Graduate and undergraduate degree programs both fill an important role in the academic space, providing learners with a chance to focus on a subject they are passionate about or wish to start a career in. A bachelor’s degree seems like a natural next step after an associate degree, but is it worth enrolling in a graduate program after that? Here, we discuss the pros and cons of graduate school, the career prospects a graduate student might enjoy, and whether the step from bachelor to master’s degree is worth taking.
If you’re considering a year or two in grad school after completing your undergraduate degree, we’ll help you decide if it’s likely to be worthwhile and give you an idea of what to expect from your graduate program.
Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees
The main difference between a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree is the length of the course and the depth of study required. Just as the leap between high school and college is significant in terms of the level of study and self-guided learning required, the academic rigor of a master’s degree is greater than that of an undergraduate program.
What is an Undergraduate Degree?
Most people choose an undergraduate degree for their first degree program. Common examples of undergraduate degrees include the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and the Bachelor of Science (BSc). These degrees are usually studied over three years, however some universities offer a four-year program with a work placement. In some limited cases, students can study for an accelerated degree over just two years. This is an intensive program and combines work and study, with a significant time commitment.
Undergraduate degrees are considered an achievement and those degrees are appealing to prospective employers. Of those aged 20 to 29 who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2018, 72.3% went on to find employment. Dropout rates for undergraduate degrees vary significantly depending on the length of the course, age of the student, and how selective the institution is. Graduation rates at more selective institutions is around 90%, while graduation rates at institutions with an open admission policy are just 34%.
What are the key differences between graduate and undergraduate courses?
A graduate degree is a higher level of study than an undergraduate degree and it is usually taken after the completion of a degree in a similar subject. Postgraduate courses usually require someone to have earned honors in their degree before they can enroll. Some universities allow students to a embark on a program of study that leads to a masters degree as an undergraduate, in which case they will spend four to five years studying, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree along the way.
Postgraduate courses include:
- MSc (Master of Science)
- MA (Master of Arts)
- MBA (Master of Business Administration)
- MEd (Master of Education)
- MRes (Master of Research)
- LLM (Master of Law)
In addition to studying a graduate degree as a full-time student, there’s the option to study part-time online, and many people do this while pursuing a career in their chosen field. Part-time master’s degrees can take between one and four years, depending on the schedule of study agreed between the student and the awarding university.
What are the defining features of a graduate degree?
The key difference between a graduate degree and an undergraduate degree is the difficulty. Many people who start a bachelor’s degree program are relatively new to the subject they choose to study, having had only a cursory exposure to the subject at school.
When someone embarks on a doctoral degree, they are choosing to specialize in a subject they have already shown some understanding of and this is reflected in the nature of the study. Where a bachelor’s degree focuses on exposing the undergraduate learner to the body of work that is already available for the subject matter, a graduate student is expected to research, investigate, make inferences and add to that body of work.
Undergraduate students learn facts are taught the fundamentals of a field. Graduate students apply the knowledge they were given in their undergraduate course to explore new areas of the field or add to the knowledge that’s already out there. This means they’re expected to put more time into their studies and that they’ll have to perform at a higher academic standard.
How to Decide if You Need a Graduate Degree
Postgraduate qualifications require a significant time and effort investment and can require a huge financial investment too. Franklin University lists the average costs of an accredited master’s program as being $30,000 to $40,000 for a typical school, with more prestigious institutions charging $100,000 or more.
For those with a passion for a subject and a love of academic life, a master’s degree is a natural next step after a bachelor’s. For those who are eager to start moving up the career ladder, though, deciding between work or improving their academic qualifications could be more difficult.
Why might you need a graduate degree?
There are some fields, such as law and medicine, where going to graduate school is expected. In other fields, a graduate degree is nice to have, but not compulsory. So, how can you decide whether a graduate school is a good choice for you?
- Consider your career plans
Firstly, consider your career plans. Is your long-term goal to climb the corporate ladder? If so, you may need a doctorate degree to differentiate yourself from other applicants. The number of people enrolling in undergraduate study in the United States has been steadily increasing, which has the side-effect of devaluing the bachelor’s degree. Graduate study shows you’re a more serious applicant.
On average, masters degree holders earn $11,856 more per week than bachelor’s degree holders. This means over time the degree will pay for itself, and more. For someone who enjoys a specific subject, it often makes sense to stay in academia and earn the masters before starting work. This allows them to ‘get study out of the way’ before starting their careers, and removes the perceived obstacles of either accepting the reduction in earnings associated with going back to school, or trying to juggle work and school.
- Your path is not set in stone
Those who opted to head into the workforce after earning a bachelor’s or even an associates degree are not locked out of the option of earning a masters or even a PhD at a later date. It’s possible to complete a master’s degree program part time while working, and in some cases employers are willing to sponsor all or part of this study.
Let’s not forget that there are student loan forgiveness programs for those working in certain sectors, such as health care. For example, nurses who work at critical shortage facilities can apply to have their loans waived via the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Scheme. Programs such as this cover a significant portion of a learner’s loans, and make continuing education much more financially accessible.
- Ongoing study is a significant but worthwhile commitment
For those who work in the corporate world or STEM fields, continuing professional development is an important consideration. It’s often possible to find a job with an honors degree and a good portfolio, but promotions to upper level positions require more impressive credentials.
Completing a masters degree is a big help with netting those higher-level promotions, because:
- Grad programs require an in-depth understanding of the subject at hand
- The academic rigor of the programs means graduates have truly proven themselves
- Graduate students learn critical thinking and research skills
- Completing an intensive study program shows commitment and time management
Whether you choose to study at a well-known and highly respected institution or complete your studies at a smaller university close to home, an accredited masters degree is worth a lot.
When should undergraduate students begin investigating graduate schools?
If you’re confident that you want to start a graduate degree after completing your undergraduate program of study, it’s well worth investigating potential schools, and majors, early on in the process.
The application process for masters degrees is more involved than that of an undergraduate degree. Many universities have an open admissions policy for bachelor’s degrees and will accept any applicant who has the funding and the required GPA. Once someone is on a bachelor’s degree they may have several opportunities to drop or add modules, pursuing a variety of interests in their choice of minors and even potentially changing their major during the course of their studies.
While changing majors in a bachelor’s degree may require some extra study, and is not to be taken lightly, it’s something that is relatively easy to do. Changing majors in a graduate degree is much harder, so it’s important to feel confident in the choice of course you make.
The same applies to choosing institution. Moving credits between universities is possible, and while a student may need to repeat some modules if they decide to transfer to a different university partway through a bachelor’s degree, they won’t lose all their work. The process for moving schools during a graduate program may be more complex due to the highly focused nature of the studies.
What to look for when considering your graduate program
Because graduate choices are so much more fixed than undergraduate ones, it’s important to get the choice of school and program right. When you’re considering study options, take the following factors into account:
- Career Options: If you know what you’d like to do for your career, start scouring job boards and LinkedIn profiles now. Do most of the people in jobs you want to have come from a specific academic background? Are some educational institutions more highly regarded than others in your field?
- Study Schedule: Some people feel quite happy staying in academia for many years, but others want to get into the corporate world as quickly as possible. Think about your study options. Does the institution offer part time study? Is there the option to swap between full and part time programs there in case your circumstances change? How supportive is the university when it comes to students who are juggling family responsibilities?
- Study Options: Online-only master’s degrees are becoming increasingly common, but there are some fields where this kind of delivery is not possible. Hybrid degrees which involve a mixture of remote delivery and on-campus study are a popular option and can seem appealing at first glance. If you’re considering this kind of study, make sure you’ll be able to get to campus for all of the in-person sessions. The face to face part of the program may place more demands on your time than you initially think.
- Specialization Options: While an undergraduate student could expect to get a reasonable grounding in a broad subject at almost any institution, when you’re focusing on a masters program the expertise of the faculty and the specialization options offered become more important. You have a significant amount of freedom with an online degree, but if your special interest is Machine Learning for Genetic Sequencing, you would need an adviser who can assess that subject. If you’re considering enrolling on a course, contact the faculty and get to know them first.
- Admissions: Some of the best degrees are incredibly competitive and require a minimum GRE, coursework and an essay as well as sometimes experience or extracurricular activities. By investigating the entry requirements early you can get an idea of what preparatory work you need to do to increase the chances of acceptance onto the course of your dreams.
Pros and cons of a graduate degree
Earning a master’s degree or a PhD in a field you’re passionate about is an impressive and satisfying accomplishment, and the pinnacle of academic achievement for a lot of students. It’s also a huge time commitment, and it’s not for everyone.
While it’s true that those who earn a master’s degree do usually earn more over the course of their careers than those who leave university with a bachelor’s degree, someone who holds a bachelor’s is still typically far better off than a person with an associate’s degree or no degree at all when it comes to earnings. In addition, there are career paths where academic qualifications are less relevant, and there are many young people whose priorities are not career-focused.
For someone who wants to start a family, run their own business or excel in a sport, putting academic studies on hold may make more sense.
What are the advantages of a graduate degree?
There are many reasons why a person might wish to earn a master’s degree:
- Career advancement: Those who wish to rise to executive positions in a big business will find an MBA useful. The medical and legal fields place a lot of value on doctoral level qualifications, and those who wish to push the boundaries in scientific fields would require a graduate school education at a minimum, with postdoctorate study often expected.
- Personal curiosity: Anyone who enjoys a subject enough to get a degree in it most likely has a passion for the subject. Grad school is where students get to explore the areas of a subject that most interest them, and truly delve into the field.
- The academic scene: There’s a lot to like about being a student. While graduate degree programs do require far more time spent studying than the average undergraduate program, students still get a lot of the benefits of being in academia. From access to labs, textbooks and research documents to student unions and student discounts, it’s easy to understand why people don’t want to leave academic life behind.
- Networking: Students working towards a grad degree are respected by those in industry because they’ve already paid their dues by earning an undergraduate degree. There are many opportunities for those working on their thesis to meet people in industry at conferences, present the work they’re doing, and make connections that will stand them in good stead when they graduate.
- A sense of accomplishment: The sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a masters program is something that cannot be underestimated. Even those who choose to move on to a completely different field once they start work will find they can look back on their academic accomplishments and feel proud of them.
What are the drawbacks to enrolling in a master’s degree program?
The rewards for completing a master’s program are significant, but that’s because the program itself requires discipline and sacrifice. It’s important to be aware of the challenges before committing to a program of study.
- Bigger student loans: After spending several years earning a bachelor’s it may be hard to justify the cost of an extra $30,000+ for a master’s degree. Scholarships are an option, but for those who are already in significant debt the extra expense could be a cause of some concern.
- Loss of earnings and work experience: Some students are eager to enter the workforce as quickly as possible, gaining work experience, contacts and a chance to work up the corporate ladder. In some fields, the value of a master’s degree is enough to offset the lost years. In others, the loss of working time could set back a person’s career so much that it may not be worthwhile them spending extra time on their studies.
- Balancing work and family life: For someone who already has a family to support, a child, or other commitments, spending time studying might be difficult. A lot of masters degree students are at a different point in their lives to those who are studying for a bachelor’s degree. Graduate school is intense and a significant challenge. For some people, the challenge is worthwhile, but for others the demands their personal lives put on them are too great.
Salaries for Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degrees
One of the biggest draws for going to graduate school is the idea those who complete a doctoral degree earn more than the average college graduate. This is true in a lot of professions.
Take, for example, computer science. There are currently around 500,000 open jobs in information technology, but there are only 50,000 IT graduates every year, while the graduate market is, by comparison, flooded. Even those who graduate from a smaller postgraduate program can expect to earn 25% more than someone with a mere undergraduate degree or an associate degree. Those who graduate with an MBA from one of the top universities can expect to earn even more than that.
The growth in popularity of online universities and the idea of ‘open colleges’ means that some people find themselves considering the idea of self-study and free courses. While it’s true that you can learn a lot of the skills and concepts taught in a master’s degree online, businesses are looking for college graduates who have been tested in an environment with high academic standards. An online MBA from a university that is not accredited may help a person climb the corporate ladder in a small company, but the highest earners will be those with recognition from an accredited institution.
In fields such as nursing, where there are accredited awarding bodies, a person with a bachelor’s degree could expect to earn $57,500 per year. Someone with a master’s degree could earn as much as $81,700 and would have the opportunity to specialize in certain areas of clinical practice.
Financing your studies
If you’re interested in pursuing a master’s degree, one option is to look for work with an employer that is willing to sponsor postgraduate study. This is something that is common in law, the medical field and even in some bigger STEM companies.
If you graduated with honors in your bachelor’s degree, you may be able to get the best of both worlds, working in an entry level role at a big company, earning valuable experience and making contacts that can mentor you and help you develop in your abilities and confidence, and also having some or all of your postgraduate studies paid for.
If you go down this route, you will usually be expected to stay with the company that sponsors your studies for a set period of time, but this is unlikely to be an issue. Companies that are willing to invest in their employees skills and futures can be good places to work.
By earning a master’s degree while working, you get the best of both worlds and will graduate with lower debts and a good portfolio and CV. You may be able to make use of your employer’s resources for your thesis or research, and increase your profile by speaking at conferences or networking.
This option isn’t available for everyone. It’s far easier to get sponsored for a masters in business, law, or STEM sessions thank it is to get a sponsor that is willing to support studies in an obscure area of history or the arts, but for those who can take that option it certainly makes financial sense.
Grants and Bursaries
Those who need to fund their own degree may find that working while they do so helps them keep the cost of their studies under control. There are grants available for those in the arts and humanities, and while individual grants won’t fund the whole of an academic year, there’s usually no restriction on the number of grants a student can apply for.
The university themselves may have grants or bursaries available for those who belong to a minority group or who come from a less privileged background and who want to join their masters program. These bursaries can offset a portion of the study costs, but will usually come with conditions, such as maintaining grades at a certain level or providing teaching assistance or support for undergraduates.
Some students go part time simply because it’s more affordable to them to spread the cost of their studies over several years than it is to do the course over a shorter period of time. Over the full period of the course, they may pay more doing this, due to extra continuing enrollment charges, but the lower fee per year still makes this an appealing option for earning a postgraduate degree.
This is particularly true if the student works while studying, and is able to convert some of the credit from the courses to count as ‘continuing professional development’ for their employer.
Getting sponsorship or a bursary for a grad degree is not an easy. There is a limited amount of funding available and the funds are usually massively over-subscribed. This means you’ll have to write a good application and have a stunning CV and portfolio to go with it. Start applying for grants early, and be prepared to receive a lot of rejections. Keep trying, though, because each acceptance reduces the debt you will leave your grad program with.