Graduate School From A to Z

Thinking about grad school? Whether you're planning to earn a master's degree, doctorate or professional degree, you'll cover a lot of new ground in your academic field. Here are some basic graduate study terms you'll want to be familiar with.

By Douglas J. Fehlen

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In recent years, there has been a large increase in the number of schools offering graduate degrees. Unfortunately, some of these institutions feature academic programs not accredited by any governing education agency. Check with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation - or another accrediting organization - to ensure that your degree will be recognized by employers.


The dissertation represents the 'finish line' for Ph.D. candidates. It should be an original academic work featuring independent research. Doctoral students typically write dissertations after most of their studies have been completed. Before earning a Ph.D., candidates must defend their work before the doctoral committee.

Entrance Exams

Graduate programs require applicants to complete a range of entrance exams, depending upon the academic discipline. The GRE is the most universally used assessment for graduate admissions. Some others include the GMAT (for business school), LSAT (for law school) and MCAT (for medical school).


Fellowships are basically scholarships for the grad school set. These financial awards are typically used to cover tuition, room and board, travel and other living expenses. Fellowships are often awarded based on the type or scope of work students plan to complete in graduate school.

Graduate Program Assistants

Graduate program assistants may complete a wide variety of tasks, from performing administrative duties to answering questions about coursework. These individuals provide invaluable support for faculty members. They are also often the first point of contact for current and prospective students looking for information on grad programs.

Normative Time

This term refers to the amount of time within which students are expected to complete their studies in a specific department. For example, the normative for a Ph.D. in literature might be six years. Students who exceed this amount of time may no longer be eligible for financial aid or other benefits.

Personal Statement

This essay plays an important role in graduate admissions. Schools may ask that you provide a general statement about yourself - a format that let's you decide how to incorporate academic interests into an essay. Other schools provide one or more specific questions that incorporate certain aspects of study from your academic discipline.

Research Assistant

Many graduate students work as research assistants within the academic departments in which they're enrolled. These positions are typically offered as a form of financial aid with students carrying out academic research in exchange for funding to cover tuition and additional school expenses.

Teaching Assistant

Working as teaching assistants is another way in which grad students help to pay for tuition and other college costs. Teaching assistants may serve in a support role to professors in classes, or they might themselves teach undergrad classes within their academic discipline.


A thesis is an original work that includes a student's examination of a given topic. It represents the final piece of coursework for individuals earning a master's degree. A student typically completes a thesis in cooperation with the thesis committee within a particular academic department.

Qualifying Exams

These exams are used in many graduate programs to determine whether Ph.D. candidates have appropriate competency in core subjects and chosen specialties. In many settings, students who pass these assessments are given the green light to complete research and writing for dissertations.


After so many practical terms, here's one that's a little more inspirational in nature: Grad school has the potential to be the zenith of your academic career. Do all you can to embrace the experience; you'll have limitless opportunities to expand your understanding in your discipline while making relationships that can last a lifetime.

Why grad school? Check out this article exploring why graduate school applications and enrollments are up.

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