Undergraduate vs Postgraduate: What’s the Difference?

In General, University by Think Student Editor1 Comment

University study is full of exciting opportunities and can be a refreshing experience completely different from anything students have done before. However, with all these new concepts come lots of terminology which students are often unfamiliar with, which can make it hard to understand what to research when looking at universities. The difference between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees is a commonly confused concept. However, in this article we will explain, with examples, these key concepts, to help you understand exactly what the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate studies is.

An undergraduate degree is typically studied just after finishing high school or college. They focus on a broad subject area, but typically within one discipline such as Psychology, or Mathematics. The most common type of undergraduate degree is a bachelor’s, but some may also undertake a foundation year to prepare them for this level of study.

Postgraduate degrees are often more research focussed and are undertaken after finishing a bachelor’s degree. They have a narrower focus and can include Master’s and Doctorates.

While this should have given you a short answer to your questions about postgraduate and undergraduate degrees, please read on for further key information and examples on this topic.

What is an undergraduate degree?

An undergraduate degree is usually the academic qualification taken by those continuing education after high school or college. They are usually a first degree and are studied at university. These degrees can be studied either with honours or without, with an honour’s degree (hons.) having more in-depth courses and standards, as well as usually allowing a greater degree of specialisation within the course.

The most common undergraduate degree is a Bachelor’s. It involves studying one (single honours) or two (double honours) subjects in detail, across the whole subject. For example, you may take a psychology degree and cover many different areas within the whole field of psychology.

There are several types of bachelor’s degree, depending on what subject you study. These are denoted by letters: Arts (BA), Science (BSc), Education (Bed), Engineering (BEng), Law (LLB), Medicine or Surgery (MB ChB). Some Scottish universities also award MA for an undergraduate degree; however, these qualifications are still equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.

A bachelor’s degree typically takes 3 years of full-time study to achieve, or 4 years with a year abroad or placement year. Some other subjects, such as medicine, may take 5-6 years to complete. However, some universities, particularly those in Scotland, may have 4-year degrees as standard, particularly on honours courses.

For more information on what an undergraduate degree is, please visit this Think Student article.

Who can take an undergraduate degree?

Undergraduate degrees are most commonly taken by high school leavers. This means students who have just finished their A-Levels or BTEC qualifications or have finished those qualifications then taken a gap year.

Furthermore, these students must meet entry requirements to get on the undergraduate degree course. This usually takes the form of certain grades being required in the qualification the student previously studied. The grades needed will vary widely from course to course, so check out the course you are interested in for more information.

However, these are of course not the only people who can take an undergraduate degree. Mature students are any students who are over the age of 21 when beginning their degree course and are becoming increasingly common in UK universities. The entry requirements for mature students may be different, taking into account experience of a career or earlier education experience.

Many people who find they cannot yet get into a bachelor’s degree course, for example if they are unable to meet entry requirements, choose to take a foundation year first to give them the qualifications they need. More on this option is explained below.

What other types of undergraduate degree are there?

The bachelor’s degree, as discussed above, is definitely the most common undergraduate course. However, there are a few variations of the bachelor’s, as well as other courses which are taken before a bachelor’s graduation which therefore count as undergraduate study.

Firstly, some courses are known as integrated master’s courses. This is a 4-year course which begins with a bachelor’s degree, but the final year of study is a master’s level qualification so is technically a postgraduate year.

A foundation year course is an introductory year which bridges the gap between high school and a bachelor’s degree. These are usually taken by students who do not meet the entry requirements for a bachelor’s degree yet, to help them gain the skills they would need to succeed on a bachelor’s course. This is a stepping stone to taking a degree, so is considered an undergraduate course.

Finally, a foundation degree (FdA or FdSc) is a qualification focussed more on practice-based learning than a bachelor’s. They are typically considered equivalent to the first 2 years of a bachelor’s degree and are a mix of academic study and practical experience in the workplace. Students can go on after this course to complete a “top up degree” which is equivalent to gaining the 3rd year of the course, to upgrade their qualification to a full bachelor’s degree level.

For more information about foundation years and degrees, please visit this article by Think Student.

What is a postgraduate degree?

A postgraduate degree is any degree taken after a bachelor level. This is why it is called “post-graduate” – the graduation from a bachelor’s is often considered a pre-requisite to entry, and these degrees tend to follow on from studies done at that level.

Postgraduate degrees allow students to specialise in a smaller area of focus than at undergraduate level. The focus is most often on a specific area of the subject they studied as an undergraduate. However, conversion courses (which allow you to change to a different subject, such as law) are also available.

Postgraduate degrees can be similar to undergraduate degrees, being “taught” courses. These have lectures, tutorials, labs and supervisions in a similar to structure to what students have experienced before. Master’s degrees, postgraduate certificates and diplomas tend to follow these structures.

However, some courses at this stage are more about independent work, and are known as “research” courses. Students are guided by a tutor or professor to conduct their own academic research into a personal area of interest related to their field of study. Doctorates (PhD) and some master’s courses follow this structure.

For more information on what a postgraduate degree is, please see this Think Student guide.

What types of postgraduate degree are there?

Similar to undergraduate degrees, there are different classifications available of different types of degrees at this level.

Firstly, master’s degrees are the most often studied postgraduate courses. They are usually the first course taken after a bachelor’s degree. The classifications include: arts (MA), Science (MSc), Education (MEd), Research (MRes), Philosophy (MPhil), Business (MBA), and Law (LLM).

Typically, those wanting to study a PhD must first complete a master’s degree. A master’s typically takes one year to complete and is studied full time.

Conversion courses are another type of postgraduate qualification. These allow students to step into a different field of study than they took at undergraduate level, and help open up careers options to students. Some of the most common include Law conversion courses, Journalism courses, and teaching qualifications such as PGCE.

Finally, a doctorate is the highest qualification level available to students. It involves both research and academic learning, with a strong focus on creating an original research project called a thesis. There are two common types of doctorate, academic (which focusses on original research to expand a subject area – PhD and DPhil) and professional (which involve more practical learning alongside this – MD (Medicine), EngD (Engineering), and DClinPsy (Clinical Psychology).

A doctorate takes three to four years to complete if studying full time, and is usually done alongside teaching responsibilities in your department at the university.

More information on the different types of degree course at both undergraduate and postgraduate level can be found here, from the Complete University Guide.

Who can take a postgraduate degree?

Postgraduate degrees are only open to those who have completed a bachelor’s degree. Most will ask for this to be in a related subject, although some are more flexible about changing between courses, for example between social sciences such as moving from psychology to sociology.

For a master’s degree, most students will be expected to achieve at least a 2:2 in their bachelor’s. Some courses will require even higher grades than this, depending on how competitive the course you are applying for is. To find this out, check out the admissions page of the university you are applying to.

To apply for a doctorate, at least a 2:1 bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject is considered essential. Most PhD programs also expect you to have completed a master’s degree, to develop your research skills, and you may be asked to submit evidence of prior research. Furthermore, you will need to submit a research proposal of what you plan to study for your thesis and may have to undertake interviews around your research.

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John Doe
John Doe
4 months ago

How hard is it to get a 2:1