The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Graduate student

A graduate student (also, grad student or grad in American English, postgraduate (student) or postgrad in British English) is an individual who has completed a bachelor's degree (B.A., B.S./B.Sc., etc.) and is pursuing further higher education, with the goal of achieving a master's degree (M.A., M.S./M.Sc., M.Ed., etc.), doctorate (Ph.D., Ed.D., D.A., D.Sc., D.M.A., Th.D., etc.) or other postgraduate qualification, such as a graduate certificate . In the United States, graduate education can also refer to those pursuing a post-master's Educational Specialist degree or post-master's Certificate of Advanced Study. The term usually does not refer to one in medical school and only occasionally refers to someone in law school or business school.




Admission to a masters program generally requires a bachelor's degree in a related field, with sufficiently high grades (usually ranging from B+ range and up, though this requirement may be significantly higher in some faculties), recommendations from professors, and, for some fields, demonstrated ability in at least one foreign language. Some schools require samples of the student's writing as well as a research proposal.

Admission to a doctoral program requires a master's degree in a related field, sufficiently high grades, recommendations, samples of writing, and a research proposal. In rare cases and in some fields only, outstanding students may progress directly from an Honours BA/BSc to a PhD.

Both master's and doctoral programs may be done by coursework or research or a combination of the two, depending on the subject and faculty. Most faculty require both, with the emphasis on research and coursework being directly related to the field of research.

In english-speaking universities, applicants from countries where English is not the primary language are required to submit scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). French-speaking universities have varying sets of rule, some will accept student with very little knowledge of french if they can communicate with their supervisors (usually in english).


Graduate students must usually declare their research goal or submit a research proposal upon entering grad school; in the case of master's degrees, there will be some flexibility (that is, one is not held to one's research proposal, although major changes, for example from premodern to modern history, are discouraged). In the case of PhDs, the research direction is usually known as it will typically follow the direction of the master's research.

Master's degrees can typically be completed in one year but normally take two. Doctoral degrees require a minimum of two years but frequently take much longer. Graduate students often work as teaching or research assistants.

United Kingdom


Admission to do a research degree in the UK typically requires the sponsorship of a professor. It is useful to have a master's degree, but certainly not essential. A good bachelor's degree, however, is required. Usually research students are admitted to do an M.Phil and can later convert to a Ph.D if they progress well.

Admission to do a taught master's degree (based on coursework) depends upon having an undergraduate degree, generally in a related subject.


Postgraduate work at universities in the UK is very intense.


It is very difficult to obtain funding for postgraduate study in the UK. There are a few scholarships for master's courses, but these are rare and dependent on the course and class of undergraduate degree obtained. Most master's students are self-funded.

Funding is available for some Ph.D. courses. There is more funding available to those in the sciences than in other disciplines.

United States


Admission to graduate school usually requires a Bachelor's degree; rarely, exceptional students are admitted without one. High grades in one's field of study are important, grades outside of the field rarely are. GRE scores and, especially, good letters of recommendation and previous research experience are important. Additionally, graduate applicants are usually best to have at least one recommendation come from research work outside of the college where they earned their Bachelor's degree. For the most prestigious and selective schools, such as those in the Ivy League, connections are essential; most people admitted to them already have a relationship with one or more members of the department, with whom they intend to research.

The most selective schools set minimum GPAs and test scores below which they will not accept any applicants; this reduces the time spent reviewing applications. Some also require professors to act as sponsors. Finally, applicants from non-English speaking countries must take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

At most institutions, decisions regarding admission are not made by the institution itself but the department for which the applicant will be studying.


Graduate students often declare their intended degree (Master's or Doctorate) in their applications. In some cases, master's programs allow successful students to continue toward the doctorate degree. Additionally, students who complete their coursework but not dissertation ("ABD," for "all but dissertation") often receive master's degrees. The Master's component of a doctorate program often requires one or two years, and some students, because doctoral programs are better-funded, apply for doctoral programs while only intending to attain a Master's degree. This behavior is generally not accepted and, if a student's advisor learns of the student's plans, can result in early termination.

Many graduate programs require students to pass one or several examinations in order to demonstrate their competency as scholars. One such test, called a Comprehensive Examination ("Comps"), often required in the first year of study, is designed to test a student's background undergraduate-level knowledge. Students failing after two attempts are usually expelled from the program, often with a "consolation" master's degree.

Most graduate students perform teaching duties. Early in the program, they often serve as graders and tutors; as they advance, they can be promoted to "lecturer" status, receiving more responsibility and a larger stipend.

Doctoral students generally spend roughly their first two years taking course work, and by their second year if not before, begin research. Many master's and all specialist students will perform research culminating in a paper, presentation, and defense of their research. This is called the master's thesis (or, for Educational Specialist students, the specialist paper). Many US master's degree programs, however, do not require a master's thesis, focusing instead primarily on course work.

In the second and third years of study, doctoral programs often require students to pass more examinations of their competency. Programs often require a Qualifying Examination ("Quals") or General Examination ("Generals"), testing students' grasp of a broad sample of their discipline, and/or one or several Special Field Examinations ("Specials"), testing students in their narrower selected areas of specialty within the discipline. Again, passing such examinations allows the student to stay, begin doctoral research, and rise to the status of a doctoral candidate, while failing usually results in the student leaving the program or re-taking the test after some time has passed (usually a semester or a year). Some schools have an intermediate category, passing at the Master's level, which allows the student to leave with a Master's without having completed a Master's thesis.

For the next several years (typically 3-8 years, though a rare few finish more quickly and some take substantially longer), the doctoral candidate primarily performs his or her research. The typical doctoral degree takes between 4 and 10 years from entering the program to completion, though this time varies depending upon the department, thesis topic, and many other factors. For example, astronomy degrees take 5-6 years on average, but observational astronomy degrees take 6-7 (due to limiting factors of weather) while theoretical astronomy degrees take 5. Though there is substantial variation among universities, departments, and individuals, humanities and social science doctorates on average take somewhat longer to complete than natural science doctorates. However, time required to complete a doctorate also varies according to the candidate's desires; because the academic job market is terrible, some students linger for long periods of time to avoid it.

Traditionally, doctoral programs were only intended to last 3 to 4 years and, with the economic support of a second-income, a helpful advisor, and a light teaching load, it is possible for the degree to be completed in that amount of time.

Foreign graduate students outnumber American-born students in some US departments, primarily in the natural sciences. Women, American ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in graduate programs, a fact found, more generally, at high levels of the American educational system. While this unfortunate situation has improved over time, institutions do not have the ability to easily correct it.


Graduate students who are not independently wealthy live very meagerly. Students able to attain a RA (research assistant) or TA (teaching assistant) position, at least, acquire tuition-forgiveness and a stipend that pays for most expenses. Stipends do not usually correlate with local cost of living, so students in expensive locales such as Boston and Berkeley, even funded, almost invariantly lose economic ground.

RA positions are more coveted than TA positions because, while teaching is generally considered a distraction from one's work, RAs typically are paid to work on the dissertation they are required to complete anyway.

A rare few students can attain outside fellowships such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Physical Sciences Consortium (NPSC). The sciences are funded well enough that most students can attain either outside or institutional funding, but in the humanities, not all do. Some humanities students are forced to borrow money during their coursework, then take full-time jobs while completing their dissertations.

Foreign grads are typically funded the same way as domestic (US) grads, although some funding sources (such as many NSF fellowships) may only be awarded to domestic students. International students often have even worse financial difficulties than domestic students. Reasons include high costs to visit their families back home, support of a family not allowed to work due to immigration laws, tuition that is ridiculous by world standards, and large fees: visa fees by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, surveillance fees (such as Student and Exchange Visitor Information Systems, or SEVIS[1]) by Congress and Homeland Security.

In rare cases, graduate students can lose funding and be de facto terminated from the program. Depending on the structure of the department, this can sometimes even happen at the whim of an advisor. This can be devastating, and there have been instances of suicide or murder of professors or advisors by graduate students who have lost funding and are unable to complete their degrees.


There is debate within academia as to whether or not graduate students should be considered students or employees; many graduate students see themselves as akin to junior faculty, with lower pay (by a factor of perhaps up to seven). Specifically, most students resent teaching duties because, not only are they doing this work at the expense of their research, but they are denying work to prospective professors, who would need to be hired if not for cheap graduate labor to make it possible to teach larger classes without personally handling all grading, question and answer, et cetera.

The United Academic Workers (UAW, "United Academic Workers") is one of the unions that represents graduate employees. Universities' administrations often oppose these unions, arguing that student should be exempt for labor laws intended for "workers", while the union organizers and most graduate students feel all workers have an inalienable right to unionize. Nonetheless, in some cases, unionization movements meet even with enough student opposition that they fail. At the schools where graduate students are unionized, which positions are unionized vary. Sometimes only one set of employees (e.g. teaching assistants, residential directors) will unionize; at other times, most or all will. Typically, fellowship recipients, usually not employed by their university, do not participate.

When negotiations fail, graduate student unions typically declare a "grading strike" wherein duties considered nonessential, like grading, are not done. However, it is rare that lecturing or critical resident-director duties are neglected; in some cases the union declares these duties voluntary, and almost all students perform them, recognizing that it would be unfair to neglect the undergraduates because of a disagreement with the institution, not the student body.

Life after graduate school

Traditionally, successful doctorate candidates in the English-speaking world would receive tenure-track faculty positions, after an optional post-doctoral position. In recent years, the poor academic job market has required academics to perform multiple low-pay, low-respect adjunct positions before earning a tenure-track job. Not wanting to be poor into their 30s, many Ph.D.'s enter industry-- in some fields, more than 50 percent do.

A doctorate in humanities, however, is often referred to as a "professor's degree" and, outside of academia and teaching, does not confer upon its recipient better job prospects. Because, in these fields, there are many more Ph.D.s awarded per year than tenure-track jobs opened, humanities graduate programs are likened to exploitation: Ph. D.'s are overproduced for profit, then face a downsized job market.

External links


  • William G. Bowen & Neil L. Rudenstine, In Pursuit of the PhD (Princeton UP, 1992; ISBN 0-691-04294-2). A comprehensive report on graduate education in the US from the 1960s to the 1990s, based on surveys of tens of thousands of graduate students.

Last updated: 09-01-2005 00:36:20
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