Masters student vs candidate [Which to use?]

Academia is an antiquated place with rules and etiquette around many aspects of terminology for students and candidates. There is a very strict definition which helps you decide whether or not to use master’s student vs candidate.

Strictly speaking, it is best to use master’s student for most of the degree. A master’s candidate is someone who has passed all the comprehensive exam components of their degree and is in the process of meeting the final requirements for the degree.

In my experience after 15 years in academia, modern academics tend to use candidate and student interchangeably as the exam and thesis components happen simultaneously.

During my master’s in chemistry, I only ever refer to myself as a Masters student and that was generally accepted by everyone I spoke to.

However, there are some actual rules associated with when you can use either student or candidate.

This article will cover everything you need to know about masters student versus candidate questions and give you an idea of which is the best to use in your current situation.

To properly understand the textbook definition of student versus candidate we should look at the definitions of each.

Definition of student

According to the Merriam – Webster dictionary, a student is a known which describes a scholar or learner who is attending a school and one who studies a particular field.

Someone currently enrolled in a Masters is certainly fitting with that definition. They are currently attending a university and taking postgraduate level courses and exams to study a particular field.

The first known use of the term student was in the 15th century and was used to describe a scholar learning new information.

Definition of a candidate

According to the Merriam – Webster dictionary, a candidate is a student in the process of meeting final requirements for a degree.

In the case of a Masters degree you can imagine a situation where all of the exams have been passed and the student is currently submitting and/or awaiting the final decision on acceptance of their thesis or research report.

Therefore, it is appropriate to refer to a Masters student when they are nearing the final requirements for their degree.

What is the difference between a masters candidate and student?

For the majority of a Masters degree it is more appropriate to refer to them as a Masters student.

Once the exam portion of the course has been completed and they are in the final stages of their degree it would be more appropriate to refer to them as a candidate.

A candidate is one who has completed the courses but has not finished writing and/or defending his/her thesis (Master’s report) or dissertation (PhD report).

Can you use candidate instead of student?

In my experience, in 15 years of academia, we very rarely concerned ourselves with the strict use of Masters student vs candidate.

If you were to ask the majority of academics I would imagine that they would not care about the use of either Masters student or candidate to refer to someone who is currently pursuing a Masters level degree.

It is only once the official documentation of the University gets involved that there may be a strict definition used.

Feel free to use candidate instead of student if you feel like you have satisfied all of the course components and are awaiting a final decision on your Masters thesis.

What it means to be a master’s student

There are number of important moments in a Masters degree that act as milestones for completion.

It is possible to use these different milestones to delineate between using student and candidate.

Here are all of the important Masters milestones and the most appropriate way to refer to the person currently admitted to the degree.

Masters StageProcessDefinition
Application stageAt this stage someone has submitted an application to a university to be admitted to the Masters degree.Prospective Masters student
Application acceptedHere, the application for the degree has been accepted and they are currently awaiting enrolmentMasters student
Studying for examsA Masters degree often has numerous classes and exams to pass. At this stage, the focus is on passing postgraduate examinations.Masters student
Completed exam componentOnce they have completed the exam component a Masters student will need to then perform research into an original research question.Masters student/candidate
Performing original researchAt this stage of the process the student or candidate will be performing research and investigation into an original research question.Masters student/candidate
Writing thesisOnce enough data has been collected the Masters candidate will write a thesis in order to communicate the results of their work.Master’s candidate
Research submitted for peer reviewAfter submitting their thesis for peer review. Experts in their field will determine whether or not they have done enough work to satisfy the requirements of a Masters degree.Master’s candidate
Admitted into the degreeLastly, there will be a formal letter from the University to declare that they have satisfied all of the requirements of a Masters degree.Master’s graduate

Even though there are some nuances between different universities, these are the general steps associated with completing a Masters degree and the appropriate terminology to refer to the person undergoing the qualification.

Wrapping up

This article has covered everything you need to know about Masters student versus candidate and at what stage of their qualification the convention dictates that they change from a PhD student to a PhD candidate.

Ultimately, if the person admitted to the degree is in the process of meeting the final requirements of the degree they are referred to as a Masters candidate. Before that, they are a Masters student.

In real life, it is not really something that academics really care about and will often use the term, Masters student and Masters candidate interchangeably.

However, academia has some antiquated and strict rules around the terminology. This will be reflected in the official University documentation when communicating with the University about the milestones achieved during the degree.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.