Grad vs. Undergrad STEM Programs: Top 4 Differences

STEM graduate study can come as a shock compared to undergraduate-level work. Check out these four key differences so you don't have to learn the hard way.

For many students studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), the idea of pursuing graduate study is nothing new. For many STEM fields, a master’s has already become the new bachelor’s degree, with entry (and licensure) in certain fields often dependent upon advanced training and study. However, there are important differences for students transitioning from an undergraduate career in a STEM field into a graduate program. In some cases, these differences can present quite a shock to the unprepared student. Here are four key differences between undergraduate and graduate STEM programs at US colleges and universities that you should be aware of.

1. The faculty call the shots

In most undergraduate programs, a college or university admission officer and/or committee are primarily responsible for reviewing applications and making admission decisions. This gives the admission office the opportunity to select students based on a somewhat uniform set of criteria and with a holistic goal in mind for the total incoming class of students. But in STEM graduate programs (usually for master’s degrees but certainly for doctoral programs), faculty members are the ones reading the applications, either individually or on a committee. This changes slightly where the emphasis needs to be on a student’s application versus the undergraduate model. The experts reading your application are concerned less with a holistic goal and extracurricular activities and more with specific elements of your background and training.

For master’s applicants, this means your coursework can be the most important part of your application. If you don’t have the coursework experience needed to be successful in a professor’s program, they are unlikely to admit you without serious remediation (usually in the form of conditions or prerequisites). For doctoral applicants, your “fit” with the department in terms of training, research, and personality is most important. After all, a funded PhD student is being paid by the school to teach, conduct research, and contribute original knowledge to a field of study. The faculty have a vested interest in who gets into their graduate programs, as those candidates will become future academic colleagues and reflect positively (or negatively) on their “home” academic department and university down the line.

Related: 7 Ways to Stand Out as a Graduate School Applicant 

2. Research rules in grad school

Many undergraduates seeking to apply to graduate STEM programs have completed some kind of research experience. This isn’t just a nice thing to put on your résumé or graduate school applications; it can be crucial preparation for graduate study in certain programs that will require labwork, regardless of what type of degree you are pursuing. This is particularly true in STEM fields, where deep, specialized training in equipment and materials can mean the difference between experimental success and predestined failure.

While many STEM master’s degrees offer students the option to complete a “thesis track” or a “professional track,” the faculty will expect master’s students to perform at a very high level. This may lend itself to invitations to work in laboratories, teaching assistantships, guest lectures, and joining ongoing research projects. Even a student who is entirely geared toward pursuing a professional master’s degree should expect some involvement in research while enrolled in a STEM graduate program.

For PhD students, research is an end unto itself. Without proper training and work in research, a PhD student never becomes a “doctor.” Some STEM undergraduates pursue a PhD for reasons unrelated to research that range from career prospects to ego (it’s cool to be called “doctor”). However, too few undergraduates enter PhD programs with even the most basic research skills. Learning how to judiciously collect literature on a particular topic, how to construct a cogent research proposal, and how to do basic data analysis can help with the transition from undergraduate study to the graduate level in any STEM program. 

3. A wider world of jobs opens up to you

While recent graduates from STEM master’s or PhD programs should not necessarily expect an immediate “bump” in pay and job opportunities, there is certainly strong evidence that this occurs. STEM graduate degrees not only provide the specialized training required for some high-paying jobs, but they also enable degree holders to apply for and enter positions of greater leadership within organizations and companies. Even for students with no work experience, a graduate degree can lead to faster career advancement than those without such degrees. While many companies were willing to pay for their employees to study for graduate degrees in the past, this has become a perk at fewer and fewer places, as the cost of higher education has increased and the average time of employees’ tenures has decreased. As a result, job seekers who have already gone out and earned a graduate degree may appear “more job ready” to companies than other candidates.

Although the job market for tenure and tenure-track professorships is more competitive than ever, there are also alternative, non-academic career options for PhD graduates. For example, in STEM fields, many doctoral program graduates move directly into research laboratories at Fortune 500 companies. Others move into policy-making and other nonprofit sectors of the economy. As graduate study has become more common in the United States, so have employers gotten used to the idea of hiring PhD graduates for a variety of roles within their organizations.

4. You are not in a particular graduating class

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the timeline for graduate study can be a shock for some students. As an undergraduate, you may have always assumed you would graduate in four or five years, even though the average graduation rate at most US universities and colleges is on a six-year scale. You may have even been referred to as a member of “the Class of 20XX” as early as your first-year orientation. You moved with a cohort through your studies, and in some cases, there was never any doubt you would complete your undergraduate study at the same time as most of your friends.

No such expectation exists in graduate study—and any attempt to set such an expectation will be met with shaking heads and swift rebuttal from the faculty. Quite simply, graduate students finish when they finish. This could mean graduation within two years for some master’s students, but this isn’t a guarantee, particularly when a thesis, practicum, or original research is concerned. This is also true for PhD programs, where any suggestion by a student that they will finish within a certain period of time will be met with criticism. In the case of a PhD, only your faculty committee can decide when you are ready to defend your dissertation, regardless of how long you have been in your program.

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals 

These are just a few of the differences between STEM study at the undergraduate and graduate levels; this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. However, anyone interested in pursuing a master’s or doctorate in a STEM discipline should spend significant time thinking about these differences and consider well how they will adapt to this “new normal” as a graduate student. Entering grad school with a good understanding of these challenges can provide students with an even better chance for academic success.

Still looking for the perfect STEM graduate program for you? Check out our Grad School Search tool and learn about some great options!

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