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What's the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

What's the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

What to expect from your master's

Whether you’re a recent or older graduate, or looking to join us as an experienced professional who’s never been to university, you’re bound to have questions about what you can expect from your master’s course.

To help you understand what you can expect during this new phase of your learning journey, we’ve highlighted some of the key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study – and what that will mean for your growth.

Beginner to advanced

A bachelor’s or first degree represents the first level of study in higher education, undertaken at a university or college. It may be the first time a student has studied a particular subject, therefore, such a programme will focus on introducing them to knowledge and skills within a specific discipline.

Students join their programme as an ‘undergraduate’, which literally translated means ‘below’ graduate level. After a minimum of three years of study and on successfully completing the course, they graduate and are referred to as a ‘postgraduate’ (‘after’ graduation).

Postgraduate study, which can be taught or undertaken through supervised research, is the next step up from undergraduate study. Traditionally aimed at students who have already completed their first degree, entry to postgraduate courses assumes that a student possesses a level of knowledge or experience equivalent to having completed an undergraduate degree.

A master’s course will then help students build a more detailed understanding of their field. Master’s-level study also encourages students to identify and explore their personal areas of interest within a subject, to help them develop their own specialisations.

There are various levels of postgraduate study, each requiring an increased amount of advanced understanding, autonomy, specialised knowledge and time commitment. They include postgraduate certificate (PgCert); postgraduate diploma (PgDip); master’s (MA/MSc); and doctor of philosophy (PhD).

Differing durations

While a full-time undergraduate programme such as a bachelor’s can take between three to four years to complete, this isn’t usually the case for postgraduate courses.

For example, our part-time, online master’s programmes involve a shorter – though more intensive – two years of study. As PGCerts and PGDips exclude certain master’s-level assignments like dissertations or final research projects, they’re typically the shortest postgraduate courses available.

The exception to this rule are PhDs, which can involve several years of full-time research, though the exact duration can vary depending on your country of study. In the US, earning a PhD will usually require five to six years of study, whereas in countries like the UK, China, Australia, and Japan the standard is three to four years.

Less taught, more thought

Learning on an undergraduate degree course takes place through lectures and seminars, as well as practical sessions, group work, and research. While you’ll experience similar teaching methods as a master’s student, you can expect to spend much less time being taught and instead be given more time to reflect on your coursework and conduct further research.

Postgraduate study involves a lot more self-directed study, including in-depth reading of a greater range of materials at each stage of the course so that you can more deeply and meaningfully engage in subject discussion and critical thinking.

In fact, one of the real benefits of doing a master’s degree is the transferrable skills you develop in communicating and presenting substantiated ideas and arguments. Teaching and discussion is less instructive and instead functions as more of a forum where your entire class, including your tutors, can debate, analyse, and develop ideas.

Classroom to community

Another big difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study is your relationship with other students and staff.

In most postgraduate programmes, seminar sizes are often much smaller than for undergraduate courses. This gives you the opportunity to get to know your fellow students quickly and become more actively involved in discussions, which in turn helps develop a greater sense of community.

As a postgraduate student, you’re also considered more of a colleague than a classmate by peers, lecturers, and other academic staff. You all share a common interest in a particular academic discipline and can help each other explore this subject at a deeper level, sharing your own experiences and views.

Plus, while you may have met students from different backgrounds as an undergraduate student, many of them were probably recent college or school leavers.

In contrast, the online postgraduate student community brings together people of all ages and experiences, who are studying and even working in dozens of countries around the world. This variety of new and differing perspectives make for a stimulating learning environment.

If you’re interested in pursuing a master’s qualification, why not speak to one of our Course Advisers about the part-time, online courses we offer? They’ll be able to walk you through your course’s structure, our online learning platform, and more. Complete the form below and a Course Adviser will get in touch.

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We'll get in touch to discuss your course of interest and answer any questions.