May 12, 2014

Grad school vs. undergrad

Since I completed my first semester of grad school a few weeks ago, I've had some time to reflect and discuss my experience. The biggest question I get? How is grad school compared to undergrad college. It's a great question, and because I started my graduate program in Public Policy at Georgia Tech just six months after graduating from Georgia Tech with my bachelors degree, it was easy for me to compare the two experiences.

I'm sharing four observations about undergraduate college versus graduate school and four similarities between the two experiences. I hope this will help those of you interested in pursuing another degree. I know I did not know what to expect before starting my program, and there are definitely some things I wish I knew going into grad school. Yet, I'm pleased with my performance during my first semester, and ready to keep going until I earn my degree!

The differences and similarities between undergrad and grad school

Undergraduate college experience

People skip classes and still get by ok | If you're in college, you know that people skip class sometimes (or all the time) and somehow still manage to pass the class. I think this happens because professors provide so much information outside of the physical class space that students don't see a need in coming to class. However, in grad school, skipping a class can throw off your entire semester. My classes were either once or twice a week and "getting notes from someone else" does not apply to grad school. Professors will sometimes share important information or opportunities to those in attendance only. And, attendance and participation were grades in all of my grad school classes.

You don't always  have to do the reading to appear prepared for class | College is where people discover spark notes, wikipedia summaries, and any other tool to prevent reading the actual material before class, right? That does not work in grad school. However, skimming the reading is a great and encouraged solution for the hundreds of pages of assigned reading that is given in grad school. I had to quickly learn how to skim the reading, read a summary, take notes, do some background research on the reading, and understand how the reading applies to the course (before coming to class). Reading definitely takes more time in grad school, but it's a necessary part of the experience.

School spirit/campus life is important | It's common for undergrads to be involved in some aspect of campus life during their college experience. And, many undergrads have school spirit for their college. Yet, graduate students have already gone through this and may have an allegiance to their undergrad college, therefore not participating much in the campus life of their new school. And many times, grad students are not eager to get involved or show school spirit because they are too busy with classwork.

Class size can be in the hundreds or under 20 | In college, I had a few courses with more than 100 students and I just did not do well in that learning environment. My major courses were way smaller and intimate. However, all of my graduate courses were relatively small and intimate. I got to know all of my professors and most of my social classmates. The smaller courses and more personal relationships definitely helped me to learn more about my field from others.

Graduate school experience

Age difference | While most students in college are 17-23 years old, the people in my program ranged in ages 21-60+, seriously! Read about this older man I had a class with who truly inspired me. I thought the age differences would make classes awkward, but it's really no big deal. Regardless of age, everyone in the program has the same goal of earning their degree and continuing their education. I got to know classmates who were fresh out of college (like me) and classmates who have been married for 10+ years with children. Don't let the age differences of your classmates or professors intimidate you!

No one keeping track of you, holding you accountable | I totally understand and agree with the idea of grad school being a full time job. College did require a lot of time and energy, but there was always an advisor or department checking in on me and my performance every semester. However, in grad school you truly are responsible for yourself and your success. I had to make a quick adjustment and take control of my grad school experience by reaching out to advisors, mentors, professors, and departments to handle academic and financial uncertainties. 

Fewer, but tougher assignments | In a few of my courses, I only had 3-5 assignments/grades throughout the semester. Yet, they were very time-consuming assignments that weighed heavy on my grade's outcome. It's important to understand all of the assignments for each of your classes and their value, at the start of the semester. Assignments are often due at the same time, for different courses; which can be stressful if you don't plan ahead.

Less structure and instruction | Similar to the fewer assignments, there is also less structure and instruction in grad school. Professors expect you to know how to write, research, read and comprehend, and apply the knowledge. The class time is not always spent actually teaching and learning, but more so spent reviewing and collaborating with classmates. It's important to meet people in your classes and get to know your professor so that when you have a question or need guidance, you feel comfortable asking for it…because it will not be freely provided to you.

Similarities between undergrad college & grad school experience

Meet people with similar passions | In both undergrad college and grad school, I have met people who have similar passions and career goals as I do and that is always exciting. In college, I did not start meeting these people until I took my major courses, but all of my grad school classes were with students in my program or in another program with a similar focus. Since the people in my program will likely end up working in the same field as I do (government, policy, politics), I know that the connections I make in grad school will be useful later on in my career.

Group work is common | I had group projects every semester in college and I had at least one group assignment (semester-long) in each of my grad school courses this semester. Both experiences include group work because group work is so common in the workforce. While group assignments are not my favorite when the group's dynamics are off or someone in the group slacks off, I have learned how to manage group work and interact with group members to earn an A on the group assignment. 

Time management is important | This pretty much continues in every stage of life, I've learned. Read my super popular tips on handling a busy week in college here

Summer internships/work | Summer internships were very common in college. I did not ever do a summer internship, but I either worked or took classes every summer during my undergrad. Internships are great exposure and a great way to connect with a company that you may be interested in working for after college. In grad school, summer internships in your field are highly encouraged and sometimes required for a program's completion. I will be working and interning this summer with a great company that is directly related to my field.

Are you considering going to grad school after college or going back to school for something?


  1. Great info as I'm considering going back for a masters. This is my 10th year since graduating I feel old LOL!

  2. i went back after 18 years and found that i fit right in and was a better student. the biggest challenge was time management. i thoroughly enjoyed it.

  3. Congrats to you for finishing your first semester of undergrad!

    I had planned on going straight to law school after graduation, but I am so thankful that I made the decision to take some time off. (I actually miss school now!) I plan to start next fall :)

    XX, SS || A Little Seersucker Sass

  4. I agree with a lot of this. I found there was less community in grad school because I lived on campus during undergrad but commuted to my graduate school.

  5. I've been thinking of grad school, but I really don't like school much in general so I'm struggling with the idea of going back for more!

  6. This is a really great list for people who are thinking of doing both Vett, it's nice that it is all written out, pros and cons:)

    Have a great day :)

  7. It really is a huge difference between undergrad and post grad! It's a lesson in self discovery and very rewarding in more ways than you can imagine. Definitely enjoy the ride! :)

  8. Thank you for sharing your experiences in grad school. As a rising senior who is considering applying to grad school for attendance immediately after undergrad, I truly appreciate this post. It definitely puts things into perspective.

  9. Immediately after undergrad I got married and was thrust into the real working world! I tried to balance both a job and trying to get my master's at the same time! its a hard task but it can be done!!

    XO Meghan
    citrus fashion

  10. great comparison and very accurate.

  11. Great info. I'm in med school so it's a little different, but year, Its a culture shock! :)

    AJ | TheAJMinute

  12. I definitely found a lot of differences when I went to grad school. Mainly how long the papers were LOL.


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