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What Are The Key Differences Between Undergraduate & Postgraduate Studies?

Key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate studiesPostgraduate study is the next level of study after completing an undergraduate degree. 

When considering a postgraduate course, there are a few key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate studies to take note of. The main difference is probably the increased focus and specialisation that a postgraduate course will have on a subject.

A postgraduate qualification builds on your existing knowledge in a particular field, allowing you to develop more advanced knowledge through further research and study. Although, it is possible to embark on a new direction and study an entirely different subject to your undergraduate degree. 

In this guide, we cover the key differences to give you an idea of what to expect in the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate.

Undergraduate vs postgraduate

The term ‘undergraduate qualification’ usually refers to a bachelors degree – and this is a qualification that is mainly completed over three years on a full-time basis. To be eligible to study a bachelors degree, students will need to have obtained suitable grades in two or three A-levels or equivalent qualifications, such as an IB (International Baccalaureate).

The term ‘postgraduate qualification’ refers to several types of qualifications, all of which are usually completed after a bachelors degree. The most common postgraduate qualification is a masters degree. Other postgraduate qualifications include PGCert, PGDip and PhD. The eligibility criteria to study a postgraduate qualification is usually having a good grade in a relevant bachelors degree, although in some instances relevant work experience can enable a student to study at postgraduate level.

Let’s take a look at the main differences between undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.


Level of expertise 

Key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate studiesThe key difference between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees is that postgraduate degrees will involve a higher level of expertise in the topic than undergraduate degrees.

The experiences that students are expected to bring to a postgraduate course will vary with the subject, but the vast majority of courses expect everyone to have completed an undergraduate degree. Many students will also have a wealth of work experience to draw on.

A postgraduate course will be a much deeper analysis and involve detailed study of the subject rather than covering the broader themes that an undergraduate degree would cover. Students should come away from a postgraduate course with a strong understanding and the specialist knowledge to be considered an expert or specialist in that field.

Learning experience 

As postgraduate courses are completed at a much deeper, more intensive level of study into a chosen field, the learning experience will be different to that of an undergraduate degree. Postgraduate students are expected to undertake more individual study and not everyone on the course will be focussing on the same areas. 

During tutorials, students participate and engage more than perhaps was expected as undergraduate students. If the postgraduate course is entirely taught, then there will still be a great deal of independent learning in addition to the lectures and classes.

Some postgraduate degrees – for example Masters of Research (MRes) or PhDs – are entirely self-driven. But whatever the postgraduate qualification, postgraduate students will need to be very self-motivated and disciplined in order to succeed in their studies. 

Undergraduate programs – even those that are taken via distance learning – are almost entirely teaching-based with plenty of guidance from academic staff.

Length of time 

Rather than the three or four years of an undergraduate degree, a postgraduate course might be as short as a year (however if it's a PhD you're planning on studying then the course durations is a lot longer!). 

Don't think that this means it is an easy quick-fix option when comparing an undergraduate degree with a postgraduate degree in the same subject. Students are expected to already be able to read and write at an experienced academic level and most courses do not allow for the spare time that might have been present during many undergraduate degrees. 

Many postgraduate courses are very intensive as most students have settled on their future career paths or have taken time away from their work to complete the course.

Length of academic year

Masters degrees are completed across a slightly longer academic year than bachelors degrees – and the summer is often spent writing up a long piece of academic research. 

Depending on where you choose to study, the academic year for both undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications usually starts in September or October – unless you opt for a January start date (which is becoming an increasingly popular option). If you choose the more traditional autumn/fall start date, the academic year typically ends in May or June.

Because a postgraduate course is usually only a one-year program – you’ll spend a longer period studying at postgraduate level over that year than is typical for an undergraduate student.

Shorter postgraduate programs

A masters degree is not the only choice in postgraduate study – there are some shorter options such as a PGDip (Postgraduate Diploma) or a PGCert (Postgraduate Certificate).

These courses can lead onto a masters degree if the student wishes to proceed further with their studies after completing the course – as the credit system can usually count towards the masters qualification.

With PGDips and PGCerts students will study masters-level material over a shorter length of time.

Contact hours

At postgraduate level students usually have less contact time with the university and academic staff than undergraduates. In fact, depending on the discipline, a postgraduate program could require only a few hours of weekly contact time with tutors and peers per week. 

Postgraduate study usually has less time in lectures, seminars and tutorials, with more time spent on independent study. However, if the masters degree is in an area that requires lab work – such as a medical-related field or some STEM subjects – you are likely to have more contact time than with a humanities or social science subject.

Entry requirements

Key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate studiesOne of the main differences between undergraduate and postgraduate programs is the entry requirements you’ll need to get on the course.

To be eligible to study an undergraduate degree, students will need relevant A-levels and GCSEs – or equivalent such as the IB. In some cases, universities may accept students with work experience in a relevant field.

To be accepted onto a postgraduate program, it is the undergraduate degree grades that are relevant. Students will usually need to have a 2:1, although sometimes they will be able to access the course with a 2:2. Some universities will accept any standard of undergraduate degree, this depends on the specific course requirements – and will usually only be considered if the student also has some relevant work or career experience.

Research methods

Many research methods from undergrad study will apply to postgraduate study. As an undergraduate you learn basic research skills, and most research time is spent analysing what other researchers have discovered.

Postgraduate students develop more advanced research skills, with more self-directed analysis and often with the aim of establishing their own discoveries. 

Contact with academic staff 

Once students have moved into postgraduate study, relationships with lecturers and other academic staff change slightly moving towards a relationship closer to colleagues. If students are continuing at the same university, then it is understandable that they have got to know their teachers. 

Academic staff will be available to help students to explore a subject that they love at a deeper level, and this results in a different relationship compared to the experience as an undergraduate. Students will also often be paired with or choose to work with academic staff that are absolute specialists in their fields, and similarly staff lecturers will often choose their students based on dissertation or theses proposals – which means they will have a very specific area of shared interest.

Class size is usually smaller at postgraduate level and this gives students the opportunity to study more closely with academic staff. 


At postgraduate level, you’ll be expected to write at greater length with deeper analysis of the subject than at undergraduate level. For instance, undergraduate students are usually expected to write essays that range from around 1,000 to 3,000 words. As postgraduates, essays can be up to around 5,000 words or more.

Some students may find this increase daunting at first, but you’ll find you have plenty to talk about when studying the topic in more depth. Even though university-based contact time is likely to be less as a postgraduate student, the special relationship that is developed with the academics will mean that staff will be available to advise on and help shape any writing.

In addition to longer essays, some postgraduate courses require the production of a 30,000-word thesis as well. 

Students are also often challenged to produce short and concise works explaining a complex topic in as few words as possible. For example, you may be required to produce a poster/presentation/short written report/independent study journal.

Compared to an undergraduate degree, a postgraduate degree will have a variety of different essay lengths to develop the students’ communication and academic writing skills further.

Another key difference between undergraduate and postgraduate assessment is that postgraduates are less likely to be given predefined essay questions and topics. Instead, they should expect to provide self-directed areas of study to write about and research with assessments being more likely to be based on academic findings from their own independent study.

Dissertation length

A key difference in the expectations of postgraduate study versus undergraduate study is the actual length of the dissertation or thesis. Whilst this does vary between each course, masters degrees generally involve a longer dissertation.

Broadly speaking an undergraduate dissertation will be around 10,000 words, whilst a masters dissertation will be around 15,000 words.

Financial differences

Key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate studiesMany postgraduate courses have higher annual fees than undergraduate courses. Undergraduate degrees are currently capped at £9,250 per year in the UK for home students. Postgrad courses are not capped and are often more expensive per year, especially for international and EU students.

However, it can be cheaper to study a postgraduate subject for one year rather than three or four as an undergraduate, although postgraduate students don't tend to have the spare time to take up part-time work

Many courses have additional areas of funding including places that are fully funded or bursaries or grants for many students. This means funding and finances are not as simple at the postgraduate level as they are for undergraduate students.

Funding is available for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, for example UK student loans for undergrad degrees is currently capped at £9,250 for the tuition fees, with additional maintenance loans available to those in need.

Student loans for first-time postgrad students in the UK are currently capped at £11,570 for masters degrees – and be warned that this amount may not always cover the total course fee. However, additional funding is often available for postgraduate students in the form of bursaries, scholarships and grants. In addition to this some postgraduate students may have their place on the course fully funded by the university as a studentship.

Are postgraduate credits different from undergraduate?

A typical full-time undergraduate degree is worth 360 credits and this is split equally across the three years with 120 credits gained for each year of completion.

Typical full-time masters degrees are worth 180 credits – these credits are completed across just one year.


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