Updated 31 December 2019
You’ve completed your undergraduate degree after three or more years of hard work – now what?
For many, the answer is further education in the form of postgraduate study. This can take the form of a master's, PhD, postgraduate diploma or other professional qualification.
In the same way that embarking on your undergraduate qualification might have been daunting, postgraduate study can feel like a big step. This article looks at the five key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study and will help you understand more about what is to come if you take the postgraduate route.
Undergraduate study can be categorised as education that is undertaken after the age of 18 but before postgraduate education. It typically follows A-Levels or an equivalent qualification (such as BTEC).
Undergraduates work towards a Bachelor, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree. Once they have graduated from their degree course, they become a graduate and, if they decide to pursue further education, they then become a postgraduate.
Postgraduate study is education suitable for graduates. It is a higher level of study that requires individuals to have the foundations of knowledge laid by undergraduate study.
So, aside from the difference in the level of qualification obtained, what are the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study?
There are many similarities between the two levels of study, but there are also distinct changes in student status, pattern of work and content once you move to postgraduate level. Here are five key differences:
On an undergraduate course, the vast majority of the year’s intake will have come straight from sixth form or college and will be 18 years old – perhaps 19 or 20 if they have chosen to take a year or two out to travel.
On a postgraduate course, however, the intake is likely to be far more diverse; a mix of people of varying ages, with different goals and different backgrounds.
People come to postgraduate study at different times in their life. Some individuals on your course may have just graduated, others may have had a 30-year career and be returning to education to change career direction or make themselves more employable.
Regardless of how the class is made up, you will be surrounded by people who are passionate about the subject and have a wealth of life experience to bring to conversations. This can often make for a far more fulfilling study environment than you experienced in undergraduate study.
Undergraduate study is often highly structured, designed to ensure you receive a well-rounded introduction to a subject you may decide to investigate further in postgraduate study.
You will probably have had a rigid timetable of lectures and seminars and your attendance is likely to have been monitored. Postgraduate learning is far more flexible.
Whilst undergraduates are given some freedom to decide whether or not to turn up to lectures and do the necessary reading, they are still given deadlines, suggested research materials and structure. Postgraduates, on the other hand, are largely left to their own devices – it is considered that by this point they should be invested enough in their career and subject to manage their own time and direction of study.
Postgraduate courses typically feature as few as two modules per semester, which equates to just a few hours of contact time with your tutor each week.
Students have the opportunity to investigate theories surrounding the main topic, go off on tangents if something sparks their interest and spend more time researching small details if they think it could lead to something bigger.
The idea is that you are becoming a specialist in the subject, so you are largely free to control the research you do and the findings you come up with.
The nature of postgraduate study – with its research element and professional outlook – means that the relationship between tutors and students becomes more like colleagues.
In postgraduate study, the tutor is there to support the student and work through theories with them – they are not there to make sure they have started their essay or read the book for next week.
This changes the dynamic between the two parties and you might find you are invited down the pub on a Friday afternoon with tutors, or offered a ticket to an academic conference as your tutor’s guest.
This professional relationship extends to how you work with individuals outside of the university as well. It is not unusual on a master's course to find yourself collaborating with companies on real research projects. You will be encouraged to interact with staff and your tutor as peers for these kinds of projects.
Postgraduate courses tend to have fewer students enrolled on them than undergraduate education, so whilst you will see your tutor less, when you do see them they will have more of their time to offer you (and most likely will be genuinely interested in your work).
Unless you are studying for a PhD, which can take four years or more, the study time for a postgraduate qualification will be shorter than undergraduate level. A bachelor's degree is usually three or four years, whereas an MA is just a year.
The structure of a postgraduate year is different – it doesn’t follow the standard academic terms. Undergraduate study finishes in May but postgraduate students don’t always have the summer off; a one-year master's course can sometimes mean 12 whole months.
Despite being shorter in length, postgraduate study is no less intense – in fact, study intensity is much greater. In addition, a postgraduate master's will demand an extended individual research project often double the length of the dissertation required at undergraduate level (the minimum word count is usually around 15,000 words).
An undergraduate qualification often involves completing modules which you might not be particularly interested in and won’t ever pursue, with the aim of gaining a broad knowledge.
A postgraduate course, on the other hand, is more focused and intensive, which means you are unlikely to cover topics that you have little interest in. For example, if you are studying for a master's in 19th-century literature, you won’t be expected to complete a module on World War Two poetry for context.
Either you’ll have optional modules and you can pick the ones which are of most interest to you, or you won’t have options and the modules will be relevant to your subject.
You will receive a much larger and more advanced reading list on a postgraduate course compared to an undergraduate course. You will be expected to come up with unique ideas rather than simply critiquing other people’s, so reading around the topic is vital.
Postgraduate study is an excellent way to embark on an entirely new career path or add to your existing knowledge, making you more employable.
Sometimes, postgraduate education is used to help an individual go off on a career tangent – for example, you might be an expert in biochemistry but you want to get out of the lab and write for one of the leading biochemistry magazines. In this case, a journalism MA might be of use.
The important thing to remember is that postgraduate study doesn’t demand a whole new set of abilities – it builds on the skills you developed and the knowledge you gained during your undergraduate study, even if the undergraduate subject was in no way related to your postgrad.
Honing in on a very specific topic which is of great interest to you, surrounded by people who find it just as interesting as you do, and being treated like an expert in the field, often makes for a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience compared to undergraduate study.
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