On the abuse of the terms “Research-Professor” and “Professors-Researchers”

In communications in English at Ecole Polytechnique, all too often the terms “professors-researchers” and “research professor” occur. That’s wrong. Please don’t use those terms. Ever. Pretty-please. It does — at best — lead to confusion …

Let me try to explain: The French term “enseignant-chercheur” literally doesn’t translate into English at all. The international standard is that “of course a professor does research and teaching” so when you add a qualifier to “professor” it is usually to “subtract” something from the usual professoral functions.

When writing “professors-researchers” a native English-speaker will at best make the association to “Research Professor”.  And, well, when you write “Research Professor”, that’s obviously what an English-speaker understands. However, it is important to note that:

    • A “research professor” is a faculty member who has no teaching duties ;
    • A “research professor” is a temporary appointment, funded on some external grant ;
    • Usually a “research professor” is working under the supervision of a “real professor” .

That is: when you write “professor-researcher”, there are two possible interpretations:

  1. An English-speaker who knows France a little bit may, if we’re lucky, think “Ah, a CNRS CR/DR person”.
  2. An English-speaker who doesn’t know France will think “a lesser, temporary researcher, on contract”.

And when you describe, in English, someone as “research professor”, you’re actually describing that person as a “lesser faculty member” — some (for example, I) would take offense to that.


At Ecole Polytechnique we have some colleagues who’re “Professors” at Ecole Polytechnique, and therefore do both their teaching and research at Ecole Polytechnique.

We also have colleagues, who’re having a part-time appointment at Ecole Polytechnique (ChE, PCC, …) and have their main employer elsewhere (e.g., CNRS).

And we have colleagues who’re having a full-time research position only, and do not teach.

When want to make a distinction between those three categories, here’s the proper nomenclature:

    • Professor (full-time enseignant-chercheur)
    • Adjunct professor (part-time enseignant, such as ChE, PCC, …)
    • Research Scientists / Senior Scientists / Research Director (for CNRS CR/DRs)

So it would be, for example, correct and appropriate to write:

    • “Frank Pacard, professor of Mathematics at Ecole Polytechnique”
    • “Philippe Drobinski, research director at CNRS and adjunct professor at Ecole Polytechnique”
    • “Marceau Coupechoux, professor at Telecom-Paris, and adjunct professor at Ecole Polytechnique”
    • “Joris Van Der Hoeven, research director at CNRS”

But, it would be highly inappropriate to write “Frank Pacard, research professor / professor-researcher of Mathematics at Ecole Polytechnique” … (unless, that is, you want to describe Frank Pacard as a lesser faculty member?)

For completeness …. symmetrically, you may see, in English, “professor of practice” or “professor of professional practice” which is someone who does teach — but who has no research duties. Examples include: a lawyer who practices as an attorney and also teaches in law-school ; a physician who in addition to treating patients also teaches in medical school … (the latter actually exists in French as PU-PH “Professeur des universités-praticien hospitalier”).

Here’s to hoping that we’ll never see any occurrences of “Research Professor” or “Professor-Researcher” on any Ecole Polytechnique communication ever again.