Academic  Terminology




What is a postdoc? What is the difference between a fellowship, scholarship and grant?​​ Who and what is a "PI?"

Here is a short list of frequently used terms in academia. There is a lot of confusing terminology and no one is born knowing these things! We all had to learn over time. Take a look and ask one of us if there is something else you'd like to know!


A postdoc, or postdoctoral researcher, is a person who has successfully defended their PhD thesis. Now that they are a doctor and finished with their PhD, those who want to work in academia (and one day become a professor or have their own lab) can do one or several postdocs where they work closely with a PI and continue independent research.

Fellowship, Grants & Scholarhips

These are all different types of funding that are amazing for you all to apply to at any stage in your career. They look great on a CV or resume and also increase the likelihood that you will be successful with future funding applications.

  • Fellowship: an award given to a student that often pays for living expenses and school expenses. 

  • Grant: a sum of money often only usable for research and not living expenses. 

  • Scholarship: an award which dispenses funds usable for personal or school expenses.


A stipend is a set amount of money offered to students to assist with personal and living expenses. In graduate school for example, many programs at the PhD level are fully funded, meaning you get your tuition paid for and a stipend that helps you pay for personal and living expenses. The stipend is often in exchange for working as a TA (teaching assistant) or RA (research assistant) for graduate students unless that student has a fellowship which pays for their living expenses. 

Principal Investigator (PI)

A PI--often used interchangeably with advisor in school--is a person who was awarded funding (an independent grant) to conduct and oversee independent research projects. They are the lead researcher on the project and are responsible for the oversight, preparation and conduct of the research. This is the person you will contact when you are interested in joining a research lab in academia. 


An advisor in graduate school is often the head of your lab or research group who helps keep you on track in your research and academic success. Ideally, students meet frequently (weekly) with their advisor and discuss the progress you've made each week or seek advice on your research ideas, techniques, etc.

Student Loan

A student loan is borrowed money from the government or a private lender that can support your living expenses, personal expenses and tuition. Unlike grants or fellowships, which are "free money" you do not have to repay, you do have to pay back the student loans you borrow, plus interest (a percentage of the total sum of money borrowed that gets added on to your bill every month!) This is important to consider when you are borrowing money, because you want to be sure you will have a job or salary in the future where you can successfully pay off the loans you've taken out. It is so important to look at the interest rates for your loans too and be wary of private lenders (i.e. Sallie Mae) whose rates are very high. Please reach out to a mentor if you have questions about applying for student loans. Many of us do not have the ability to pay for college ourselves, so student loans are a helpful resource but it shouldn't be taken lightly as there are many consequences down the road if you cannot afford to pay them back.

To apply for federal student loans each year in college or graduate school, you can go to the FAFSA webpage at

More coming soon!