Big Differences Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Study
Postgraduate study is a big step up from an undergraduate degree and it requires students to be more engaged in research methods and independent study in a particular subject specialism.
This guide will explain some of the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study. It’s worth bearing in mind this guide relates to UK programmes. Masters in other countries can overall be quite varied.
The transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study can be daunting at first, especially if you are joining after years of professional work. But it’s important to not feel intimidated; a master’s is supposed to hone your skills, not demand new abilities.
So what are the biggest differences?
The number of credits
In the undergraduate course, you’ll need a total of 360 credit points to gain a bachelor’s degree. Each year is 120 credits. To gain a masters, you’ll need to attain 180 credits in a one-year full-time course.
You will most likely be in a class of at least 20-30 in an undergraduate degree. In a masters, you will be in a class which is significantly smaller. Because of this, contact hours are adjusted accordingly. However, you may be able to receive more assistance from your dissertation supervisors.
Emphasis on research skills
During your undergraduate studies, you’ll be encouraged to undertake a certain level of research depending on your course. A masters will typically include components designed to meet the training needs and research methods to prepare students for their dissertation and possibly PhD studies.
A Bachelor’s last 3 years, but each year finishes between May and July. You may have to undertake a summer course if you fail or need to catch up on any additional tasks. During a masters, you’ll be spending more time studying during the academic year. Typically, you’ll spend writing your dissertation over the summer period.
You’ll be given a much more extensive reading list compared to undergrads.
In an undergraduate course, you’ll most likely be studying a broader subject while a masters in the same field may be focusing on a more specialist section. Depending on the level of similarity between the two subjects, you could be studying one degree at a bachelors level and studying a completely unrelated subject during your masters.
You’re typically looking at a 10,000-word dissertation (or physical project) at an undergraduate level. At a masters level, the length differs from course to course. There are some that require a project alongside a smaller-worded essay or you may see some between 15-25,000 words. MRes typically require a much larger length.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Masters when doing your research is that they tend to include fewer units or modules than undergraduate courses. You may expect to study two modules per semester for a total of four across the course. You’ll also be given some time each week or two for formal contact with your tutor or peers.
In your undergraduate degree, you are expected to take all your modules but you may have the freedom to choose a module or two of your choice. This can typically shape what will be your end-of-year project or dissertation. You would be expected to undertake a level of self-study outside of class, but you will mostly be spending most of your day in class.
Each semester is worth 60 credits, and you may wonder where exactly are those credits coming from. These come from a self-directed study in which you’ll be expected to undertake various research tasks to read around highlighted materials and identify key themes where you’ll have to show arguments for and against in scheduled meetings with your tutors and peers.
Most courses are delivered as taught programmes where you’ll be expected to attend seminars or workshop sessions having already engaged in the subject in discussion and ready to demonstrate your views and be a critique to others.
The focus of the assessment is widely different between masters and bachelors. In the bachelor’s, you are expected to do your assessment by researching topics in addition to using your learning materials from class.
Your assessment will then be marked and you’ll be given a grade. Whether this is your final grade or just a test assessment, you’ll typically be given feedback and depending on the circumstances it would shape what you do next.
In postgraduate, the focus of self-study means you will be frequently required to present and justify your own ideas in front of your peers in group discussions or seminars. Assessment and feedback will typically take different forms depending on your subject and masters;
- You may be asked to maintain a record of independent study activity or present short written reports.
- Your tutor would record your progress based on your contributions to class and in addition, may offer guidance.
- Some modules will be examined via coursework produced once the module has been completed. This can provide an opportunity for you to dig deeper into an interest you have developed and ideas you may have come across during the course.
Courses which are not specialised may also test you on specific areas of your chosen subject. They can only ask you to identify an area you would like to focus your attention on. This is also another part that defines your postgraduate study and it draws self-directed in smaller-scale research and writing assignments to undertake your master’s dissertation.
Taught masters courses to end with an extended research project. This is similar to the final dissertation of your undergraduate degree but involves much more complex and extensive research work. To complete a successful master’s dissertation you will need to;
- Identify a specific topic you are interested in
- Create a methodology to research your interested topic
- Offer convincing analysis that collectively develops and supports a broader argument
- Make a convincing argument for the value of your contribution to the ongoing debates
While this may seem like a daunting task to undertake, it’s exactly what your masters is preparing you to do. The dissertation is an opportunity to demonstrate your ability for self-research and critical thinking with the knowledge you have received during class. This could be the first time you have had the opportunity to showcase yourself as an academic scholar and that is an achievement you should be proud of taking.
During your master’s, you will be gaining newer skills you would otherwise not have. This differs from course to course, but generally, the more proactive the course is, the more skills you will be gaining.
Accessing different materials
Different subject areas will be needing different skills and training, for example, specialist data collection and laboratory equipment – but all disciplines will require you to access published materials in your subject field. At the postgraduate level, this means you will require to do more thorough engagement by simply searching journal or article collections in your institution’s library.
Additionally, you may receive guidance to access these materials through specialist databases or repositories. While you gather these materials, you will also be required to assess and critique the material you are collecting as well as keep accurate records of your research findings. For this, you may be tasked to produce an annotated research bibliography or write a review essay.
Training in research is designed to help support you during your masters (and PhD if you want to continue) to ultimately prepare for your dissertation. The ability to identify, source, and record data is an extremely valuable transferable skill that will be helpful beyond your academic years. This is also in line with the actual knowledge and any work experience skills you’ll learn during your course that you can take forward to a practical environment.
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