PhD Student vs Graduate Student [Correct terminologies]

As you progress down the academic pathway it can become confusing to work out what the appropriate terminology is for your current level of education. Is it PhD student? Is it graduate student? Is the PhD student the same as a graduate? Well, this article will answer all your questions.

Graduate student is an umbrella term for someone with an undergraduate qualification (bachelors, diploma), they are often performing graduate research in a Masters or PhD program. All PhD students are graduate students but not all graduate students are PhD students.

To fully get our heads around each of these definitions, we need to understand exactly what each term really means.

This is where we can look at the actual definitions of PhD student vs graduate student.

Definition of PhD student

A PhD student is someone who is currently enrolled in a doctorate degree program and is in the early stages of their course.

Some institutions require students to undergo a coursework component of their graduate program and are called a PhD student.

After the completion of the coursework component, with the research component still to go, they can be called a PhD candidate.

Definition of Graduate student

A graduate student is a known for a student who continues their studies after completion of their undergraduate degree.

The Cambridge dictionary defines it as:

A student who is studying for a degree that is higher than the one received after four years of study at a college or university.

Who is considered a graduate student?

Graduate students can include:

  • Masters students
  • PhD students
  • Professional Masters
  • Graduate academic certificate programs
  • undergraduate/graduate hybrid degree programs

Even if you have got an undergraduate degree, there are many more options for you to obtain many more qualifications and build on your education. In these instances, you will be known as a graduate student.

Is a PhD student a graduate student?

Yes, a PhD student is a graduate student.

They have spent up to 4 years in their undergraduate programs in order to qualify for admission into a PhD program.

PhD students are able to call themselves graduate students but many choose to refer to themselves as PhD students or candidates.

Is PhD the same as graduate?

A PhD is the highest education attainable as a graduate.

In order to obtain a PhD one must graduate from an undergraduate degree. From the moment of graduating in their undergraduate degree they are known as a graduate.

The order of becoming a PhD from a graduate is shown in the table below. It also includes what happens after you get a PhD.

Stage of educationImportant notes
Obtaining a bachelor degreesomeone undergoing their undergraduate degree, referred to as an undergraduate. Everyone pass this level is referred to as a graduate
Obtaining a Masters degreereferred to as a graduate student or a Masters student.
Becoming a PhD studenta PhD student is someone who is in the early stage of their degree and has two complete the coursework (common in the USA).
Becoming a PhD candidatea PhD candidate is someone who has completed the coursework component of their degree and has to perform research and submit their thesis.
Becoming a PhD graduateafter graduating from a PhD the person can be referred to as Dr.
Becoming a post-docAfter your PhD degree you can choose to enter the University as a postdoctoral researcher.
Becoming a lecturerThe first level of employment for a university tenure position is as a lecturer or reader at a university.
Becoming an associate professorThe next level of promotion is to an associate professor level.
Becoming a professorA tenured professor has shown excellence in teaching, research, and administrative duties to the University.

Is a doctoral student the same as a PhD student?

Strictly speaking, a PhD student is someone who is pursuing a doctor of philosophy.

A PhD student is a type of doctoral student but not all doctoral students are PhD students.

Anyone aiming to achieve the title of ‘Dr’ is a doctoral student.

There are many other different types of doctoral students including:

  • Doctor of Arts (DA)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Design (DDes)
  • Doctor of Engineering or Engineering Science (DEng, DESc, DES)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA.)
  • Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD, SJD)
  • Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)
  • Doctor of Music Education (DME)
  • Doctor of Modern Languages (DML)
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc)
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
  • Doctor of Public Health (DPH)
  • Doctor of Sacred Theology (STD)
  • Doctor of Science (DSc, ScD)
  • Doctor of Theology (ThD)

There are also professional degrees that lead to the person being called Doctor. These professional degrees result in honorific doctor titles, including those found in the table below.

Medical doctorsPharmacistsDentists
Veterinary surgeonsLawyers (Doctor of Juris)Podiatrists

In my 15 years in academia, I would only really refer to someone as a PhD student. However, if someone was to introduce themselves as a doctoral student I would understand them to be a PhD student.

Wrapping up

In this article, we have learned the difference between PhD student vs graduate student.

In summary, a graduate student is an umbrella term that includes anyone that has done an undergraduate qualification and is continuing their education. It includes Masters students, PhD students and others.

All PhD students are graduate students but not all graduate students are PhD students.

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.