A Guide to University Nomenclature

For new university students the academic world is probably rather confusing, partly because it is large, complex, and uses terminology that secondary school students have not likely encountered.  Here’s my quick reference guide to some of that jargon.  It’s somewhat specific to Waterloo, but many North American universities use something similar.  (In the interest of brevity, I’ll gloss over some details and hope that my colleagues don’t mind.)

Organizational Structure

University:  created by an act of legislation, headed by a President, a Board of Governors, with a Senate (for academic matters).  There are also a bunch of Vice-Presidents, a Provost and a variety of other similar executive level administrators.

Faculty:  a major sub-division of the university built around a common core theme (like the Faculty of Engineering, or Faculty of Applied Health Studies).  Sort of like how Lincoln is a sub-division of the Ford Motor Company.  A Faculty is headed by a Dean, with various Associate Deans in charge of different aspects.  Not to be confused with “faculty”, who are the academic teaching personnel.

Department:  a sub-division of a Faculty, headed by a Department Chair (not to be confused with a Research Chair, which is entirely different).  There are usually some Associate Chairs focused on specific things within the department.  The Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies is often the academic adviser for students in that department, so someone that’s good to know.

School:  at Waterloo, a sub-division that’s too big or unique to be a department and too small to be a Faculty.  We have the School of Architecture within Waterloo Engineering.

Non-academic units:  these are groups that provide support for the day-to-day operations, including

  • Registrar’s Office:  which handles student recruitment, admissions processes, registration, course scheduling, exam scheduling, grades handling, transcript and degree production, and various other similar things.
  • Office of Research:  handles research applications to government and contracts with industry, research financial accounting, etc.
  • Student Awards and Financial Aid Office:  processes scholarships, OSAP, bursaries and all that important stuff.
  • Finance:  handles all the money flows into and out of the university, including tuition payments, scholarships, purchases, salaries, etc.
  • Plant Operations:  keeps all the buildings clean and functioning.
  • And many more…a full list is available online.

Academic Degrees

The ultimate goal of every student.  There are different types and flavours.

  • Bachelor’s Degree:  the first (also called “undergraduate”) degree to be earned after secondary school.  We have the Bachelor of Applied Science degree (B.A.Sc.) and Bachelor of Software Engineering (B.S.E.) in Engineering.  Some universities have a Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.) degree.  The difference between a B.A.Sc. and B.Eng. is …nothing.  All accredited engineering degrees are equivalent, no matter what the name is.  Also, all engineering degrees are “Honours” degrees, meaning that they require 4 academic years worth of courses and a minimum average something more than just a pass (60% for Engineering).
  • Master’s Degree:  the second or “graduate” degree that can be earned after the Bachelor’s.  At Waterloo there are two main varieties.  The research-based M.A.Sc., which takes about 2 years full-time to do some courses and a thesis, and the professional degree M.Eng. which can be completed in 1 to 1.5 years and consists only of coursework.  There are also some specialized Master’s programs like the M.B.E.T and M.M.Sc. which are also based on coursework.
  • Doctor of Philosophy Degree:  the terminal graduate degree, usually requiring an M.A.Sc. degree for admission, although excellent students can sometimes be admitted directly after the B.A.Sc. degree.  Perhaps confusingly, one can get the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D., from Philosophiae Doctor) in an engineering discipline.  But that’s because “philosophy” here refers to the original Greek context, ‘love of wisdom’, not the academic discipline of philosophy.  Also, “Doctor” comes from Latin roots referring to “teacher” (docere, to teach), so overall the sense is ‘teacher of the love of wisdom’, or something like that.  A Ph.D. degree usually takes about 4 years to complete, and requires coursework, original research and journal publication, a comprehensive examination by a committee, and defense of the final thesis validity and novelty before a committee including an expert from outside the university.

Academic Personnel

Undergraduate students (i.e. those in the Bachelor’s program) will encounter a variety of academic (i.e. teaching) staff during their studies.

  • Teaching Assistants (TAs):  these are typically Master’s or PhD students that are paid to help out for a few hours a week, leading tutorials, marking assignments, supervising lab sessions, helping students with questions, etc.  Sometimes senior undergraduate students are hired as TAs too.  For example, our WEEF TAs are co-op students that are hired to work full-time to help out our first year engineering students.

“Professor” usually means a person with a Ph.D. holding one of the following positions.

  • Assistant Professors:  this is the entry-level faculty position, often started within a few years of finishing the Ph.D. degree.  They are usually on contract for 3 to 5 years until they have demonstrated their teaching and research abilities sufficiently to earn “tenure” (i.e. a permanent, non-contract job).  They have to apply for tenure, convincing reviewers inside and outside the university that they have met or exceeded the minimum expectations in teaching results and research success.  If tenure is not awarded they are out of a job, so it’s a bit stressful.
  • Associate Professors:  the next level in the professor ranks.  Promotion to this level typically happens when tenure is awarded.
  • Professors:  the final level achieved after promotion from Associate Professor.  Promotion to this level typically takes 5 to 10 years and requires demonstration of significant achievements in teaching, research and professional service.  Promotion applications again require support from within the university and from reviewers at other universities.
  • Lecturers:  sort of a teaching specialist position.  A professor who is not expected to build, finance and supervise a research group, but instead focuses on teaching more courses.
  • Demonstrators:  not a “professor”, but usually a Master’s level staff member who runs laboratory courses, tutorials and other non-lecturing teaching activities.

Academic Activities

Students engage in various scheduled activities during the week.

  • Lecture:  a 50 minute session where someone from the professorial ranks discusses key ideas and concepts, and may do some example problems to illustrate concepts.  There are usually 3 per week for each course.  In Engineering, lectures may involve up to about 150 students.
  • Tutorial:  a 50 minute session (or sometimes 2 sessions) where a Teaching Assistant or Professor reviews concepts, answers questions on assignments, maybe does some more examples, possibly runs a quiz, and other similar activities.  In first year engineering, most courses have at least one tutorial session per week and the class size is usually less than 50.  In upper years, tutorials may be less common but it depends on the program and course.
  • Laboratory:  a hands-on session running 1 to 3 hours (typically), under the supervision of Demonstrators, Teaching Assistants, and possibly Professors.  These might be chemistry or physics lab experiments, or computer labs (programming, CAD, simulation), or sometimes project work.  Quizzes and reports are often associated with labs.

Other Terms

  • Calendar:  the official documentation for programs and course offerings, degree requirements, various academic regulations.  Also includes the course catalog.  Very important information, but can be difficult to navigate and understand at first.
  • Major:  your program, like Chemical Engineering, or Geological Engineering.  Your diploma will show “Bachelor of Applied Science in _____ Engineering”.
  • Minor:  sort of a mini-degree in a different subject area, typically requiring about 10 courses.  Engineering students sometimes complete Minors in Economics, Biology, or various other non-engineering disciplines.  Your diploma will show “Minor in ___” in addition to the Major.
  • Option:  a package of courses (typically about 6 or 7) that provides more focus in a certain topic.  There are a variety within Engineering, such as the popular Option in Management Sciences.

So there’s a brief introduction to some terms.  There are probably many more, so feel free to ask in the comments.

2 thoughts on “A Guide to University Nomenclature

    • Very few Engineering students complete Minors, probably less than 1%. It’s a significant amount of extra effort to complete up to 10 more courses (on top of about 45 for Engineering). From what I’ve seen, the few that do Minors are usually in Economics, one of the sciences (e.g. Biology, sometimes Chemistry), or one of the Mathematics (e.g. Mathematics, Pure Mathematics, Computer Science). There are others around if you have a specific interest, but it takes some hunting through the academic calendar to find them.


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