Grad School Jargon 101

So, I remember when I was applying to different grad schools, there was a lot of jargon on the departmental admission pages, like “Comps,” “Candidacy,” “Assistantship,” etc. I pretty much just assumed I’d figure it out as I went along, and I did, sorta. However, it might have made my life a bit easier if I knew what any of these things meant ahead of time, instead of learning it during orientation when they were explaining to me how to get my PhD…

So, below are some common terms that you’ll see as you look through grad school admission websites and what they mean. I will admit, I had to look some of these up myself because they aren’t relevant to my program (or they are relevant, but I figured I’d just learn what it was last minute :3), so bear with me. Hence the reason for sources! Please correct me if I incorrectly defined anything or let me know if there is anything I should add!

Advancement to Candidacy

At the beginning of a graduate program, a student is not yet considered a candidate for a graduate degree. In order to become a candidate, a student must have completed his/her academic and program requirements, as well as any needed examinations. The milestone of advancing to candidacy signifies that the student is ready to move forward and begin working on their dissertation and a “PhD/Grad Student” becomes a “PhD Candidate”


Most graduate programs offer assistantships and they are typically categorized as teaching assistantships (TA), research assistantships (RA) or graduate assistantships (GA). Essentially, the school provides students paid tuition, a monthly stipend and health insurance in exchange for completing certain types of work, such as teaching undergraduates.


Faculty members, in addition to Research Advisor, that help to guide coursework and research. These members will also serve as your final examiners during your defense. (Credit to: Sweet Tea, Science)


Typically an oral presentation where you give a summary of your thesis and the research results you obtained. An examining committee then asks you questions which you must respond to in order to defend your work. (Also Oral Defense/Exam)


A fancy word for thesis. (See “thesis”)


Every program has an exam of some sort, and these go by many names such as, Cumulative Exams (Cumes), Comprehensive Exams (Comps), Preliminary Exams (Prelims), General Exams (Generals/GEs) and Qualifying Exams (Quals). These exams, which can be written and/or oral, are given by most graduate programs with the general purpose of making sure the student understands his/her discipline well enough in order to conduct their own independent research in their field. The specifics of these exams are dependent on each program, but they can range from focusing only on the students research topic to expecting the student to understand a wider range of topics.


Fellowships are free money given to students, much like a scholarship, and are generally merit-based. Depending on the amount, the award could cover things such as your tuition, housing, stipend and other living expenses. Sometimes, have specific requirements, such as working on a specific type of research, publishing a set amount of articles in a specific field, or interning/working at a specific place later on.


A Graduate Record Examination is a standardized exam that is typically required for admission to graduate schools. School’s also sometimes require GRE Subject Tests, as well.

Oral Defense/Exam

See Defense


A work experience or hands-on portion of classes offered in graduate schools. For instance, clinical psychology students may spend 8 hours a week seeing clients to fulfill requirements for some classes. A practicum is smaller in scope than an internship and usually only lasts as long as the length of the course which requires it.

Research Advisor

A faculty member that advises the student with his/her research.


Typically during a student’s first year or grad school, incoming student are sometimes expected to work in 3-6 laboratories, each for a short period of time, before making a final decision regarding which group to join. This happens most commonly with fields such as biology, but is dependent on the program.


A requirement of obtaining a PhD, a thesis is the written research report that presents your original and significant contribution to research in your field.



5 thoughts on “Grad School Jargon 101

  1. Sweet Tea, Science October 28, 2015 / 1:56 PM

    Great post! I’d add: Committee – Faculty members, in addition to Research Advisor, that help to guide coursework and research. Will also serve as your final examiners during your defense. ~M


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