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Academia is a broad term used to describe the world of higher educational institutions and research institutions. People in academia include graduate students (in doctoral programs) and faculty. Faculty in turn include tenured and tenure-track faculty, faculty with post-doctoral appointments, and adjunct faculty.

For convenience, we do not include pre-college education in our use of the word academia. We also exclude undergraduate students (except in so far as they may aspirationally want to continue to graduate studies and are engaging in activities similar to graduate students). The reason for excluding undergraduate students by default is that the majority of people pursuing undergraduate studies do not intend to continue in academia, and the undergraduate programs are designed with this in mind. Whereas a large number of entering Ph.D. students leave academia soon, the structure of the system for entering Ph.D. students is designed with continuation in academia as a major consideration.

See also:

  • Academia as a career option: A discussion of the factors to consider and weigh in determining whether academia is a good career option.
  • Social value of academia: Is academia a good place to go to to have a huge positive social impact? What parts of academia are more promising in this regard, and what parts are less?
  • Alternatives to academia: A discussion of alternatives for people who are considering academia. These can substitute for some of the positives that academia has to offer, while avoiding some of the negatives.

Stages of academia

Undergraduate studies

The typical duration of undergraduate programs is 3-4 years.

Students generally choose a subject to specialize in (called their major or concentration) but this choice need not be made at the time of admission. Students may also double-major or have a major and a minor. In general, the subject that the student continues beyond undergraduate studies is the same as the student's major for undergraduate studies, but this isn't always the case.
The time is spent acquiring the basic knowledge and skills that most experts in the broad discipline are familiar with. Here, "broad discipline" corresponds roughly with the level of granularity of departments (such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, ...) rather than a finer level (such as abstract algebra or quantum mechanics or organic chemistry).

Graduate studies

Graduate studies in doctoral programs (Ph.D. programs) typically involves 1-2 years of general study of the subject (to supplement what was learned in undergraduate studies) followed by detailed study of a particular topic. The first few years of general study correspond to a masters program, and people may leave after finishing that phase of study with a masters degree.

The Ph.D. program culminates in an original piece of work called a thesis or dissertation. The thesis is submitted to the department, and defended to a committee comprising faculty members in the department.

Admission to graduate studies is typically handled by individual departments rather than universities. Unlike undergraduate studies, where one may switch one's major after joining, changing one's departmental affiliation for graduate studies requires reapplying.

Graduate students also often have teaching duties.

Post-doctoral fellowships

Post-doctoral fellowships have variable length, but the typical program is 2 or 3 years long. Post-doctoral fellows are no longer considered students, but they are not part of the permanent faculty either. Their activities are quite similar to those of graduate students, but they are generally expect to do more research and/or teaching.

It is not necessary for every Ph.D. to do a post-doctoral fellowship: some directly land tenure track positions, but that is relatively rare. it is also possible for a Ph.D. to do multiple post-doctoral fellowships one after another.

Tenure track and tenure positions

Tenure track positions begin with the Assistant Professor designation, then proceed to Associate Professor, then to Professor. The system is an up or out system -- people who fail to transition from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor within a fixed window (specified at the time of appointment) need to leave, and might move to another university for a tenure track position. The promotion from Associate Professor to Professor is a matter of time -- once people reach Associate Professor status, they do not need to worry about being kicked out.

Adjunct fellowships

Adjuncts are generally Ph.D.s who want to continue in academia but cannot land post-doctoral fellowships or tenure track positions, but continue doing primarily teaching work for a university.

Components of academia


Ph.D. programs expect students to do original research in order to get a Ph.D. Academics at research universities are expected to continue to do original research throughout the course of their work. Academics employed at teaching-focused liberal arts colleges are not expected to continue doing research, but many of them continue to do small amounts of research on the side.


Graduate school as well as most academic jobs have some teaching obligations. The extent of teaching obligations varies based on the job. At research universities, teaching is generally treated more as a chore and is not a major criterion for academic promotion, although there are some graduate students and faculty who are highly invested in teaching as a personal choice. At teaching-focused liberal arts colleges, teaching is, at least in principle, a focus area.

Service to the profession, department, or university

Typical examples here include reviewing papers written by others, attending and organizing conferences, and participating in departmental and university meetings.