Should You Call Yourself a ‘Student’?

Who do you picture when you hear the word ‘student’? Someone with their head down at the library? Someone diligently working away in a lab or classroom? Someone smiling in a brochure, wearing a backpack and giving a thumbs-up?

(I have never seen any student do this, ever.)

Unfortunately, there are all sorts of less flattering stereotypes about students. Stories of drunkenness, extreme debt, and poor living conditions tend to make the news more often than stories of hard work and success.

But the negative stereotypes are far from the postgraduate reality. Postgraduate students tend to be older (and perhaps more mature) than your average undergraduate student; we have often been out in the workplace, and may have even achieved a prominent position in our careers and communities. Many postgraduate students are very hard-working professionals; after all, in order to gain acceptance to a postgraduate programme, we have to be reasonably high achievers.

All of this means that we can have an uncomfortable relationship with the label ‘student’ and its less favourable connotations.

On the one hand, it can be a point of pride to call ourselves ‘students’ in recognition of the learning we are doing, and the possibilities that come with improving our minds and our career prospects.

On the other hand, it can feel strange to call ourselves ‘students’ knowing that we are much more experienced and independent than that label could imply.

If you hate the term ‘student,’ there are alternatives:

  • ‘Candidate’ – this is quite common, especially in doctoral programmes. It can sound  impressive on a business card or in an email signature. At AUT, you can use this term once your candidature is confirmed (i.e. you pass the PGR9 process).
  • ‘Scholar’ – take care with this one, because it has subtly different meanings in different places around the world. For example, it’s often reserved for those who have been awarded a particular scholarship within a university. If you receive the AUT Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship, you can refer to yourself as a ‘Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar.’
  • ‘Researcher’ – if your programme is 100% research-based (i.e. you’re not taking any taught courses) you could call yourself a ‘Masters researcher’ or ‘Doctoral researcher.’

Ultimately, the university will use the term ‘student’ for a lot of practical matters. No matter how advanced your research, there are still practicalities such as enrolment, fees, and assessment that apply to students at all levels.

But in terms of your own self-identification, you can take or leave the ‘student’ label. If you like seeing yourself as a learner, or you like the sense of new beginnings, then you may prefer to call yourself a ‘student.’ If another term feels like a better fit for you, or better suits your professional image, then you can try out alternatives in your own personal communications.

When it comes to discounts though… postgrads are totally students! Flash that student ID card and get your cheap movie tickets!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

3 thoughts on “Should You Call Yourself a ‘Student’?

  1. Hi Anaise, thanks for the great contribution. I had the student-candidate discussion with my supervisors and I was advised that we can only use candidate once we have successfully defended our PRG9 and our ‘probation’ is over – I know that you emphasis that this article is mostly about the self-definition for PG students, but I thought it is worth sharing my experience 🙂

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