Monday, September 26, 2011

Academic Lingo

Just about everything these days has a special language. You learn the language when you’re studying a particular discipline, training for a job, following a sport, or engaged in some leisure activity. Many of these languages boast TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) that the uninitiated can’t decipher.

This post explains some of the terms that students are likely to come across. Don’t rely on these definitions for official purposes; be sure to check your own institution’s definitions, policies, and procedures.

ABD: All But the Dissertation. A PhD student is ABD when they’ve completed all of their degree requirements except defending their dissertation (i.e., they have been Advanced to Candidacy; see below). Some students never progress beyond this stage, because, of course, they have to WRITE the dissertation before they can defend it.

Bursary: a financial award or grant that usually is based on financial need, rather than academic merit. Bursaries are not the same as scholarships and are not listed on a CV (see below). Some bursaries are targeted at students with a particular background or career interest.

Candidacy: a doctoral student is a PhD Candidate when they’ve been officially Advanced to Candidacy. This process varies by institution, but usually involves a residence requirement, successful completion of course work, and some form of examination. Until a grad student is advanced to candidacy they are simply a grad student, although at some institutions there may be formal categories, like probationary PhD student, or something similar.

Comprehensive exam: some academic departments administer comps (usually to doctoral students) to ensure that the student’s knowledge of their subject area is sufficient for them to advance in the program. Comps may be written or oral. Grad students dread these exams, and most academics were so traumatized by the experience that they can (and often will, with little prompting) recount the details of their comps some 20 or 30 years later.

CV: Curriculum Vitae. An academic resume, the CV lists the facts of an academic’s employment history, courses taught, research grants received, publications, conference presentations, graduate students supervised, administrative service, and other professional and public service. The CV is essential when applying for college and university positions. Typically its format bears little resemblance to the resume that would be used when applying for non-academic jobs.

Defense: the oral examination of a Master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. A successful defense may require revisions to the written document. Until the final document is approved and any outstanding fees are paid to the university (including library fines, etc.) the student hasn’t actually completed their degree.

Fellowship: a time-limited, merit-based financial award or scholarship. It is more common in the US than in Canada to use the term to refer to payment for some type of work, usually as an intern or for fieldwork, so that a graduate student can enhance their training in their field of interest. Another use of the term refers to the granting to academics of fellowship in a scholarly society.

Graduate program: may refer to a Master’s or a PhD program. In some US institutions, a student is admitted to the graduate program, takes two years of courses and is then subjected to one or more examinations before being advanced to candidacy. If it’s deemed that the student doesn’t have what it takes to go on for a PhD, s/he may be awarded a “terminal” Master’s degree. In almost all universities in Canada, and in many US institutions, a student is admitted first to a Master’s program and must complete course work as well as a research thesis in order to obtain the Master’s degree (normally this takes 2 to 4 years). They may then apply to the same or another institution for the PhD. Some institutions, especially in the UK, offer a “taught” Master’s degree that involves course work only.

Granting agency: A government agency, non-profit organization, or foundation that awards research grants to academics, usually through a competitive process. This is how academics fund their research; the academic’s home institution rarely supports entire research projects, although it may offer some “seed money” to get a research project started, or may be required to provide “matching funds” to complement an external grant. Some agencies offer scholarships or other awards (such as internships) to graduate student and undergraduate researchers. Examples of major granting agencies include the NSF (National Science Foundation), the NIH (National Institutes of Health), and the SSRC (Social Sciences Research Council) in the US; and the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council) and the CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) in Canada.

Hard dollars: the money that an academic unit (e.g., department) receives as an allocation from the institution’s operating budget. These dollars are recurring in that they are allocated every year, although there may be budget cuts or increases that change the amount from one year to the next. In most cases, the greatest proportion of a unit’s hard dollar budget goes to the salaries of academic and non-academic (e.g., secretaries) salaries. A much smaller amount will cover telephones, photocopying, and other supplies and services. In most academic units the costs of day-to-day operations of research labs are borne by externally funded research grants, which constitute “soft money.”

Honors/Honours Degree: An undergraduate degree that has wildly different requirements from department to department, institution to institution. Usually a student needs a minimum GPA to be admitted to the program, and normally a research thesis or paper is one of the degree requirements. Whether a Honors/Honours degree will give a student an advantage when applying to a graduate program will depend upon the institution.

Journal: in academic use a journal is a serious, scholarly publication, usually peer-reviewed (see below), that is published on a regular basis (e.g., weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly). Many academic associations have an official journal. Journals are commonly referred to as periodicals or serials in the library. They are not magazines.

Monograph: a scholarly piece of writing, often of book length, that is on a specific subject. Often, but not always, a monograph is published by an academic unit of a college, university, or museum as opposed to a more commercial publisher, and may be one in a series on a particular area of specialization.

Postdoc: This term refers to someone who holds the PhD (or MD, or other doctorate or the equivalent) and is engaged in research or advanced training. Technically, the term Postdoctoral Fellow (PDF) applies only to someone who has received a fellowship, usually through a competitive process. In other cases the more appropriate term is postdoctoral researcher (or some equivalent term).

Peer-review: the process whereby scholarly manuscripts are reviewed by two or three other scholars before the editor/publisher makes a decision to accept, request revisions, or decline to publish the work. Student-run journals, although they may send student-written submissions to other students (i.e., peers) for review, are not classed as peer-reviewed in academia.

Research Ethics Requirement/Research Compliance: requirements that students who intend to engage in research that involves human or animal subjects, radiation, biohazardous materials, etc. present details of their research procedures to an institutional committee for approval before they begin to collect data.

Scholarship: a time-limited financial award that is the outcome of a competitive process and that usually is merit-based. Some scholarships are targeted at students with a particular background or career interest.

Soft money: funds that come from research grants or other time-limited sources and that are not part of an institution’s regular operating funds. Salaries for undergraduate or graduate student research assistants, as well as some types of academic research positions, and the supplies and basic operating costs of labs and various research activities usually are covered by soft money.

TA: teaching assistant. Usually a grad student who is hired for a limited term contract for a specified number of hours to assist in the delivery of a course. This may involve leading seminars, teaching labs, or providing tutorials, and/or marking of exams or papers. In some departments an advanced undergraduate student may serve in this role, particularly if there is no graduate program.


  1. It might be worth noting that a lot of these terms vary by geographic region and/or field. I *did* my M.Sc. in Psychology at the U of A and I'm familiar with how you're using most of these terms, but now that I'm doing a postdoc in Australia I've seen a lot of differences. For example, nobody that I've talked to out here has any what I'm referring to when I ask about candidacy exams, comps, or quals; they don't do oral defenses out here; an "honours" program is a an optional fourth-year research add-on to the standard terminal three-year undergraduate degree; and "teaching assistant" draws blank stares. (Candidacy exams were also unknown at my institution in Montréal where I did my Ph.D.).

    (As an aside, this is the second time I've tried commenting on your blog with Wordpress only to end up erroring out...?)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Steven. I've tried to make it clear in my posts that I'm talking about the situation in North America, but I didn't make that clear enough in this latest post. There's so much variation here and abroad in terms of how things are done; I remember when the U of A and many other institutions in Canada had a 3-year "general" degree and a 4-year "Honors" degree, but the standard degree become 4 years here more than two decades ago. The other differences are many. I'm sure most North Americans are not familiar with the "viva", which you've no doubt come across in Australia.

    As to your aside...I'll see what I can do about that!