Glossary — US Higher Ed

Below are some common terms used in US academe selected and defined especially for international graduate students. Domestic students may find the list worth skimming through as well. More specific terms about graduate-level literacy skills (reading, writing, research, and communication), which may be useful for all graduate students, can be found in a separate page here. If you have suggestions for important but missing terms, you can suggest here.

academic adviser: a program director or professor who guides students for academic matters such as how to complete requirements for a degree (a thesis/dissertation advisor only supports you with the thesis or dissertation, and a research advisor or mentor is usually the professor with whom you work closely/directly)

academic honesty: representing others’ and one’s own work and intellectual property accurately and fairly (plagiarism, for instance, is academic dishonesty, and so are fabrication of data, having someone else write your research paper, etc)

academic year: usually starting in August or September, when most new students begin study, and ending in April or May when the final semester is over (it’s divided into two semesters plus short winter and summer sessions for those who want to take more courses, or three trimesters, or four quarters–this may vary depending on the school or university system, ie, SUNY, Penn State, University of Illinois, etc.)

assistantship: A study grant/offer of financial assistance to a graduate student that is provided in return for certain services in teaching or laboratory supervision (as a teaching assistant), or for services in research (as a research assistant).

auditing: taking a class without receiving credit for a degree, usually by asking a professor to let you sit in on and observe

campus or college: “campus” is the land/compound occupied by a college (or university)–some colleges or universities may have several campuses.

core courses: courses you must take for completing a degree, certificate, major, minor, etc.

course registration: selecting the course you need and/or want to take, typically by using an interactive website, which usually begins a few weeks before semester/session begins

credits: unit of learning, traditionally measured by how many hours of class you take per week, also used for measuring degree progress and completion

degree: official credential and title you receive when you complete studies in an academic program

dissertation: extensive, long research paper or book manuscript written by doctoral students under the coaching and guidance of a research advisor and faculty committee  (paper written by master’s students is called thesis)

drop dates: the last days when when you can decide not to take a course for which  you’ve registered (usually in three stages–with a full refund, then with a partial refund or no refund, and finally with no refund and with an academic penalty.) These vary from school to school.

elective course: a course you can choose, in addition to core/required courses (sometimes, you must choose a certain number of elective courses from different groups in a catalog)

faculty: the group of professors and instructors in a department or college (individuals are called “faculty members” – “faculty” is not a count noun); this word refers to “college” (or collection of related disciplines, as in the “faculty of social sciences”) in many other countries

fellowship: financial support that usually comes with a recognized title of “fellow” and mentor support from one’s program/ department, institution, or an external grant-making body

grade point average (GPA): average of grades, usually out of 4, of all courses taken (many universities require graduate students to maintain 3 or above to continue their teaching or research assistantship). In the United States, graduate students are usually expected to keep an average grade or B (usually 3.0) in all their coursework, which is generally higher than the expectations for undergraduates.

grade: letter or other mark given to indicate students’ academic achievement

graduate assistant: student who works in administrative or other positions other than those that involve research or teaching

graduate: a student who has completed a course of study (verb: to graduate); this is different from “graduate study” or program, which means masters or doctoral level (the term “postgraduate” is not used in the US). Note that “graduate” (someone who has completed any degree is a graduate of that degree) has a different meaning than “graduate student” (which refers to someone who is pursuing a graduate degree).

higher education: education at colleges, universities, professional schools, technical institutes, etc, that is beyond high school completion (12+ years of education)

independent study: a one-student course in which the instructor supports the student, usually taken after completing other courses

international student adviser (ISA): official who provides international students information about government regulations, visas, academic regulations, social customs, language, financial or housing problems, travel plans, insurance, and legal matters that impact their educational experience

internship: work experience in a student’s field of study (in or outside college), for academic credit and/or monetary compensation

language requirement: the requirement that nonnative English speakers show a certain level of English language competency through various methods such as writing papers, giving presentations, or taking exams

lecture: method of teaching when the professor/instructor speaks to or leads a discussion among students

letter of recommendation: a letter written to support a student, staff member, or colleague who is applying for academic or professional opportunity

liberal arts (or liberal arts and sciences): academic college/unit including the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences (focusing on critical thinking, analytical, communicative, and other general skills)

master’s degree: usually a 2-year degree after bachelor’s degree which is usually 4 years after 12 years of schooling

matriculated: formally admitted into a college/university (not to be confused with “degree completion,” as used in South Asian and other World Englishes)

midterm exam or paper: an exam or paper that you’re asked to do around the middle of a semester

non-credit (bearing): a course of study which is done for its own sake and does not bear academic credit, but may involve other tokens of merit or achievement such as badges or certification

orientation: a program or experience to help students adjust to a new academic environment or system

part-time student: a student who is formally enrolled in a program or course of study but is not taking a full load of courses

pass/fail: the indication of successful course completion or a failure to do so, instead of more specific letter grades ranking performance (A, B, C, sometimes D, and F). Pass/fail does not change the student’s GPA.

placement test: a test taken to see whether and where you fit or can be “placed” for further study in a new program or level

plagiarize: to use words, ideas, images or other intellectual assets created by another person without specifically indicating who created/wrote it

postdoctorate: studies and training after the doctoral degree (for which there is no set time for completion)

prerequisites: courses or experience you must have taken/had in order to qualify for taking a new course or joining a new degree

qualifying examination: oral or written exam for doctoral students before starting the dissertation research (for testing knowledge of discipline, research skills, etc)

research assistant: student (usually graduate) who helps a professor or academic unit to do research

residency: program of training for specialization, mainly in medicine

school: a general term that refers to institutions of education including elementary/middle school, secondary or high school, college or university (undergraduate and graduate), and/or professional school (law, medicine, etc.)

semester: period of study of about 15 weeks (half year) except for condensed semesters which can be three to ten weeks. Semester length differs according to school and system.

seminar: a class or class discussion that involves students in research, reading, interaction, and writing/presentation (not just lecture by professors)

syllabus: document that specifies the nature and objectives of the course, texts/materials required, policies students must follow, and work they must complete (typically created by the professor who teaches the course)

teaching assistant (TA): a graduate student who teaches students, either alongside a professor as an assistant or independently

tenure: the guarantee of employment for an instructor after they prove their ability to teach well, produce publications, and serve the university and society

terminal degree: the last academic degree in the field. Examples are the Ph.D (Doctor of Philosophy), the MFA (Master of Fine Arts), the J.D. (Juris Doctor), the M.D.

transcript: official educational record showing grades, cumulative grade point average, achievements, and degrees awarded

transfer: moving courses taken from one institution’s system of credit to another institution’s system

withdrawal: officially discontinuing from a course before a grade is awarded

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