Scholar vs Student: Difference Between A Student And A Scholar In Higher Education

In universities especially, we may regularly hear the term students and scholars used, sometimes interchangeably. Are they similar, of theres actually differences between the two?

A student is an individual who are learning a field of knowledge of their choice, usually enrolled as a learner in a school or university. A scholar contributes to the field of knowledge with original research. They have expertise in a particular field of study.

In this post, we unravel the distinct paths and roles of students and scholars in the academic world, specifically at  how their goals, responsibilities, and levels of engagement with the academic community diverge and evolve. 

Key Differences Between Students And Scholars 

ExpertiseLearning basic ideas and conceptsDoing research and making new discoveries.
Role in Generating KnowledgeUnderstanding existing knowledge.Publishing new ideas and findings.
Engagement with The Academic WorldAttending classes and discussions.Leading discussions and making new theories.
Independence & AutonomyFollowing a set study plan.Choosing their research topics.
Long Term Goals & Career PathWorking towards a degree or thesis.Working in universities or research.


Students, especially undergraduates, are typically in the process of acquiring foundational knowledge in a particular field. Their focus is more on learning the basics and broad concepts of their chosen subjects.

A scholar, however shifts from learning to actual research. You’ll conduct research, aiming to make significant research contributions using the expertise at hand.

The transition is marked by your first publication or conference presentation, a moment where you shift from consuming knowledge to creating it.

Scholars in academia don’t just pursue knowledge; they aim to advance it. They publish papers in journals, adding to the academic work in their area of specialisation. Their educational journey culminates in a:

  • Dissertation,
  • Research paper, or
  • a piece of original, significant research

that demonstrates mastery and the ability to implement effective research methodologies.

Role In Generating Knowledge

As a student, your role is to learn, absorb, and understand the vast sea of knowledge that exists. This is usually a task reserved for undergraduates.

Their aim is to build a solid foundation, often under the guidance of faculty mentors such as their lecturers and professors. 

At this stage, they may be assisting in generating knowledge, but are not expected to lead the any research. This could be done as a research assistant, etc.

As a scholar, you’re on the frontier of creating new knowledge. Imagine a Masters, Ph.D. graduate, or a Post-Doc conducting groundbreaking research. They: 

  • publish findings,
  • present at conferences, and
  • contribute to academic journals.

Their work doesn’t just demonstrate mastery; it advances the field. Scholars often engage in significant research, shaping new theories and methodologies. Their findings also adds depth to the existing field of knowledge.

Engagement with The Academic World

As a student, especially as undergrad, your engagement is largely focused on learning and absorbing knowledge.

You attend lectures, participate in seminars, and engage in discussions. Your role is to develop a deep understanding of your subject, often under the guidance of faculty. The goal here is to build a foundation for your future academic or professional journey.

For scholars, the engagement is more about contribution and leadership in academia. Think of a Ph.D. graduate or a academic researcher.

They’re not just consuming knowledge; they’re creating it. They publish papers, present their findings at conferences, and often lead discussions in their area of specialisation.

Their interaction with the academic community is about advancing the field, whether through significant research or contributing new theories and methodologies.

The transition from student to scholar is like moving from an observer to an influencer in the academic world. You go from learning and understanding to actively shaping and contributing to your field.

This evolution is crucial in academia, where ongoing dialogue and innovation drive progress.

Independence & Autonomy

Typically, as an undergraduate student, you’re typically navigating a structured path. Your journey is guided and determined by a curriculum, with clear learning objectives and regular evaluations.

You’re learning the ropes, under the watchful eye of faculty and supervisors. Your tasks are often outlined for you, whether it’s:

  • attending classes,
  • completing assignments, or
  • preparing for exams.

Completing these tasks shows your knowledge and grasp of the field of knowledge, and allow the university to reward you a Bachelor’s Degree in most cases. 

A scholar however, has a contrasting experience. Here, autonomy is key. Scholars:

  • choose their area of research,
  • develop their methodology, and
  • pursue their unique academic interests.

They’re not just following a set path; they’re creating their own. This freedom allows them to delve deeply into their chosen area, contribute original ideas, and advance the field. Their work often culminates in the publication of papers and presentations at conferences.

This shift from a structured learning environment to one where you’re steering your own academic ship is profound. It marks the transition from student to scholar, from following to leading in your field.

Long Term Goals & Career Path

When it comes to long-term goals and career paths, students and scholars in higher education have different focuses. As a student, your immediate goal is often the completion of your assignment, dissertation, or postgraduate thesis. You’re focused on:

  • developing research skills,
  • gaining knowledge in your chosen area, and
  • demonstrating your competency through academic work like papers and presentations.

Here, graduates can choose between joining the industry, or staying in academia, and becoming a scholar. 

As a scholar however, the path takes a different shape. Ph.D. graduates often aim for roles in academia or research where they can continue to conduct significant research and contribute to their field.

They might target positions in universities or research institutions, where they can implement their expertise, advance theories, and contribute to the scientific community. Many will continue in the field, eventually gaining tenure, and professorship.

Scholar vs Student

The journey from a student to a scholar in higher education is marked by significant transitions in roles, responsibilities, and contributions to academia. While students focus on absorbing knowledge and developing foundational skills, scholars engage in creating and advancing new ideas.

Understanding these differences highlights the dynamic and evolving nature of academic growth, shaping individuals’ paths in the vast and varied landscape of higher education.

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.