Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate Study

Posted November 09, 2021

Higher education is an official way to get foundational knowledge in any field or discipline you plan to make your career. Different types of higher education offer different levels of study and training. An undergraduate degree might be the only higher education needed to prepare you to become a capable employee in your chosen field. Pursuing a graduate degree can challenge your knowledge of your industry further in order to make you an expert. In the article below, we will discuss the differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees and the career paths possible with each high education option.

Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate Study

Key differences between undergraduate and graduate study

Undergraduate study in the United States is the time spent after high school pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a college or university in a specified field. Likewise, graduate study refers to the time pursuing a higher degree after completing a bachelor’s degree. In other countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom, call undergrad their “graduate” degree and graduate program their “post graduate” program.

Both undergrad and graduate school leads to college degrees, however there are many distinctions between the two levels of higher education. Deciding which degree to pursue depends on what you would like to accomplish in your career. Here are some of the key differences between undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees:

  1. Type of degree
  2. Admission requirements
  3. Length of program
  4. Coursework differences
  5. Classroom structure
  6. Potential job earnings
  7. Tuition costs

1. Type of degree

Undergrad schooling offers two general types of degrees:

Associate degree

Associate’s degrees are the first level of higher education and can usually be found at community colleges and technical schools. If you decide to get an associates degree it will allow you to study general education subjects while also taking courses specific to your desired profession. After receiving your associate's degree you can choose to enter the workforce in your desired field or continue your education at a four-year college or university. Some common associate degrees include Associate of Science and Associate of Arts.

Bachelor's degree

The second level of higher education is an undergraduate (or bachelor’s) degree. This degree is offered by four-year colleges and universities. General education courses are required to graduate, however undergrad students focus their studies by choosing to major in a particular subject that will help them meet their career goals. Getting a bachelor’s degree is the most common way that most young professionals get prepared to enter the workforce. This degree usually translates into joining a company as an entry-level role or will allow the undergraduate to continue studying at the graduate level. Some common types of bachelor’s degrees include a Bachelor of Science, a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Applied Science.

Graduate studies fall into three general categories:

Master's degree

Master’s degrees are focused areas of studies on a specified area of research that is specialized toward a certain industry. The Master’s level of graduate degrees can enable you to take on an advanced level position in your field or pursue a doctoral degree.  Common master’s degrees might include a Master of Arts, a Master of Science, a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Fine Arts.

Doctoral degree

The most advanced degree you can earn is a doctoral degree. Doctoral graduates are considered experts in their field. Academic doctoral degrees are known as Ph.D.’s or Doctors of Philosophy. Doctoral degrees focus on research within a specific field and allows the student to create their own thesis on a specific subject within their field of study which they then have to defend with evidence found among their research in order to graduate. Ph.D. graduates often become professors, researchers, or expert level fellows within their industry.

Professional degree

Another doctoral degree is a professional degree that is required for certain careers. This type of graduate degree is required for lawyers, medical physicians, and pharmacists. Professional doctorates that are common among graduates include a Juris Doctor to practice law, a Doctor of Medicine to become a medical physician, a Doctor of Education for educational leadership roles, and a Doctor of Pharmacy to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

2. Admission requirements

In order to get into an undergraduate school you will need to have received your high school diploma, GED or other secondary education equivalent. Other admission requirements that could be requested are standardized test scores like the SAT or ACT, personal essays, high school transcripts, and letters of recommendation.

Requirements for entering a graduate program include having completed a bachelor’s degree and statements of philosophy or research proposals. Graduate programs want to know what your reason for pursuing a higher level of education is as well as how you plan to add to the current body of work through your proposed research. Other requirements for graduate programs often include GRE standardized test scores, writing samples, letters of recommendation, and your undergraduate transcripts.

3. Length of program

Earning a diploma can take different amounts of time for different individuals depending on many different factors. A student might work and decide to study part-time, taking longer to finish a degree but getting workplace experience at the same time. Or a student might have credits that count for college from their high school advanced placement classes allowing them to graduate in fewer years and enter the workplace sooner. In a graduate setting it is recommended that you do not switch or transfer schools since the curriculum varies by university.

Undergraduate degrees length of study:

  • An associate degree is typically completed in two years.
  • A bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete.

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, however some programs can take one to three years depending on your field.
  • Professional degrees usually take three to four years to complete classwork and exams. Typically in medical fields you will also be required to spend additional years completing residencies or internships.
  • Academic doctoral degrees can take anywhere from four to six years or more. Doctoral degrees can require learning several foreign languages, extensive research and projects as well as a defense to prove you are an expert in your field.

4. Coursework differences

Undergraduate programs vary in course load but usually recommend taking about 4 to 6 classes per semester at around 15 credits. Undergraduates participate in courses that require writing assignments, projects, and other subject-specific objectives, usually culminating with a final exam to receive a passing grade for credit.

The types of courses that undergraduate students take include a mixture of the following subjects:

General education

Students take Gen. Ed. courses before enrolling in their specialty courses or throughout their undergrad which are a variety of generalized subjects, such as English, history, science and mathematics.

Major subjects

A selected “major,” is a subject or discipline to specialize in of each student’s choosing. Undergrad students enroll in courses that dissect the topics, issues and experiences relevant to their major. Some courses for majors can overlap with general education course, however certain subjects for certain majors require highly tailored courses specific to a certain career path. It is also possible to double major in 4 years if the courses you have chosen for your general studies allow you to major in a second subject with only a few more credits.

Minor subjects

A minor degree is a second specialized path of study that is less intensive than a student’s major but can allow the student to further tailor their degree with a secondary discipline.  An undergraduate student can pursue a minor directly related to their career path or in subjects of personal interest.

Graduate coursework

Coursework for graduate programs is highly specialized and more advanced compared to undergraduate course work. When joining a graduate program you will typically follow a track of classes in subjects outlined by the university or program. Graduate students typically take about nine credits, or three to four classes, per semester as well as acting as teaching aids for credit. Comprehensive exams for the degree as well as exams for each course are required for graduation from masters and Ph.D. programs. Alternatively, graduate students might complete extensive final projects, dissertations, personal portfolios, or other qualifying exit assignments.

5. Classroom structures

Classroom structures change the environment of each level of higher education classes.

Undergraduate classroom structures are as follows:

Larger class sizes

Undergrad classes are usually very large because there are more undergrads on campus than graduate students. Class sizes will vary from school to school and from major to major. General education courses may accept more students since every student must take them. Larger class sizes may mean more multiple choice tests, fewer written assignments, and less individualized attention from professors in order to accommodate for the number of students the teacher must grade.


Lecture classes consist of the professor leading the class on a subject while students take notes and complete homework assignments on their own time. Professors in lecture settings can invite students to ask and answer questions or have their teaching assistants conduct smaller group discussions.

Class discussions

On top of lectures a course might require a once a week class discussion, or a course might be structured solely in a class discussion structure. These class discussions are lead by professores to allow students to ask questions and discuss the class materials in order to draw conclusions and write better papers on the lecture material. In these class discussions students receive more individual attention from their professors.

Graduate degrees are less common than undergrad, resulting in the following classroom structures:

Smaller class sizes:

Graduate classes tend to be much smaller, sometimes only 5-10 students in each class which is often due to schools accepting a limited number of grad students.

Advanced discussions:

Like the class discussions in undergrad, the graduate program discussions are even more advanced. Graduate courses are also highly focused in a certain field with increased difficulty. Because the classes are smaller and everyone in the class has already received their bachelors and have work experience the discussions tend to be more interactive, where the students are expected to be prepared, apply information and contribute to the learning.

Mentoring with professors:

In a graduate program, students often work closely with professors as their mentors, meeting often when completing research, creating portfolios and receiving feedback, or taking independent study with their professor.

6. Potential job earnings

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that attaining a higher degree of education corresponds to higher potential job earnings. Because of the extensive knowledge gained from graduate programs, you can work in fields that are more specialized and make more money on average. Some employers will offer a higher salary for a specific role if they value education and can justify the fact that you will provide more value to the company because of your educational experience.

Below is the average weekly income for specific degrees based on national surveys:

  • Associate degree: $835
  • Bachelor’s degree: $1,170
  • Master’s degree: $1,400
  • Doctoral degree: $1,745
  • Professional degree: $1,835

7. Tuition costs

College degrees vary by school and student because of factors like in-state and out-of-state tuition, scholarships and grants. Other factors include online courses vs. in person, and whether a school is private or public. Before deciding on what school and program you will attend, consider your potential job earnings after your education is complete, that way you know what level of investment is reasonable for your education.

Take a look at the costs of the different programs you are interested in before paying for required application fees, and consider your chances of meeting the requirements for scholarship. Undergraduate programs can range anywhere from $3,800 to $30,000 per year depending on the school and degree. Masters and Ph.D. degrees can be found at $20k to $45k per year but often offer scholarships to incentivize students to pursue a graduate degree. Professional degrees can also be very expensive, at anywhere from $30k-$70k per year.

The Careerbliss Team

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