What do you do?
Different reactions, but always that puzzled look. And you haven’t even started to describe the content of your PhD work! Here is how to get rid of all these misconceptions of what it is you are doing when working towards your PhD:
Although it’s often used for people who attend higher education, being a student means you are in any process of learning. You are working to master a skill. Obviously the learning curve is very steep, but mastering a topic won’t get you towards the PhD. You are learning to do research, but even then you’re not there yet. A PhD student will become an expert, but is missing a vital ingredient – actually creating new content and adding knowledge to society.
The PhD Candidate title does a better job of capturing the PhD process, but still got some wrong implications. It is a popular term in the US to describe a PhD student who finished the requirements and coursework, with only the dissertation left. But if you want to reach a level capable of extending knowledge, you can’t just be finished with learning. Besides, a candidacy describes your goal, not the work you do, so it’s not solving the problem.
Trying to add to science though means you need to improve yourself every day to reach a level capable of doing this. Doing coursework is a part of this, but there is no way you can ever be finished with learning more about your topic or improving your personal skills. Secondly the term candidacy says something about your goal, not what you are doing.
That’s why you are a PhD Researcher.
You’re in the process of creating a dissertation which advances science. You are the one who is truly focussing on research, realise that never again in the academic rank you’ll have the opportunity to devote so much time to it again. Learning every day about your topic, about performing research or about yourself is very important, but it is only a means of achieving the needed intellectual level to create your thesis.
Does your job title describes the content of your work? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!