When you start a postgraduate degree, it’s essential for both your productivity and your self-confidence not to feel overwhelmed right from the start. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just finished your Bachelor’s degree or if you’ve been working for several years before making your return to higher education. You’ve already survived your undergraduate degree; and the transition to postgraduate level is not as difficult as you might think. There are several differences between undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, with the key being the intensity, specialisation and independence they offer. We’ll first delve into the undergraduate and postgraduate meaning, and then delve deeper into each key difference.
What Is an Undergraduate Degree?
In the United Kingdom, an undergraduate degree is an academic level higher than the A-Levels obtained in high school. Undergraduate courses are ‘first-cycle’ programmes designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to start a career in their chosen field.
In terms of undergraduate degrees, a Bachelor’s degree is by far the most popular qualification amongst university students. However, there are many types of Bachelor degrees available, the most popular of which are:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA),
- Bachelor of Science (BSc),
- Bachelor of Engineering (BEng),
- Bachelor of Laws (LLB).
What Is a Postgraduate Degree?
Postgraduate study is an academic step above undergraduate level and aims to provide advanced knowledge within a specific field of study.
Postgraduate degrees are typically obtained after a bachelors degree (or in some university programmes, the two degrees are essentially rolled into one) and are therefore considered ‘second-cycle’ degrees in comparison.
While a Master’s degree is the most common postgraduate qualification that students will receive, the term ‘postgraduate’ also includes doctorate qualifications, the highest type of degree offered by UK universities.
Common postgraduate degrees include:
- Master of Science (MSc),
- Master of Engineering (Meng),
- Master of Business Administration (MBA),
- Master of Research (MRes),
- Master of Philosophy (MPhil),
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD),
- Doctor of Engineering (EngD).
Key Differences between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Programmes
Level of Specialisation
An undergraduate degree offers a broad overview of a subject. The aim is to provide you with the basic skills, knowledge and experience you need to start a successful career in your chosen field.
On the other hand, postgraduate courses will delve into the topics of a Bachelor’s degree in much greater detail and often cover more complex topics.
Where an undergraduate course is designed to develop you into a well-rounded individual within your chosen industry, a postgraduate course will turn you into a specialist for a specific career path. For example, a Bachelor’s in Engineering will help you understand engineering principles in a broad and general context. The Master’s equivalent will give you an understanding of how these principles can be applied to real-life problems.
Postgraduate studies will also place greater emphasis on acquiring research skills, as much of their learning will be focused on research-based topics. This is useful for students who are thinking about doing an advanced postgraduate research degree such as MPhil, PhD, or EngD later on.
The duration of a bachelor’s degree depends on the specific subject you want to enrol in, but they usually take between three and four years.
Master’s programmes are shorter, with an average length of one year. However, the learning material will be more complex and will require more intense focus. So, don’t mistake the shorter duration to imply that a Master’s is easier than a Bachelor’s, as this is not usually the case.
Since MPhils, PhDs and EngDs are advanced forms of postgraduate degrees, they take over a year to complete. An MPhil usually takes two years, and both a PhD and an EngD take between three and five years or longer for part-time study!
Undergraduate courses typically contain many students and so are less individualised than postgraduate courses. Students who come from small schools will often find it difficult to adapt to the less personal teaching style and will feel more comfortable in postgraduate classes.
Postgraduate courses also contain fewer teaching modules. Although this means less time in the classroom, as a postgraduate student you will be expected to do a lot of self-learning and personal reading in your own time.
When lectures take place, your professors will still present new concepts and explain key ideas, but more emphasis will be placed on independent learning. Unlike your bachelor’s degree, the lectures and discussions that take place during your postgraduate taught course will be more of an open forum where you and other students discuss and reflect on the material.
Interaction with Teaching Staff
One of the main advantages of Master’s programmes is that the smaller class sizes allow you to build a greater relationship with your lecturers. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a lecturer to recommend a particular event or seminar to a postgrad student who they think may have some interest in it. This rarely happens in undergraduate studies because the style ‘they lecture, you listen’ does not allow you and your teachers to get to know each other. Moreover, postgraduate courses allow for a lot of interaction and discussion, which encourages close connections.
A Bachelor’s degree is typically assessed through a mix of coursework, laboratory work and year-end exams. Because their programmes are broad, the year-end exams are challenging, as you typically have numerous exams which cover a wide range of different topics.
Postgraduate courses rely less on exams and more on assessed coursework. Students are expected to write lengthy papers with detailed analysis of complex topics. In addition, a typical Master’s programme also requires the production of a 15,000 to 30,000 word dissertation. A doctoral degree extends on this, requiring a thesis of around 60,000 words, although some have been known to break the 100,000 mark!
In order to be eligible for a Bachelor’s programme, most students must have completed a form of further education, such as A-levels or BTECs, in relevant subjects.
To register for a Masters programme, you will need a Bachelor’s degree, typically with at least a 2:2.
If you are applying for a doctorate, most universities will require a Bachelor’s degree with at least a 2:1. A Master’s degree, such as an MEng, MRes or MSc, will improve your chances but is not usually required, although may be necessary if you have a 2:2 Bachelor’s degree or lower.
On average, postgraduate courses will have higher annual tuition fees than undergraduate courses.
Most undergraduate studies are financed with a student loan from Student Finance England (SFE). Although scholarships and bursaries can be applied for, there aren’t many available for undergraduate students, and when they are, they are usually for students who need support, e.g. from low-income households.
There are many more funding options available to postgraduate students. They can apply for a postgraduate loan, a scholarship or qualify for an alumni discount if attending the same university they undertook their undergraduate study with. Unlike undergraduate scholarships, postgraduate scholarships are generally not means-tested, i.e. they are open to almost anyone.
Furthermore, doctoral students can apply for PhD positions that are partially or fully funded. This means they can complete an advanced postgraduate course and have the entire tuition fee paid for, plus an additional annual payment (known as a stipend) which serves as a salary.
There are many career opportunities for those with only a Bachelor’s degree. In fact, the vast majority of jobs that can be filled with a Master’s degree can also be filled with a Bachelor’s degree. However, there are several advanced roles within professions such as computer science, medicine and engineering, etc. that require a postgraduate degree. These will be roles that require sophisticated analysis or independent research to be performed as part of their responsibilities.