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There are many types of higher education you can pursue that provide foundational knowledge in a field or discipline and prepare you for your intended career. An undergraduate degree can offer you general knowledge and train you to be a capable employee in one or many fields. A graduate degree can challenge your current knowledge to make you an expert in a specific field. In this article, we explain the key differences between undergraduate and graduate study and the career paths to which they lead.
Main differences between undergraduate and graduate study
In the United States, undergraduate study refers to the time students spend earning a degree after completing their high school education. Graduate study in the U.S. refers to the time students spend pursuing another, higher degree after completing a bachelor’s degree. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, use the terms “graduate” and “postgraduate” instead of “undergraduate” and “graduate.”
While undergraduate and graduate studies both lead to college degrees, they have many distinctions. Deciding which degree to earn depends on what you would like to do with your education. Here are seven key differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees:
- Types of degrees
- Admission requirements
- Length of study
- Classroom environment
- Potential job earnings
- Tuition costs
1. Types of degrees
Undergraduate studies offer two general degree types:
An associate degree is the first level of higher education, usually offered by community colleges or technical schools. This degree allows students to study general education subjects in addition to a few specific courses in disciplines related to their professional goals. You can enter the workforce in a variety of fields or continue studying at a four-year college or university after completing this degree type. The most common associate degrees are an Associate of Arts, an Associate of Science or an Associate of Applied Science.
A bachelor’s degree is the second level of higher education, offered by four-year colleges and universities. Though general education courses are required, students focus their studies by choosing a major in a particular subject related to their career goals. A bachelor’s degree is the most common type of college degree, and it can prepare you to enter the workforce in an entry-level position or to continue studying at the graduate level. Common types of bachelor’s degrees include a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science, a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Applied Science.
Graduate studies fall into two general categories, but the second category is further divided:
A master’s degree is focused on a specific area of research and is usually career-specific. It can enable you to enter the workforce at an advanced level or to pursue a doctoral degree. The most common master’s degrees include a Master of Arts, a Master of Science, a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Fine Arts.
A doctoral degree is the most advanced degree you can earn. Graduates with these degrees are experts in their fields. An academic doctoral degree is a Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. These degrees focus primarily on research in a specific field, and the people who earn them often become professors or researchers.
A professional degree is also a doctoral degree, but one that is required for certain careers. Common professional doctorates include a Juris Doctor to practice law, a Doctor of Medicine to become a physician, a Doctor of Education for educational leadership roles and a Doctor of Pharmacy to work in the pharmaceutical industry.
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2. Admission requirements
To enter an undergraduate program, you must have a high school diploma, GED or another equivalent to secondary education. Specific admission requirements vary depending on the college or university, but they often ask students to submit scores from standardized tests like the SAT or ACT, a personal essay, letters of recommendation and high school transcripts.
To enter a graduate program, you must have completed a bachelor’s degree. Graduate programs often require GRE standardized test scores, writing samples, statements of philosophy or research proposals, and letters of recommendation in addition to undergraduate transcripts.
3. Length of study
The time it takes to earn a diploma can vary based on several factors, such as whether a student attends college part-time or full-time, transfers schools or changes majors. In a graduate setting, it is much more difficult to switch programs or transfer to another school, since the curriculum is focused instead of generalized and varies by university.
For undergraduate degrees:
- An associate degree typically takes two years to complete.
- A bachelor’s degree often takes four years to complete, or an additional two years if you already have an associate degree when you begin to pursue a bachelor’s.
The time to complete graduate degrees varies widely, depending on the program requirements and level of degree.
- Master’s degrees often take two years to complete, but some programs can take one year or three years.
- Professional degrees can take three to four years to complete classwork and exams. Some programs, especially in medical fields, require additional years to complete residencies or internships.
- Academic doctoral degrees often take four to six years or more, since programs often require learning several foreign languages or extensive research and writing projects.
A full undergraduate course load varies by school and program, but it is usually around 15 credits per semester or four to six classes. Undergraduate coursework often involves a variety of writing assignments, projects and other subject-specific tasks, and many courses require students to pass an exam to earn credit. The types of courses these students take include a mixture of the following:
General education subjects
Students take these courses before pursuing courses related to their career specialties and include a variety of subjects, with most programs requiring students to complete courses in English, history, science and mathematics.
Undergraduate students are encouraged to select a “major,” a subject or discipline to specialize in. They enroll in courses that discuss the topics, issues and experiences relevant to their major. Some majors may have overlapping courses in general education requirements, while others require courses tailored to specific career goals, such as those in science, engineering and business.
Students may choose to further tailor their degree program by selecting a “minor,” a second, less intensive specialization that allows them to take additional courses in another discipline. Some students pursue minors directly related to their career paths, while others select minors in subjects of personal interest.
Graduate coursework is much more specialized and advanced than undergraduate work and typically follows a track of classes or expected subjects outlined by the university or program. Though a full course load varies by university and program, students typically take about nine credits, or three or four classes, per semester. These students may take comprehensive exams for the degree as well as exams for each course. Alternatively, they may complete large final projects, dissertations, portfolios or other qualifying exit assignments.
Related: Guide: How to Choose a Career
5. Classroom environment
The typical classroom environment of undergraduate and graduate studies differ widely.
Students at the undergraduate level may experience the following elements in the classroom:
Larger class sizes
Class sizes vary from school to school and from class to class. Some undergraduate courses may accept more students for specific courses, such as those in the general education portion of a degree program that every student must take. Larger class sizes may mean less individualized attention from professors.
Some courses may be organized with the professor leading the class and the students taking notes and completing assignments independently. Professors may encourage students to participate and ask questions, but some courses may have students interacting more with a teaching assistant who helps the professor grade assignments and conduct more personalized small group sessions.
While many courses may encourage student participation, some professors lead courses specifically built around students asking questions and discussing class materials, such as lectures and assigned readings. These courses may involve more individualized attention from professors.
Graduate degrees are less common, resulting in the following classroom elements:
- Smaller class sizes: Graduate classes tend to be smaller, often due to schools accepting a limited number of students or employing more professors to ensure increased individualized attention.
- Advanced discussions: These courses are also intensely focused in a certain field and of increased difficulty, and they tend to be more interactive, with professors expecting the students to be prepared, contribute to the learning and apply information. The discussions depend on the content of the degree program, course and students’ academic interests.
- Mentoring with professors: Students often work closely with professors as their mentors and often meet with them when completing research, creating portfolios or taking independent study. These mentorships also occur in regular classes.
6. Potential job earnings
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, attaining a higher degree of education correlates to higher potential job earnings. Certain degrees allow you to work in fields that are more specialized and make more money on average because of extensive training. Some employers might value education in their industry and pay those with higher degrees a higher salary. A survey shows the average weekly income by degree:
- Associate degree: $836
- Bachelor’s degree: $1,173
- Master’s degree: $1,401
- Doctoral degree: $1,743
- Professional degree: $1,836
7. Tuition costs
Tuition costs for college degrees vary widely according to a number of factors, including scholarships, grants, in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, whether classes are taken online and whether the school is public or private. It is important to consider your potential job earnings before deciding the level of investment you want to put in your education.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average annual undergraduate fees for 2015-2016 ranged from $17,237 for public colleges to $39,734 for private colleges. Average annual graduate fees ranged from $11,303 for public universities to $23,919 for private universities.