Grad vs. Undergrad: 5 Ways They’re Different

One of my biggest questions I had when applying for grad school was, “What is grad school going to be like and how will it be different than undergrad?” For me, grad school was this big question that no one was really able to answer. Besides my brother-in-law who went to Harvard to get his MBA, I am the first in my family to pursue an advanced degree. When it came to master’s degrees, my family was even more clueless than I was! Even when I sought counsel from teachers and those who had received an advanced degree, they seemed unsure on how to explain the grad school experience. Perhaps I just was asking the wrong people, but in an effort to help those of you out there with this same question, I hope to shed some light on the situation. Here are some of the main distinctions between grad and undergrad:

1. The number of credit hours you take.

In undergrad, most students take roughly 15-18 credit hours per semester. That means your weekly schedule is pretty full. Conversely, grad school credit hours are significant less. More grad school advisors recommend only taking 9 credit hours’ worth of classes. That equals out to about 3 classes a semester. The weekly schedule of a grad school student tends to be more open, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not busy. Also, undergrad students typically graduate with 120 credit hours, as opposed to the 36 credits graduate students need for commencement.

2. Class layout.

The type of classes you will be taking as an undergrad usually consist of several sections of larger, lecture-based classes. As a grad student, classes are considerably tinier. I remember taking General Biology at my previous undergrad school and having a class size of around 100 students. My grad classes tend to have only about 18 students or less in the class. Because there is usually only one section of a grad class per semester, you don’t have the freedom to tailor your schedule as much as an undergrad would. Finally, in undergrad the teacher tends to lecture using PowerPoint while you take notes. In grad school, classes are more discussion-based and a good chunk of your grade is based on your participation in those discussions.

3. Type of homework assigned.

As an undergrad student, the homework usually consists of short answer and multiple-choice questions. In both undergrad and grad school, reading is assigned, but there is a higher importance placed on reading for grad school. It is important to complete the assigned readings in grad school because they will be useful in your career after school. I had some writing assignments as an undergrad student, but as grad student, there is a lot of writing. Most grad students get involved in research and with that research comes a lot of writing. So brush up on your writing skills because it will be invaluable in grad school.

4. Working with your professors, not just learning from them.

I didn’t really get a chance to know my undergrad professors. I showed up every class, took notes, and completed their tests, but interactions with them were minimal. That is where I have felt the biggest change between grad and undergrad. I work very closely with all of my professors—even those in the department I haven’t taken a class with. It feels more like a job than school. It is a very mutually beneficial arrangement where we help each other brainstorm and come up with ideas for research and other topics. It also offers you the opportunity to get real experience in the field that you’re interested in.

5. Freedom.

There is not much freedom as an undergrad student, but as a grad student the skies the limit. As an undergrad, the curriculum is pretty set in stone, but for grad school there is flexibility in the type of classes you take, or the research you conduct. Of course, there are certain classes that you need to take as a grad student, but when you work with your advisor there a lot more options. Find something you’re interested in? Go ahead and research it! My advisor is always telling me if there is something I am interested in researching, to let him know and he’ll help make it happen. Talk about freedom!

There might be some variations depending on where you go to grad school, but I do know my own experience has been rewarding so far. Unlike undergrad, I am enjoying my studies because they are covering a field that I am thoroughly interested in.

I hope those wondering what grad school is like found these points helpful. I definitely recommend grad school. It requires hard work, but it is worth it in the end.

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