Applying 411

Graduate school glossary

Your P.I. suggested you apply for an NSF GRFP because the funding will help you be competitive for admission to an R1

The above sentence might make perfect sense to you…particularly if you spent time in a research lab as an undergraduate. However, it’s possible some or all of the bold words aren’t familiar.

If that’s the case, it’s okay! Just because you don’t know a word or acronym doesn’t mean you’re not prepared for graduate school.

In this post, we’ll cover as many common grad school terms as we can to help you learn or refresh your chemistry grad school jargon.

This list is by no means exhaustive. If you would like to suggest an addition, feel free to email us at!


academic year Usually refers to the Fall and Spring semesters, roughly September-May, excluding summer.

advisor/adviser For graduate students, the person overseeing your thesis–synonymous with P.I. and mentor, the latter in the sense of a title meaning “lead academic advisor” rather than, necessarily, someone who provides advice and support oriented towards a student’s growth. The best advisors are also strong mentors!

assistantship financial aid offerred to a graduate student that is contingent on some kind of service, usually teaching or research support. Not to be confused with a stipend or fellowship where service requirements must always have a direct connection to education – i.e., Emory graduate students in chemistry serve as a “Teaching Assistant” but this is not an assistantship because they are not paid specifically for that work. Rather, they receive their usual stipend and concurrent course credit as they complete two semesters of TA service as part of their training.

broader impacts used in STEM to refer to the ways in which research affects those outside of the lab, most often in regard to influence/benefits for the local community, sharing science with public audiences, including, but not limited to, K-12 schools. May also refer to applications of basic research and, for graduate students, to their future career goals (a “broader impact” derived from a graduate fellowship might be the student’s future career)

candidacy advanced status in a graduate program that serves as an indication that a doctoral student has developed sufficient mastery of a discipline to produce an original research contribution in their field. Emory chemistry students can apply to enter candidacy when they have passed their second year qualifying exam and received at least 54 course credits.

chair The faculty member who serves as administrative lead of an academic department and represents the department to internal administration and the public. At Emory, “chairs” serve three year terms that may be renewed.

committee the group of faculty that agree to advise a student’s research, including the dissertation. At Emory, students choose a committee in the first semester of the second year and the committee provides feedback at all milestones including the qualifying exam, the third year proposal, the original research proposal in the fourth year, and the dissertation.

cumes “cumulative exams” some schools require that students pass a series of exams to earn a certain number of passing grades or points. Can also be used to refer to one exam that is intended to be a comprehensive assessment of a certain program of study, usually the coursework during the first two years of graduate school. Emory has a written qualifying exam (paper and presentation) required of students who wish to enter candidacy but does not have cumes.

curriculum course of study. At Emory, often used to refer to the course(s) of study available in our undergraduate major as we have undergone curriculum reform and offered a revised slate of classes intended to promote active learning and introduction of major chemistry concepts via theme rather than research discipline.

defer in a graduate school context, describes a request to wait to complete a specific requirement or program milestone. Most often refers to students who want to “defer” an offer of admission until the next academic year. Emory rarely grants deferral requests to admitted students as the number of “spots” available in our program changes from year to year.

DGS Director of Graduate Studies. The faculty lead for the graduate program(s) in an academic department.

dissertation the written work that represents the culmination of a student’s gradaute-level research progress. The core requirement of a dissertation is that it represents original work that makes an intellectual contribution to the student’s field of study.

diversity in academia, used to refer to the recognition of a wide range of personal experiences. Is often used to refer to “diversity of heritage,” i.e., the range of a certain group’s identifications with a particular ethnic or cultural tradition/background. However, may also refer to diversity of gender, age, program of study, college readiness, family makeup, or any distinguishing personal factor.

DUS Director of Undergraduate Studies. The faculty lead for the undergraduate program(s) in a department.

exams can be used to refer to a single test or series of tests in a course. However, when used in the plural and in a graduate school context it usually means “cumulative exams” (see above)

GRE An acronym for the Graduate Record Exam, a test of verbal, quantitative, and writing ability administered by the US-based Educational Testing Service. The exam is intended to predict performance in the first year of a graduate program. Many programs, including Emory, no longer require or accept the exam due to concerns about racial and economic bias in the results and the cost burden to applicants.

GRFP An acronym for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program. This is one of the most prestigious funding awards made to graduate scholars. Importantly, the award funds the student and their research plans, not the advisor. The student will still work with an advisor, but the award offers a certain amount of research independence. Scholars may apply for this award twice in their careers–once as an undergraduate and once as a graduate student (check the fellowship website for exact parameters.) It’s good to know what this award is even if you do not have an opportunity to apply as an undergraduate. Most research programs will encourage eligible (domestic) students to apply and the number of applicants and awardees can be one indicator of program success.

handbook the written document that describes program and degree requirements for a graduate program. Graduate students should expect to complete the handbook requirements as described in their year of entry, even if requirements change. The exception would be if a resource is no longer available or if a requirement changes and a student is offered the option of following the changes or staying with their original plan. For example, at Emory, when a deadline for a student milestone moved from Fall to Spring, students were given the option of taking advantage of the extended deadline of sticking to the timeline in place when they arrived at Emory. Here’s our most recent handbook.

imposter syndrome the name given to the common phenomenon where graduate students might feel like a fraud or believe that they did not earn their accomplishments (including admission to school) and/or that they are not as good as their peers. Importantly, this is to the exclusion of evidence and lived reality. Was initially most associated with women, but can affect anyone. More

fellowship a monetary award provided to support a student’s education, usually based on academic achievement or potential. May require students to maintain a certain level of performance (i.e., maintain a 3.0 GPA). Differs from an assistantship in that the money is to fund a student’s intended course of study and is not paid in exchange for work, such as TA duties.

funding Basically, money. Specifically, in a chemistry grad school context, this usually refers to grant money, including funds that might be used to cover a student’s salary, called a “stipend”. The “funding” level of a lab refers to their financial health–the money available for the lab to do research now and into the future. Might also be used to refer to grants, i.e., “I’m applying for NSF funding for my project.”

graduate school a school that offers advanced degrees. Important! Some schools do not have a central graduate school (Emory does: Laney Graduate School). If a school does not have a graduate school, they might still offer graduate degrees via graduate programs in academic departments. There is no difference in the value of a degree from a graduate school versus a program as long as the school is accredited; the difference is in how the degree is administered. However, there are benefits to having access to the resources of a central graduate school, such as shared programming.

IELTS An acronym for the International English Language Testing System, a language proficiency test for applicants whose first language is not English. Many programs either require IELTS scores or accept them as an alternative to TOEFL scores. Emory accepts the IELTS as a TOEFL alternative. We require a minimum score of 6 and suggest that scores of 8 or above will be most compettiive. .

industry in STEM, used to refer to the field of work that applies science knowledge to corporate/nonprofit product and idea generation. Students will often refer to “industry” careers, meaning anything from jobs in the pharmaceutical industry to food chemistry to tech and beyond.

major G.P.A. the calculation of the mean grade a student received in all classes directly related for their graduate major. In a graduate application, a student with a double major would calculate their G.P.A. in the major most closely related to the topic of the graduate program. Some schools make this calculation on a student’s behalf.

lecturer a member of the academic faculty of a department whose primary responsibility is for teaching (as opposed to research)

liberal arts academic subjects, including traditional humanities subjects (literature, philosophy, gender studies, etc.) and STEM (sciences including chemistry). A “liberal arts” school distinguishes itself by providing training in a wide range of subjects usually based on the philosophy that broad training will better prepare students to be problem solvers than specialized training oriented towards a specific career goal. At the graduate level, many liberal arts schools provide programming that is more specific to the professions associated with a scholar’s selected course of study. A liberal arts school may provide easier or more broad access to ancillary resources with impact on that course of study (ex: access to journalism for SciComm) but graduate scholars are less likely to be required to complete coursework or training outside their discipline. At Emory, one of the major contributions of the liberal arts focus of the college is the Jones Program in Ethics, a comprehensive ethics education that engages students from all graduate programs, including humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

literature, the in a graduate context this refers to the collected body of published academic work in a given area of study. In chemistry, “the literature” will most often refer to journal articles.

matriculate to officially register/enroll at a university

mentor may be used synonymously with P.I. or advisor (see above). more broadly, a mentor is any colleague who provides support, advice, and perspective on your career trajectory. Often, mentors are at a more advanced career level than their “mentee” (the person being mentored.) However, different life experiences and training can create mentoring relationships that cross career levels, including peer mentoring-support and advice from colleagues at the same level as the person being mentored.

orientation in the context of graduate school, refers to the initial training period that provides new students with information on the policies and procedures of the program and school. At Emory, orientation includes lab safety training, library resources training, meetings with program and departmental staff, and research experiences with groups accepting students in a given year. Some schools, including Emory, are beginning to offer “orientation”-style sessions later in the career as recognition of the ongoing shifts in what students might need to know as they progress through a program. At Emory, these sessions currently take the form of “Town Halls” with graduate program leadership organized by cohort.

outreach see “broader impacts”, above. Outreach might also refer to volunteering in the community without a STEM/STEAM focus

P.I. Stands for “Principal Investigator”, the term used to indicate the lead researcher on grants. Also used to indicate the lead investigator of a research lab (the person the lab is named for). Some graduate students will use this term interchangeably with advisor, mentor, boss, etc. to refer to the director of the lab where they are completing their PhD work.

private vs public in the context of graduate school, these designations refer to whether an institution receives funding from the state in which it is located or entirely from private sources. Emory is a private institution.

probation an academic status officially indicating that a student has not fulfilled a requirement for promotion in their program of study. In the chemistry graduate program at Emory, students are placed on probation if their grades fall below a 2.7 (semester or overall G.P.A.) or if they fail to pass a program milestone. Probations are noted on a student transcript but in most cases they are “cleared” by the student when they successfully complete a given requirement. Transcripts are usually not a major factor for job searches post graduate school-probations are generally an internal matter. If a student fails to clear probations for a specific period (at Emory, over two full semesters) they may be terminated from their academic program.

P.U.I. Primarily Undergraduate Institution. Refers to a college or university where the focus is on the undergrad experience. This doesn’t mean other institutions don’t focus on the undergrad experience. Rather, PUIs usually have very few graduate programs, if any. Speaking broadly, PUIs have the potential to offer students more interaction with faculty. PUIs often offer students leadership opportunities in research, although research activities may have a different scope than at universities with large labs incorporating graduate and postdoctoral researchers.

qualifying exams academic tasks that must be completed to a certain standard to progress from graduate student to Ph.D. candidate. “Quals” generally occur in the second year of a PhD program. Although these are called “exams”, they rarely take the form of a test as in an academic course. Rather, they usually require the submission of a writing requirement followed by an oral defense before a committee of program faculty. At Emory, the Second Year Qualifying Exam takes place in the Spring of the second year and the committee of respondents is the student’s future dissertation committee (selected by the student) rather than an assigned committee. Qualifying exams can be challenging but they also mark a significant achievement in a student’s progression towards the rank of independent scholar.

quarter/quarter system refers to the academic calendar of schools that have four separate terms during a school year. These schools often have a slightly different academic timeline than schools on a semester system (which generally has three semesters–see “semester” below.) This is important for applicants as “quarter system” schools might also have slightly different application timelines than the slightly more common “semester system” schools. Quarters tend to be more common abroad so this can also be a difference for international applicants to attend to.

R1 Refers to a university with “highest research activity” (as compared to universities with higher and moderate research focus.)  Based on a classification system that isn’t used much anymore, but the name has stuck. It’s uncommon to hear people refer to an R2 or R3 university, even though these technically refer to “higher” and “moderate” research activity, respectively. Emory is an “R1”.

recruitment refers to the entire graduate admissions process–including when you visit a department, school, or program’s table at a conference and pick up some flyers and “swag” with the school logo on it. Might also be used as shorthand to refer to a visit or interview weekend.

registrar the office that keeps university records. This is where you go to get a transcript. You probably register for classes through an online system or department administrator–but the registrar’s office likely oversees this process behind the scenes.

research group a collection of people and resources engaged in a shared research project, usually under a single mentor/primary investigator. Groups most often have a physical space that is primarily associated with their work, but spaces might also be dispersed and a group without a space (due to renovations or other issues) can still be a group!

residency a technical term used by a school to determine if a student is living on or near campus. A student who cannot travel to campus on a daily basis or who is working at an off-site location for an extended period of time might be required to apply for “non-residential” status

rotations a structured program used by some STEM departments to allow students to spend time in multiple research groups prior to choosing a research home for their graduate degree(s). Students will move (or “rotate”) through the groups they are interested in. Emory requires three rotations. Importantly, schools with rotation programs will probably not allow or require you to apply directly to a single faculty member. Instead, all students will be accept to “rotate.” However, some programs offer a choice of enrolling immediately in a lab or completing rotations.

semester refers to the defined academic period during which single courses start and end. Most schools have a fall, spring, and summer semester (see “quarter system” above for an explanation of a common alternate calendar). Most programs, including Emory, accept students for the Fall semester. Means the same thing as “term” in most cases.

seminar In graduate school, this can mean two things–a seminar course or a seminar presentation. In chemistry departments, seminars are generally one time talks given by outside researchers whose research will be of interest to the department.

standing status, specifically the status of a student in an academic program. Students in “good standing” have met program requirements and are on track to degree. Conversely, students are not usually referred to as being in “bad standing”. Rather, students who fall out of “good standing” might be placed on probation. At some schools, funding and other opportunities are contingent on good standing.

stipend refers to the funding offered to a student in support of their graduate training. A stipend differs from a salary because the work to earn the funds is not entirely directed towards support of an “employer.” A stipend funds the entire academic endeavor which may include required work related to training, including research work and T.A.

T.A. An abbreviation of the title “Teaching Assistant”, referring to a graduate student instructor. A T.A. generally has some responsibiltiy for working with students and grading but works under a primary instructor who is a full member of the faculty. Sometimes used to refer to “Teaching Associate” which would be a more advanced student instructor with more responsibility than an entry-level T.A.

thesis a written work (long essay or multi-chapter dissertation) describing personal research, written by a candidate for a college degree. A successful thesis will make an original contribution to the candidate’s field of study to be sufficient for the awarding of a degree.

TOEFL An abbreviation for the Test of English as a Foreign Language administered by the Educational Testing Service. Often required for prospective applicants whose first language is not English. Sometimes this testing requirement is waived for students who have studied in an English-speaking country long enough to acquire English proficiency.

tuition waiver a commitment made as part of an admissions offer indicating that a student will not be charged for the cost of course enrollment. It is important for graduate students to understand that they will likely be required to enroll in credit hours even in a semester where they are not taking classroom courses, usually referred to as “research credit” or “residency credit.” Therefore, a tuition waiver will potentially cover costs throughout a student’s graduate training. Some schools roll the cost of a tuition waiver into the stipend offer. It is important to understand that tution waivers will not be delivered to the student as real funds–the tuition will never be charged to the student or, if it is charged, money will be paid directly to the school on the student’s behalf. Therefore, there is no way for students to acquire the funds other than as a credit towards their tuition.

URM An abbreviation for “Under-represented minority”. This term is often used be schools to refer collectively to prospective and current scholars who make up a smaller percentage of the population at a given school and/or within a given field than is representative of their percentage of the population in the country. This NSF report is one helpful overview of diversity in the chemical sciences.

visitation an opportunity to travel to the campus of a program that has agreed either to accept or to interview a candidate on the basis of their application. Sometimes referred to as “recruitment.” In chemistry, it is common for accepted students to be offered a visit to a school.

Looking for more information on a term we didn’t cover? Contact us at for help. We would love to add more information to this post based on your input!

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