Undergraduate vs Graduate Degree: What are the Differences

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It is very important, if you want to go to college or university, for you to choose the program that is right for you. When searching through the different schools that are available to you in this country, however, you first need to learn that there are some key differences between “undergraduate” and “graduate” programs. In so doing, you will also be better equipped to choose the program that is right for you.

What are Undergraduate and Graduate Programs?

In very simple terms, undergraduate programs are:

  • Certificates
  • Diplomas
  • Associate’s degrees
  • Bachelor’s degrees

In equally simple terms, graduate programs are:

  • Master’s degrees
  • Doctorate degrees

What Are the Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate Programs?

There are a number of key differences between the two types of programs:

  • An undergraduate degree is a generalist degree. Usually, it focuses specifically on one school of thought (Arts or Sciences). The courses you will take will have a strong focus on general education, and they will cover a wide array of topics, which aren’t covered in graduate education. In a graduate program, you will focus on far more specialized courses, as well as go into more advanced details of certain subjects.
  • Class sizes in an undergraduate program tend to be quite large, and you will receive very little individualized attention. With a graduate program, however, your professors will often become your mentors, and you will be working with them on a one to one basis.
  • In some cases, an undergraduate program will require you to complete an activity, such as a senior project, but this is quite rare. With graduate programs, you will need to complete a great deal of research. This is true for both master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. Some class work is still included in these programs, but the focus is on you performing research and defending your research at the end of your program.
  • Examinations at undergraduate level relate to an individual class. At the graduate level, you will take far more comprehensive examinations, and these weigh heavily towards the completion of the program.
  • If you want to switch majors at undergraduate level, this is usually quite easy, so long as you stay within the same school of thought (Arts or Sciences). You can also quite easily switch schools. With a graduate program, however, this is much more difficult, because the curriculum has such a narrow specialization. Additionally, the way this is delivered varies greatly between two universities.
  • Undergraduate programs leave students reasonably inexperienced in terms of lab and research work, with almost no focus on ethics, acceptable lab behavior, skill sets, and safety. Oftentimes, graduate students will work together with undergraduate research assistants. This is because the fact that they are so inexperienced will give the graduate student the opportunity to learn how to develop mentor relationships with other students. When it comes to research and lab work, undergraduate students need some degree of “hand holding”, with graduate students being the ones holding their hands.

The above are the main differences between the content and theories behind undergraduate and graduate programs. However, there are many other key differences as well, such as:

  1. Time commitment: a certificate or diploma takes around one year to complete. Associate’s degrees require two years of study, and bachelor’s degrees four. Master’s degrees, by contrast, usually take between 18 months and three years to complete. According to a recent report by CBS News, a Ph.D. takes an average of 8.2 years to complete, twice as long as a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Cost: the cost of the different degrees per year varies widely. The average cost (tuition and fees per year only) for a two year college is $3,520, $9,650 for a public four year college in state or $24,930 out of state, and $33,480 for private colleges. The full cost of a master’s degree ranges between $30,000 and $120,000. And for doctoral degrees, it is between $10,725 and $22,607 per year.
  3. Method of delivery: certificates, diplomas, associate’s degrees, and most bachelor’s degrees are offered through on campus learning. While some are offered part time, through distance learning, or through evening and weekend classes, only a few are available 100% online and, if they are, even fewer are available through asynchronous learning. Master’s degrees and doctoral degrees are rarely full time programs. The vast majority are now delivered online, most of them asynchronously. This is because there is a much stronger focus on independent learning.

Lastly, there is the difference in prospects. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has reported that the average earning for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. The average earning for someone with a master’s degree is between $50,320 and $169,677. For those with a doctorate degree, the average earning is between $51,459 and $209,559. That being said, there are numerous factors that will influence exactly how much you will earn, regardless of whether you have an undergraduate or graduate degree. These factors include:

  • Your field of study
  • Where you completed your degree
  • Your geographical location
  • Your employer

Overall, a graduate degree will always give you a higher salary than when you held an undergraduate degree. However, the job openings are often also much more competitive, and you have far fewer transferable skills at the graduate level. As a result, you do need to consider whether making the investment is worth it for your personal situation. On the other hand, many graduate studies are sponsored by employers, which means you may already have some guarantee of career advancement, while also having to make far less of a financial investment yourself.

Additional Resources

Sady Brown
Written by Sady Brown
Sady Brown is Editorial Strategist for Nogre.com