I received an invitation to nominate students for an award that could be for an undergraduate, a graduate or a post-graduate student. I've seen those terms used before, but never been sure what they mean. I know Bachelor student, Master student, PhD student and post-doc.

The timeline:

Being a Bachelor student → Getting the Bachelor degree → Being a Master student → Getting the Master degree → Being a PhD student → Getting the PhD degree → Being a post-doc → ...

Then what do undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students refer to? Are undergraduate students exclusively students studying to get a Bachelor degree, or can it also refer to students studying to get a Master degree? After all, that's a graduation that they don't have yet. Literally speaking, it could also be "under" the PhD degree, but that's surely never used as such.

And a graduate student, is that then someone studying for the Master degree, er is it used only for people studying for the PhD degree?

But then what is a post-graduate student? Is this a post-doc? But post-docs aren't students anymore, so then it could only refer to PhD students. Or are post-docs considered students, too?

  • 1
    In many places, it takes a medical school student 6 or 7 years to be a medical doctor. Where do they fit?
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 13:12
  • Now that I have attained a bachelors in business administration and am in the job market it seems that I am not a "graduate" as many of the global corps describe graduates in the qualifications sections as holders of a masters degree. Looks like I'm going back for more. yippee
    – user35089
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 16:55

3 Answers 3


I am almost certain that post doc is not what is meant.

In English speaking systems outside of North America, and especially referring to Europe under the Bologna accords, an undergraduate refers to someone who is studying for, but has yet to receive, his first post-secondary education degree. Typically this degree is some equivalent of Bachelors, but in some cases students maybe enrolled in accelerated programs with a longer term of study that leads directly to (the equivalent of) a Masters degree.

A graduate student can, but not necessarily, refer to someone who is studying for a graduate diploma. In many countries having a Bachelors (or equivalent) is not sufficient in itself to qualify one for starting a postgraduate degree. One often requires a "good enough" Bachelors degree (such as one with honors). The graduate diploma is an intermediate step in which a student who has already received his first post-secondary degree studies further in order to qualify to enroll in a masters (or sometimes doctorate? I am not sure about this) degree program.

A postgraduate student refers to someone who has already obtained a first degree, and is now pursuing a second, third, or Nth degree beyond it. See, e.g. this Wikipedia entry.

A postdoctoral researcher is generally not considered as a student.

In English speaking North America, an undergraduate typically refers to someone studying for a bachelors, since almost all (if not all) degree programs go through that stage in North America. And a graduate student refers to any student studying for any degree beyond that of the bachelors (so that would be typically the masters or the doctorate).

  • @Pacerier: the one example I had in mind is the Cambridge Math Tripos, where some students can get, after one extra year of course work, both a BA and MMath degree at the same time now. (The offered degree(s) used to be slightly different some years ago, IIRC.) // These sorts of programs were more prevalent before Bologna. For example the pre-Bologna un-tiered Diplom degree in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland is largely the first degree held by the individuals and is currently recognized as largely equivalent to a modern Master's degree. Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 17:02
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    Further comment, hopefully clarifying a bit more: according to educationusa.state.gov/your-5-steps-us-study/… , in the US you can pursue a master's or a PhD after a bachelor's. In Germany (and most other European countries), you have to obtain a bachelor's degree first, then a master's, then you can pursue a PhD.
    – Gab
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 9:02

In many American Universities, the concept of a Master student is that which is enrolled purely in a Master course, and is expected to leave the school after graduation.

A Graduate student is usually enrolled with the objective of doing a PhD, many Graduate students, provided they have the coursework and thesis, might get a Masters degree in the middle of the program along with the PhD.

Usually for postgraduate students I also think is for post docs, but I'm not sure. In Mexico (and maybe France, because we share some characteristics of the language) a postgraduate student is one doing either a PhD or a Master, and a Graduate student is one doing his Bachelor degree.

  • 3
    This view isn't really correct. A master's student may also be done as a prelude to a PhD, particularly when the admissions to the doctoral program is not automatic (even when made contingent upon passing a qualifying exam).
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 13:39

In the USA An undergraduate student is one who's working towards a bachelors degree; typically a graduate student is one who has a bachelors degree and is either working on a Masters are higher level degree; a postgraduate degree level refers to someone who has earned a masters degree and is in route to a higher level degree; a postdoctoral Student is when they have completed coursework for the doctor degree but still has other requirements to finish like a thesis or disertation.

  • In the USA ... a postdoctoral Student is when they have completed coursework for the doctor degree but still has other requirements to finish like a thesis or disertation. [citation needed]
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 6:05

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