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Moving from Undergraduate to Graduate: What to Expect

split screen of two graduates

Earning a Bachelor’s degree was a big moment in your life. All of the hours of hard work you put in and the doubts you may have had about yourself before enrolling were finally taken off of your mind as you proudly made your way across that commencement stage. You did it—and nothing can take that experience away from you now.

But no matter where life took you after stepping off that stage, you’re now seriously considering making the move to graduate degree-level studies. With that naturally comes questions, concerns and possibly some anxiety as you prepare to take on something new—and that’s OK! You want to make a smart decision and like any good graduate-level thinker, you know that starts with researching the unknown.

We’re here to help you get a better handle on what to expect when making the move up from undergraduate to graduate school. To help with that, we’ve asked Dr. Joy Henrich, Dean of Graduate Education at Rasmussen College, as well as other graduate students to highlight some of the biggest shifts you can expect as you make this transition to graduate studies.

5 Things you can expect about graduate school

So how does graduate-level education differ from your undergraduate experience? We’ve identified several key differences so you can prepare yourself for what’s to come.

1. A much narrower academic focus

“One major difference is that a graduate degree program strictly focuses on your career field whereas an undergraduate degree includes many other general education courses,” says Melissa Morris of QuickQuote.

Most undergraduate students can think of a general education course that might not have held their interest as strongly as a subject more directly focused on their preferred professional field. So this may be a welcome change for many students as it allows them to intensely focus on a specific subject that should deeply interest them.

“This difference was positive for me, because while I like being able to discuss Descartes, I also liked being able to focus just on math in grad school,” says Dr. Jonathan Farley.

That’s not to say the time spent as an undergrad on general education subjects wasn’t worth the effort. By completing those courses you’ve built a broad foundation of liberal arts competencies that you can now build on in your graduate education.

2. A serious commitment

While many graduate programs are offered online and provide paths for earning a graduate degree as you continue your professional career, the effort needed to succeed should not be taken lightly. You’ll almost certainly be stretched for time and energy at points during your graduate school experience—so do what you can to brace yourself. Dr. Henrich encourages prospective graduate students to focus on getting their time management, organization and prioritization skills refined as much as possible before enrolling.

“Graduate-level coursework requires more self-motivation, independent learning and discipline. In graduate school, you are expected to do readings and preparation before class to come prepared for discussions and activities,” Morris explains. “If you are not self-motivated, you can fall behind very quickly.”

Like with any new experience, you may hit a few bumps in the road as you adjust. It’s important to not let a setback throw you off track. Dr. Henrich suggests students take some time to self-reflect and identify why they are advancing their education and what they hope to achieve by doing so.

“Articulating the reasons for pursuing a graduate degree helps to foster commitment to ‘staying the course,’” she shares. 

3. You can—and should—ask for help

For many graduate students, it’s been a while since they’ve completed their last academic assignment. Readjusting to academia and the expectations of your instructors takes a little time. Despite this, Dr. Henrich notes that some graduate students tend to shy away from asking for help from faculty, tutoring or other support services.

“There is a mindset that students at this level shouldn’t need ‘extra help,’” she explains. “The fact is, successful students take advantage of the many resources available to them, understanding that those resources are in place to support them and to augment the learning process.”

Don’t let pride get in the way of your success. If you’re struggling to remember the finer points of academic writing styles or need additional direction with an assignment, it’s imperative—and expected—that you reach out for help. Graduate studies are often relatively independent, but that doesn’t mean you’re truly on your own.

4. Your course work may look substantially different

Throughout your undergraduate experience you likely spent a lot of time in a familiar routine over the course of a term: go to class, study, write a few papers, attend labs, take a few tests and maybe complete a group project before wrapping up with a final evaluation. While many of these elements may still be found in your grad school courses, the format of your courses is likely to shift from what you’re accustomed to.

The details of how your coursework will vary depend heavily on the focus area of your graduate studies, but you should be aware that even seemingly “small” assignments can require a substantial amount of work.

“Sometimes I think graduate students underestimate the amount of time needed to read and study,” Morris says. “Just because there is not as much homework or small assignments, things like active reading, researching and writing papers usually take longer than expected.”

Keep in mind graduate courses aren’t always meant to be a relaying of established knowledge from faculty to students—they’re intended to focus on higher-level learning skills like the evaluation, analysis and creation of new knowledge.

“The biggest difference was in the level of dialogue and debate not just encouraged but required in grad school,” offers Steven Adams of The Cyphers Agency. “For me, this was a positive because as long as you’d done the reading there was a tremendous opportunity to discuss, debate and learn from one another every single class.”

5. You’ll learn there’s no “perfect” route into grad school

The timing of when you choose to attend grad school is common debate. Is it best to spend time building up professional work experience in the field before getting started? Or are you better served tackling all of your schooling up front? No matter which path you end up taking, it’s good to keep in mind that both routes can have their advantages.

“There are pros and cons to both paths,” Morris says. “Professional work experience does teach you life skills and important things that you cannot gain in a classroom. But, sometimes going straight from an undergraduate to graduate degree keeps you in the academic frame of mind.”

The weight you place on either of these factors will be influenced by the program you’re enrolled in. For example, students in a Master of Business Administration or Master of Healthcare Administration graduate degree program may find practical work experience more valuable to draw upon than someone pursuing a graduate degree in Philosophy.

Ready to advance your education?

Pursuing a graduate education is a big step—but nothing you can’t handle. Now that you know more about what to expect when making the move from undergraduate to graduate student, are you ready to start researching your options?

Visit the Master’s Degrees pages to learn more about the graduate programs offered at Rasmussen College.

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen College. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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