How To Differentiate Between an Undergraduate and Graduate Education

What are the differences between an undergraduate and graduate education? If you're looking at colleges, how can you tell which program is which? If you already have a bachelor's degree and are seeking a master's, or even a doctorate, what differences can you expect from your next program? Here are some steps you can take to differentiate between graduate and undergraduate education.

  1. Look at the degrees offered. If you're interested in getting an undergraduate degree, you will be looking for an associates (2 year) or bachelor's (4 years) degree program. These degrees are denoted with abbreviations like A.A. (Associate of Arts), B.A (Bachelor of Arts), B.S. (Bachelor of Science), B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts), etc. Basically, if you're looking at a program offering a degree beginning with an "A" or a "B,"  you're perusing information on an undergraduate program .

    On the other hand, graduate programs offer master's degrees and doctorates. A master's degree (MS, MA, MSW, MFA, etc.) is attained in two or three years, usually culminating with the appropriate acceptance of a master's thesis. A doctorate (usually a PhD, but also an EdD)  takes more time to earn, depending on the field of study, and is awarded after a student's doctoral dissertation is accepted. Sometimes, for a master's or doctorate, students must also take comprehensive exams. Again, this depends on the field of study, but if you're looking through a school's catalog and notice "M" degrees or "PhD," then know you're looking at their graduate programs.

  2. Check out the curriculum in the course catalog. In most college catalogs, courses are listed with some combination  of numbers and letters. We've all heard the famous expression "That's (whatever subject) 101,"  meaning, that's something very basic that you learn right away. This comes from the fact that, at most schools, the lower the course number, the earlier a student takes that course in his or her academic career. If you're looking at a curriculum where the courses are numbered in the 0's, 100's, 200's, 300's and 400's, or some variation thereof,  you're looking at classes taken in the four standard years of undergraduate schooling. 500 or 600 or higher designations will let you see those classes are graduate-level, master's or doctoral level, classes.
  3. Talk to students. If you have your bachelor's degree and have questions about how graduate school may differ from undergraduate school, talk to grad students and ask them for their compare/contrast views on the subject. You are likely to hear that graduate school requires more independent studying and more hands-on work than undergraduate programs do. You'll be making the transition from being a beginner in your field to developing a professional or academic expertise. You will can also learn  from grad students about completing a thesis or dissertation, teaching assistantships, and other things particular to graduate programs. Don't overlook this valuable resource as you're trying to sort things out.  Not long ago, current graduate students were trying to find the same answers you're looking for now.
  4. Talk to the staff. If you're considering a program and want to know if it's undergrad or grad level, talk to the faculty of the department in which you're interested or the admissions department and ask them any questions you may have about what courses, opportunities and challenges belong to the undergrad program and which belong to the grad program.
    Similarly, if you have an undergrad degree already and would simply like to know more about how a graduate program will be different from the program you've already completed, talking to faculty and administration can also be of help. Often, teachers instruct both graduate and undergraduate students and will be able to give you and idea of the different expectations and requirements between these two levels. Admissions staff will also be familiar with the different applications procedures and course requirements a prospective graduate student can expect as compared to how undergraduates apply to the school.


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