Guide to Professorspeak


Students aren't obligated to know the information in this guide, but I keep it with the rest of my guides in Advice for Students.

Read This First

I wrote this guide as a glossary of terms used by a certain segment of faculty at US universities: those who are research-intensive, tenure-track professors in STEM disciplines. It explains a mix of basic and advanced terms, but it's far from comprehensive. This guide may interest (1) new faculty, (2) students who overhear these terms and are curious about what's going on, and (3) people outside academia who are perennially mystified when talking to faculty members in their lives.

Research administration and finance are overrepresented in this guide because the jargon for these topics is cryptic, and they are significant topics for faculty. (Sympathy for the new professor whose relatives mistakenly assume they have a side gig as a private investigator, or the new professor who attends an introductory presentation about grants that doesn't explain indirect costs.) This guide also might be biased toward including terms that I found puzzling or particularly interesting when I began working as a professor. Finally, remember that my discipline is computer and information science, and some terms may vary in other disciplines.

See my other guides for what professors' job titles mean, how people talk about publishing in conferences or journals, terms related to graduate school, or how to get a tenure-track job.

As usual in my guides, I've added pictures to break up the text. All of them are mine.


Three small bright purple flowers with bright blue anthers
Flowers in the Sunol Regional Wilderness. Bay Area, California.

The Glossary

AAU: Association of American Universities. An invitation-only organization of US and Canadian universities, both public and private, with strong research missions. Membership is considered prestigious, but note that many universities with strong research missions aren't part of AAU. See also R1.

AAUP: American Association of University Professors. Unrelated to AAU, an organization of professors and other academics, with chapters at many US universities. AAUP advocates for academic freedom and shared governance. At some universities AAUP facilitates a labor union or advocates for unionization.

academic unit: An academic subdivision in a university: a department, school, or college.

buy-out: When a professor uses grant money to pay their academic unit for an exemption from teaching a course. There are caveats: some funding sources don't permit buy-outs, and the department head or dean has to approve.

C&P: Current and Pending funding. Part of a grant proposal, a document that lists research funding that a professor currently has and other funding they've applied for.

CAREER Award: A prestigious NSF grant from its Faculty Early Career Development ("CAREER") program, which pre-tenure faculty in NSF-funded disciplines are encouraged to apply for.

cluster hire: A faculty member who belongs to a coordinated group of faculty hires across the university, as part of a strategic effort to boost expertise in a particular area of research. Cluster hires are typically expected to spend part of their time working with the cluster on projects.

COA: Collaborators and Other Affiliations. Part of a grant proposal, a document listing a professor's collaborators and any affiliations they hold. This information is used to avoid selecting proposal reviewers who would have a conflict of interest with the success of the proposal.

COI: Conflict Of Interest: A situation where a faculty member could improperly receive personal benefits from things they do in an official capacity. Universities have formal mechanisms for faculty to officially disclose these situations and avoid them.

consulting: Being paid to perform work for an outside entity, typically a company. The compensation to a faculty member goes through the university, which takes a cut for indirect costs.

courtesy appointment, courtesy affiliation: An affiliation with an academic unit that comes with limited responsibilities, granted for mutual benefit. For example, a professor may receive a courtesy appointment with a department to collaborate more easily with its faculty or to be able to advise its graduate students. In exchange, the department can count the faculty member's expertise in its portfolio.

CPT: Curricular Practical Training: a program that allows international students to work at internships related to their studies before they graduate. Universities' international student offices manage the details of CPT, but faculty must approve it for their graduate advisees. Also see OPT.

direct costs: Costs in the budget of a proposal that are specifically for the activities in the proposal. Contrast with indirect costs.

endowed chair: A professorship that provides extra salary or extra research funds, as bestowed by a donor to the university.

extension: Most often used as expected (e.g., a deadline extension), but occasionally shorthand for agricultural extension: farming-related education and services that a land-grant university provides to the general public.


Raindrops on small pointy green leaves
Raindrops on leaves. State College, Pennsylvania.

external: Used throughout this guide to describe a source of money outside a university. It could be a government, a nonprofit group, a company, or another organization.

facilities and administration ("F&A"): See indirect costs.

graduate faculty: Faculty who are permitted to serve as advisors for graduate students' theses. Tenure-track faculty almost always receive graduate faculty status, while faculty in other roles are less certain to have it. Having the terminal degree in one's field (typically a PhD) is a requirement.

hard money: Salary that the university guarantees regardless of the faculty member's success with grants, contracts, consulting, or other sources of money. Tenure-track faculty positions are typically considered hard money positions, meaning employment isn't contingent on raising one's salary through these sources. Contrast with soft money.

HBCUs: Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Colleges and universities with a historic (and often continuing) focus on serving African-Americans. Wikipedia has a list of HBCUs.

indirect costs or indirects: Part of the budget of a proposal devoted to supporting the university's ability to host research, but not attached to the specific activities described in the proposal. Often indirect costs are required to be a certain percentage of an external proposal's budget, specified as a single line item without details. Also known as "F&A" or "overhead". Contrast with direct costs.

invited talk: When someone is invited to give a talk about their research. Some invited talks are part of a seminar series, and some are one-off events. Sometimes an invited talk is secretly a job talk, but it's impolite to ask and it's safest to assume otherwise.

IRB: Institutional Review Board, a university office that provides ethical oversight for research activities that involve human subjects. Faculty or students who want to perform experiments on human subjects must seek IRB approval first. Informally, people sometimes say "an IRB" to refer to an application sent to IRB for an experiment protocol, or the permission from IRB to perform an experiment.

job talk: A talk that a job candidate for a faculty position gives during their interview, to present their work.

lab: The group of researchers and research support personnel that a faculty member (or multiple faculty members working together) supervises; alternatively, the space in the building where they work. Personnel may include graduate and undergraduate researchers, postdocs, lab managers, technicians, and others. Some faculty members use the term "lab" for their group, and some don't. The term "lab" typically isn't regulated by the university, which means a faculty member can create a lab simply by naming it and referring to it. Creating an "institute" or "center" often requires permission from the university and a large funding source, though.

land-grant university: A university designated by its state to receive public benefits from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. Historically, the designation meant focusing on agricultural and technical education, but modern land-grant universities often have a full array of educational programs that cover the liberal arts, sciences, and engineering. The term has connotations of providing extension services and, more broadly, serving the public good.

liberal education: a style of education with an emphasis on breadth of knowledge, especially including the arts and humanities. "General education" requirements represent a basic liberal education. Note that "liberal" here is unrelated to political uses of the term.

limited submission: A competition for an external grant that limits the number of submissions it considers from each university. A university may have to run an internal competition to select among its possible submissions.

no-cost extension: When a funding source gives a grant recipient more time than they originally requested to spend the money in the grant.

normal school: An institution designed to train teachers. Normal schools no longer exist as such in the US, but the term appears in descriptions of universities' histories. Some US universities began as normal schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Small red plant surrounded by ice in a bog
Small red plant in an icy bog. Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia.

Office of Research and/or Office of Sponsored Programs: An office that helps faculty apply for external funding. The office prepares budgets, checks proposals for compliance with rules, finds funding opportunities, and performs other related activities. Often an academic unit and the university's central administration have their own separate offices for these tasks, with different responsibilities.

OPT: Optional Practical Training: Similar to CPT, but the internship can happen either before the student graduates or within a certain time limit after graduation.

overhead: See indirect costs.

prep: Time needed to prepare to teach a class session; when plural, the number of courses a faculty member must regularly prepare to teach.

prime: Some multi-university grants are structured so that one university first receives all the money and then passes along some of it to the other participating universities; that one university is called prime for the grant.

principal investigator (PI), lead PI, co-PI: Terms for official leadership roles on grants. (They're technically different, but "PI" generically covers all of them.) These terms indicate that the funding agency recognizes a faculty member as a leader of a funded project and responsible for its activities. A grant may have one PI or several in a hierarchy.

program officer, program manager, program director: Terms for people at funding agencies who have roles in deciding which grants get funded and following up with PIs about the status of their projects.

proposal: A formal request for money or resources to support scholarly activities, led by one or more faculty members designated as PIs. Proposals can be internal (i.e., to funding sources inside of the university) or external (to funding sources outside the university). Proposals typically contain a plan for work, a budget, and other documents; together they may amount to fewer than ten pages or as many as a few hundred pages. The Office of Research provides essential services for PIs preparing proposals.

PT: Promotion and Tenure: committees and procedures for two important aspects of tenure-track faculty advancement. Promotion is the progression from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor, and later from Associate Professor to Full Professor. Tenure is the special form of job security that successful tenure-track faculty receive. At most universities, tenure and promotion to Associate Professor are expected to coincide, but there are exceptions. See also RPT.

R1: A designation for universities that have the highest level of research activity, according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Contrast with R2 universities, which have some research but not as much as R1s. Wikipedia has lists of both.

RFP: Request for Proposals: a formal document from a funding source that explains how to prepare and submit a proposal for a funding opportunity.

RIF (Research Incentive Fund) or RIA (Research Incentive Account): At many universities, a small fraction of a grant's indirect costs aren't consumed by the university, and instead they are routed to the PI's control in a special fund with a name like this. The university places relatively few restrictions on how this money is spent: for example, it can be used to pay students, to support professional travel, or to buy equipment. These expenses can be for an existing project or a new one.

RPT: Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure: PT plus reappointment. At some universities the faculty talk about RPT, and at others it's just PT. RPT universities structure pre-tenure faculty employment as a series of 1-3 year job contracts, and reappointment is the decision whether a pre-tenure faculty member receives the next contract. The expectations leading to reappointment are more forgiving than they are for tenure.

sabbatical: A paid break from teaching and other obligations, granted to a faculty member after reaching tenure and then periodically again every several years. A sabbatical allows the professor to focus on scholarly activities that they typically don't have time for.

seed grant: A grant intended to jump-start scholarly activities (such as research) that will lead to a larger grant proposal. Universities sometimes use internal seed grants to help faculty generate preliminary research results to use toward external grants.

service: A faculty member's activities to support their university, academic unit, scholarly community, or discipline in general. Service activities are distinct from teaching or research, and the three form the standard triad of responsibilities for tenure-track faculty.


Small moth on a twig
Gray hairstreak moth. State College, Pennsylvania.

shared governance: Processes that allow faculty, staff, administrators, and sometimes others (e.g., students) to share decision-making for the university.

small liberal arts college (SLAC): A small university where liberal education is a priority. "Small" here is relative and poorly defined: SLACs vary in size from fewer than a hundred students to several thousand students. SLACs have a reputation for personalized attention to students' interests and high-quality teaching. R1s are often contrasted with SLACS. Personalized attention and high quality teaching exist at R1s too, but students often must be more proactive to obtain them.

soft money: Salary that depends upon the faculty member's success with grants, contracts, consulting, or other sources of money, rather than a guarantee from the university. Research-track faculty and postdocs often depend on soft money to stay employed. Contrast with hard money.

solicitation: See RFP.

sponsored research: Research conducted using funds from an external source. Sponsorship may come from a government agency (e.g., the NSF or NIH), a company (e.g., Google), or another entity (e.g., the Sloan Foundation).

startup: A fund that a starting faculty member receives from the university to begin their research. During their first few years, they are expected to transition from startup-funded research to externally-sponsored research. (Note that faculty sometimes form startup companies, too. Those are different.)

subaward: Typically, when a faculty member receives grant money from another university (i.e., not the one they work for), which in turn received the grant money from a funding agency. Also see prime.

submission window: A period of time when a funding agency accepts proposals. Faculty typically have to turn in their documents to their Office of Research a few days before the window "closes", so they can perform final checks and submit the proposal on behalf of the PI.

summer salary: Money that faculty receive for performing scholarly activities over the summer. Often, faculty have nine months of salary guaranteed by the university, and they have the option of finding salary sources for the remaining three months. Sources can include grant money, teaching, or consulting.

teaching load: The number of classes that a faculty member is required to teach per semester, quarter, or per academic year. Often an academic unit has a default teaching load for faculty, but some may receive reduced loads because of research activity, buy-outs, job offer negotiations, leadership positions, or other obligations. Alternatively, a faculty member might teach an extra course "on overload" for more salary.

teaching school: Often, a university where teaching is the dominant priority for tenure-track faculty. SLACs are examples of teaching schools. Contrast with R1s, where research is at least as important as teaching, and (as a historical term) normal schools, which trained people to become teachers.

Title IX ("Title 9"): A US law that prohibits sex-based discrimination. Title IX has a substantial impact on how universities deal with sexual harassment and how they allocate money to athletics programs.

triage: When a proposal is returned from the prospective funding source without peer reviews. Triage is a signal to the submitter that the proposal requires radical changes to become competitive, or it should be scrapped altogether.


Macro shot of water drops on a feather
Bird feather and rain drops. State College, Pennsylvania.

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