Differences Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Study
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Differences Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Study

Written by Ben Taylor

A Masters is a step up from a Bachelors degree, requiring students to engage in more advanced research methods and independent study while focusing on a particular subject specialism.

This guide will explain some of the key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study, offering advice on what to expect when moving from a Bachelors to a Masters degree.

Bachelors vs Masters

The transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study might seem a little daunting at first glance. But it’s important not to let yourself feel intimidated: a Masters is supposed to build on the skills you’ve already begun to develop at Bachelors-level, not demand a whole new set of abilities.

With that in mind, there are several key differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study:

  • Emphasis on research skills – A Masters will probably include components designed to meet training needs in research methods and effective scholarship, preparing students for the possibility of PhD study.
  • Learning styles and contact hours – Large-group teaching is less frequent at Masters-level and a greater emphasis is placed on self-directed study. This also means that contact hours are usually lower for Masters compared to Bachelors degrees.
  • Number of credits – A year of full-time undergraduate study is usually worth 120 credits, which is a third of the 360-credit total required to qualify for a Bachelors degree. A Masters degree, on the other hand, typically runs for one year of full-time study, but requires the attainment of 180 credits in that time.
  • Longer academic year – A higher credit count means that you’ll be spending more time studying in that academic year. Unlike Bachelors degrees, the academic year for a Masters doesn’t finish in May or June, as you’ll usually write a dissertation over the summer.
  • Preparatory reading lists – You’ll likely be given a much more extensive and advanced reading list for a Masters than the undergraduate equivalent.
  • Specialisation – Whereas an undergraduate might study a broad course in a subject like English Literature, a Masters degree in the same field might focus upon a particular specialism, such as the writing associated with particular historical contexts, or in selected genres. Similarly, a student in the sciences might go from acquiring a general competence in one of the natural or physical sciences at undergraduate level to an MSc programme designed to develop expertise in very specific areas such as quantum mechanics or forensic chemistry.
  • Dissertation length – The length of a Masters dissertation varies widely from programme to programme, but it will usually be a considerable step from a 10,000-word undergraduate thesis. As a general rule, you can expect to write around 15,000 words for a Masters dissertation. Some kind of extended research project is usually a requirement of a Masters (rather than being optional, like at undergraduate level).

It's worth bearing in mind that this guide is most relevant to UK programmes. Masters courses in other countries can vary quite widely in length, content and examination methods. If you're interested in studying abroad as a postgraduate student you can find guides to Masters courses around the world elsewhere on the FindAMasters website.

Shorter postgraduate courses

Masters programmes aren’t the only postgraduate courses available – Postgraduate Certificates (PGCert) and Postgraduate Diplomas (PGDip) can be a great way of studying Masters-level content in a shorter and more flexible format (and usually without the requirement to write a dissertation). We’ve written a guide to PGCerts and PGDips explaining how these qualifications work.

Can I study a Masters in a different subject to my undergraduate degree?

Yes – a Masters in a new subject can be an excellent way to embark on a new career direction or to supplement your existing knowledge, helping you stand out in a competitive job market.

A specialised Masters degree could be used to bridge the gap between more general academic subjects and specific career paths. Studying a Masters degree in Journalism, for example, might offer professional training that builds upon the skills acquired through an undergraduate degree in humanities subjects such as History or Literature. The same might be true of a Masters in Accounting and Finance, drawing upon undergraduate study in Mathematics.

Conversion courses and professional Masters

If you’re thinking about studying a Masters in a new subject, our guides to conversion courses and professional / vocational postgraduate programmes will explain the main options that are open to you.

Self-directed study

One of the first things you’ll notice about Masters programmes is that they tend to include far fewer concurrent units of study or ‘modules’ than undergraduate courses. On a Masters course you may find yourself only studying two modules per semester, for a total of four across an entire degree. This will usually be reflected in your timetable, which might only feature a few hours of formal contact time with tutors and peers each week.

Each full-time semester of your programme will still account for 60 credits though – a third of your degree’s total value. So, where are all those credits (and their associated hours of learning) coming from? The answer, of course, is ‘self-directed study’. In summary, this involves:

  • Reading around highlighted materials for each stage of your course
  • Identifying important themes and thinking critically about these in advance of scheduled meetings with your tutors and peers

Even though the majority of Masters courses are delivered as ‘taught postgraduate’ programmes (the exceptions are research degrees such as the MRes) you’ll be expected to come to seminars or workshop sessions having already engaged with the subject under discussion and ideally identified and critiqued some relevant scholarship.

Your course tutor will introduce complex ideas and explain key issues, but teaching and discussion sessions will function much more as a forum in which yours and your peers’ ideas can be discussed, reflected upon and developed.

Taught vs research Masters

Unsure about the difference between taught and research Masters? We’ve explained the most important contrasts between these kinds of qualification, from fees to PhD prep.

Assessment and feedback

The focus upon self-directed study ahead of group discussion and reflection on a Masters course means that you will frequently be required to present and justify your own ideas.

Assessment and feedback on your work will typically take several forms, depending on the subject and kind of Masters you’re studying:

  • You may be asked to maintain a record of your independent study activity or to present short written reports on it (perhaps through contributions to a module website or other digital platform). This is an important part of postgraduate study and constitutes a form of regular formative assessment and feedback.
  • Your course tutor will usually look to gauge your progress based on your contributions to class, offering guidance as necessary.
  • Some Masters modules will be examined through a single piece of coursework produced once their timetabled content has been completed. This will provide an opportunity for you to follow through on the interests that have developed and the ideas that have occurred to you during the course, building directly on the independent research and analysis you’ve undertaken so far. As such, it’s likely that you won’t be given a list of pre-defined essay topics or analytical tasks of the kind used to assess undergraduates.

Courses in fields that are reliant on key practical knowledge may still test you in specific areas (particularly on programmes meeting standards set by professional accreditation) but in other cases you will be asked to identify an area you would like to investigate, agree it with your tutor and get stuck in!

This kind of assessment is another important part of what defines postgraduate study. It draws upon the self-directed learning required of you across your course and also provides a series of smaller scale research and writing tasks that prepare you to undertake your Masters dissertation.

The Masters dissertation

Taught Masters courses usually conclude with an extended individual research project. This is similar in some respects to the dissertations produced in the final year of undergraduate programmes, but involves a much more complex and extensive piece of work. To produce a successful Masters dissertation you will need to:

  • Identify a substantial topic
  • Employ a rigorous scholarly methodology to research it
  • Offer a convincing analysis of a range of material that collectively develops and supports a broader argument
  • Demonstrate a sophisticated awareness of existing scholarship in areas relevant to your topic
  • Make a case for the value of your contribution to those ongoing debates

This may sound like a daunting task, but it’s exactly what the rest of your Masters programme will have prepared you to do. The dissertation is an opportunity to draw upon the aptitude for self-directed study and critical thinking you’ve developed, together with the research training you’ll have received. It’s your first chance to really assert yourself as a scholar in your own right and a challenge you should be proud of taking on.

Find out more about writing a Masters dissertation

We’ve put together some useful advice to help give you a sense of what’s involved in researching and writing a Masters dissertation, together with some tips for how best to go about it.

Postgraduate study skills

Most taught Masters programmes include some type of dedicated research training component. This can take the form of specific modules involving a range of research tasks, or it might occur through additional sessions organised by relevant support and liaison staff based in your university’s libraries and research facilities.

Identifying and accessing material

Different subject areas will need specific skills and methodological training (in operating laboratory equipment, for example, or using specialist software for data collection and analysis) but all disciplines will require you to identify and access published material in your field. At postgraduate level this will usually mean more thorough and targeted engagement with existing scholarship than can be achieved by simply searching the collections and journal subscriptions in your university library.

As a result you will probably receive guidance in searching for material on different subjects using specialist research databases or repositories. Having identified potentially useful material, you will need to know how to access it. This may involve making inter-library loan requests through your institution or applying to visit external libraries and archives.

Evaluating existing scholarship and establishing methodological awareness

It will also be important for you to assess and critique material once you have procured it, as well as keeping accurate records of your research findings in order to attribute data and ideas correctly in any work you submit. For this reason you may be tasked with producing an annotated research bibliography (recording and evaluating material for a given subject) or with writing a review essay on one or more published pieces of work.

Programmes in subjects with varying methodological approaches may also include more theoretical training, ensuring that you comprehend the different (and sometimes competing) perspectives and philosophies that inform research in your field.

Research training as a set of transferrable skills

Training in the above areas will be designed to help support you during your Masters programme and ultimately prepare you to effectively research and write your dissertation. That said, it will also provide you with transferrable skills that will be helpful to you beyond postgraduate study. The ability to identify, record and assess information before presenting your findings effectively is valuable in many professions outside academic research.

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Last updated: 08 February 2023