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Undergraduate vs. postgraduate degree: What’s the difference?

Want to explore your passion further by studying for a degree? We explore the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees so you can find a course that suits you.

Online university student studies for their degree

Finding your path in higher education isn’t always straightforward. While many of us know from a young age what we want to study, for others it might take longer to find a course that fits. 

In this article, we’ll look at the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. From entry requirements to career prospects, we’ll give you the tools to make the right decision for your future.

What is the difference between an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree? 

If you’re thinking about studying in higher education, it’s important you know what your options are. Your age, background and education may all have an impact on the type of degree you choose. Thankfully, we can categorise most degrees as one of two types: undergraduate or postgraduate.

What is an undergraduate degree?

An undergraduate degree is an entry-level degree in higher education. They’re usually the first academic degree you study for after completing further education. When we talk about undergraduate degrees in the UK, we generally mean Bachelor’s degrees:

In the US, there are also undergraduate courses called ‘Associate Degrees’. These are often vocational courses designed to prepare you for a specific role in industries like law and healthcare.

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What is a postgraduate degree?

A postgraduate degree is a more advanced academic degree. You normally study for a postgraduate degree after an undergraduate degree. Many universities do require an undergraduate degree for postgraduate applications, however, many students are accepted without any formal higher education. Postgraduate degrees include: 

  • Master’s degrees (e.g. MA, MSc, MEd)
  • Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) & Postgraduate diplomas (PGDip)
  • Doctorate or Doctoral Degree (PhD, MPhil)

What are the requirements for an undergraduate degree?

The entry requirements for undergraduate courses in the UK vary depending on the subject and where you want to study it. For example, some universities may only need two passes at A-Level, whilst others may require up to four A-Levels with grades between A and A*. 

With US undergraduate entry requirements, applicants will usually need a high school diploma and a minimum GPA of 2.50 to 3.60.

Many universities, however, also encourage applications from students without the required grades. In the UK, this is part of an approach to improve access to higher education. It’s always worth asking your chosen university to see how they can support your application even if you don’t hit the entry requirements at first.

What are the requirements for a postgraduate degree?

The entry requirements for postgraduate degrees are usually higher than for undergraduate degrees. 

In the UK, many universities require an undergraduate degree such as a BA, with at least a lower second-class honours degree (2:2) to get onto a Master’s degree. 

The entry requirements in the US for Master’s applicants mean you’ll need a Bachelor’s with a minimum GPA of 2.5 to 3.0.

To progress to a Doctoral degree in the UK, you’ll need a Bachelor’s degree with an upper second-class honours degree (2:1) as well as a relevant Master’s. 

For a Doctoral degree in the US, the expected minimum GPA for applicants increases to 3.3.

More differences between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees

To help you understand what’s in store for you during this exciting phase of your learning journey, we’ve highlighted some key differences in terms of course structure and course length – and how they’re going to supercharge your growth.

Undergraduate vs. postgraduate degree: Course structure

The biggest difference between an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree is the depth at which you study a subject. 

An undergraduate degree will give you a good understanding of a subject but won’t make you an expert. Your course will often involve group work, lectures and some independent work towards a final dissertation. 

A postgraduate course, such as a master’s, will give you more in-depth knowledge of a topic. It’s often more research-focused, and you’re expected to do a lot more independent study towards your final research project or thesis.

Undergraduate vs. postgraduate degree: Course length

Undergraduate degrees usually last 3 years although they can be an accelerated degree of 2 years with 1 year of work experience included. 

Postgraduate degrees can take anywhere from a few months to several years. We’ve broken down typical course durations for some of the most common postgraduate degree types below:

  • PGCert & PGDip: from 15-30 weeks
  • Master’s: from 1-2 years for full-time study or from 2-4 years for part-time study
  • Doctoral degree: from 3-4 years for full-time or from 6-7 years for part-time study
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Undergraduate vs. postgraduate degree: Career prospects

As well as giving you a good understanding of a subject, a degree can also be a great way to improve your career prospects. If you have an undergraduate degree, it’s easier to access graduate roles in many different industries. 

For example, an undergraduate degree in accountancy is great preparation for a role as an auditor, Chartered Accountant, payroll manager and much more. 

Many people choose a postgraduate degree as a way to progress in their careers and increase their salary. A Master’s in criminal law will support you in specialising in a particular area of law.

Is an undergraduate or postgraduate degree right for me?

If you’re still not sure about which degree is right for you, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do I already have existing knowledge or professional experience in the subject? If the answer is yes, postgraduate study may be right. If the answer is no, then an undergraduate degree may be the better choice.
  • Am I starting a career in an industry or am I looking to progress? If you’re just starting a career in an industry, an undergraduate degree will give you the basis you need. If you’re looking to progress, a postgraduate degree will prepare you for a step up. 

Explore online degrees at FutureLearn

Interested in starting your studies? FutureLearn offers a range of short online courses alongside our degree courses. These shorter courses are designed for learners of all experiences and abilities. 

You can take your learning journey a step further with microcredentials from prestigious universities. These accredited mini-courses come with formal online assessments, and some even offer academic credit that can count towards a full degree. 

For those striving for the long haul, our online degrees offer flexibility like no other. Learn at your own pace with courses created by top universities, whether you’re after an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. 

The choice is yours, and the possibilities are endless! Below we’ve listed just a few of the options available.

Get ready for an online degree with our how to prepare for an online degree article.

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