Undergrad vs. Postgrad study – what’s the deal?

Undergraduate → graduate → postgraduate. Those are the ‘ranks’, if you like, that you can climb through your university life.

A lot of us come to uni straight out of high school, while others take a ‘gap year’ or spend some time in the workforce before taking on tertiary education. Either way, if we have not yet completed a degree, we are all ‘undergraduates’, waiting for (or riding) the rollercoaster-y wave of university (exciting times!).

Once we finish our first degree, however, we earn the ‘graduate’ title, and are now qualified to undertake ‘postgraduate’ study (as the name suggests) if we wish to! Yay!

But why would one want to brave the storm again (and maybe even several times more) – wasn’t once enough?! Well, apart from increased expectation from tutors, long hours of gruelling study and the demand for great commitment, good old postgraduate study does have some serious benefits.

For me, postgraduate study is about getting one step closer to becoming a registered architect in Australia. As a fresh graduate of high school, I went into my undergraduate degree (a Bachelor of Design in Architecture) knowing that I would step into the Master of Architecture (the postgraduate degree and what I am currently in the final semester of!) straight after that. It was what I had to do on the pathway to being accredited as an architect, so it was a no-brainer!

For others, postgraduate study is about furthering an interest, having better job and promotion prospects with a higher qualification, or specialising in something they may or may not have studied previously (for example, after my undergraduate architectural study, I could have chosen to do a Master of Urban Planning – and someone with an undergraduate degree in anything else could have done the same, given that they met the grade criteria or any other prerequisite set by the university in question).

But a ‘masters’ degree is only one of the several types of postgraduate study in Australia. The others are: a postgraduate diploma/certificate, an honours degree, and a doctoral degree (usually a Doctor of Philosophy – a PhD). People with PhDs are qualified ‘doctors’, and so your GP probably isn’t the only ‘doctor’ you know – several of your lecturers and professors probably are too!

The above degree-types fall into two categories: ‘taught/coursework’, and ‘research’. Masters and postgraduate diplomas are both ‘taught’ degrees, as they have set coursework to the completed.  They are at the same academic level, but the latter are typically shorter and less challenging (they are usually an introduction to a subject, rather than an advanced study of it, like a masters is). On the other hand, honours and doctorates are ‘research’ degrees, as they are primarily self-directed research with limited and flexible supervision and contact-hours with staff. That may sound like a breeze, but the fact that both honours and doctorates can only be undertaken after already obtaining a degree, is testament to their level of intensity and academic rigour (and consequently, the immense opportunity they provide to those who wish to explore their topics of passion).

So, what’s right for you? Well, that depends on what you like doing, and what your goals are. And it’s okay to be figuring out your goals as you go – I know I still am, despite being at the tail-end of five long years at university.  I was lucky that at the end of my bachelor’s degree, a tutor of mine advised me to work in the field for a year, before plunging into the postgraduate side of things – “the masters isn’t going anywhere!” he had said. I’m so glad he did, because working as a Student of Architecture at a real firm with real projects and real clients not only taught me about the profession but made me realise what I did and didn’t want out of it, and where I did and didn’t want to see myself in, say, the next five years.

I know many people who did the same, but also many who did not – those who went straight into their masters, didn’t do their masters at all, or even changed fields completely, and are now studying or working in something totally different – all of which are fine!

Taking the year off in between my two degrees also gave me the chance to reflect on myself and my passions and led me to the decision to come to Newcastle for postgraduate study, which was one of the best decisions of my life and one I could not have even imagined while studying my first degree.

But apart from the differences in benefits, I have experienced some fundamental differences in the experience of studying an undergraduate versus a postgraduate degree.  Firstly, if you’re undertaking postgrad study, people have the right to assume that you are super-passionate about what you are studying (fair enough, given all the time and money you have committed to it!). This also means that your teaching staff will have expectations of you that are higher than those you have experienced in earlier study, in terms of the standards of your work, the time you spend on it, the depth with which you research and present it, and the diligence you show in completing it not necessarily orthodoxly, but in ways that show your passion, creativity and willingness to go ‘above and beyond’.

The greatest blessing for me, in my postgrad study, has been the freedom to find my passion within architecture (social justice through place-making) and explore it to my heart’s content, through my coursework. Another difference has been the independence it has given me – this is both good and bad, as I now have more room to experiment, but that calls for greater discipline in order to meet assessment deadlines! At the end of the day, however, I think that the most value this second degree has given me is constant conversations and company with like-minded creatives (whether that be my tutors, lecturers or peers) – I learn so much from all of them, and have discovered that we all go through the same doubts, struggles and problems – I am not alone when I question my choice of study (despite my love for it), or when I find it hard to complete certain aspects of an assessment.

And you are not alone, either, dear human! Undergraduate and postgraduate (and everything in between) aside, find what makes you happy, what will help you on your way to your goals, and what will allow you to keep learning and growing. And go get it.