One of the actualities of academia that is important to be aware of when using this site is: Academia varies more than you think it does. More explicitly: Academic practices strongly vary between countries, fields, journals, universities, departments, and even groups. It is easy to arrive at the false conclusion that some aspect of academia is the same everywhere.

This is a problem that pertains to all levels of users on this site:

  • Questions whose answers depends on the culture and regulations of individual institutions (that operate below the national level) cannot reasonably be answered by us (or any other similar Internet site). We close such questions since we have become tired of having a bazillion answers whose only substance is: “it depends”.

  • Answers that assume that academia is homogeneous in some respect when it is not are at best confusing to some readers and wrong and misleading at worst.

I already noted this in my answer to Welcome to Academia SE, which got insanely popular. However, given the restrictions and purposes of that question, it contains only a list of the most important examples – which is already quite long for something that is supposed to be a short introduction. Yet, due to the above problems, an extensive list of inhomogeneities in academia would be a valuable resource for the users of this site. Hence I am asking:

This Question

In which respects does academia vary more than many people expect?

  • Variations can be along different axes, e.g., between fields, countries, journals, universities, departments, or groups.

  • Answers shouldn’t be an obvious consequence of the differences of subjects, countries etc., e.g., it is little surprising that work groups in theoretical physics don’t refer to themselves as labs, or that research in poorer countries focuses on less expensive subjects.

  • Group answers into reasonable categories, roughly per tag on the main site. If you have something to add that does not fit into the existing categories, add a new answer (and link it in the table of contents below).

  • When possible, link to relevant posts on the main site.

  • This is a community wiki. Please feel free to contribute.

Table of Contents

  • Great to have this list. Is there any point in making an extended list in some way, where we can add which countries/regions/subjects/blah fit into which of the mentioned categories? Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 12:37
  • @TobiasKildetoft: I don’t think that this would be feasible, given that there are so many of them. Also, you may always find a subfield, university, etc. that is different, so it’s easy to provide false information.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 12:55
  • Why isn't it surprising theoretical physics work groups don't call themselves "labs"? I've heard theoretical syntacticians call themselves "labs." Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 19:15
  • 2
    @AzorAhai: Because a lab is a place where experiments are performed, and theorists usually do not do this (more or less by definition). Sure, you will always find some exceptions, where a group which does not have a literal lab calls itself lab, but if anything, that’s the surprise.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 5:33
  • 7
    Where can I watch the movie?
    – Bergi
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 20:58
  • 1
    Why is this Q on meta and not on the main site? Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 17:56
  • 2
    @FedericoPoloni Uh, I'd say because it's more of a guidance to things you should be aware of before answering a question. Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 18:01
  • 1
    This will quickly get too long to be useful. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 3:37
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist If someone on the main site gives a sweeping generalized answer on a certain topic, we can refer to specific sections of this Q&A to point out how certain things vary across the academic world for that topic. The same if someone who asks a question fails to enough details about the localization. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 9:18
  • 2
    The most important thing (maybe I will later write an answer on this): Don't assume academia does only consist of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science!!!! Many people here make this severe mistake which turns a lot of people off from the site.
    – Holla
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 13:06
  • @Holla: That’s a different problem though (which was also already discussed on this meta).
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 13:13
  • 2
    I do think it belongs here, no? People think all academia is Mathematics, Physics and CS, but it varies more.
    – Holla
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 13:16
  • 4
    @Holla: I don’t think any user believes that academia only is math, physics, and CS. Some users may think that all of academia is like those fields in some respects, in which case the details of which are what this question is about (and in fact some points are already mentioned in the answers). However, if you think there are other problems from users being overly focused on those fields, this belongs elsewhere. (Complete sidenote: As a physicist having glanced into many other fields, it seems to me that physics has more in common with most other fields than with math and CS.)
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 14:11
  • titles? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/180452/…
    – BCLC
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 15:15

9 Answers 9



  • In some fields like computer science, conferences act as publication venues: you submit papers, they get peer-reviewed and disseminated. In most fields this is not the case and publishing your work in written form and presenting it at a conference are two different things.

  • The duration of the peer-review process varies greatly across fields, journals and publishers, ranging from a few weeks to more than a year (further reading). Other stages in the peer-review process such as editorial assessment scale accordingly.

  • Double-blind peer review (i.e., the reviewers do not know who the authors are) is the norm in some fields, while impossible or unheard of in others. Sometimes, only single blind reviewing is practiced (the reviewers know the identity of the authors, but not the other way around).

  • The prevalence of publishing preprints (on the ArXiv or similar) strongly varies across fields and even subfields and so does the acceptance of this practice by publishers.

  • Mentioning somebody in the acknowledgements requires their consent in some fields or for some journals (further reading).

  • Some fields have a tendency towards many small publications (with the extreme being salami publishing), while in other fields, authors try to accumulate as much content into one paper as possible. In yet other fields, much or most new work is published as complete books. Relatedly, the average publication frequency of researchers differs strongly across fields.

  • The average numbers of citations made and received by papers vary strongly across fields and even subfields. Relatedly, what is a high impact factor varies strongly across fields: Some mega journals that are regarded as a junk pile by some disciplines (due to their low impact factor) are sometimes erroneously held in a high regard by others (due to their high impact factor). Note that this is also affected by the impact factor only considering citations within the first two years, thus disadvantaging fields with long “response” times.

  • Journal article formats are different in different fields and in different journals. Sometimes there is a strict format. Sometimes the author can organise their paper as they wish.

  • In some fields, submission fees are common, while in most ones article processing charges or color printing charges are due only after a paper is accepted.

  • 6
    Wow, I'm surprised about requiring consent to say "The author wishes to thank X". Unless X is a fugitive in hiding...
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 10:06
  • 1
    @einsupportsModeratorStrike it's also making sure that the person you're thanking is aware of it and believes that it is appropriate.
    – masher
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 2:27
  • 2
    “I’d like to thank my colleague @einpoklum for helping me realise that the earth is flat, society is ruled by the Illuminati, and Gödel was a charlatan, as I shall further demonstrate in this paper.”
    – PLL
    Commented May 4 at 8:47
  • @PLL: Hmm, I guess you have a point there.
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 4 at 8:49


  • In many fields, the order of authors in a paper indicates how much or how they contributed: The first author usually did most of the work, while the last one is sometimes the supervisor. Other fields order authors alphabetically.

  • Depending on the field and even the journal, corresponding author can refer to the author who communicated the paper to the journal or the author to whom post-publication communication about the paper by third parties should be addressed (further reading). Among others this results in corresponding authorship being valued in evaluation or for funding (further reading) in some contexts, while this seems bizarre to those used to the other meaning of corresponding author.

  • In some parts of the world, the PhD supervisor may be the first author even if the PhD student did most of the work.

  • In some fields, papers with more than a handful of authors are rare. In other fields, one might regularly find papers with dozens or, in extreme cases, even hundreds or thousands of co-authors.

  • In some fields, the authors’ affiliations on a paper indicate where the work was done; in others, affiliations indicate where the authors can be currently found.

  • 2
    It should be remarked that the extent of responsibility for the contents of the paper by various authors can also vary. In areas (like many areas of Mathematics) where authors are listed in alphabetical order, all authors share the credit---and the blame in case mistakes are later found!
    – Kapil
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 9:39

Theses and Defences

  • In some countries and universities, you hand in your thesis to the examination office, which then distributes it to the examiners for grading. In others, you hand in your thesis to the examiners for grading directly. Yet another way is that you have to hand in a thesis that is already signed by your supervisor.

  • In some programmes, you must defend your thesis before submitting it; in others, you can only defend a fully examined thesis; in yet others, thesis submission and defence are mostly independent.

  • In some countries, bachelor’s degrees must be completed with a thesis; in others, this is optional or impossible.

  • Some programmes prescribe a fixed time that you shall spend on a thesis (which in turn can even vary between comparable programmes). Depending on the department’s and even group’s culture, this duration may be strictly adhered to, or it may be the norm that you only register a thesis once you are confident that you can finish it in time. In other programmes, you are completely free on when you hand in your thesis.

  • Some programmes have strict requirements on the length, layout, and structure of a thesis (which in turn strongly vary); other’s have no such restrictions at all.

  • Some universities have no dissertation defence. Other universities call it a "pre-submission seminar" instead of a defence.

  • The format of the “defence” — that is, the final thesis presentation/examination — varies very widely, from a public ceremony with multiple lectures (common in continental Europe) to a private oral exam (e.g. the viva voce of the traditional UK system). Usage of these terms also varies: often defence is used as an umbrella term covering all of these formats (as here); but often e.g. a viva may be considered as a different system entirely, not as a kind of defence.

  • A defence often consists only or primarily of a talk by the candidate, but in some systems (e.g. Dutch and Scandinavian) members of the thesis committee also (or even exclusively) give talks.

  • The length of a defence talk can vary considerably between programmes and even groups. In some cases, it’s just ten minutes; in others, it can take up to an hour. When the defence is an oral examination rather than a lecture, it may last longer, up to several hours.

  • The admission and role of the audience in a defence can strongly vary. Some defences are completely open to the public; some can only be attended by other members of the university; some defences happen only before the examiners. The defence talk and the questions may be treated differently in this respect. Questions from the audience can also be treated completely different: In some cases they are forbidden; in others they are allowed but rare; in yet others they are common and encouraged; and in some cases, a defence is not complete without a question from the audience.

  • The target audience of a defence may strongly differ even between groups. Some are supposed to directed at an expert audience familiar with the thesis. Others are supposed to be (mostly) understood by anybody from the field or even the faculty.

  • The opposition to the presented thesis/dissertation may range from perfunctory, through merely curious, to making a serious attempt at rebutting the presenter's claims or the novelty and significance of the results.

  • Customs after a successful defence vary greatly, from formal celebrations to throwing food at the successful graduate.

  • 2
    Australian universities usually do not have a defense at all. There may or may not be something similar with a different name. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 3:36
  • 2
    @AnonymousPhysicist: There may or may not be something similar with a different name. – This is ambiguous. Do you want to say that you do not know whether there is something similar, or do you want to say that in some cases there is something similar and in some cases there isn’t. Either way, please edit the respective information into the answer.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 8:58
  • @ Wrzlprmft: I’ve added a bit on the UK-style viva system, which I guess may be also what @AnonymousPhysicist was referring to.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 13:17
  • The term "dissertation" usually refers to a Ph.D. candidate's thesis only - but apparently, in some places undergraduate theses are also called "dissertation". See the comments here. Commented Mar 13 at 14:40

Employment and Funding

  • In some countries, PhD students are university employees, which means they get unemployment benefits, healthcare, and pension contributions like any other employees.

  • In some countries, PhD students are getting paid, but it's legally a stipend, so the benefits are not the same, but every PhD student gets the money.

  • In some countries, PhD students are getting paid if they apply for funding and get it. If they don't get the funding, they can still study just without money. In this case, some positions might be tied to specific stipends, so if you are hired/admitted, you don't have to apply for more funding, but this is not the case for everybody in the country or even in the department.

  • In some countries, PhD students won't get paid for being PhD students, but they will have to do some paid teaching.

  • In some countries, PhD students have to pay tuition (which might or might not be countered by stipends or teaching)

  • In some countries, faculty contracts include twelve or more months of salary; in others only nine months.

  • In some countries, the funding is based on impact-factor publications; in others, they do not care about this sort of thing.

  • In some countries, prospective PhD students apply directly to potential supervisors; in others, they apply to a department.

All these may also vary between fields or institutions within a given country.

  • 1
    The fact that it's called a "stipend" rather than a "salary" does not, in itself, make Ph.D. students non-employees. In many cases (and in many countries), Ph.D. candidates are unrecognized employees.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 12:05

Studying and PhD Programmes

  • In some countries, you have to decide on a discipline when you start studying, in others you start broadly and decide for a major (or similar) later.

  • Some countries and programmes, you need to pass major hurdles before you can start studying such as good grades in previous education, entrance exams, or paying a considerable amount of fees. In others, you need only minimal qualifications to study, but passing the exams is a major filter. Depending on this, half of the students failing an entry-level course is a disaster or the norm. This is somewhat linked to whether students are regarded as customers.

  • In some countries, there are no extensive university- or department-wide policies (on behaviour, cheating, writing reports, etc.).

  • In some countries, there is a big difference between undergraduate and graduate studies. In others, this distinction does not exist or is merely marked by bachelor’s degree. For example, it isn’t even possible to accurately translate the words undergraduate and graduate student into the German language.

  • In some countries, PhD programmes are purely research-based but require a master’s degree (which usually takes two years) for admission; in some they are purely research-based and require only a bachelor’s; and in some they require only a bachelor’s degree for admission but require coursework to be completed as part of the PhD. In the third case, the concept of “mastering out” exists. In the first (and second?) case, graduate schools do not exist or are mostly virtual structures (the author of these lines was a member of a graduate school that did not even inform its own students of its existence). Of course, there are variations of both schemes.

  • In some countries, prospective PhD students apply directly to potential supervisors; in others, they apply to a department.

  • In some countries, the PhD student chooses, or is assigned to, a supervisor only after some time (e.g. two years), while in some countries the student is to find a potential supervisor, willing to supervise them from the very beginning, before the actual application.

  • In some countries and universities, it is the norm to attempt to keep past exams secret (and obliging examinees to do this), so they can be re-used in future exams. Elsewhere, this approach is considered naïve and bound to fail and exams are designed under the assumption that all previous exams are available.

  • "Graduate studies" is a problematic term. When you're doing research work, this is not just studies. Do you mean "the coursework part of the Ph.D. or M.Sc. track"?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 10:08
  • @einpoklum: What difference would it make in this context?
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 10:16
  • Wrzlprmft: It's the difference between your third point being (essentially) false or true. See this question and my answer there.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 14:48
  • @einpoklum: I fail to get your point. The statement holds if you only focus on coursework only; it holds even more so if you include research work. Also see the fourth point.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 8:34
  • On the countrary. if you consider research work, there is always a huge qualitative difference between people in the M.Sc. or Ph.D. track, and undergraduate students: The former do productive scientific work.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 15:58
  • 1
    @einpoklum: Not everywhere. Here, both bachelor and master students do coursework and have a thesis project in the end. Both theses are scientific work. The master’s thesis is somewhat longer and arguably more productive, but that’s a gradual increase, not a completely different thing. As I wrote in the answer, here most bachelor and master programmes originate from splitting one big programme in two.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 16:55
  • Do M.Sc. candidates perform research projects which are beneficial to their labs or research groups? Projects which are often funded?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 17:35
  • 1
    Do M.Sc. candidates perform research projects which are beneficial to their labs or research groups? – Sometimes yes, sometimes no; same for bachelor candidates. It depends a bit on whether the subfield can offer such projects on that time scale. The students are not funded, but their work may be connected to a funded project.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 19:26
  • Well, the ones that are funded - by the university or an external sources, and are required to show up for work every day, and expected to produce meaningful research work (albeit much less than experienced researchers) - are the ones who, at a minimum, should be considered university employees. There are very few if any undergrads in this situation, many/most/almost all M.Sc. candidates, and most/almost all Ph.D. candidates. I would say the difference among countries and institutions is more in the breakdown into the employee'ish and non-employee'ish categories.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 20:03
  • @einpoklum: Here, during their thesis, bachelor as well as master students are expected to work nearly full time on their projects. Neither are employed for this (whether that’s fair is another discussion). And yes, I am aware that this is different elsewhere, but that’s exactly the point of this.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 20:06
  • But my point is that the nature of the work is not different; it's just the question of recognition and pay that's different. Which is why I made my comment in the first place.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 21:03
  • But my point is that the nature of the work is not different – Then why do you write: “if you consider research work, there is always a huge qualitative difference between people in the M.Sc. or Ph.D. track, and undergraduate students”? Also, my statement here is this: There is a prominent divide between undergraduate (up to a bachelor’s) and graduate students (master’s or PhD, whatever comes next) in some countries (e.g., the US), while it doesn’t exist in others (e.g., Germany). This applies to both, coursework and research. Where exactly do you disagree with this?
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 7:05
  • I was mis-stating my case. I was making the over-generalization of undergraduate students not being engaged in useful research, and M.Sc. candidates being so engaged. The former is perhaps closer to the truth, but apparently - as you suggest - not everywhere; the second - not so much, I should have qualified it.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 10:57
  • 2
    @einpoklum - having, as an undergraduate, given a talk at an APS March meeting on my senior thesis work, I'd like to think the research was useful... The full followup took a PhD student several more years, but my work initiated the project.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 23:05

Writing and Writing Style

  • In pure math, a paper’s introduction may just be “We consider the problem of X.” and not have a conclusion or summary. In other fields, you are expected to argue why a problem is relevant, summarise previous research, and place your own research in that context.

  • The question whether single-author papers should be written using “I” or “we” depends on the field (further reading).

  • 4
    "I", or "we", or if you get certain reviewers, "the authors of the present work" ;-)
    – Flyto
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 16:57
  • 3
    Paper in math usually need a longer introduction than that, often doing some more or less cursory literature review, but that also varies strongly by subfield. Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 14:28

Academic Life

  • In some countries, universities don’t arrange academic or mental-health counselling services for students.

  • In some countries or institutions, mass graduation ceremonies are a big thing. In others, most graduates just fetch their diploma from the respective office when they completed all the requirements (or receive it via mail), and mass graduation ceremonies are seen as something for people coming from the former countries and people who (or whose parents) like dressing up – if they happen at all.

  • In some countries or universities, it is common to strongly identify with and be loyal to one’s university or to an institution within the university; in others, this is regarded as outlandish.

  • In some countries, the academic year is interrupted by a large break during which campuses are mostly empty of students; in others, there are periods with classes that are interrupted by shorter breaks, while at least some students are almost always around for one university-related reason or another.

  • What kind of dress is the norm or appropriate strongly depends on field and to a lesser extent on country. The same attire can be overdressing for a formal occasion in one field and underdressing for everyday work in another.

  • Clothing requirements may also vary for practical reasons (e.g., no open-toed sandals in a lab; no strongly patterned clothing in a Deaf Studies course).

  • In some countries, institutions, and programs, instructors are required to keep daily attendance records for all students registered in a course. In other programs, such a requirement would be considered offensive and a violation of academic freedom.

  • In some institutions, how academic integrity cases (cheat, plagiarism, etc.) are handled is entirely outside the hands of the faculty member; e.g., the faculty member may file a report with a dean or other office, who entirely take over the job of investigating, passing judgement, and applying penalties. Or the faculty member may have responsibility for the investigation, and turning over any evidence to a judgement body. At other places, faculty are given wide discretion for the entire process, including the exact penalties to be applied. And some places may be a mixture of these (e.g., academic penalties decided by faculty; disciplinary penalties decided by administration).


Student Body Properties

  • Some academic contexts do not have students at all but still fit within academia (e.g. the Institute for Advanced Study).

  • Some have only what is usually called graduate students; others have only undergraduates.

  • In some countries, an institution of higher learning may not be called a university unless it has graduate programs, or is a certain type; in others naming conventions have little relation to this.

  • Some degree-granting institutions operate wholly within the online space, with nearly all part-time students; others only have full-time, on-site students. There are many, many ways to mix these nowadays.

  • Some physical universities have nearly all students living off - often very far from - campus, while others are nearly completely residential.

  • Which employee teaches what kind of student (or teaches at all, and how much) depends widely upon type of university, country, degree program(me), etc.

  • Some student bodies are highly culturally and racially diverse, others are quite homogeneous. Sometimes certain programs are homogeneous, but not of the dominant ethnic group of the community or country. Some programs in a given university may recruit widely from other countries, while others at the same one will have nearly all local students. And of course some student bodies are homogeneous and local, but do not fully reflect the community surrounding the university.

  • The same as the previous point, except regarding diversity of economic statuses. Naturally there are many times this point is strongly related to the previous point, but it is not always the case, particularly when students studying outside their country of origin is involved.

  • Certain universities have a common language of instruction which is not the local language, or even the first (or second or third ...) language of most students. Sometimes this is because there is no clear common language and a lingua franca is chosen. Some universities are bilingual or more.


Academic Administration

  • The role of the head of a faculty, department, institute, or similar can be seen as anything between:

    • a prestigious and powerful role that people strife for, requires years of experience (as a professor), and that people stay in for long times,
    • a nuisance that only distracts from more important tasks (such as heading a research group), that changes yearly based on an established rota, and where there are rules what arguments suffice to reject the role. Showing interest in the role is seen as a red flag.
  • There can be considerable differences on how many layers academic administration has and how narrow their scope is, even within a country or university. For example, the structural hierarchy for the same topic at universities of comparable size can be university → faculty for science → department of mathematics → institute for statistics or just university → faculty for statistics.

  • An elected faculty senate (academic senate), separate from the board, may exist as a representative body at the university level, or also at a faculty level (i.e., for semi-autonomous highest level departments), or there may be no senate and faculty may be represented on the unicameral board instead (if at all). Senate's responsibilities can range anywhere from ceremonial to strategy defining ones. Many academic senates consist of faculty only, others also represent students, either elected directly, or via an established student union, with the proportion of student representation ranging from symbolic up to one half of the senate membership.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .