The Difference Between Undergraduate, Graduate and Postgraduate University Programs

So you are researching for options to study abroad and you come across these University degree programs: Undergraduate, Graduate and Postgraduate. A little confused? No worries, we will break it down for you. The following will guide you on the very specific differences between Undergraduate, Graduate and Postgraduate programs.

It has been statistically proven that higher education leads to higher incomes, the question in everyone’s mind is how much education does one need to stand out in the workforce, especially in today’s difficult economic climate and waning job market? While the answer to this question depends on several factors, there are certain things you need to consider before deciding on the level of education you’d like to pursue. For that, you should first understand the difference between undergraduate programs, graduate and postgraduate degrees.

Undergraduate Degree Programs

An undergraduate program is a degree that is earned after high school. Upon completion of high school, the program you would pursue at University is at undergraduate level. If you are planning to study in the United States of America, the two most common types of undergraduate programs are Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees. In most other countries, the undergraduate programs are Bachelor degrees that take 3 years to complete.

Minimum Requirements for Undergraduate Programs

To pursue an undergraduate degree, one must complete their secondary education (high school, A Levels or the International Baccalaureate, for example) and have high enough grades to meet the standards set to be admitted for the course you have chosen in university. Depending on the country and your background, language certification may also be necessary. Other than having good grades you might need to pay application fees and provide financial aid documents, if any.

Level of Specialization in Undergraduate Programs

The main difference between the types degrees is the level of specialization. Depending on your program, an undergraduate degree is designed to create well-rounded individuals who are ready to enter the working world. It provides a foundation in a specific field or an overview of several subjects, preparing you for different types of entry-level jobs. Undergraduate programs are more general in nature.

Employment opportunities

Another difference is the employment opportunity offered by both undergraduate degrees compared to graduate and postgraduate degrees. While there are certain professions like law, medicine, engineering, etc., where a graduate degree is necessary, there are plenty of career choices open to those who only have an undergraduate degree. But your earning potential and advancement opportunities may not be the same as they would be if you were to get a postgraduate degree.

Program Duration

An undergraduate degree, can be earned in three to four years if you are going for a Bachelor’s and two years if you are pursuing an Associate’s. In Europe, under the Treaty of Bologna, most undergraduate degrees take 3 years to complete, while in the USA and some other countries, you will find that a Bachelor program takes 4 years to pursue.


Undergraduate programs are considered cheaper than graduate and postgraduate programs. Nevertheless, given the 3-4 year program duration, you will need to take into account your living expenses, such as accommodation, travel and other personal expenses. Depending on the University, you may also need to budget for books and learning materials. Most University programs at undergraduate level will have some form of scholarships or grants as well as financial assistance options. Unfortunately, many students get into very high debt for their University education, so it may be wise to shop around. Many Universities in Europe offer free or very low tuition, which may be worth exploring if you do not want to overburden your future.


Undergraduate classes are typically much larger and less individualized than those in graduate programs. As such, connecting with academic staff can be missed by some students who come from educational backgrounds where they are used to small classes. This means very little time interacting or asking lecturers questions. Here the connection is a student-teacher relationship.

University Lecture Halls
Undergraduate programs, especially at public Universities tend to be taught in lecture halls.


In an undergraduate program, lecturers usually give you organized notes, detailed reading lists, project follow-ups, and plenty of detailed instructions, so you will know what is expected of you. Assessments are also based on tests which make students memorize a lot.

Graduate and Postgraduate Degree Programs

On the other hand Graduate programs and postgraduate programs, are advanced degrees available to those who have completed their undergraduate studies. Master’s and Doctoral degrees leading to a PhD are the two main graduate degree programs. There are of course country differences but as a general rule of thumb, a Master degree is your typical Graduate program while Doctoral degrees (PhD programs) are generally considered Postgraduate programs.

Minimum Requirements for Graduate and Postgraduate Programs

To qualify for a graduate or postgraduate degree, the student needs to have a bachelor’s degree. Some Universities may also require GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) test scores along with other additional requirements including transcripts, letters of recommendation which may be optional, and financial aid documents.

Level of Specialization in Graduate and Postgraduate Programs

Graduate programs, on the other hand, focuses on building on that foundation. The coursework is far more intense, and specialized. It demands a tremendous amount of hard work. Students of graduate degree programs are required to carry out independent research work, write a thesis and defend it in front of their professors, lecturers, and peers.

University Library
Graduate and postgraduate students will be spending a lot of time in the library.

Employment opportunities

Postgraduate programs add value in terms of giving candidates a competitive advantage in the job market, increasing their marketability, and improving their earning potential. Indeed, once you have a postgraduate degree, you have an edge for professional positions.


The overall time commitment for a graduate degree is greater than that dedicated to an undergraduate degree. A postgraduate program usually takes eighteen months to two years. Add to the four years for a Bachelor’s degree, and you will need to spend a minimum of six years in school if you want to pursue a graduate degree.


Graduate school can be expensive with higher annual tuition fees than undergraduate courses. This is due to the advanced level of education, competent professors who are experts in your chosen field that are tapped to educate you. Also, the fees may include equipment, books, and learning materials required to assist in your learning. However, you can search for scholarships, bursaries or grants for financial assistance which are readily available to graduate students. Another option is applying for students loans, which are temporary, since you are provided funding only at the time of your schooling, and you must repay your debtor once you have completed your graduate degree. A postgraduate degree of PhD program does not necessarily have to be more expensive but given the longer duration, may require more funds allocated to living expenses, accommodation and general costs of living.


In graduate programs, the enrollment is smaller than those at undergraduate level, allowing students to work very closely with professors on a one-to-one basis. Also, the class format in a graduate school is more of discussions and debates. This helps postgraduate students to explore the field they have chosen more interactively, resulting in a closer relationship with the professors compared to the experience of an undergraduate where the professor just lectures as you listen.

Professors in graduate school engage and treat the students like peers and may even invite them to academic conferences or seminars, which offer a great chance to network with other experts in the field you are pursuing. Here the connection is a peer-mentor relationship.


In postgraduate programs, the learning is independent, where the student has to be fully prepared, by reading all the materials and sources before the class. Assessments are also about applying knowledge and work experience. Your studying has to be at a deeper level, with no one constantly reminding or prompting you to submit projects on time. This means you have a lot of freedom and you will need to properly manage it not to fall behind because it is hard to recover. However, the professors and your dissertation supervisor will still be a close part of your program (as discussed above) to support you in your postgraduate studies.

Overall conclusions

Education is crucial in life, and the decisions you make, whether to pursue a graduate degree after completing an undergraduate degree or not can play a significant role in making you the person you turn out to be in the future. You have the potential of directing your life towards the person you wish to become by making the right choice. Whichever decision you make, ensure you’ve made it with your eyes open. As there are so many universities around the world plus you have a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs at your disposal. What makes the difference is what you choose in the end; hence, the need to go for the best option as well as one that is suitable to your needs and aims in life.