From undergraduate to postgraduate – what’s the difference?

Are you thinking of doing a postgraduate coursework degree? Perhaps you’re wondering what is the difference between a Masters and an undergraduate degree? Maybe you’re starting a Masters, and you’re wondering what you’ve got yourself in for.

Good questions, which I would like to reflect on them from the other side of the fence. In this post, I’m focussing on my understanding of the ‘step up’ from undergrad to postgrad. Despite the various tensions and politics, we do need to be able to articulate what those differences are.

The postgraduate context

Postgraduate coursework programs (Masters degrees) are usually full-fee paying programs. They are often career-focussed, because few people will hand over a lazy $25K per year to indulge a hobby. At my university, we host many international students from different learning cultures – all with undergraduate degrees.

However, different nations value different types of learning. Furthermore, many international students are still learning English when they start their postgrad degree. We have to offer education that these students can cope with, but that also maintains the standards and qualities mandated by governments and regulatory agencies. Sometimes these two facts of postgrad coursework life are very hard to reconcile.

Many Masters programs are for people beginning in a new discipline, albeit beginners with a first degree (people with skills get credit for the beginner courses). The differences between undergrad and postgrad has nothing to do with pre-supposed skills and knowledge.

Despite this, on exiting a Masters program students are meant to be able to take on leadership roles and think strategically about their industry, as well as being able to do industry-standard research and project work. The jump from industry newbie to industry leader in two years is a considerable one, particularly for people who can’t speak English well and/or who come from different learning cultures.

In order to cope with such a steep learning curve, our students must be sophisticated learners when they arrive.

What are sophisticated learners?

You have a level of insight into your own learning, having already completed an undergraduate degree. You know your own strengths and weaknesses. You have a high level of independence, with more life experiences and a wider world-view. You are good at problem-solving and time management. You are prepared to accept responsibility. You know that sometimes you have to compromise and collaborate.

While you may not have all the answers (who does?), you are able to make connections between the detail and the big picture. You can work out your own position or ambition and work steadily towards it. You are a good communicator (at least in your own language).

At the undergrad level, teaching staff spend more time developing sophisticated learning skills. As a postgrad, we don’t and we can’t – not if you are going to go from newbie to expert in 2 years.

Introductory courses for sophisticated learners

In other words, we expect our students to learn more quickly than undergraduates. Just because a course is introductory, doesn’t mean your teacher will tell you every step, like a recipe in a recipe book. You do need to think and research for yourself.

Our introductory courses are less iterative (repetitive) – there simply isn’t the time compared to a 3 year undergraduate degree. You need to be aware of your own weaknesses, and be capable of undertaking independent learning to address them.

You will be self-confident in the classroom, asking questions, having discussions and engaging with tutors. Postgraduate students may not know a lot about academic research methodologies, but they have inquiring minds and they probably undertake some sort of research virtually every day of their lives. They understand what research is, and it is not a big leap to academic research.

Postgrads are ambitious and tenacious. They make well-informed decisions based on research. They know how to manage their time and get things done.

Jumping off the high board?

Given that a Masters coursework degree is only two years long, and students emerge at the end of it as industry leaders, having started with no skills at all, it can be a wild, but exhilarating, ride.

So if you’re about to jump off the high dive board… take a deep breath, and be prepared to exercise your skills as an independent and sophisticated learner.