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Glossary of Graduate School Terms

November 2021

As you embark upon your graduate school journey, from school searches to applications to acceptances, you may come across a few terms that cause a bit of confusion. This is your guide to understanding and interpreting the most common grad school terminology out there.

Academic Year: This tells you when a program begins. While it may vary from school to school, most schools in the United States begin in the fall (September). Some will only offer fall and spring semesters, while others will offer fall, winter, spring and summer terms. Make sure to check which term the program you’re interested in starts. You’ll rarely be able to start whenever you want.

Appointment, Assistantship or Apprenticeship: Graduate students can be paid for work performed, often related to their degree. Research assistants and teaching assistants are examples of this type of work.

COE: This stands for College of Education.

Committee: This is a group of faculty members within your program selected by the graduate student. The major professor of the program is often chosen as the committee chair and the student can choose other members, usually a combination of faculty and non-faculty members. Each program will have certain specifications the student must adhere to when selecting a committee. These members are responsible for developing the student’s program of study and conducting exams and final defense if their program requires that.

Comprehensive Exams (Comps): This is an exam given at both the master’s and doctorate level that tests a student’s comprehensive knowledge in their program of study in order to earn a degree. The content and expectations vary by degree and program.

Cost of Attendance(COA): A comprehensive cost of enrollment at a university including living expenses, this is calculated by the school so your individual costs could be higher or lower depending on spending habits. COA may be calculated differently depending on living on campus, in an off-campus apartment or commuting.

Curriculum Vitae (CV): This is basically the academic community’s version of a resume. It should list all degrees, work experience, research experience, publications and any other accomplishments that would be relevant to a program admissions committee. It should be informational in tone, rather than promotional like a traditional resume.

Defense: A Ph.D. candidate who has completed a thesis or dissertation (see below) must present and defend that work to a committee. It is a complex process of specific protocols that must be adhered to and that vary depending on the program. The student should work closely with their program chair, advisor and faculty to ensure a successful defense.

Discipline: This is essentially a graduate student’s field of study.

Dissertation: This is the formal document used to prove the graduate student’s thesis statement. It is constructed of multiple chapters (four to six on average). This must be well-documented, researched and cited, and is presented, or defended, to a dissertation committee. If it’s accepted, the student’s degree is convened. If it isn’t, the student must revise and correct the issues and defend again.

Doctorate or Doctoral Degree: This refers to non-medical doctor degrees. Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) and Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) are examples.

FAFSA: This stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is used to apply for the federal student aid programs. It’s usually due by March of each year for the following school year.

Fellowship: A specially selected graduate student can be chosen to receive a financial stipend as a fellow. This can be used to offset education costs but is also given for targeted research in their field of study. There are various conditions and stipulations with fellowships, and students should discuss them thoroughly with their program chair or advisor.

Financial Aid Package: This is comprised of any combination of loans, scholarships, stipends, grants or other funds that an institution can use and a graduate student can receive in order to help pay for a program’s tuition.

Forbearance: The temporary cessation of loan payments where either smaller payments can be made, or the length of the loan repayment plan can be extended.

Full-Time Enrollment (Academic Year): A graduate student enrolled in a minimum of nine credit hours is considered full time. However, once completing the required coursework, three credit hours of thesis or dissertation work can also be considered full time. Some of these requirements and limits may vary from program to program so it’s important to discuss that with your program advisor when enrolling.

Graduate Assistant (GA): See also Assistantships. This is a paid work opportunity for students where they can also receive field specific experience. The hours and pay will vary from institution to institution.

Grant: A sum of money given to a student by the institution, an organization, charity or government that doesn’t have to be paid back but may come with certain guidelines that must be met.

Holistic Admissions: The admissions method wherein a school or program looks at the candidate as a whole, inclusive of multiple sources of information. Test scores are weighed along with a candidate’s other qualitative indicators within their application.

Institutional Review Board (IRB): In general, IRBs are created to make sure that research programs are being conducted ethically and humanely if humans are involved. It applies research ethics to a project’s methods and proposed topics to ensure that their strict code of ethics is being adhered to. The role and requirements of an IRB can vary from institution to institution.

International Assistant Teaching Exam (ITA): An English-language proficiency exam given to foreign students who want to participate in Assistantships.

Letter of Recommendation: This is an important piece of your application package. You’ll want to ask professors, mentors, employers or anyone who can speak to your goals, achievements, character and potential to give the admissions committee insight about you from those who have worked with you as a student and/or an employee.

Master's Degree: This is a postgraduate degree pursued after a bachelor’s degree. It typically takes between one and three years to complete depending on the program and field of study, and often requires some research component resulting in a thesis or research project as a final requirement.

Mentor Program: This varies by program and institution but often involves a new student being mentored by a returning graduate student.

Net Price: This is the amount you’ll be responsible for after you subtract scholarships, grants, parent contributions and any other contributions you receive that you won’t have to pay back from the total cost of attendance. Many institution websites offer net price calculators to help your financial responsibility.

Personal Statement: An essential part of your application package, this will give the admissions committee insight into who you are as a person beyond your qualitative factors such as GPA and test scores. If you’ve dealt with any adversity in your life, this is a good place to explain how overcoming it has helped you in your journey to grad school.

Postdoctoral Fellowship: This is a position for individuals who completed their Ph.D. and wish to continue to do research. Not all disciplines offer these and their requirements regarding a combination of work/teaching and research will vary from institution to institution and by program.

Program Advisor: This is a faculty member who academically advises and assists students throughout their programs’ plan of study.

Program Chair: This person is the academic leader and administrative head of a graduate program. They have authority as a signer for any forms and petitions related to the program. This may or may not be the same person as the larger Department Chair, although a Department Chair can designate a Program Chair to manage a graduate program within the department.

Program of Study: This is a form to be filled out by the student declaring their intended field of study. While not all institution’s use these, it’s important for a student to determine if their program of interest does and note the specific requirements and deadlines for this form and adhere to those guidelines.

Research Proposal: This is a proposal that outlines the student’s research, methods, statement of problem or issue, research approach, expected results and cited references. It’s usually presented to a professor, research committee or a potentially future funding agency. View examples and templates of research proposals.

Stipend: This is a grant that a student may receive for their graduate work to be used toward expenses beyond tuition and fees.

Thesis: This is the final document supporting a student’s original statement and research conducted throughout the master’s degree program. The completion and acceptance of a thesis marks the successful conclusion of a student’s master’s degree.

Related Resources

What is a Personal Statement for Grad School?

Who are you really? That’s what the admissions committee for any program you are applying to wants to know.

What are Net Price and Cost of Attendance?

Net Price and Cost of Attendance are two figures you need to pay close attention to when applying to grad school.