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Graduate student

A graduate student (also, grad student or grad in American English, or postgraduate student in British English) is an individual who has completed a bachelor's degree (B.A., B.S., or another flavor) and is pursuing further higher education, with the goal of achieving a master's degree (M.A., M.S., M.Ed., etc.) or doctorate (Ph.D, Ed.D, D.A, D.Sc, D.M.A, Th.D, etc.) The term usually does not refer to one in medical school and only occasionally refers to someone in law school.



Admission to graduate school hinges upon successful completion of a Bachelor's degree, good grades, good
GRE scores, letters of recommendation, previous research experience, and cronyism ("it's not what you know, it's who you know"). Popular (Ivy League) schools will often use cutoff scores on the GREs and transcripts to weed out applicants. Other schools require a professor at that school act as sponsor for an applicant to be accepted. Applicants from countries where English is not the primary language are also asked to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).


Grads generally declare their degree goal upon entering grad school. Early in the first year nearly all graduate programs require grads to take a test, called the Comprehensive, or the Comps, designed to test background undergraduate level knowledge. Passing this results in staying in the program, while failure (after a second try) results in dismissal, often with a "consolation" master's degree. In addition, during the first year many graduate students must also perform teaching duties, see "Funding" below.

Both masters and doctoral students spend their first two years taking course work, and by their second year, both will begin research. However masters students will generally complete this research by the end of the third year, culminating in a paper, presentation, and defense of their research. This is called the Master's Thesis.

Typically in the second year doctoral hopeful grads take a second big test, the Qualifier, Qualifying exam, or the Quals, testing their grasp of graduate level knowledge. Again, passing allows the student to stay and be called a doctoral candidate, while failing results in expulsion. 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 the Master's Thesis.

For the next 3-10 years, the doctoral candidate will perform his (or her) research to exclusion of all else: classes, sleep, food, personal hygiene. The typical doctoral degree takes about 5 years (from entering the program) to complete, though this time varies depending upon the department, thesis topic, and various 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. The presense of a spouse can also shave a year off the time, though whether due to emotional support or nagging is unclear.

Grad students are stereotyped as being overworked and underpaid lackeys, goons, or monkeys, performing the research which their advisor found too tedious to do him (her) self. Therefore, social lives among grad students are rare. However, contrary to this theory, a large percent of grads are married or become married while in grad school.

Foreign grads outnumber US grads in many US departments, especially in the sciences. Within the US contingent, women, ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities are also under represented. While this has been greatly studied, the trend is endemic to not only grad school, but also undergraduate, secondary, and primary education. Therefore no easy solutions are available and "fixing" this trend will take time and effort on the parts of many individuals and institutions.


In the sciences, grads generally are funded by either a TA (teaching assistantship) or RA (research assistantship) which waives their tuition and provides barely enough pocket money to cover rent and food. Some students receive fellowships from various organizations, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), but few in the sciences go without funding.

In the humanities, however, there is generally not enough grant money to go around so the majority of assistantships are TAs. A large number of humanities grads take out loans for their earlier years of coursework and write their theses while holding down a full-time job.

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.


There is an increasing movement at US graduate schools for unionization of grads. The United Auto Workers (UAW, "United Academic Workers") is one of the unions that represents graduate employees. Universities' administrations typically feel that unionizing is counter to the graduate students' primary status as a student, while the union organizers feel all employees have an inalienable right to unionizing. Among the graduate students themselves, the sentiment is mixed, and several union votes have failed, while others won only by a slim margin. Some even argue that while unionization may be beneficial (for example, many unionized graduate students have won higher wages and various benefits), the choice of which union to join is inappropriate. At the schools where graduate students are unionized, which positions are included vary; positions may include teaching assistants, research assistants, resident directors (typically grads), resident assistants (typically undergrads), and continuing education instructors, but do not typically include fellowship recipients.



Admission to do a research degree requires the sponsorship of a professor. Admission to do a masters degree depends upon having an undergraduate degree, generally in a related subject.


Undergraduate degrees in the UK are generally at a higher level than undergraduate degrees in the US, perhaps equivalent to the Master's degree.


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

Funding is available for some Ph.D. courses. There is more in the sciences rather other discplines.


In both America and Britain, successful Ph.D. earners can look forward to a life in academia, as they continue on to a series of post-doctoral (post-doc) positions before claiming their first tenure-track faculty spot. Individuals who choose to or involuntarily stop at the Master's often go on to industry or other graduate schools for the Ph.D., but with the current poor economy many find that they are over qualified for half the jobs, and under qualified for the other half. Primary and secondary teachers who earn their Master's can look forward to greater job security and pay.

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