The One-Stop Shop for Academic Jargon Definitions

Tenure. Postdoc. Service. ABD. There are so many terms that we use in academia that beginning grad students don’t understand, and may be embarrassed to ask about. First generation college students in particular – I feel your pain! I am a first generation college student, and I had no idea what a lot of these terms meant when I went to graduate school. I somehow learned them along the way, largely informally, but the purpose of this post is to help you learn a lot of academic jargon. It is a very long post, but this is primarily aimed at new grad students, and it would be worth many new grad students’ time to read it at least once.

A few notes on this post:

  1. First, there are exceptions to almost every definition in this post. Feel free to leave a comment with some additional definitions of each term.
  2. Second, this post is really long, because every time I wrote a definition, I realized I was using jargon in the definition, which resulted in another definition.
  3. This list is not exhaustive, because there are idiosyncratic terms within every discipline and university. It is just intended as a (thorough) starting point for new graduate students.
photo credit: Dictionary page via photopin (license)

photo credit: Dictionary page via photopin (license)

How to Search This List

The definitions in this post are not in alphabetical order, but rather in the order that definitions came up as I was defining terms, or are roughly grouped according to area of academic life (i.e. grad student, tenure track). Thus, if you are looking for a specific definition, the easiest way to find it is to search the page for that word using CTRL+F.


Funding – a global term that most often refers to the money and/or tuition waiver a student receives for working for the university. In some graduate programs, all students are “funded” and in others, some students are “funded” and in still others none are and all students are paying for their degrees out of pocket, or themselves, most likely with student loans. Funding can be competitive in some graduate programs whereby only the best students receive funding. For faculty, funding can refer to money garnered for research. Thus, a funded faculty member may have money from a federal agency such at the National Science Foundation that they use to pay for their research.

Summer funding – summer funding means that you are getting paid over the summer, usually from a fellowship, research associateship, or teaching associateship.

Tuition waiver – a waiver, usually provided by a department, funding agency, or foundation, that pays your tuition in full

Stipend – the money you will receive each month as a graduate student. It is paid as a a paycheck, and you receive it most often for teaching, or assisting with teaching a course, for research assistance, or in the case of a fellow (see below), for completing your own research agenda

Fellow – a graduate student who does not have to teach or be a teaching assistant to receive their stipend. Some fellows only work on their own research during the fellowship. Other fellows will still work in their mentor’s lab as a research assistant. There is variation here, especially across the social sciences. Fellowships are often 12-months and thus include funding over the summer.

Assistantship/Associateship – these words are largely interchangeable, and refer to the work that you will do to get your stipend.

Research assistantship/associateship – students that have research-focused assistantships and associateships are paid to do research activities like collect or analyze data, or conduct literature reviews, usually for their advisor or another faculty member. Students can also be paid for assisting a journal editor with editing the journal. Note that these are most often 9-month contracts and may not include summer.

Teaching assistantship/associateship – students who have teaching-focused assistantships and associateships are paid to teach their own section of a course (or courses), or to assistant the instructor (or instructors) of a course (or courses). Note that these are most often 9-month contracts and may not include summer.

Graduate Studies Chair/ Graduate Director / Director of Graduate Studies – there are lots of terms for this person, but it is usually a faculty member who is in charge of the graduate program. What do I mean by in charge? In my case, I sign all of the documents that students need signed, update the graduate handbook, work with administrators to figure out student funding and scholarships, help students who want to change their advisor or who have questions, etcetera. Sometimes this person gets a course release or summer salary for this work.

Candidacy/comprehensive exam – this varies from program to program, but in general, it is an exam you have to take and pass to be able to proceed to doing your dissertation.

ABD – stands for All But Dissertation. Again, this can vary from program to program, but most often, it is used to as a status to refer to students who have successfully passed their candidacy or comprehensive exam. From time to time, it is reserved for students who have successfully defended their dissertation proposal.

Defense – a meeting where you go into a room with your advisor and any other committee members and are asked questions about a document that you gave them, most often a proposal, thesis, or dissertation. You are supposed to intelligently and coherently answer the committee’s questions. Often students are asked to leave the room at the beginning of the meeting so that the faculty can discuss whether you should get to defend, and at the end so the faculty can discuss whether or not you passed. Usually involves everyone in the room besides you having to sign off on some sort of document as to whether or not you passed.

Advisor – the tenure-track faculty member who is supposed to be primarily responsible for guiding you through the process of obtaining your graduate degree.

Committee/Committee Member – group of other faculty members who are supposed to advise you on your thesis and/or dissertation. Committee members usually have some expertise in your research topic and may be inside or outside of your department. Committees are usually small for theses, most often only one additional committee member besides your advisor, and larger for dissertations, usually between 4 and 6 members. You are sometimes required to have at least one committee member from outside of your graduate program on your dissertation committee.

Proposal – a document that outlines your planned project. You may be required to write proposals for master’s theses and for dissertation projects. Proposals vary in length, quality, and level of detail.

Dissertation – a piece of scholarship that you crafted, sweated over, hated, loved, lived with, and ultimately, will decide if you get a PhD. You have to successfully finish it to your committee’s satisfaction and defend it to their satisfaction to get your PhD.

Thesis – same as the dissertation, only it is shorter and more narrow in scope and is necessary in order to receive a master’s degree in many programs, though there are master’s degree programs that only require courses.

Annual review – a review of your research, service, and teaching over the previous year. Faculty and graduate students are usually required to submit these materials once a year, and they may be reviewed by the graduate faculty or the graduate studies chair if you are a graduate student, and if you are a faculty member, they are most often reviewed by your department chair.

Postdoctoral Scholar/Postdoctoral Researcher – also known as a “postdoc”, are most often research positions for PhDs to gain additional training, publications, and/or experience while they wait to get a tenure-track position.

Assistant Professor – most often a tenure-track position that involves some combination of research, teaching, and service, and how much of each depends on the university. At Ohio State, most 9-month faculty have a 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service appointment. At a small liberal arts college, the distribution might be 60% teaching, 20% research, and 20% service.

9-month faculty or 9-month appointment – faculty who are paid for 9 months of work per year, referred to as a 9-month appointment. In most cases, the university distributes the pay over 12-months. 9-month faculty can supplement their pay with summer salary, or off-duty pay.

12-month faculty or 12-month appointment– faculty who are paid year round to work for the university.

Course release – a course release is a term that means that the faculty member does not have to teach a class. Sometimes the faculty member’s time is charged to a grant – i.e. for me to be released from teaching one of the 4 courses I am required to teach, I have to have a grant pay 15% of my salary. Sometimes departments, colleges, and universities will provide course releases for extra service. An associate dean might receive three course releases and only teach once a year, a department chair might receive several course releases and forgo teaching. New assistant professors often negotiate for course releases at research-focused universities.

Summer salary/off-duty pay – summer salary and off-duty pay are most often referring to the same thing – it is money that you get paid when you are technically not working for the university, like over the summer months if you are a 9-month faculty member. This money most often comes from grants and contracts.

Service – service comprises activities that faculty do that are work related but are not related to teaching and/or mentoring or research. For example, serving on external and internal committees, reviewing papers for a journal, or being the graduate studies chair.

Grants/contracts – these are monies that faculty receive from entities outside of their university to fund their research activities and their time.

Second/Third/Fourth Year Review  – a major review that can result in a tenure-track faculty member’s contract not being renewed. A dossier is usually reviewed and voted on by the departmental promotion and tenure committee that consists of tenured faculty members, the department chair, the college/school promotion and tenure committee which includes tenured faculty from around the college or school, and the dean or director of the college or school. If the votes are mostly positive, the tenure-track faculty member continues on the tenure-track; if the votes are negative, the faculty member usually has one year of employment at the university, then must leave. This gives the faculty member time to go back on the job market.

Dossier – a dossier is a document that includes everything a faculty member has done related to teaching, publications, grants, and service. Unfunded grants are listed in a dossier, but rejected publications are not. Courses taught and the course evaluations are included. Lists of committees and journals reviewed for are included. Publication impact factors and citations are often included. The time-frame within each section can vary between sections, across departments, and between universities. For example, all publications might be listed, but often only service from the date of hire at the current university is included. Dossiers are used to evaluate faculty annually at some institutions, but certainly for promotions to tenure as well as promotions to full professor.

Tenure-track – the years leading up to the tenure decision, usually 6 years.

Tenure – tenure, at most universities, means that you have a job for life and that it is very hard to fire you. It is a marker of job security. Tenure at one university can often go with you to other universities. For example, if I would leave Ohio State, I would most likely be hired at my next university with tenure, and would not endure the tenure track again. To get tenure at my institution, you submit your dossier to your department P&T committee. They solicit external letters from individuals that you have never published with, and have never supervised you. These “tenure letter” writers, who are most often senior scholars in your area of research who are at your university’s peer institutions (institutions that are a similar rank as your institution in the US News and World Report and a similar type of institution) evaluate your research, teaching, and service and write a letter supporting you receiving tenure, or not. The primary focus of most letters is research however, at least at research-focused universities. The letters and the dossier, and at Ohio State all of your annual review letters, are reviewed by the P&T committee at the department, then the department chair or head, then the college P&T committee, then the dean, then the university P&T committee, and then the provost, and tenure is awarded by the Board of Trustees, at least it is at Ohio State. The process takes the better part of the academic year in your 6th year. If you have an extension to your tenure clock, you are not to be evaluated any differently than someone who did not have an extension.

Promotion and tenure committee/P&T committee – these committees most often reside at the department, college and university levels. At the department level, these committees usually include everyone in the department that is tenured. Sometimes there are smaller subcommittees of the promotion and tenure committee that evaluate faculty on an annual basis, but usually the full committee of tenured faculty vote on promotions. The college P&T committee usually includes representatives from each department in the college, and the university committee usually includes representatives from each college.

Department – a department is a group of faculty who share an administrative structure. In some cases, everyone is from the same discipline, or are faculty in the same graduate program. In my current situation, our department consists of at least 5 different graduate programs and several undergrad majors, and has four “program areas” within the department, but we are all governed by a single department chair with three associate chairs.

College/School – a college is a usually a group of departments that are governed by a single person, a dean. Sometimes a college can be called a school, and have a dean. Sometimes departments can be referred to as schools. There is some variability around these terms.

TIU, or Tenure Initiating Unit – a tenure initiating unit, or TIU, is the unit, usually a department, that is your home for the P&T process. Sometimes faculty have appointments across units or departments, and may go through the tenure process in two departments, such as women’s studies and sociology. In that case, there are two TIUs.

APT Document – this document goes by several names across universities, but this is the document that outlines appointments, promotion, and tenure criteria and procedures. You can see Ohio State’s department documents here.

Associate Professor – a tenure-track professor who has received tenure, in most cases. It does happen from time to time that a faculty member is hired as associate professor without tenure, and then they go up for tenure on a shortened clock (i.e. 4 years instead of 6 years).

Full Professor – a tenure-track professor who has received tenure, and has been promoted above the “associate professor” level. Full professor comes with more prestige, and usually a salary bump. To get promoted to full, the same procedures are followed as the procedures followed for tenure (i.e. dossier, external letters, etcetera) at most universities, with a few exceptions. Only other full professors vote on whether or not a faculty should receive the promotion to full. There is no automatic timeline for review for full professor, and some faculty never ask to be considered for full professor. The criteria are higher for full than for tenure, and an international reputation is often one of the criteria.

Named professor/Endowed professor – a named professor, or an endowed professor, is a faculty line that has been paid for by a donor or donor(s) to the university, and the professorship is usually named for that person. Sometimes these positions come with research accounts and other perks.

Dean – the Dean of a college is the leader of the college, and is kind of like the boss of the department chairs/heads. The Dean represents and advocates for the college to the university and provost, which is usually the person the Dean reports to. The Dean often shapes the direction of the college and manages the budget. The Dean is often heavily involved in fundraising.

Associate/Assistant Dean – Associate or Assistant Deans assist the Dean, and are often in charge of specific areas of the college. The associate dean for curriculum might handle curricular matters, and associate dean for research might handle research-related activities, such as a college seed-grant program.

Department Chair/Department Head – a Department chair (also known as a department head) is the person in charge of the governance of an academic department. There may sometimes be associate chairs in charge of specific areas of the department as well. The Department chair advocates for the department to the Dean, and makes budgetary and personnel decisions.

Clinical Professor – a Clinical professor is a full-time, non-tenure track faculty position. Clinical faculty usually have longer contracts (i.e. 3 or 5 years), and may have duties related to teaching, supervising clinical internship programs, etcetera. These appointments most often focus on teaching and service, though there are sometimes clinical research professor that may be on soft-money.

Soft-money – soft-money most often refers to grant dollars. A professor or researcher who is on 100% soft-money will have to fund their salary through external grants, most often from the federal government. In Public Health, faculty are often required to fund at least a portion of their salary on soft-money. Excellent grant writing skills are very important for soft-money positions.

Lecturer – a lecturer is a full-time, non-tenure track position that often involves a heavy teaching load, perhaps four courses a semester. Lecturer contracts are often for a single year.

Adjunct – an adjunct is a part-time, non-tenure track position that most often involves teaching a course or two for a department, and the contract is most likely semester to semester.

Non-academic job – a non-academic job is any job outside of academe (i.e. the university setting). For example, jobs at research firms, think tanks, in policy, in industry, etctera.

Extension to the clock – at some universities, the tenure clock, or how long the faculty member has to achieve tenure, can be extended for extenuating circumstances, or in some cases, automatically, if a faculty member has a child on the tenure track. For example, at Ohio State, faculty that have a child, either through their own pregnancy or a partner’s pregnancy, or through adoption, automatically have their tenure clock extended by one year. Other circumstances that could get a tenure clock extended may be a significant personal or family illness, a major life event like a divorce, or a major problem out of the assistant professor’s control, such as a necessary piece of equipment being put on back order, hence making it impossible for the professor to conduct their research. Not all universities and colleges have policies that allow the clock to be extended.

Job Market – this term is primarily used as part of the phrase “on the job market” and refers to the process of finding a job after graduation, usually an academic job. It involves applying for jobs as postdocs, assistant professors, or after tenure, associate and full professor positions. Applications can include a CV, cover letter, publications, teaching portfolio, diversity statement, research statement, etcetera.

CV or Curriculum Vitae – the academic resume. It is longer and more detailed than a resume, and includes your name, academic positions, education, publications, grants, presentations, awards, fellowships, teaching experience, mentoring experience, national and local service, and sometimes references.

Job Talk – a job talk is a 45 minutes to 1 hour talk that is given by a candidate for a tenure-track position (in most cases). Faculty, grad students, and other interested persons attend the talk, and ask questions. It is supposed to be a way for the faculty to evaluate the research and teaching skills of the candidate.

Teaching Portfolio – a teaching portfolio is sometimes part of an academic job application package and includes statements about the job applications approach to teaching (a teaching philosophy), teaching evaluations (how students rated how well you did at teaching the course), syllabi, assignments, and other teaching related materials.

Cover Letter – a cover letter is a two or three page letter that states a job applicant’s interest in a job, and why they would be a good fit and well-qualified for the position. It accompanies almost every academic job application, and many non-academic job applications as well.

Campus Visit – a campus visit is a several day interview where the candidate visits the campus that is hiring. At the visit, the candidate meets with faculty and students, gives a job talk and sometimes a guest lecture in a class, and in general asks, and is asked, a lot of questions about the job and their qualifications.

Seed grant – a seed grant is an internally funded grant to fund data collection, a graduate students’ time, or a faculty members’ time, and is usually open to tenure-track faculty to apply. The money may come from a college or a center that may be funded internally or externally (by an external grant funding agency). These grants are usually small (i.e. < $50K) and are often intended to help the faculty member receiving the grant write a strong application for additional funding from an external grant agency such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.

Start-up Package – a start-up package is a group of benefits that a university offers a tenure-track faculty member upon hire. It may include course releases, funding for a graduate student, money in a research account that can be used for travel or participant payments, etcetera.

Extension – extension is at many land grant universities and is the application of research for rural populations, often related to agriculture, food, and family life. Many states have extension specialists and faculty that have extension appointments that conduct translational and applied research and practice.

Land Grant – a land grant university is a university that is the recipient of federal monies from the Morrill Act; there is at least one in every state. These universities have as part of their mission the translational and application of research for the greater good of the people of their state. I was educated and/or have been employed at the land grant universities of Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.

For more information on Publications, see A Publishing Primer

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