I had pretty much no idea what grad school was when I started university. Even when I finished my bachelors degree, what exactly grad school meant was pretty murky. So today we’re going to find out, what is grad school? What’s the difference between an undergraduate and a graduate degree?
What is grad school?
In Canada, a bachelors or undergrad degree is typically a four-year degree (although it may take longer if you are studying part-time or not taking a full course load, or if you change programs or institutions). Once you finish the bachelor’s degree, most higher-level university programs are referred to as “Grad School.”
Grad school typically involves a Masters and/or a Doctoral degree. The Masters degree typically comes first, after you finish your undergrad (aka bachelors) degree, and then you can continue on to a Doctoral degree after your Masters. While this is the typical path, there are definitely exceptions! But I’ll get into that in the sections below.
Both Masters and Doctoral degrees can be professional or academic. A professional degree is typically more applied – it is focused on what you do in your professional role (your job or career), rather than on contributing to the existing body of academic research (even though you can definitely do both).
Grad degree programs vary a lot, so it’s really hard to make generalizations about what they are. Basically, a Masters comes after your undergrad, but before a doctoral degree.
Personally, I have an M.Ed. or Masters of Education, which is a professional degree. This means the research that I did in my Masters was related to my work at the university. I used data from our student body to look at how our policies impacted students and then drafted and proposed new policies that would be more beneficial for the students. While others working in universities might find that research helpful, it was very specific to my role and institution.
If I had chosen to do a similar degree that was academic instead, it would have been a Master of Arts in Education, and my research would have likely been more theoretical. Although those working in universities could use it to guide their work, it might not have been as directly applicable in their contexts.
A Masters degree can involve course work, a thesis, a research project, a practicum… there is a lot of variety.
Course work at the Masters level is an extension of what you did in your undergrad. It is higher level, although not necessarily more difficult because you already learned a lot from your bachelors degree. The expectations at the Masters level are higher – you will usually have to do more research and better synthesis.
Most (if not all) Masters programs will require you to do your own research, as well. This means you’ll be conducting your own research project, rather than just using the work of others to build an argument (although you’ll do that, too). The research project may result in a thesis, which is a particular way of writing up an academic research project. Many Masters and Doctoral programs, especially academic ones, require theses.
It is sometimes, but very rarely, possible to do a Masters without an undergrad. For example, in my M.Ed. program there were students admitted because they had so much practical experience on the topic, even though they hadn’t done a bachelors degree. This is much more likely to be possible in professional programs, but it’s still not very common at all.
A Doctoral degree is what is known as a terminal degree. This is because it should be at the end: bachelors, then masters, then doctoral. However, some people really love to study and get more than one doctoral degree!
Like the Masters, a Doctoral degree can be professional or academic. The professional degrees I’ve heard of are called Doctorates: Doctorate of Education, Doctorate of Business Administration. Academic degrees are called PhDs, which stands for “Doctor of Philosophy.”
Side note: the term “Doctor of Philosophy” is a historical term and doesn’t mean that someone studied philosophy specifically. You could get a PhD in Chemistry, Biology, Education (like me!), English, History, Humanities, etc.
Like Masters degrees, there’s no common format for Doctoral degrees. There may be course work, a practicum, independent research, teaching, exams… The majority of Doctoral degrees, whether they are professional or academic, will require a thesis.
It is also possible to do a combined Masters-PhD program at some universities. This is more common in the U.S., but some Canadian universities do it, too. These types of programs condense the two degrees so you can complete them in less time.
My own PhD program
Just to give an example, I’ll share how my own PhD program is structured. Just remember that this is specific to my program – even other programs in the same department look different! As well, this is a social sciences degree, so a PhD in engineering, sciences, etc could also look quite different.
In our first year, we have to take courses. In my program it was 6 courses, but that can vary. The courses are not unlike undergrad courses, but at a higher level. We direct more of our work and research so we can focus on our research areas (that we will write our theses on).
In our second year, we write a Comprehensive Exam (which we just call “comps”). For me, this was a three-hour, closed book exam where we had to write three papers on topics provided by our supervisor. This means you have to really know the topics, as well as previous research so you can cite it. I did my comps at the end of second year because my supervisor wanted me to take a couple more courses first (in addition to my first year of 6 courses).
After comps, you start working on your thesis proposal. This is the proposal for the research you’ll do for your thesis. You work with your supervisor and your thesis committee to improve it until they approve it. Once it’s approved, you become a PhD Candidate, instead of a PhD Student. This step, becomeing a candidate, happens at different times in different programs.
Then, you spend third and fourth year doing your research and writing your thesis. PhD programs can be varying lengths. Mine is 4-6 years, I’ve heard of students taking 7 or 8 years. If you’re in a professional doctoral program it could take longer because you’re also working full time while you do it.
Once you’ve done your research and written your thesis, you have to defend it. This means you sit in a room with your thesis committee and they ask you a bunch of really difficult questions about your research. Hopefully you’re prepared, though, becuase you’ve just spent 4+ years working on it!
What do I need to do in undergrad if I want to go to grad school?
When you apply to grad school, you’re going to have to provide academic references. This can be really challenging because you can’t go back in time and build relationships with your profs!
Make sure that you’re making yourself known in your classes. Go to office hours to ask questions so you can level-up, even if you already have a good grade, and get to know your professors.
This is something that so many students don’t think about until they graduate and want to apply to grad school, and at that point, if you haven’t already made the connections it may be too late. I’ve worked with students who had to go back and do extra courses just to build the academic references, and this is also something I did before my Masters.
Find out how to request a reference letter from your professor in this post:
Every program will have a different requirement. Some look at your total GPA (grade point average), some look at your GPA in the last half of your degree… but all grad programs want to make sure that you are capable of challenging academic work. They look at your past academic performance to determine that you are capable.
You don’t necessarily need a 4.0 (straight A’s) to get into grad school, but for some programs you might. So if you think you might want to continue at university, you’ll want to have the highest grades possible.
If you plan on pursuing a Masters and/or Doctoral degree, you can make your application more competitive by gaining research experience in your undergrad. It is not the most common for undergrads to work on research, as most professors work with grad students as their research assistants. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Ask your professors whether they know of any opportunities, so they know you are interested. Go through you university’s website to see what’s posted. Ask other students, ask your academic advisor, ask your TA’s.
Many grad programs will ask you for a writing sample. Writing is a huge part of what you do in grad school, no matter what the topic. One of the ways you earn prestige in your research area is by publishing in academic journals, which requires you to write well.
You can use a paper from one of your classes for your writing sample, but it has to be good enough! And then you have to go through and edit it to make it even better, and make it the length that’s required for your application.
Depending on your program, there may be other requirements for grad school. For me, because I did a professional Masters, I had to have quite a bit of work experience in my field. I wouldn’t have been admissible right when I finished my undergrad.
My suggestion is that you do a little research just to keep your options open if you want to have the option to go to grad school later. Have a look at the requirements for a couple of potential programs so you can try to meet them. That way you’ll have some idea of what you should be aiming for.
What other questions do you have?
Did I miss something? Do you still have questions about grad school?
Comment below or send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org – I would love to hear from you!