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What are the differences between postgraduate and undergraduate study?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Completing a bachelor’s degree can be entirely different to a master’s. There are several reasons why this is the case.

Postgraduate study has several key differences to its undergraduate equivalent. Understanding them can help potential students make more informed decision as to whether or not it’s for them.

1. Postgraduate study is more research focussed

Master and PhD programs tend to require students undergo a huge amount of research. In addition, they focus far less on coursework than undergraduate degrees. Using the PhD as an example, one of two avenues of study are commonly available:

  • Students undergo a traditional PhD, taking between three to eight years to complete and requiring a roughly 70,000 thesis, or
  • Students undergo a PhD by publication, requiring several distinct papers to be published in a variety of academic journals over the course of the program.

Master level programs can be quite similar. They tend to be split into either a research or coursework master, although many subject areas don’t have research components.

  • A research master is focussed around a large research project, with minimal to no coursework. The Master of Philosophy from Monash University is a keen example of this, requiring students to write a roughly 35,000 word thesis on a topic of their choosing. Don’t be confused by ‘philosophy’ being in the title, however; this program allows students to undergo research in just about any field, from creative writing and history to computer science and mechanical engineering.
  • A coursework master focuses primarily on course units like a traditional undergraduate program, but even these can often require completion of a large research project. Take the Master of Project Management from Bond University, for instance. Even in a highly practical degree such as this, research is a large component.

2. Most postgraduate programs are shorter

Where bachelor degrees can take between three to five years, postgraduate programs can be as short as six months. The following table represents the most common time frames, although these can be either less or more depending on the course. Level of relevant prior study can reduce completion times even further than values specified here.

Degree type Full time duration Part time duration
Graduate certificate Six months One year
Graduate diploma One year Two years
Master’s degree Two years Four years
PhD Three years Eight years

3. Some postgraduate programs are more expensive

The advanced level of education offered by postgraduate study can quite literally come at a price. Where bachelor degrees can cost on average anywhere between $15,000 - $33,000 pa, master degrees can be from $20,000 - $37,000 pa. If you’re doing a Master of Business Administration, you can expect to pay anywhere between $40,000 and $121,000.

Graduate certificates and diplomas aren’t exempt from this price increase. They might only got for six months to a year, but prices are still high. Take the Graduate Certificate in Sports Medicine from the University of Melbourne, costing $12,224. If it were a year long course, it’d be far more expensive than bachelor rates, weighing in at $24,448 pa. This just so happens to be the price of its equivalent graduate diploma.

It should be clear from these figures that no matter the program you choose, make sure it’s the right one for you. If you’re not sure how to do this, it helps to determine if it’ll lead to a career you find fulfilling.