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What do you call a PhD student?

A PhD student is someone who is enrolled in a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program at a university. A PhD is the highest degree awarded at universities and requires intense study and research over several years. The term “PhD student” can refer to someone at any stage of their PhD program, from just starting out to being close to finishing their dissertation. So what do you call someone going through this challenging yet prestigious academic journey? There are a few common nicknames and slang terms for PhD students, some more flattering than others!

The Most Common Nicknames

Here are some of the most frequently used nicknames for PhD students:


One of the most generic ways to refer to a PhD student is simply as a “PhD candidate.” This term indicates that the person has advanced to candidacy status in their program, which typically means they have completed all required coursework and passed their comprehensive exams. At this point, the main task left is to finish and defend a dissertation. So calling someone a “PhD candidate” suggests they’re far along on the path to a doctorate but not quite done yet.


“ABD” stands for “All But Dissertation.” As the name implies, it refers to a PhD candidate who has finished all requirements for the degree except for completing their dissertation. The dissertation is a lengthy, original piece of research that is critical for obtaining a PhD, so being ABD signifies the student is tantalizingly close to finishing but still has that major hurdle left to overcome.

Doc student

This is a casual shortened form of “Doctoral student.” It’s a way to describe PhD students in a quick, convenient shorthand. “Doc student” can apply to someone at any stage of their PhD program since it just indicates enrollment in a doctoral program, rather than progress made so far.

Informal Nicknames

In addition to those standard academic terms, PhD students also have some informal or humorous nicknames you might hear used:

Doctoral candidate

Extending the formal title “PhD candidate” by adding “doctoral” is sometimes done jokingly or as a pretentious exaggeration. Calling someone a “doctoral candidate” is a bit silly and redundant since PhD already stands for Doctor of Philosophy. But it emphasizes the lofty academic status aspired to.

Grad student

This is a widely used casual name for any student seeking a graduate degree like a PhD or Master’s, not just specific to doctoral students. “Grad student” conveys a sense of communality among those slogging through higher education for years past a bachelor’s degree. It’s a humble, no-nonsense term graduate students often use themselves.

Perpetual student

Pursuing a PhD takes many years of nonstop schooling. This extended educational path earns PhD students the tongue-in-cheek label “perpetual students.” It’s a wry commentary on how seeking such a high degree can leave one stuck in student status for a prolonged period, possibly even a full decade of attending classes, teaching, and conducting original research.

Forever student

Very similar to “perpetual student,” this playful name again references the lengthy timescale of PhD programs. Doctoral students are seen as remaining in school indefinitely, hence “forever students.” It reflects how the advanced studies required for a PhD can make it seem like graduation will never actually arrive.

Professional student

“Professional students” are portrayed as people who persist in staying in academia because they enjoy being students. There’s a mildly derogatory sense that they avoid “real world” employment by hiding out in schools. But most PhD students pursue their degrees aspirationally to further their careers, not to prolong studenthood.

Terminal student

A PhD is considered the “terminal degree” in many fields – it’s the highest level of education, after which the only option is postdoctoral work or a career. So PhD students are sometimes dubbed “terminal students.” It wittily implies they’re irrevocably committed to the student lifestyle since there are no further degrees to pursue after a doctorate.

Disparaging Nicknames

Unfortunately, PhD students also deal with some condescending slang terms:

Academic peasant

Comparing PhD students to peasants highlights the huge power imbalance between them and the professors who lord over them. It’s an unflattering analogy emphasizing how doctoral students lack agency and must toil at low-status work to appease their academic “betters.”


“Acadroid” disparagingly portrays PhD students as mindless drones endlessly churning out research for the academic machine. It implies they are slaves to the university system who have sacrificed independent thought and personality.

Admission mistake

Suggesting a PhD student is an “admission mistake” is a cruel insult to their intellect and competence. It undermines all the hard work required to be accepted to and keep up with the demands of a doctoral program.

Table 1: Common Nicknames for PhD Students

Nickname Meaning
PhD candidate In latter stage of program nearing dissertation
ABD All requirements done except dissertation
Doc student Short for doctoral student
Doctoral candidate Jokingly embellished form of PhD candidate
Grad student Broad term for any graduate student
Perpetual student Stuck in school for prolonged period
Forever student Similar to perpetual student
Professional student Seen as avoiding employment by staying in academia
Terminal student PhD is final degree; no higher education left
Academic peasant Servile to professors with little agency
Acadroid Dronelike slave to the university
Admission mistake Insult to their intellect and competence

Nicknames by Discipline

Different fields of study also have some specialized slang terms for their doctoral students:


In science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, PhD students may be referred to as:

– Lab rat – Spends all time in research lab

– Differential equation – complex, hard to understand

– Stat geek – obsessed with statistics

– Coder -Programming is integral part of research

Social Sciences and Humanities

For less technical disciplines, common nicknames include:

– Bookworm – Reads constantly for research

– Hippie – Stereotype of social sciences being for idealists

– Unemployed – Humanities degrees seen as unprofitable

– Leftist radical – Stereotype of sociologists, political scientists etc.

Fine Arts

Artist PhD students earn labels like:

– Starving artist – Pursuing art despite limited job prospects

– Escapist – Avoiding “real world” by doing art

– Trust funder – Wealthy family funding art education

– Self-obsessed – Focus inward on artistic expression

Regional Differences

Colloquial terms for PhD students also vary across different countries and languages. Some examples:


– Doktorand – Generic term for PhD student

– Qualifizierter Nachwuchs – “Qualified junior”

– Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter – “Research associate”

– Lampenfieber – “Lamp fever” – nerves before big exams


– Doctorant – The French equivalent of PhD student

– Thésard – Specifically a PhD candidate working on their thesis

– Stagiaire – “Trainee” or “intern”, used for PhD students instructing classes

– Boursier – “Scholarship student” receiving a doctoral grant


– Doctorando/a – Male/female PhD student

– Investigador/a predoctoral – Male/female pre-doctoral researcher

– Becario/a predoctoral – Holder of a predoctoral grant

– Tesinando/a – A PhD candidate working on a thesis


– 博士研究生 (Bóshì yánjiū shēng) – Doctoral student

– 学匠 (xué jiàng) – “Apprentice”

– 小白鼠 (xiǎo bái shǔ) – “Little white mouse” – used for experimentation


Pursuing a PhD is an arduous yet enriching experience that earns students an array of nicknames along the way. These monikers range from formal academic designations to joking slang to derogatory insults. But the wide variety of names for PhD students ultimately reflects the uniqueness of following such an intensive, high-level educational path. The rich diversity of these terms shows that while the road is long, doctoral students have pride in their pursuit and can use humor to cope with the demands and stress. All the effort is worth it for the fulfillment of being addressed as “Doctor” at graduation. So PhD students can wear their eccentric labels as badges of honor.