The various levels of education and degrees offered within and across countries is immense. Because of different educational systems, the names of degrees are not the same. This can cause a lot of confusion amongst prospective students. So, what’s the difference between graduate and undergraduate degrees?
When you are choosing a university and a degree to attend and complete, you want to know all the details of what you are about to start. For most students, they want to know what kind of degree they are completing. Their educational journey requires them to know what the difference between graduate and undergraduate studies is.
Students who are going to the United States to study, especially, have problems distinguishing between the two degrees. This is because they might have different names in different countries. This article will cover the main difference between undergraduate and graduate studies and explain the details.
What are undergraduate studies?
Undergraduate studies are degrees which lead to the student graduating with a Bachelor’s or an Associate Degree. Bachelor’s Degrees take approximately four years to complete. They can be done at colleges or universities. Associate degrees require two years of study. These degrees can be done at a community college, college, or vocational school.
Students enrolled in a Bachelor’s or Associate program are called undergraduate students. Based on their degrees, students get a Bachelor or Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc). They can also get more specialized degrees such as Bachelor of English Literature, Bachelor of Computer Science etc.
What are graduate studies?
Graduate studies are the next step after students complete their undergraduate degrees. Graduate degrees can be completed after a Bachelor’s or an Associate degree.
They can be of two types:
- Master’s Degrees
- Doctoral Degrees (PhD)
Master’s Degrees are typically one to two years of full time study, but can take longer depending on your degree and method of study (part-time, distance, etc.). There are different types and in specialized fields and include coursework and research.
At the end, students can graduate with titles such as:
Doctoral Degrees are more advanced than Master’s Degrees in their content. They can take around three to six years to complete, depending on the field of study. Master’s Degrees require half coursework and half research work. Doctoral degrees are mostly focused on research and only have a few courses.
Students choose a specific part of their field, which they are interested in researching. They then conduct experiments and field studies to finally publish their dissertation. The dissertation is almost like a book, with hundreds of pages in length. It contains the original published research of the PhD student. In addition, PhDs also include teaching as graduate or research assistants.
Postgraduate vs Graduate Studies
Within the undergraduate vs graduate differences, students also experience some confusion regarding the meanings of postgraduate and graduate studies. In fact, there is no difference between the terms. Some countries use one or the other to mean the same thing.
In the U.S, undergraduate studies are for Bachelor’s Degrees, and graduate studies are for Master’s or Doctoral Degrees. In other countries of Europe, graduate studies are for Bachelor’s, and postgraduate studies are for Master’s and Doctoral Degrees.
So in essence, graduate and postgraduate studies have the same meaning. Both degrees are equivalents of each other no matter where you are getting them. What matters is that you are graduating from an accredited institution.
Undergraduate vs Graduate
Besides their names, there are more differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees. Students who have completed high school may choose to either get an undergraduate degree or go directly to graduate school. Either one would give them similar skills. However, it is best to know what undergraduate vs graduate studies entail. By knowing the differences, it is easier to make a decision.
The degree you get
The first difference between graduate and undergraduate studies is the degree you graduate with. As mentioned, when you complete undergraduate studies you get a Bachelor’s Degree. When you complete graduate studies, you get either a Master’s Degree or a Doctoral Degree.
Content of studies
The main difference between undergraduate and graduate studies is the content of courses. Bachelor’s Degrees are tailored to give students a general overview of many subjects. Students learn writing, analysis, and critical thinking skills.
Even if they are completing their undergraduate degrees in a specific field, students will have some general courses. These general courses might not relate to their field. This is because undergraduate studies do not require students to make a final decision about what they want to specialize in.
That is where graduate studies come into play. After getting a general sense of many subjects in undergraduate school, students pick a specific field. This will be the field they will get their graduate degree in. For example, a student who has a Bachelor Degree in English Literature, can complete their graduate studies in Shakespeare’s work. Or a student with a Bachelor Degree in Economics can choose to do a Master’s or a PhD in Economics of Developing Countries.
So the content of studies in this case is more general for undergraduates and highly specific in graduate studies.
The coursework which makes up the two degrees is also different. Undergraduate students usually have around 5 to 7 courses every semester. Graduate students have around 4 courses per semester. This, of course, depends on the field of study, since graduate students might have more courses. Generally though, graduate programs have less coursework than undergraduate ones.
The reason for this is that graduate studies have more research focused classes. Traditional coursework is lower. This makes graduate students take less courses, but they are more intense in the content that they have.
In addition to the content and coursework, the evaluation of students is also different in undergraduate and graduate levels. During undergraduate studies, since students are still getting basic knowledge in a variety of subjects, evaluation is mostly done through exams. This is to test their proficiency in basic concepts of higher education studies.
In graduate school, though, it is assumed that students are already familiar with the basics. Evaluation then is mostly focused on projects that are research oriented. Graduate students have already chosen their specialty, so they mostly do research. The research is based on the practical application of the concepts that they have learned during their undergraduate studies.
Change of majors
Since undergraduate studies are more general, changing majors is a lot easier. Each undergraduate field of study has a few similar courses. Also, undergraduate universities have similar curricula. This makes changing subjects and transferring universities more feasible than for graduate school.
Graduate studies are more specific. Even within one field of study, there are multiple approaches that the coursework can take. So is it more difficult to switch from one subject to the other. It is also challenging to transfer to another university. That is because the curricula can be different, even within the same topics.
The process of getting into undergraduate or graduate studies is also quite different. Admissions requirements for undergraduate studies include:
- High school transcript and diploma
- Scholastic Aptitude/Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) scores
- For international students, TOEFL or IELTS English proficiency scores
- One or two essays
For graduate studies, on the other hand, admission requirements include:
- Bachelor’s Degree transcripts and diploma
- Graduate Records Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores
- GPA of at least 3.0 (or equivalent grades)
- Letters of recommendation
- Statement of purpose or research proposal
Since graduate studies are more specific, they have stricter admissions requirements. The programs are also highly competitive.
During undergraduate studies, professors have a more active role in teaching students. They communicate the basic skills which students need to succeed in the labor market. Students are actively seeking answers and explanations from them in relation to what is taught in class.
In graduate school, on the other hand, professors take a role that focuses on guidance rather than active explanations. Professors become mentors to students. They give advice in relation to their research progress and methods. They do not usually teach students how to complete the research, but what approach to take.
Another difference between undergraduate and graduate studies is the level of class discussions.
In undergraduate classrooms, students express opinions and ask questions. These discussions, though are on a less advanced and less experienced level. Professors also have a more active role in stepping in to correct mistakes relating to the concepts that are being taught. In addition, they try to foster a way of thinking that is necessary for success in that particular field.
In graduate school class discussions are highly advanced. Students in graduate school have more work experience and are not coming directly from high school. That is why their opinions come from personal experiences and not only theory. They debate and learn from each other, while the role of the professor in this case, is to guide the discussion in the right direction. Students tend to stray away from topics, so professors guide it. They do not necessarily correct any mistakes or add much to the theoretical concepts.
What makes undergraduate and graduate studies so different is also the career options. After graduation, students can take a variety of career paths. Students with only a Bachelor’s Degree have more limited options though. They more often than not start out in lower paid, entry level positions. In addition, they usually require additional training specific to their job, since their degrees are so general.
Students with completed graduate degrees have more career options. They can go on to work in different sectors of the economy. They take jobs in the public, private, or non-profit firms. They also have a higher salary and more advanced positions. Also, they can get involved in academia. This includes graduate teaching assistants or professors if they complete their PhDs. Undergraduate students cannot do that because professors are required to have specific knowledge.