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5 differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study

Essentially, undergraduate study (bachelors) is the first type of study undertaken at university level, introducing students to the knowledge and skills required within a specific discipline.


Postgraduate study (masters) is a step up from undergraduate study, requiring a more advanced level of understanding, greater independent study, and more specialised knowledge.


Here are 5 differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study:

1. Research focus 


Because postgraduate studies require a more advanced level of understanding within your chosen discipline, you’ll need to engage in more advanced research methods than those you would have used during your undergraduate studies.


This means with postgraduate studies, there will be a greater emphasis on your research skills. So your masters course will likely include training in appropriate research methods, preparing you for the possibility of furthering your studies at PhD level.


At postgraduate level, there’ll also be a greater emphasis on your research project – your dissertation.

2. Dissertation 


Your masters course will most likely conclude with an individual major research project – a dissertation.


While your bachelors course might have also included a dissertation, your masters dissertation will require much more intensive and in-depth work. An undergraduate thesis is generally under 10,000 words, while a postgraduate dissertation is usually around 15,000 words.


Your masters dissertation will typically require you to:


  • Identify a research topic
  • Use rigorous scholarly methodology to research your topic
  • Offer an in-depth analysis of a range of sources which develop and support your argument
  • Demonstrate an advanced understanding of existing scholarship in areas relevant to your research topic
  • Put forward a convincing argument that contributes to ongoing debates in your research area


Although your masters dissertation will require more work than a bachelors dissertation, it will allow you the opportunity to firmly establish yourself as a scholar in your chosen research area, and prepare you for PhD studies.


Looking for support from your employer in financing your masters programme? Here's what you need to keep in mind:



3. Self-directed study 


One of the most obvious differences you’ll notice between undergraduate and postgraduate studies is that your masters course will generally have fewer taught study units or modules than your bachelors course.


But while, with your masters course, you might find yourself studying a total of only around 4 taught modules, the bulk of your learning hours will come from self-directed study, which usually involves:


  • In-depth reading of a greater range of materials throughout each stage of your course

  • Identifying important themes through your readings and thinking critically about these themes


With your masters course, your tutor will introduce complex ideas and explain key issues, but teachings and discussions will focus around self-directed study much more than with a bachelors course.


Compared to your bachelors course, the teachings and discussions that take place during your masters course will function as more of a forum, where you and your peers can discuss, reflect on, and develop ideas.

4. Area of specialisation 


Whereas undergraduate studies will equip you with general competence in your chosen field, postgraduate studies will give you advanced expertise within a specific area.


For example, while a bachelors degree in English literature will help you understand English literature in a broad and general context, a masters degree in English literature will give you advanced expertise in a specialised area, such as writing associated with a specific historical period.


A masters degree is a great way for you to develop your knowledge and skills in more general academic subjects into more specialised knowledge for a specific career path.

5. In-depth readings 


With a masters course, you’ll need to be prepared for more in-depth readings than with a bachelors course.


Your reading list for your masters course will likely be much more extensive and advanced than that of your bachelors course. This is because you’ll need to understand and critically assess a range of perspectives in your specific subject area, and more deeply and meaningfully engage with readings in your specialised area so that you can develop your own substantiated ideas and arguments.


Because your masters course will largely involve self-directed study, you’ll be able to take the time you need to carefully go through your readings and discuss your ideas and questions with your peers and tutors.


The University of Hull Online offers a range of 100% online masters courses that are designed to give you the specialist expertise you need to take the next step in your career.



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