Graduate School versus Undergraduate School

In undergraduate school at UC San Diego, you take (1) a variety of general education courses (dictated by your college), (2) some lower division courses in your major, and (3) at least 12 upper division courses in your major. The courses that you take in your major’s subject (mathematics, for example) are at the introductory and intermediate levels but from multiple areas (examples: abstract algebra, analysis, probability, statistics, numerical analysis, number theory, geometry, and finance). When the aforementioned and all campus-wide requirements have been met, you earn either a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in your major.

In graduate school, typically there are no “general education” course requirements, although you can take something of that nature for your own interest if your faculty advisor allows it. The coursework that a graduate student is required to take focuses on some area within the subject. For example, if your major in graduate school is mathematics and your emphasis is differential equations, then you will take a variety of courses on differential equations. How many specific courses you have to take depends on the major and expectations of your faculty advisor.

It is customary for every graduate student to be assigned a faculty advisor. You may have preferences on courses to take, but ultimately it is the advisor who grants permission on what you can take. This is especially true if you are interested in a course that is not listed as already approved for the major; if you have a good argument for the benefit of taking it, even if it is outside your department, your advisor might approve it. (Note: At UC San Diego, a lower division course cannot be used to fulfill a requirement of a graduate degree.) It is also quite possible that your advisor will recommend courses that do not sound appealing to you. It is usually wise to cooperate with your faculty advisor.

Why Go to Graduate School?

Although it may feel like a lot of work to go to undergraduate school for 4+ years after finishing high school, an undergraduate degree is only meant to introduce you to higher knowledge in a particular subject matter and provide a general education. For a few subject areas (such as engineering), an undergraduate program at an accredited educational institution may be so intensive and include plenty of practical use of classroom learning, such that earning an undergraduate degree alone is sufficient preparation for directly entering the working world and demanding a generous salary; for other subjects, an undergraduate degree complemented by a graduate degree and/or a few years of work in the area of interest will be needed first.

Graduate school is where you study a subject in a much deeper manner than undergraduate school exposed you to. If you want to become a recognized expert in a field of academia, earning one or more graduate degrees is generally needed. There are jobs that require at least a master’s degree, and some require a doctoral degree. You should thoroughly explore this long before applying to graduate school.

Types of Graduate Degrees

Professional graduate degrees are meant to prepare students for advanced careers in practical industrial settings. Students in these programs commonly already have careers and want to use a professional degree to help gain a promotion. Examples of applicable degrees/majors are the Master in Business Administration (M.B.A.), the Master of Advanced Study (M.A.S.), and the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.). Alternatively, students wanting a professional degree may have attended undergraduate school and then went directly to graduate school with practical training as a mandatory complement to graduate studies. Examples of applicable degrees are the Juris Doctor (J.D.) and Doctor of Medicine (M.D.); in these cases, a person must earn state-approved licensing before becoming recognized as a lawyer or physician, respectively. Professional graduate degrees tend to be very costly to earn. (Some employers choose to pay part or all of the expenses for an existing employee to earn a professional master’s degree while still working.)

Academic graduate degrees stress academic theory over practice. If you are in an undergraduate mathematics major, you will take lots of courses about theory in various areas of mathematics. In a graduate mathematics program, you probably also will take courses about mathematical theory. While this learning will have relevance to practical uses, it might not prepare you to easily jump directly into an industrial setting without additional on-the-job training. If your goal is to become a mathematics teacher or post-secondary faculty member and researcher, then mathematical theory will be of primary use to you. Academic graduate degrees can be nearly the same cost to earn as that of undergraduate degrees at the same university. (This is not to recommend that you attend graduate school where you went to undergraduate school. See this topic addressed elsewhere.) Plus, there may be funding (through work as a teaching assistant, work as a an graduate student researcher, fellowships, grants, etc.) to help finance your academic graduate degree. There are working professionals who return to university part-time to earn academic graduate degrees; some employers will finance this.

The emphasis in this handbook is on academic degrees, the most common of which are Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).

Time to Completion for Academic Graduate Degrees

Academic master’s degrees typically take two years to complete. (Some degrees can be finished in as little as one year if the student takes a full load of classes each term and is not engaged in research and not serving as a teaching assistant.) Other masters programs take more than two years when the student’s research project is delayed. Masters programs (1) may be research-based and require the student to write a thesis, or (2) may require that one or more comprehensive/qualifying examinations be taken in place of doing research. Both options will have coursework requirements.

Academic doctoral degrees traditionally take five (or more) years to complete, and it is usually possible to earn a masters degree along the way. The Ph.D. is research oriented, where the objective is to discover new information of significance that advances the field of knowledge in a particular area of the subject. Only students who are exceptionally passionate about the subject and intellectually suited for its coursework and research should consider applying to Ph.D. programs.