What Is The Difference Between Undergrad And Graduate School?

To a large extent undergraduate and graduate school are very similar in that graduate school is simply an extension of an undergraduate education. You’re attending classes, doing coursework, living on or near a campus, and getting little sleep (but maybe for different reasons in grad school). But there are some key differences ……

In graduate school you will be able to focus more narrowly on a specific field of practice or academic research. Also, in graduate school you won’t have to take all of those required courses in other disciplines that don’t interest you very much. You are no longer exploring which fields or disciplines interest you; rather, in graduate school you have a good sense of a specific profession you would like to enter, or continue to grow your skills and knowledge in. You really need to read this post on what it’s like to be a PhD student.

Let me provide you with some examples of how moving from undergraduate to graduate school will allow you focus more narrowly on a field of practice or an academic field. Let’s say you earned a BA in sociology. In college, you most likely had to take more than a few classes outside your major such as math, science, and/or English courses. You did take quite a few classes in your major, but that was not the only academic field you focused on.

With a BA in sociology, when you enter graduate school you will want to narrow the focus of interest in sociology. You may have learned about social work or community organizing in your undergraduate program and decided you want to be a social worker or community organizer. Your undergraduate major will serve you well in both professions, but you will need practical training and more specialized knowledge in your field. If you like social work, you can earn a master’s in social work (MSW), or if you like community organizing you can get a master’s in community organizing.

Perhaps you are a researcher type and want to do research and maybe go on to your PhD. You can get an MA in sociology then enter a doctoral program in sociology, or you can find an accelerated sociology PhD program in which your master’s gets earned along the way to earning a PhD in sociology. At the graduate level you will choose a subfield of sociology to focus on. The same type of pattern holds true for an undergraduate degree in business in administration. If you decide you want to focus more on marketing after graduation, you can get your Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) and focus on marketing.

There are different levels of what we generally call, “graduate school.” In a two-year graduate program you will take rigorous coursework and most likely have to complete a thesis or capstone project that will be somewhere between forty and sixty pages. A thesis will most like require some original research. In a doctoral program you will attend courses and complete course assignments, but these assignments will be used more to prepare you for your dissertation, which is a very detailed research study that can be up to 250 pages long, (with appendices bringing it up another hundred pages or more in some cases)!

A master’s program is somewhere between an undergraduate and PhD program. When you enter a PhD program, generally you are quite interested in being a researcher and/or professor, while a graduate degree may prepare you more for professional practice (although some are very research focused). At both levels you will have opportunities to conduct research and teach.

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. Here is Dave discussing ten key differences between undergrad and grad school. I have added some additional thoughts about each of them below.

1. You will feel a lot more uncertain and challenged.

Graduate school is primarily self-directed. It is true that you will have an advisor in graduate school, just as you did in undergrad, but they may be less present. You will have to seek them out. You should tell them which concentration you’ve chosen (if there is such an option) and track your own progress in the program. You will probably be given a form to track which classes you have completed and be asked to have your advisor sign it at the end of the academic year. Of course, there will be electronic records of which course requirements you have completed, but you will need to track of which classes you still need to take to finish the coursework phase.

In terms of your research skills and writing, you will have to raise the bar for both of those in grad school. Professors will have less patience for poor writing and will not view themselves as writing instructors. You also will need to up your game in terms of the sources you use in your research papers. Times up for using websites and newspaper articles as your primary sources. You will really need to use the library databases or Google Scholar to locate peer reviewed articles to cite in your papers. And you are not simply summarizing these articles; more often you are integrating articles’ core ideas and findings int your own analyses for your papers.

2. Each course is substantially more difficult than an undergraduate course.

Imagine a graduate course being equivalent to two to three undergraduate courses. It’s not necessarily that the reading will be more difficult (although it depends on the selectivity of your program as noted above) but there will be more comprehensive course assignments. Your papers will be longer and you will be expected to think critically about ideas presented in the readings and lectures. You will do more group projects and assignments and projects will be more directly connected with real world practice or original research. Click here to get an insider’s perspective from Dave on how professors grade papers.

3. You will be working in an apprentice type relationship with a professor.

Dave says, almost all communication with the professor should be related to research. I would just add that most graduate professors will be sort of happy to talk to you about coursework, assignments, your goals and interests, etc. but full professors are very busy people. Go into a meeting with a professor with a plan for what you want to accomplish. Often professors have very capable teaching assistants who can guide you through assignments and answer your questions about coursework. Non-research related questions should probably go to them first. Furthermore, some professors are adjuncts or instructors with only a master’s degree. They may actually be easier to reach and have more time to help. In graduate school, you may develop an incredible partnership or mentee/mentorships relationship with a key professor who will make a major difference in your career.

4. Grad school is a lot more frustrating than undergraduate school.

Many things along the way will complicate assignments or hinder you from getting to the answer you need; and you are responsible for figuring out why this is occurring. A professor is not going to review lectures with you one on one. If you are really stuck, you might want to hire a tutor from an online tutoring service or work with your program’s tutoring or writing center. Again, going to a TA might be more productive for you in getting detailed help with assignments.

If you are feeling a lot of frustration, make sure it doesn’t morph into hopelessness or depression. If it does, though, it’s not your fault, and you should get help from the university counseling center or an off-campus therapist.

5. Graduate school is not a time for partying or an extension of the undergrad lifestyle.

You are not a kid anymore —sorry. Graduate school is where boys become men. If you do not have self-motivation you’re not going to thrive in graduate school. Some undergraduate programs feel more like high school now, but there won’t be any hand holding in graduate school. Some professors will want you to eventually start acting like a professor by doing professional research or teaching. You are expected to be on your way to becoming a professional and contributing to the field.

Use your time in graduate school wisely. Take advantage of every opportunity to do research and work with professors and research institutes. These will be the experiences that make the most difference in your career and will give you the skills to help you start your career (or continue it) with strong footing. Don’t spend all of your free time partying. If you do, you will waste your money and time on graduate school. Your professors will not have the patience for poor work ethics in graduate school like they sometimes did in undergrad programs. Besides, your grad school colleagues will probably be all different ages, including older adults with families. They won’t be involved in the party culture and their maturity may rub off on you in a good way.

6. Graduate school is a lot more collaborative than undergraduate programs, but it is also very isolating.

You meet great people in graduate school, and you do a lot of projects together. You may be part of a team but still have a major component of the project that you have to complete individually. Take the time in graduate school to learn good teamwork skills. If you are shy, teamwork will force you to come out of your shell, which is a good thing for your long-term career.

You may become friends with some of your grad school colleagues, but more likely than not they will be from different parts of the country and world, and it’s hard to track people down during the semester when they are traveling home a lot. Or if they are local, some colleagues will spend their remaining free time at home with their families. Graduate students are adults, so it may be difficult to make some good friends, but it happens all the time. You may feel a bit isolated where you live as well. You will most likely live alone in a small off campus apartment – not exactly dorm life. I lived in an off-campus apartment with no furniture. I was too lazy to move it in because I was traveling every weekend anyway.

7. In graduate school, everybody is extremely smart, but nobody knows what they’re doing.

It is easy to understand how to get an A in an undergrad program but in graduate school professors have higher standards. You’re getting to know a field or profession and may not exactly know what the standards are for high quality work. You’ll figure it out though. You will need to be very disciplined in graduate school – slacking off won’t really be an option anymore like it was in undergraduate school. Some graduate students will be good at balancing work, life, and school while others will feel a great deal of pressure trying to do this. If you need help organizing your life and balancing everything, there are mental health counselors on campus, apps, and colleagues who can give you some good advice and help you out.

8. Getting good grades does not matter in graduate school.

In many programs, what matters more is the research you do. Sure, you will want and need to get A’s and B’s — anything less in graduate school is not really acceptable. Your GPA may matter if you are trying to get into a PhD program. More A’s than B’s will help, and a number of C’s will prevent you from getting into a PhD program. But what really makes you stand out in graduate school is your work with professors and institutes and your teaching assistantships and teaching. This is what makes your resume or CV standout as well. Here are some tips on teaching in graduate school.

9. There is a stronger focus on theory in graduate programs than undergraduate programs.

What sets grads apart from undergrads? It’s their ability to think abstractly, conceptually, and theoretically. You are entering a profession and will need to understand the foundational theories and ideas of that field or profession. You are narrowing the focus of your studies, but you are also going into more depth about the history and philosophy of a profession or academic field. You are supposed to really take in these founding principles and philosophies so you will always have a foundation for all the thinking and practicing you do in your career. Theory can be tedious for some, but it is important. According to Dave, “All we really care about in grad school is theory, all the rest is really fluff!”

10. Things will take a lot longer and cost you more money than you would expect for a graduate degree compared to an undergraduate degree.

A graduate program can take you as little as three to four semesters full-time, but you may not be able to go full-time, or go full-time for the full duration of the program. There are accelerated programs that can take you as little as three semesters to get your master’s if you do a full course load in the summer as well; but why pack so much learning into three semesters if you can help it. Sure, you want to get your degree quickly but don’t pile so much into each semester that you hardly know what happened at the end. This will decrease learning and increase stress.

I advocate for attending graduate program part-time if you work part-time or full-time, and full-time only if you are comfortable with taking out a big loan to cover your living expenses or if you have a really great scholarship or assistantship (teaching or research). Dave recommends that you go full-time to start earning higher wages more quickly, and many programs do not allow you to go part-time. Going part-time does tend to make the program drag out and many people will never complete if they are part-time, however. A doctoral program can take you four to six or even seven years part-time, so you will have to think carefully about going the doctoral route. A full-time doctoral program could take you as little as four years (most likely five years).

As a graduate school student, you are also an adult, probably working and paying for your living expenses, so graduate school may tend to feel like it costs more than undergraduate school. In some cases that will be because you are in the program longer, but in other cases your graduate program may simply be more expensive per credit than your undergraduate program was. Just think through it all carefully and plan well.

Want to learn more from Dave?

Recent Posts