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Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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2 Key differences between postgraduate and undergraduate study

Here are some further thoughts on a number of the key differences (in no particular order of importance):

  • Level of proficiency. As part of a ‘first’ degree, undergraduate study provides the ‘grounding’ within a field or subject, whereas a postgraduate degree allows the subject to be explored further to attain a higher level of proficiency.
  • Specialist knowledge. Postgraduate study affords the opportunity to ‘specialise’ in a particular topic, field or discipline area – advanced ‘specialist’ knowledge, scholarship or research is gained through a postgraduate degree.
  • Independent study. Development of ‘expertise’ in an area through independent study, learning, scholarship or research (academic pursuits), for example as evidenced through an independent inquiry, review, dissertation, or critique at Master’s level; some programmes require postgraduate students to maintain a record (‘log’ or portfolio) of independent study activities and skills development.
  • Career focus. Vocation-relevant study and training linked to pursuing a career within a specific discipline, specialised area (may be academic, research or professional practice related) or profession, are often offered through a postgraduate degree; some fields rely on key practical knowledge and these programmes will need to meet specific professional accreditation requirements.
  • Commitment and self-motivation. Greater commitment, personal responsibility and capacity for independent learning are required at postgraduate level.
  • Learning style and key competencies. Frequently required to source materials outside of the programme and greater reliance on self-directed (independent) study, critical appraisal, reflection and analysis at postgraduate level.
  • Organisation and assessment. Organisation and assessment of postgraduate courses will differ. Broadly speaking there will be less ‘directly-taught’ content, but greater emphasis on self-directed independent study is a key feature. Programmes may include both formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment helps to build on and consolidate learning, but does not formally count towards the final result, whereas summative assessment will count towards the outcome of the award. It is not unusual for Master’s-level courses to be examined through summative assessment (which could be a single piece of coursework such as a dissertation) at the end of a course, once students have developed their ideas, building on knowledge and understanding gained, as well as independent study and analysis undertaken during the course. The dissertation or project typically forms a more significant proportion (up to a third or more) of the qualification at Master’s level.
  • Skills development. Among other key practical and professional skills, emphasis is placed on research methodology; an ability to effectively demonstrate advanced scholarship; to synthesise, critically evaluate, present and communicate work; to undertake further training where necessary; to meet specific postgraduate skills requirements (e.g. as specified by the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK) and professional skills requirements (e.g. as specified by accrediting organisations/professional bodies); and to be able to recognise your own further training and development needs.
  • Interaction with peers (other students) and tutors. Transition from large cohorts of students at undergraduate level to more focused, smaller groups of peers, and a closer relationship with tutor(s) at postgraduate level.
  • Study intensity and workload. Greater study intensity and higher workload are often expected at postgraduate level.
  • Course materials. Less reliance on ‘standard’ course textbooks or ‘customised’ teaching material at postgraduate level; expect a variety of audio, visual or text-based materials from different sources, and exposure to different ‘styles’ and formats of correspondence, communication, opinions, and sources of information, reflecting authorship and target audiences, and differences in the ‘medium’ through which learning is delivered.
  • Depth of inquiry. Postgraduate students are expected to read around topics highlighted on the course at each stage (i.e. moving beyond the course materials), identify important themes and issues, and think more critically about their reading and selection of resources.
  • Critiquing and communication. Postgraduate students are frequently required to present and justify their own ideas. Expect to identify, appraise and critically evaluate sources, and to make use of a variety of scholarly and research literature to support your opinion, judgement or argument, and communicate these effectively and in a manner that suits the purpose (task) and the target audience (which may include a lay audience, peers or specific professional groups). Proficiency in the use of the English language (e.g. IELTS band 6 or higher [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ), and effective academic writing skills are crucial – we will look at this in Session 2.
  • Tutorials, seminars and day schools. You will be expected to prepare for tutorials, seminars or day schools (which may be online or face-to-face), and demonstrate initiative and personal responsibility for your own learning (having engaged with course materials, and identified and critiqued relevant additional sources to demonstrate your scholarship).
  • Group work and collaborative activities. Expect to work more closely with your peers (other students), for example in collaborative or group/team activities, to discuss complex ideas and issues with fellow students (e.g. in tutorials or on forums), and to reflect on and develop these further. Some activities may be linked to assessment, where progress will be based on an evaluation of your individual contribution to tutorials, collaborative and group assignments.

Looking back at the first activity and your earlier notes, how much of this has met with your expectations? The list is not exhaustive. We wanted to focus here on some core areas to emphasise the broader distinction. Specialisation and variety among postgraduate programmes mean that while some key components are common to most programmes (for example a dissertation is frequently required for the majority of Master’s degrees), there is variability in the structure, content, organisation, assessment, examination, duration and delivery methods of postgraduate courses and qualifications at different universities and in different countries, which means that going beyond these broader comparisons would be difficult (and beyond the remit of this course). However, you should be aware that most taught Master’s programmes also include some form of dedicated research methods training – this can take the form of specific courses that set and assess a range of tasks, components that are embedded across a programme, or through additional research methods training sessions provided by relevant support staff.