How Undergraduate and Graduate School are different

Several jobs ago, I wrote up a chart that laid out how undergraduate study and graduate school are different.  It’s surprising to me how many undergraduates I talk to think that grad school is just a bunch more classes at a higher level.

Here’s my original comparison chart:

Many courses outside the field are required as general education requirements. Classes are the sole means of evaluation for graduation. Students complete an in-depth study of one field and enter into an extended research apprenticeship with a faculty member.  The primary means of evaluation for graduation is a research project or thesis, judged by a faculty committee.
Students may remain enrolled and continue progress on their degree even if GPA falls below a 3.0. Minimum GPA for continuing enrollment is a 3.0.
Most courses are very large. Four years of coursework are completed.  Involvement with faculty is largely at the initiation of the student. All courses are small, and involvement with faculty is direct and extensive.  Usually only one year of coursework is completed.
Students finance their own education.


Students receive tuition support and stipends that pay most of the cost of their education.
Students are expected to work independently and produce high quality results, as measured by a GPA. Students are expected to work independently and produce high quality results, as measured by research, publication, and presentations judged by senior peers.
You learn what is already known. You learn to create new knowledge.

Graduate school admission is actually admission into a community of scholars.  If research is what you do, scholarship is how you think about it.  Sure, graduate school is focused on independent research.  But the work of a scholar also means stepping back from your data, building connections between theory and practice, and communicating your new knowledge effectively.

Part of why graduate school is so stressful relates to the differences listed above between undergraduate and graduate study.  As an undergraduate, the emphasis is on knowing the answers, and getting stuff right on tests.   As a graduate student, you don’t know the answers. No one knows the answers.  That’s why it’s a research problem!  But to a student that’s been trained for 4 years as an undergraduate to regurgitate the “right answer” on exams, this transition to not knowing can be really difficult.

To make it even harder, the story of research is a story of failure.  You will fail a LOT in grad school.  You’ll discover that your apparatus should have been built a different way, that a lightning storm knocked out power and your DNA samples thawed, that you should have laid out your plots differently, and that you just plain screwed up on something. Again and again and again.

Because undergrads that go to graduate school are typically high-achieving successful types, this constant failure can be shocking.  You are doing something for the first time. No one really knows how it should be done, so it’s OK if you fail, as long as you learn from it.   And, frankly, the story of LIFE is the story of failure.  Being able to persist when things don’t go your way, and figure out a Plan B (C, D, E…..) is an important life skill.

The last difference I’ll point out is about stress. As an undergraduate, there are short periods of high stress when there are exams, and stress mostly comes from sources external to you. In graduate school, the test is every day, 24/7.  The main source of your stress is…you.

Your thesis can begin to feel like a bastard love child that you can’t stand to have anyone else criticize and that takes over your life.  You can go from doing a happy data dance around the lab to feeling like you’ve made a colossal mistake by going to graduate school.  You’ll suspect the Academia Police are going to come and toss you out for your stupidity at any minute. This cycle from high to low can happen within a period of a couple hours on any given day.

Feeling like an imposter is a classic graduate school malady.  It wasn’t a mistake they let you in. You’ll be fine, especially if you know what to expect.

Expect graduate school to be radically different than your undergraduate experience.  You’ll love it.