The Many Ways Graduate School Differs From College

Unlike undergraduates, who often take introductory courses in a range of subjects before committing to a major, graduate students typically focus on a particular area of study, such as chemistry or philosophy, from the get-go.

“A graduate degree is more specialized than an undergraduate degree, and it is typically more directly tied to one or several career paths,” says Julia Kent, a vice president at the Council of Graduate Schools, an organization that represents universities that grant master’s and doctoral degrees.

The most important distinction between college and graduate school, according to higher education experts, is that they are designed with different missions in mind.

The Purpose of College vs. Graduate Studies

A graduate degree is meant to bolster someone’s expertise within a field in which they have already demonstrated significant potential. That differs from a college education, which usually includes general education classes in fields like biology and history. A primary goal of a college education is to provide students with “a broad understanding of human civilization,” says Robert C. Bird, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut’s business school.

Jana Hunzicker, associate dean for academic affairs at Bradley University’s college of education and health sciences in Illinois, notes that a college degree is often the baseline credential required for entry-level positions.

“Most students who pursue a master’s degree have a fairly clear idea of what they want to do next in their career,” she wrote in an email. And “by the time a student seeks a doctoral degree, he or she has likely reached a point of feeling that they have learned or done as much as they can do without seeking further expert instruction.”

Here are several other key differences between college and grad school that experts say prospective grad students should keep in mind.

[Read: What Graduate School Is and Who Should Consider Attending.]

The Application Process

Personal statements for graduate applications are very different than the ones in college applications, Kent says. “You are expected to explain how completing the degree is tied to your career goals, whereas at the undergraduate level, the focus is often less academic and career-oriented.”

Ph.D. programs typically like to see specific information about candidates’ research interests and might even wish to hear about particular faculty members the candidates would like to work with. These programs also value research experience, Kent says. Professionally oriented programs, such as those in business and clinical health care fields, often prioritize work experience.

Experts on applied doctoral programs, which are designed to train people for leadership within a specific domain such as education, say that these programs favor students who understand conditions for frontline workers within their field.

The Amount of Personal Awareness and Initiative Required

In graduate school, experts agree, professors expect students to be self-directed and goal-oriented.

If you enroll in grad school, faculty will assume you possess “self-knowledge about what it is that you want to accomplish,” says Kent.

[Read: Is Graduate School Worth the Cost?]

Bernadine Mavhungu Jeranyama, an online MBA student at Clark University in Massachusetts, says “intentionality” was one key distinction between her experiences in college and grad school.

“Going to college and graduating with a bachelor’s degree was an expected next step after high school, and a ticket to entry into the working world,” she wrote in an email. “The decision to enroll in graduate education came from myself with no outside influence, and I feel more committed to it.”

After years in the workforce, Jeranyama realized that she wanted to become an executive who focuses on health equity issues, and she chose a grad degree that aligns with her ambitions.

The Speed, Depth and Difficulty of Courses

Though undergraduate classes can be challenging, in most cases, graduate classes are harder, according to experts.

“Graduate courses tend to cover more material in a shorter period of time,” Bird says.

Bird notes that he teaches law classes very differently at the undergraduate vs. the graduate level. In his college classes, he is more likely to provide summaries of court cases, whereas in more advanced courses, he generally asks students to examine legal rulings.

Graduate students usually rely less heavily on textbooks than undergrads, and some of their courses don’t include textbooks at all, since the norm is for them to analyze complicated original source materials themselves rather than depending on explanations from others, Bird says.

The Social Environment

Grad students usually have less free time than college students because of the demanding nature of their courses. That is especially true if they are working professionals or parents, experts say.

“In graduate school, there’s less time for socializing, and there’s less time for going out,” Bird says, adding that during law school he lived right near a sports stadium but rarely could find time to see a game there. “You have to focus on your work.”

Financial Considerations

Many grad programs require students to pay tuition and fees similar to those at the college level. But Ph.D. students frequently receive funding from whatever university they attend and may receive an annual stipend. “That is very different than a college education where you’re paying four years of tuition and having to support yourself as well,” Kent says.

[Read: What Is a Doctorate or a Doctoral Degree?]

Certain short grad programs — such as those that last only a single academic year — require minimal time out of the workforce. Though subsidies for grad school are less plentiful than college scholarships, such awards are available and can be used to reduce student loans.

The Emphasis on Applying Knowledge

According to Kent, hands-on training is common in graduate programs, since students often participate in labs or supervised practicums. And Ph.D. students frequently have some undergraduate teaching responsibilities. “You’re getting practice doing the work that you will possibly do in your chosen career and having an opportunity to get feedback from a professor and mentor on that work,” she says.

Grad students are expected to use the information they learn in a clever way, not just show they know the facts, says Bird. “It’s higher-level thinking that you’re expected to do.”

Searching for a grad school? Get our complete rankingsof Best Graduate Schools.

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