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Key Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate School

Going to a graduate school is a different experience than getting your undergraduate degree. But, how different?

As you consider your options for earning a master’s degree, it will help you to know what is expected of you and how you can prepare for success. It’s important to know those expectations going in, because preparing yourself is a key step toward success in a master’s program.

Below is a list of the most palpable differences that make graduate school feel different than undergraduate.

You’ll Be Surrounded by Like-minded People

The average age for a graduate student is 33. Most students work at least part-time.

According to Kody Kuehnl, Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Technology at Franklin University, “You’ll be attending graduate-level courses alongside of professionals who are in your chosen field of study. Because you’re with many educated, experienced, like-minded people, just interacting with other students can be a way to build your network and gain important career connections.”

In traditional undergraduate courses, students are typically younger and don't have professional work experience or connections. At graduate school, you’ll have more experienced peers. Be ready to plug into that built-in network of professionals at the student level.

Rather than the common undergraduate tactic of grade competition—or grading on a curve, which pits student against student—graduate work is considered on its own merit. You’ll find that your fellow students are often ready with insights, ideas, and support to help you do even better.

Classes Are Much More Interactive

As mentioned above, your student peers in graduate school are actually an important part of the process. Faculty members at a graduate level will regularly encourage active participation and discussion. Undergraduate professors typically provide information and direction, whereas graduate faculty might focus more on facilitating debates and discussions.

At a graduate level, classroom time is shared. Professors will engage you, and you’ll be expected to contribute to a conversational, collaborative class experience. The student should always come to class fully prepared, having read materials and sources prior to the class. As an undergraduate, class discussion may be less focused and more spontaneous; however in graduate school, discussions are often laser focused and require preparation. The ideas you bring with you will enhance not only your learning and understanding, but also your peers’.

What matters most when choosing a master’s program? Compare features, benefits and cost to find the right school for you.

You’ll Have to Think on a Different Level

In undergraduate work, the focus is on learning information; it’s about memorization and understanding concepts. Graduate school is different.

“You move from theory to real-world applications. Whereas undergraduate is about gaining a broad understanding of a topic, graduate school is a much deeper dive into the intricacies of the field. The thinking is different with more of a focus on how you construct your arguments, what your sources of information are, and how you apply it all as you tackle a real problem.” —Kody Kuehnl

When you reach a graduate level of courses, the focus switches from learning information to applying it. More of your time will be dedicated to seeing one topic from many different angles and then finding your own point of view about it.

More Time Spent Researching and Writing

A 4-year undergraduate degree may take longer than an 18-month-long master’s degree, but the master’s is more likely to feel like a marathon.

You’ll be reading and researching a great deal. Your study habits will need to be tighter and smarter. You’ll have to be ready to write a lot more. According to Kuehnl, “The time you spend studying is much more active in the graduate world. Rather than memorizing, you’re actually training your mind to use information in a new way.”

Be ready for the additional effort.

There’s No Fluff

At a graduate level, the content is laser-focused on specific career-building outcomes and skill sets. Unlike undergraduate studies, there is not a broad range of content to create a well-rounded person. Your master’s degree is designed to do just that: build mastery in one area of content.

Most of what you’ll do is based on what you want to do. When you’re done, you’ll have a depth of understanding that can immediately be put to use in the working world.

There’s Less Structure and More Freedom

In a bachelor’s program, professors and lecturers typically give you detailed reading lists, organized notes, timelines, project check-ins, and plenty of detailed directions so you’ll know what’s expected of you. In a master’s program, you’ll have far more freedom—and you’ll need to learn how to manage it!

Remember that freedom equals responsibility. Without someone constantly prompting and reminding, you will need to manage your own deadlines, both large and small. Be sure to stay on top of your reading and research because it can be hard to recover if you get behind.

Professors Treat You More Like Peers Than Students

As mentioned above, master’s degree students are expected to contribute during class time; this is a major component of how professors feel about you, talk with you, and treat you. Leave behind any idea that the professor teaches while you listen. Your professors hope for and plan for you to be a positive contributor who is both learning and sharing at the same time.

Some universities elevate the importance of this concept. For example, Franklin University calls it “360-degree learning,” where you are a part of a network of professionals at both the faculty and peer level.

It Will Be Hard(er)

Graduate work is no walk in the park.

According to Kuehnl, “Some people considering graduate school will actually wonder if they’re ‘smart enough.’ But getting a master’s degree is not about being smart. A major factor in graduate degree success is what I call ‘grit.’ It’s about being determined, knowing what you want, having focus, being organized, and making the time and effort to do the work.”

You’ll Likely Earn More Money in Your Lifetime

According to the Social Security Administration, a graduate degree can be a financially rewarding asset. Their records suggest that a person with a graduate degrees typically earns $650,000 to $845,000 more in median lifetime earnings than a person with bachelor’s degree. Generally speaking, a graduate degree will open doors to opportunities (such as promotions and raises) that might not be available without it.

Vive La Difference

Undergraduate classwork is generally broad and designed to create well-rounded individuals who are ready to enter the working world. In traditional four-year schools, the student body is mostly comprised of young adults in a highly social environment with most students living on or near campus. The graduate coursework, environment, and mindset—even though they occur on some of the very same campuses—typically stand in contrast in order to meet the different educational goals.

So, yeah, grad school is different! And maybe you’ve never attempted any coursework that’s this intense. But with the right preparation, you can navigate those differences and powerfully position yourself for that next big step in your career and life.

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