hierarchy which places research on a pedestal with everyone else there to prop it up. And two, that by calling them research jobs they will attract aspiring academics, tempting them with the promise of being able to put research associate on their CV, even if what they are doing isn’t really research. That is just unethical.

    The worst of both worlds

    We need to do better. We need job titles and job descriptions and job pathways which properly reflect and respect research-adjacent roles. And we need to challenge the implicit assumption that these jobs are not enough in their own right. That they somehow need to be made ‘more research-y’. That devalues researchers and it devalues research-adjacent professionals. It’s not the best of both worlds, it’s the worst.

    Cover image by Jack Dorsey on Flickr “What’s in a name?”