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What the key differences between undergraduate and graduate school?

I'm a current undergraduate student who will be graduating in the spring (if things go according to plan), and while graduate school wasn't originally part of my plan, it's something I've begun considering. I've found that there seems to be less advice out there regarding grad school as opposed to undergrad, possibly because graduate school varies a lot more depending on which field you're planning on going into. For reference, I'm considering pursuing a Master's in Higher Education, so I'm wondering what to expect from graduate school. Is it more hands-on than undergrad? Did you feel that it was more demanding because you had to balance studies with an assistantship or something like that? school college schools colleges graduate-school graduate-schools university universities undergraduate graduate undergraduates graduates advice college-advice experience experiences future masters-degree degrees degree higher-education education july july20 scholarship

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Bonnie’s Answer

All I can offer you is my own experience/perspective, so for full disclosure, I have a doctorate (EdD) in educational leadership, specializing in educational technology --a practice degree, not a research degree, although we are still required to produce original research and a dissertation. I also earned a master of arts degree in adult education and distance learning, and a bachelor's degree in philosophy. Immediately after my undergraduate degree, I was awarded a teaching fellowship at the only program I applied to for a straight track to a PhD in philosophy, but that did NOT work out well for me. In the past I wished that I specifically would have asked the question you did BEFORE accepting that fellowship.

Anyway, looking back on my own journey, here's what the difference seems like to me in retrospect:

In my undergrad studies, I learned a lot of facts about things, learned how to apply those facts, and how to analyze claims and opinions (yay for philosophy) using those facts. In my master's program, I learned how to use those skills to research other peoples' work and evaluate the quality and usefulness of various research, sometimes for the things I was interested in, but mostly for the things I was required to be interested in for the duration of a semester. I consolidated a lot of bigger picture thinking, but applied in a much narrower context at the master's level. By the time I got to my doctoral level of study, I was expected to have my own distinctive point of view and research efforts to serve as a foundation for what I had to say. I didn't go in with a strong voice, but I was expected to come out of it with one, and I was not going to be earning that Dr. Taylor designation until I did.

Depending on the emphasis of the master's programs you apply to, they might be more focused on research or on practice. Meaning that some programs are more holistic in requiring a project or capstone experience, and those are typically in my experience MA degrees. MS degrees are more research focused, where your thesis is a likely jumping off point to where you would go if you decide to pursue a PhD. Again, my EdD is a practice degree. I currently work in private industry as an educational researcher and intra-organizational consultant. I teach our employees about teaching and learning. What I learned in my MA program served me well in that, and with the sudden surge to remote connections between teachers and students, suddenly more people understand what it is that I do with all this "educational technology" stuff. So that's my journey. For you, consider reflecting on the Masters in Higher Education degree you're considering. You might perhaps shift from the typical thinking of "How is that going to help me in the future?" to "How can I use where I am right now to help me create a stronger focus on some area of study?" Will a master's degree in higher ed be applicable to your life right now? Will you be able to leverage your educational and vocational background to provide a scaffold for the research you'll be doing in your master's level classes?

From an earnings perspective, I was able to recoup the cost of my master's degree within 3 years with the increased salary I was able to command. But I hit the wall soon after that, because there were so many PhDs and EdDs I was competing with for opportunities. And that's what prompted me to reflect on what educational problems I was interested in addressing and delving into for the rest of my career. Taking a good look around you to see what your prospects are right now will potentially help clarify where you want to go from here.

As someone who is now considering an EdD in educational leadership, I found your perspective very helpful, Bonnie. Thank you! Lisa Famularo

Wow, it seems like there's a lot I haven't considered, so this has left me with so many new questions! I appreciate how thorough and informational your answer is; thank you so much for sharing! Catherine T.

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Lisa’s Answer

Some of the key differences between undergrad and grad school, in my opinion, are the specificity of the studies, the independent nature of the work, the stronger relationships with faculty, the increased funding options (Ex. assistantships), and the lower level of campus involvement outside studies. Unlike undergrad, in grad school, all of your classes are on the topic of your degree making things much more specific. Faculty members tend to expect that a lot more work be done outside the classroom (ex. A lot of reading scholarly articles) and don’t provide as many reminders or guidance as undergrad professors do.

I personally have a Master’s in higher education and student affairs, and during my program, I completed an assistantship, two internships, and numerous hands-on projects with campus partners. However, not all programs offer these options. In higher education, some programs are more hands on (like mine), while others are more focused on theory. Also, my program had an emphasis on student affairs, while others may emphasize administration, counseling, and/or social justice. It is up to you to choose a program type based on your existing skill set and which emphasis would best compliment it.

As you are evaluating programs, here are a few important things you should consider: curriculum, experiential learning opportunities, faculty teaching styles, faculty research interests, program model (cohort or not), program length, and funding options. Much of this information can typically be found on a program’s website, but it also can’t hurt to contact the program directly so you can set up informational interviews with current students or faculty members to learn more.

In general, I highly recommend talking to people who already have a masters in higher ed about their experience because it does vary greatly by program!

Lisa recommends the following next steps:

Use NASPA’s graduate school directory to compare and contrast programs in the field.
Narrow down your list.
Contact each school on your list to speak with an admissions officer or student or faculty member.

Thank you so much for your advice, Lisa! I found this extremely helpful because it sounds like the program you were enrolled in is very much like what I'm looking for. I see that you're a career coach now, and I think I would also like to become a career counselor after getting a Master's in higher education and student affairs. I would love to be in a graduate program that's more hands-on than theory-based, so I'm curious to hear if you chose that kind of program because you felt that it was also more suited for you. Catherine T.

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Elle’s Answer

In undergrad, your biggest worry is your gpa. You need to be concerned about it in order to get accepted into a top grad program. In grad school, your biggest worry is research. Whether you are writing your dissertation, or working on a master's thesis, you are in charge of working through a process of research that reflects your ability to be an authority on a subject. College is exploration, and grad school is not so focused on exploration. In grad school, when you are accepted, your biggest concern should be faculty and funding. It's all about the f words. In undergrad, funding might be an issue, but it's mostly about name and rank. How well known is your school? Is it reputable? Whether or not you attended an ivy league school or a regular in - state institution, it matters more than when you go to grad school. In grad school, you need to be surrounded by professors who are knowledgeable about their field, and are willing to assist you in your academic pursuits. Some schools require that you work a Graduate Assistantship while studying, which is time - consuming and stressful. In undergrad, you are more than likely not to have that obligation.

Ultimately, your decision to attend grad school should be based on whether you want to spend your time researching and working towards a definitive goal of being an authority of your subject. It is important that you keep in mind that your prospects after grad school greatly depend on your subject, seriousness, and willingness to continue the path you started as a scholar. In undergrad, your prospects depend on how much work you're willing to put into finding a job based on connections and some of what you might have learned in school. In many cases, people find jobs that are completely UNRELATED to what they studied in undergrad, and in grad school this is more uncommon. So in the end, grad school is for professional preparedness, and some intellectual curiosity.
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Andrew’s Answer

Since my degrees are not in Education but in Physics (BS & MS in physics, Ph.D. in geophysics), I can only provide a general answer to your question.

Based on my own experience, we acquire a general exposure in your field of study. It is a preparation for more in-depth study if you are going to the graduate school. There may be a thesis requirement for a master’s degree, but it is dependent on the specific program and the school you attend. You will have to engage in “independent” research If there is thesis requirement in your program. The reason I the independent is quoted is that there is typically considerable supervision from your thesis advisor at the master’s degree level. If there is no thesis requirement, you can earn your master’s degree just by completing a specific number of graduate credit-hours.

As far as graduate assistantship is concerned, it is quite variable from degree programs and graduate schools. I had been both graduate teaching assistant and graduate research assistant in my graduate programs. I did not find my assistantship workload overly demanding. Most importantly, the work assignments were closely related to my area of study. Even if this was not the case, I would have learned a lot of useful skills in the exercise. No effort would be wasted in this sense.

Lastly, I would strongly encourage you to talk with your professors in your Education Department for advice on graduate school. They should be the best persons to evaluate your academic situation and future career projections.

Thank you very much for sharing your own experiences! I found this really helpful. Catherine T.