Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degrees: Exploring Key Differences

College life gives you a chance to explore your interests, meet new people and escape your parents. Amidst all that self-exploration, you do have to attend classes and earn a degree. Undergraduate programs are larger and offer more general education. Undergraduate degrees are also prerequisites for graduate programs, which are shorter, smaller and more focused in the curricula.

Student Graduate With Graduate vs Undergraduate Definitions Student Graduate With Graduate vs Undergraduate Definitions

Main Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate Programs

The two main differences between undergraduate and graduate programs are the time required and the types of degrees that you obtain from each program.

An undergraduate program typically takes two to four years to complete, during which you obtain a bachelor’s degree or associate’s degree. A graduate program can take two years for a master’s degree or four to six years for a doctorate.





General education courses along with major focus

Curriculum fully tailored to focus on your specific major

Class size

Typically large lectures with hundreds of students

Smaller classes of 15-20 students, sometimes smaller


Assigned reading, exams, structured papers, regular homework assignments

Field experience, personal narratives, class discussions, lab work

Teaching methods

Lecturing and reading from textbooks

Lessons taught beyond textbook facts, including open-ended discussions

Student age

Usually late teens, early 20s

Average age of 33

What To Expect From an Undergraduate Program

An undergraduate program follows high school and typically requires two to four years of education. You can get two types of undergraduate degrees: an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree.

Associate’s Degree

Associate’s degrees most often come from community colleges, vocational schools and technical colleges, but some colleges and universities offer associate’s degrees. Many people transfer to bachelor’s programs once they have obtained an associate’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

You need a high school diploma, GED or an associate’s degree to enter a bachelor’s program. Bachelor’s programs generally take four years to complete. However, depending on the major that you choose, it may take up to five years to complete your program, while some schools may allow for early graduation.


What To Expect from a Graduate Program

Many people simply obtain their bachelor’s degrees and do not continue with higher education. However, others may go to graduate school to further their education and open up new job opportunities.

Master’s Degree

You usually need a bachelor’s degree before you can enter a master’s program, and it takes 2-3 years to earn the degree.

Doctoral Degree

You don’t always need a master’s degree to earn a doctoral degree, also known as a doctorate, but most doctoral programs do require a master’s degree. Doctoral programs take about four to six years to earn the degree.

The two most common doctorates are PhDs and MDs. Once you obtain a doctorate, you gain the title of Dr.

Degrees in the UK

In England and other countries, the equivalent of an American undergraduate degree is known as a graduate degree. Master’s and doctoral degrees are sometimes referred to as postgraduate degrees.

‘Undergraduate’ and ‘Graduate’ As Nouns

While these words refer to their respective programs, undergraduate and graduate are also used as nouns. An undergraduate, or undergrad, refers to a student in an undergraduate program who has not yet received their first degree.

As a noun, graduate can refer to anyone who has finished a specific level of schooling, whether that’s a child who just finished kindergarten or an adult finishing their doctorate.