In the United States, undergraduate and graduate studies are college-level programs. Explore the differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees by looking at their admission requirements and degrees earned.
An undergraduate program or degree is defined as “something that is part of the first four years of college life.” There are two types of undergraduate degrees:
- Associate’s degree: You need a high school diploma, GED, or to pass certain exams to enter an associate’s program, and it takes about 2 years to complete.
- Bachelor’s degree: You need a high school diploma, GED, or an associate’s degree to enter a bachelor’s program, and it takes about 4 years to complete.
A graduate program or degree is defined as “something that is part of a higher degree program.” There are two main types of graduate degrees:
- Master’s degree: You usually need a bachelor’s degree before you can enter a master’s program, and it takes 2-3 years to earn the degree.
- Doctoral degree: You don’t always need a master’s degree to enter a doctoral program, and it takes about 4-6 years to earn the degree.
In other countries like England, master’s and doctoral degrees are sometimes referred to as postgraduate. The equivalent of an American undergraduate degree is known as a graduate degree.
Aside from the length of time spent in school and the type of degree you can earn, there are many differences in the experiences of undergraduate students versus graduate students.
Although you usually choose a major in undergraduate studies, your education will include more general classes taken by students of all majors. In graduate school, you’ll often take a prescribed set of classes that are specific to the job you’re hoping to get.
Because the programs are more specialized and fewer students pursue them, graduate classes are typically smaller than undergraduate classes. University size will play a part in class sizes, so small colleges may also have small undergraduate classes.
Undergraduate courses assign reading and structured papers like essays, reports, or research projects. Graduate coursework focuses more on experiences in the field, personal narratives, class discussions, and larger projects like a dissertation.
Undergraduate teachers often subscribe to similar teaching practices used by high school teachers, such as lecturing or reading from the textbook. Graduate teachers assume students have read the textbook, and they teach lessons that go beyond reciting facts, such as having open-ended class discussions.
Undergraduate college students are often in their early 20s and may be living off their parents, student loans, or minimum wage jobs. The average graduate student is 33 years old. Since graduate students already have undergraduate degrees, they’re probably earning a decent living and may have a house and family of their own.
Undergraduate and graduate programs are both types of education you seek after high school. Discover all the types of degrees you could earn in the U.S. by browsing a list of degree abbreviations.