Graduate School Terminology: What do all these words mean?

What do all these words even mean?

Few activities will give you impostor syndrome as quickly as the graduate school research and application process. Academia, especially at high levels, throws around terms, slang, and acronyms like it’s no one’s business. But, no fear, I am here to define some of the most common and potentially baffling graduate school terms!

ABD – All But Dissertation
This term, which is often slung around in PhD program introductions and whispered conversations alike, is used to describe a doctoral student who has completed all coursework and preliminary exams but has not completed their dissertation. Spoiler alert: you can’t graduate until that is done!

This is an amazing form of financial aid in which you are paid for work performed, work which is often related to your studies or area of specialization (huge bonus). Typically, programs will say that you will work in an assistantship for about 20 hours per week, but depending on your placement and university culture, you may be working way more than that! There are a few types of assistantships available, commonly at the PhD level, but occasionally offered for master’s-level degrees as well.

    • A research assistantship pays you to assist a professor on an experiment or research project
    • A teaching assistantship pays you to teach sections of undergraduate courses or to help faculty grade papers and examinations
    • A general assistantship will involve assignment to a specific administrative office or project, such as academic advising or residential programs

This term is relevant to anyone pursuing a PhD! A committee refers to a thesis/dissertation committee, which typically consists of three faculty members. One faculty member is identified as the chair or thesis/dissertation advisor of the committee. The chair is your primary contact and is responsible for guidance during your degree. Basically, think of them as your guiding light in all the PhD potential madness.

Comprehensive Exam
Some graduate schools offer a comprehensive exam as a culminating experience instead of a thesis or dissertation. This option includes a written exam and may include an oral defense. The written exam tests understanding of course work and knowledge gained in specialty areas.

A dissertation is a substantial work of independent original research, at the doctoral level, which contributes to the current body of knowledge in a scholarly field. This is the big, big project that is the culminating experience in your PhD pursuit and can take literally years to complete.

Joint Degree
Some students will choose to pursue multiple degrees at once. Schools that offer joint degrees have a system set up to allow students to pursue both at the same time, typically at a pace quicker than if you pursued both degrees separately.

Rolling Admissions
When applying to graduate programs, you might see that specific programs use a rolling admissions cycle. This means that the program has an application review schedule in which admission decisions are made on a continuous basis throughout the year rather than at fixed application deadlines. Basically, the graduate school fills their cohort as they go, and it might fill up well before the deadline!

If you get a stipend for graduate school, that is incredibly helpful! This is a grant of money to a graduate student for use toward expenses beyond tuition and fees. Graduate assistantships sometimes pay both tuition and a stipend, which can be applied toward living expenses (you know, your ability to eat during graduate school).

Terminal Degree
The highest degree level available in a specific subject area. Basically, this is as high as you can go! Commonly, a PhD or a professional degree like an MD.

Basically, how long it is going to take to complete the degree. You will want to know this for the programs you apply to!

Don’t be afraid to talk to a faculty member, or a Knowlton Center Career Coach, to help define graduate school terms and navigate what may feel like an overwhelming process!

Authored by Sara Stasko, Associate Director for Graduate School & Pre-Health Advising