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8 Important Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate School

October 17, 2019

Over the last two decades, universities across the nation have seen impressive growth in their master’s programs. Since 2000, the rate of growth of earned master’s degrees (60 percent) has outpaced bachelor’s, doctoral, and professional programs. Certain fields of study, primarily business, education, and health professions, have experienced the most growth. What’s more, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in occupations requiring a master’s degree will increase by almost 17 percent by 2026. 

Naturally, important questions arise when considering whether to join the growing ranks of those obtaining graduate degrees. Often prospective grad students wonder — is a master’s worth it? What’s the real difference between an undergraduate vs. graduate degree? How do you choose which program and degree are best for you? To begin answering these questions, explore these eight important differences between a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.

Unsure if graduate school will really pay off? Explore our guide to see if an  advanced degree is the right move for you and your career!

1. Highly specific coursework

During an undergraduate program, students take several foundational and general subject courses, some of which are unrelated to their major. Graduate school coursework, on the other hand, is highly specific. 

The goal of graduate school is to help you become an expert in your chosen field of study. Graduate school empowers you to become the master of your own education. A master’s program supports a higher level of individualized learning and offers greater professor support to serve your unique goals. You’ll develop self-awareness and self-confidence as you mature as an expert in your field.

2. Flexibility within the program

Switching majors or even schools one to two years into an undergraduate program is very doable because of the universality of the degree, similarities between programs across institutions, and time you have to complete the degree. In graduate school, however, it is not as easy to make a change to a new program or school. While not impossible, most master’s programs take one to two years to complete — so if you think you want to make a change, initiating it during your first semester is your best bet for retaining all your credit hours. 

3. Admissions Requirements

Undergraduate programs have a relatively simple admissions process, and commonly include submitting your high school grades, SAT or ACT scores, and providing a few writing samples and letters of recommendation. Graduate school applications often require these items and more. Other common admission requirements for graduate school include proof of a completed bachelor’s degree, GRE/GMAT scores, a minimum undergraduate GPA, a statement of purpose, a research proposal, and an interview with the school. Certain graduate programs will have prerequisite course requirements, so be sure to inquire about your specific program of interest. Also, if you are an international student, check with the college or university to see if you need to provide additional documentation. 

4. Course load 

Undergraduate students juggle 5-6 courses per semester, while graduate students usually take only 3 advanced level courses. These courses involve much more reading and research than undergraduate classes and typically have fewer assignments. Because there are fewer projects, papers, and exams for graduate-level courses, each item is worth more and is expected to be a demonstration of your expertise in the subject.

5. Community

Undergraduate classes are often large lectures with hundreds of students, whereas graduate classes are much smaller (usually under 20 students). In grad school, you will become well acquainted with the other students and the professor. After a rigorous application process, you can be sure of the caliber of students that surround you. With everyone’s diverse backgrounds, work, and life experiences, you will learn from and challenge each other. Additionally, you will learn to work with your professors as opposed to simply completing assignments for their classes. 

6. Research experience

Research experience is valuable in almost every line of work. It teaches you to plan, think critically and logically, seek out answers to your questions, and incorporate those findings into your work. Research in an undergraduate program is typically comprised of a few research projects or papers, whereas in graduate school, research makes up the vast majority of learning in the classes. Depending on your program and area of interest, graduate students generally have access to advanced tools and systems that they can use for research purposes. You’ll have the opportunity to work closely with professors on their research projects, learning from them and discovering your own areas of interest.

7. Professional marketability

While an undergraduate degree allows you to apply for entry level jobs, a graduate degree expands your job market and increases your favorability in the eyes of potential employers. In a competitive market, you’ll need an edge over other job applicants. Graduate school gives you a larger network and better connections. When career advancement opportunities, promotions, and leadership positions open up, your graduate degree will help you stand out as the best candidate.

8. Leadership development

An undergraduate degree offers you a broad knowledge base, but a graduate degree sets you up to be a leader in your field. A 2016 Gallup poll found that a shocking 82 percent of managers aren’t very good at leading people, even while corporations spend billions to develop them. This means there is an eminent need for qualified leaders in today’s workforce. Through the rigors of graduate school, you will gain many of the necessary skills and character traits companies look for in their leaders. During your degree program, you’ll work as part of many teams and develop critical thinking, problem solving, time management, perseverance, commitment, and communication skills — all qualities that hiring managers look for in the leaders they need.

Choosing the right Graduate school and degree Program

In order to choose the school and degree that are right for you, you should begin by identifying your interests, your ideal career, and your needs (part/full time, geographic location, price range, etc.). After determining these, investigate various programs and look into their requirements, curriculum, research opportunities, and graduation outcomes. It is also a good idea to talk with admissions professionals, professors, and, if possible, the students in the program.

If offered, you should take advantage of virtual events or in-person offerings on campus such as information sessions and open houses. Even if you plan to earn your degree online, visiting the campus and having a face-to-face conversation with admissions professionals, faculty, students, and alumni of the program will give you the chance to have your questions answered and help you envision what it would be like to attend. 

At Sacred Heart University, we host an open house event each semester. It’s our hope that you will come and visit us, ask your questions, and allow us to help you explore your grad school possibilities. If you would like more information about one of our upcoming events, please reach out to us and we’ll be in touch soon!

Is getting a graduate degree really worth it? Explore our guide to get this question (and more) answered!

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SHU Graduate Admissions Team

About the Author

We are the graduate admissions team at Sacred Heart University. We aspire to create a welcoming and supportive environment for students looking to continue their education while empowering them in mind, body and spirit. We hope you find our resources helpful and informative as you explore and pursue a graduate degree at Sacred Heart!

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Not sure if getting a graduate degree is worth it for you? Download our guide to take our grad school fit quiz, see earnings insight for your desired field, and find the support you need to make a decision!Download the Guide

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