Undergraduate vs Graduate Degree: Learn The Difference

Most undergraduate school programs offer students to pursue postgraduate studies after they have earned their undergraduate degree. However, many may not know the real differences between undergraduate and graduate studies, only to be shocked once they enrolled.

In this post, lets explore the how are undergraduate and graduate school different from each other. We will look into several aspects here, such as specialisation, duration, assessment and more.

Difference Between Undergraduate And Graduate Degree

AspectUndergraduate DegreeGraduate Degree
Level of SpecialisationBroaderDeep, focused on one field.
Admission RequirementsHigh school diploma, tests (SAT/ACT), essay.Bachelor’s degree, higher GPA, recommendations, research, tests like GRE, interviews.
Program DurationUsually 4 years.Masters: 1-2 years, PhD: 3-7 years.
Teaching and Learning ApproachLarge classes, basic theories, includes exams.Small classes, advanced research, students may teach.
Assessment MethodsExams, essays, group projects.Research, thesis, dissertations.
Career OutcomesEntry-level jobs in various fields.Specialized, high-level jobs, often with higher pay.

Level of Specialisation

A major difference between graduate and undergraduate degree is in specialisation. In an undergraduate program, the focus is broader. You, as an undergraduate student, explore various subjects, some even outside your major. 

Undergraduate courses are also designed to ensure you grasp a wide range of knowledge, from the sciences to the humanities, encouraging you to think critically and logically across disciplines. 

This foundational approach prepares you not just for employment in occupations requiring a degree but also for life’s diverse challenges. 

Graduate studies, on the other hand, take you deep into your chosen field of study. Once you’ve earned your undergraduate degree and decide to pursue a graduate degree, the game changes.

Graduate programs, be it a master’s or doctoral degree, demand a higher level of engagement with your subject. You become a grad student focused on becoming an expert in your field, often involving intense research and specialised courses. 

Admission Requirements

Another key difference between undergraduate and a graduate degree is the admission requirements. For undergraduate school, you’re expected to present: 

  • a high school diploma,
  • standardised test scores like the SAT or ACT, and
  • perhaps a personal essay or letters of recommendation. 

However, graduate school is a different story. Here, the admission criteria become more stringent and specialised. Pursuing a graduate degree, whether it’s a master’s or a PhD, you’ll need to have completed an undergraduate degree in a related field of study.

But it doesn’t stop there. Admission requirements for graduate schools often require a higher minimum GPA than undergraduate programs, looking closely at your undergraduate courses and grades, particularly in your chosen field of study.

Graduate admissions teams also weigh research experience heavily, especially for PhD programs. Grad school looks for evidence that you can contribute to scholarly research.

Letters of recommendation need to come from academic advisors or professionals who can vouch for your research potential and academic prowess. You might need to pass subject-specific entrance exams, such as the: 

  • GRE,
  • GMAT,
  • LSAT, or
  • MCAT, depending on your field.

Some program or school even conduct interviews to gauge your commitment and suitability for the rigorous demands of graduate study.

Program Duration

Typically, an undergraduate program, like a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, spans four years at a college or university. 

Undergraduate students usually spend time learning around courses that may be unrelated to their major. After two years into an undergraduate program, they declare their major.

In contrast, the duration of graduate programs can vary widely depending on the degree and field of study. A master’s degree usually requires one to two years to complete. 

However, this can extend if you’re an international student navigating additional challenges or if you opt for part-time study to balance work or personal commitments. Certain graduate programs allow gives additional time to complete studies.

Doctoral degrees introduce another level of commitment. These programs, known for their intensity, often take anywhere from three to seven years to complete.

The duration is largely influenced by:

  • the field of study,
  • research requirements, and
  • the time it takes to complete your dissertation.

Graduate students in these programs dive deep into their chosen fields, contributing original research that extends the boundaries of knowledge.

Teaching and Learning Approach

You may notice the teaching and learning approach shifts significantly from undergraduate to graduate studies. In undergraduate programs, the focus often leans towards imparting a broad knowledge base.

You, as an undergraduate student, might find yourself in larger classes, absorbing foundational theories and principles across various subjects.

These undergraduate courses are designed to offer a comprehensive view, preparing you for a range of careers or further study.

For instance, a Bachelor of Science learning program might include plenty of:

  • lectures,
  • lab work, and
  • exams

Graduate studies, however, immerse you deeply into your chosen field. Here, the approach is more specialised and research-oriented. Graduate students are expected to engage in:

  • critical analysis,
  • contribute original research, and often,
  • teach undergraduate classes.

This transition to a more self-directed and research-intensive study is marked by smaller, seminar-style classes. There, you and your peers discuss, debate, and dissect advanced topics under the guidance of faculty experts.

Graduate school thus demands a higher level of intellectual engagement. You’re not just learning about the field; you’re contributing to it. This necessitates a shift from the more passive learning modes common in undergraduate studies to active, critical, and creative thinking.

Graduate education is designed to mold you into an expert in your field, capable of pushing the boundaries of current knowledge. You are likely to learn through:

  • Developing complex arguments in papers,
  • presenting research findings, or
  • engaging in rigorous debates.

Assessment Methods

The journey from undergraduate to graduate studies brings a transformation not just in the depth of learning but also in how you are assessed.

As an undergraduate student, you might be used to a mix of:

  • exams,
  • essays, and
  • group projects.

These methods aim to test your understanding of a wide range of topics within your field of study, from the basics of calculus in a Bachelor of Science program to the critical analysis of literature in a Bachelor of Arts course.

This variety ensures that regardless of your learning style, you have the opportunity to showcase your knowledge and skills.

Unlike undergraduate studies, the assessment methods in postgraduate study focus on research and specialisation. Here, you’re more likely to encounter: 

  • comprehensive exams,
  • research proposals, and
  • thesis or dissertation projects.

A graduate student in a doctoral degree program might spend years working on a single research project, culminating in a dissertation that contributes new knowledge to their field.

This shift from undergraduate to graduate level assessments underscores the move from learning existing knowledge to creating new insights.

Graduate programs often include assessments that mirror real-world applications of your field, such as case studies, research publications, or practical projects.

These not only assess your academic prowess but also prepare you for future careers, requiring you to think critically and logically, solve complex problems, and communicate your ideas effectively. 

Career Outcomes

With an undergraduate degree, you gain entry into the professional world. This degree equips you with a broad skill set and foundational knowledge in your field, opening doors to entry-level positions across various industries.

A Bachelor’s degree in marketing might land you a role as a marketing coordinator or a digital marketer, where you can apply the theories and strategies you’ve learned.

On the other hand, a graduate degree, such as a master’s or doctoral degree, positions you for more specialised and often higher-level roles.

Graduate studies focus on deepening your expertise in a particular area, which can make you a highly sought-after candidate for roles requiring specialised knowledge or research capabilities.

A Master’s in Engineering could qualify you for senior engineering positions or specialised fields like biomedical engineering, where advanced knowledge is crucial.

Moreover, certain professions require a graduate degree, particularly in:

  • academia,
  • research, and
  • specialised fields like psychology or law

In these cases, a graduate degree is not just beneficial but essential. For those aiming for leadership positions or roles in academia, a graduate degree can be a powerful differentiator, often accompanied by higher salary prospects and greater responsibility.

Undergraduate vs Graduate Degree

This post explores what’s the real difference between graduate and undergraduate study. Graduate degrees are more specialised degrees, that allow you to land occupations requiring a master’s degree or higher. 

It is also harder to enter, and need more focus to complete. As a result, it may be possible to day that its easier to earn a bachelor’s degree than a graduate degree.

Postgraduate degrees are however, a worthy endeavour to undertake in life, and it something many graduates look back with good memories later in life.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.