Differences in Undergraduate and Master's Study

Without blowing my own trumpet, I breezed through my undergrad study. Naively, I thought that working on a master's would be similar. More difficult concepts, perhaps, but more or less the same structure. Yeah, I was wrong. 
Differences between undergraduate and master's degrees

A large part of this may be because my course is distance learning (read about the pros and cons of distance learning here) and obviously every degree is going to be slightly different depending on the subject and the university. Even so, it's probably worthwhile going into postgraduate study with your eyes open rather than being completely ignorant like me! Don't get me wrong- I absolutely love studying and the challenge is everything I hoped for. It's just not quite what I expected!


When I did my undergraduate, I had lectures and seminars every day. For my university, this was extreme- my housemate on another course only had to go into uni two days a week. Even so, there wasn't much I had to do in my own time. I'd rock up to a 9 o'clock lecture, maybe make some notes if I felt like it, then doss about with my mates for a couple of hours in a seminar before going home. I may have been in class every day, but the actual work was minimal. Sure, we were supposed to do readings in our own time and were given tasks to complete but nobody ever did them. I had so much time on my hands, it was unreal. Once I was so bored that I lay on my housemate's bed and ate cold tuna out of the tin just because it gave me something to do. Living it large, eh!

Master's study is completely different. This semester, I only have two lectures in any two-week period and they're less than an hour each. You might think this means I have even more time on my hands than I did before. You'd be wrong. Every week I'm given 100- 150 pages of reading, which doesn't sound like much but it's quite often based around some incredibly difficult concept like existentialism or psychoanalysis and made up of quite pretty dry academic language. I'm given tasks based on these readings and, on top of that, I'm constantly planning for my next assignment. Even the assignments themselves are amped up- at the end of semester one, I had to hand in five assignments, totalling 10,000 words, on one day. 

I've gone from eating cold tuna to spending five hours a day, every day, reading and taking notes. I have to stay completely on top of it because if I miss just one reading out, it takes forever to catch up again.


Closely linked to the workload aspect, when I was first at uni, I got told everything I needed to know. I didn't do the readings in my own time because I didn't have to- everything was spoonfed to me in lectures. I was made to sign a register for each class, so I couldn't decide whether to turn up or not, and they were hot on checking attendance (I know this for a fact because I nearly got kicked out for it, but that's a story for another day!). I was told what to write my assignments about and given documents telling us exactly how to get each grade. My hand was held at every step of the way.

Man, do you need a lot of self-discipline on my master's! We don't need to turn up at lectures if we don't want to and, if we do, we're welcome to leave at any point we like. If you miss one, you don't lose out on any information because we are told nothing in them. Instead, they work retrospectively- we all complete the readings for two weeks, then our lecture is spent discussing our thoughts on what we've already done alone. Again, you don't need to do the reading- nobody's checking up on you- but you would literally learn nothing if you didn't because the lecturers don't actually 'teach', per se. Instead, they're there to guide us through our own learning and give us someone in the know to bounce our ideas off. 

There is a lot more freedom with assignments, too. In some modules, we've been given a huge list of questions to answer in any way we like and in others, we're given completely free reign. As long as it fits into the module, we can write about whatever we like. I find this quite difficult because I get so many ideas and find it difficult to hone in on just one, but it is liberating too! Because there's such a huge variation in what students choose to write about, we're not given guidelines on what to do in order to get certain grades. We just need to listen to our tutor's advice and feedback, and apply that. Which brings me to the next point- it's completely up to you how much input you get from your tutor. If you don't book an appointment to chat about it, they'll leave you to it.

When studying for a master's, everything is on your own terms. You choose what to study, how to study and when to study. You need to have a lot of self-discipline because there is nobody to answer to but yourself. 


Let's state the obvious- postgraduate study is going to be harder than undergraduate. You're stepping up a level so naturally both the concepts you study and the work you produce needs to be of a more complex nature. My undergraduate degree was teaching so, although there was a lot of theory about the psychology of learning and assessment and stuff, most of my seminars were just learning about how to teach lessons in each subject. The way they taught us that was to literally deliver the lesson. A very large part of my university study was spent making finger puppets, or learning to count to 10, or looking for mini beasts around campus. Pretty gruelling stuff! 

Unfortunately, at master's level, there are a lot fewer finger puppets. I have made zero finger puppets in my first five months. Instead, as I've already mentioned, it is entirely made up of reading and discussing the readings. That's not an issue for me since I love to read, but it's definitely a big departure from the hands-on approach of my first degree. On top of that, the things I'm learning, as I already touched on, are really bloody difficult. The biblical stuff is especially difficult for somebody with such a limited religious background. We had three weeks on the resurrection of Christ and, I tell you what, I needed those three whole weeks before I'd grasped the concept. I thought it was as simple as 'Jesus died and three days later he came back to life'. It's not. Trust me. Then there was the reading on visual representation that said- I swear to God this is true- 'trees do not care that they are called trees'. Wot m8?


Having said all that, I absolutely adore everything about my master's. Even the resurrection stuff. Well, a little. I can practically feel my brain expanding and I love it. There's no better feeling than when everything comes together and you suddenly realise you understand this tricky concept. Except for maybe when I tell Rich about it and it's clear that he has no bloody idea what I'm on about. He's ridiculously clever so it feels good to know I understand something he doesn't! Just wait until I start my PhD!

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  1. I found this SO interesting - though your undergraduate sounds like a dream (mine was SO not like that, and I did maths were there was right/wrong answers). It's made me be a bit nicer to my other half who is a quarter of the way through his double masters!

    NINEGRANDSTUDENT: A Lifestyle Blog

  2. 10000% agree with this post. I'm currently doing a MSc degree. My Undergraduate degree was a success with minimum effort, but if I want to succeed in my Masters, I've got to put in the work. But that's good. It should be a higher level, after all it's a step up.

    The Crown Wings


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