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Learning the Terms Undergraduate and Graduate

written by: Mike Piero•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/8/2011

While there are many different kinds of degrees available at modern colleges and universities, it is good to know the basic differences between the terms undergraduate and graduate. Read on to find out what an undergraduate degree is and how it differs from degrees earned in graduate programs.

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    Undergraduate vs. Graduate

    Students are oftentimes confused about the various terminology surrounding different college degrees and programs. So, before we can look at other specific terms, one first needs to learn the definition of graduate and undergraduate studies.

    An undergraduate degree is one that takes place after your post-secondary education (high school) and includes 2-year Associate degrees and 4-year Bachelor degrees. Students pursuing these types of degrees will commonly be referred to as undergraduate students. This term, then, encompasses freshmen through senior college students.

    A graduate degree is any one that occurs beyond the undergraduate degrees, such as Master's and Ph.D. programs as well as some of the others discussed below. These students are often called "grad students," short for graduate students.

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    What Does an Undergraduate Degree Involve?

    Wondering what is an undergraduate degree? An undergraduate degree program, while it varies from college to college, will typically involve a series of "core" courses that students from all majors must take combined with usually an equal amount of specialized courses for your degree. So, for a college on semesters, you may have to take 40-60 credit hours of general education, core classes (usually ends up being your first two years in college) before you get to the courses that specifically correspond to your major.

    Many college degrees are now requiring five years to complete. The reasons for this can vary from failing courses or getting bad advice from an academic advisor to actual 5-year programs. This means higher expense to the student. So, try your best to plan out your college courses early (when possible) and don't put yourself in a position where you need to re-take a course.

    On top of a particular course load, some colleges will require you to complete so many "service hours" that include participation in school events, organizations, and community service.

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    Various Levels of Graduate Work

    While the term "undergraduate" includes all college students who haven't yet completed a 4-year degree, there are quite a few different types of graduate students. Immediately following one's Bachelor degree graduation, that person could choose to pursue an M.A. (Master of Arts: humanities/history/english/etc.) or M.S. (Master of Science: science/engineering/technology/etc.), or an M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration: business/finance). On top of these degrees, one may begin working on a professional degree, such as a medical or law degree, each of which has its own more specialized programs.

    Beyond the Masters level, one can choose to pursue a research doctorate degree (Ph.D.), which would also fall under the umbrella of "graduate studies." This degree usually involves intense research, publication, and sharing research and regional and national conferences; many Ph.D. graduates go on to teach at American universities as professors.

    Once you understand the definition of graduate and undergraduate studies - you can go on to investigate specific colleges, programs, and degree requirements to find out which is the best one for you!