5 Important Differences Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Study
The leap from undergraduate to postgraduate life isn’t always a big one. You’ll find a lot of continuity between the two, and it’s certainly important not to feel intimidated at the prospect of starting a Masters. After all, you’ll have already shown your academic mettle at undergraduate level.
But there are certain aspects that distinguish the postgraduate experience from that of a Bachelors student, and you may well find yourself pleasantly surprised by them. We’ve listed a handful of the ways that signal where your undergraduate course ends and the Masters begins.
#1 There will be a mysterious shift in your study habits
When you start your Masters, you’ll probably find that your study routine begins to change in weird and wonderful ways.
We’re not promising that it’ll happen overnight – you won’t wake up on day one of your Masters consumed by the need to hunker down in the library for seven hours a day – but by the time you’re a month or so into the course, you might notice a subtle variation in the way you choose to study.
This can mean different things to different people. For me, it meant that I started doing almost all my work during the daylight hours, using the library as a place to study rather than just somewhere to print essays at the last minute. By contrast, as an undergraduate I was much more productive (or, at least, I thought I was) during the wee hours, shunning daytime library visits for coffee-fuelled, late-night writing sessions at home.
And, for one reason or another, this habit had changed by the time I started my Masters. Perhaps I’d just learnt the value of a good night’s sleep since finishing my Bachelors degree.
#2 You’ll study alongside different kinds of people
Most undergraduate classes are relatively similar, comprising young adults who have either just finished college or taken a year out after their A-levels. And that’s fine – when you first leave home it can be good to be with people who are in the same boat.
Masters classes aren’t quite like this, though. Sure, there’ll be plenty of students who have gone straight from their Bachelors degree to a Masters. But there will usually be a sizeable cohort of people on your course who have come from different walks of life, taking wildly different journeys to the same Masters.
This was certainly the case on my Masters. Most of my classmates had just finished their Bachelors, but there were a fair few mature students who all brought their unique experiences and perspectives to bear on the course.
And, although it feels slightly strange for me to say this (I was only 24 when I started the Masters, after all!), I was among those ‘mature’ students, having worked full-time for a few years after my undergraduate degree.
The mixture of ages, backgrounds and nationalities on my course made for a genuinely stimulating learning environment, and you could tell everyone wanted to be there. The same couldn’t always be said of my undergraduate seminars, unfortunately.
To paraphrase those seminal Canadian pop-punks Sum 41, a Masters course is ‘All Killer, No Filler’.* In the UK, Masters qualifications are usually intensive, one-year programmes (although European Masters normally take two years), so there’s little room for elective modules that aren’t directly related to your subject: you’ll be focusing on your chosen subject.
In other words, you won’t find yourself having to take electives from other departments in order to fulfil your credit obligations, which may have been the case at undergraduate level. This was a personal relief for me, as it meant I didn’t have to wrap my head around a series of tricky philosophy courses like I did for my Bachelors.
*You might be interested to learn that Deryck Whibley and co are still going strong. I know this because I just looked at their Wikipedia page.
#4 You’ll be treated differently by your lecturers
When we say that you’ll be treated differently by your lecturers, we don’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up best mates with them, meeting up for regular Sunday brunches to discuss the application of game theory in political science, or bonding in the pub over your mutual appreciation of post-war Hungarian cinema.
But you may find yourself invited to more extracurricular activities organised by your faculty. These could be an academic conference or just some casual end-of-term drinks. Either way, they’re a great chance to network and make the most of your status as a postgraduate student.
#5 You’ll have more freedom (and it’ll be scary to begin with)
Compared to your Bachelors, you’ll have a lot more freedom during a Masters. Freedom to go off on tangents, explore the repercussions of those tangents and then the ramifications of the repercussions. And so on. Disappearing down a treacherous rabbit hole in the direction of a passing reference made in a footnote becomes an all-too-frequent occurrence.
It can be slightly (well, very) scary, not to mention easy to get lost in your work. But it’s also incredibly exciting – as a Masters student, you’re encouraged to break new ground in your research, and the dissertation is the perfect platform from which to do this. Who knows, your thesis may end up getting published or becoming the basis for a future PhD.
Your dissertation supervisor is part of a support network designed to help you succeed in your studies, and you’ll be able to rely on their advice and expertise over the course of your Masters. Postgraduate programmes usually have fewer students enrolled on them than the equivalent undergraduate qualification, and so you can expect to have a bit more academic attention lavished on you at Masters-level.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 09/11/17. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
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