Undergrad vs. Grad School: What’s the Diff?


What are the differences between undergrad and graduate school?

As Dr. Joe Pfaller, Sea Turtle / Marine Biologist, explains… a lot! Especially for those in the sciences there is an often surprisingly big difference between graduate school and the undergraduate lifestyle that most are familiar with.

A little bit about Dr. Joe Pfaller

For context, it’s helpful to know a little bit about Dr. Pfaller’s background in academia. He’s a Marine Biologist, and did both his undergrad and graduate work in the United States. So, his answer to the question on the differences between undergrad and graduate school has a Biology and U.S. centric twist on it.

But, graduate school around the world is consistent enough, especially in the sciences, that his answers should be fairly ubiquitous across the world.

How friends and family tend to view being in graduate school

If you are in, or have been in, graduate school, this is likely a familiar conversation you’ve had (a few times):

“Hey Joe, how’s it going?”
“Oh, not too much. Just in grad school studying Biology.”
“Weren’t you doing that the last time I saw you? Like, 5 years ago?”
“Oh, yeah. That was my Masters but now I’m doing my Ph.D.”
“Geez… really? How long does that take?”
“Oh, a few more years.”
“Man, you must looooooove school!”

Most gradate students have probably had that conversation with friends and family somewhere along the line. Dr. Pfaller certainly did.

The reality is most people have a pretty good grasp of what undergrad is like.
You go to orientation, your major advisor tells you what classes to take over the next 4 years… You take those classes, and get a syllabus at the beginning of the semester that tells you when the exams, when projects are due, when classes are… Then, you take exams and get a grade that is supposed to summarize whether you learn what they told you to learn.

So, what is graduate school like?

Graduate school is really not like undergrad… at all. The whole grades, classes, and GPA thing is really not that important. In grad school you’re trying to learn how to become a scientist. You’re trying to learn how to do research. And the way you do that, is kind of like the Netflix show Westworld… It’s a combination of wild wild west and a choose you’re own adventure game. Basically, the decisions you make along the way will dictate your successes and failures.

The adventure even starts before you start graduate school! You have the freedom to decide where you go, and who you work with. You sort of sit back and think, “Who would I like to work with?” “What kind of research questions am I interested in?” “Do I want to study fish behavior on a coral reef? Or do I want to study crab genetics in a lab?”

The decisions are up to you.

You have the freedom to decide which path to take. Then, once you start graduate school your day to day activities and objectives are totally up to you. You’re on your own! The decisions you make each day will decide whether you learn what you need to learn. Whether you pursue a certain path of research. Whether you have a good day or bad day.

Some of your decisions will be good, but not the best…
Some of them will be minor diversions…
Some of them you’ll think, “Oh my God! This is perfect! I made the right decision! I’m going to study this! This is my destiny! Yes!” … and then it ends in a total failure…

In grad school you really learn how to own both your successes and your failures.

Because, you made those decisions. You decided what to do with your time. You were the one who decided what path to take. You have to learn how to think, because there’s no one around telling you what to learn. So a major difference from undergrad, is no one is holding your hand along the way.

Right, but when do you start delaying adulthood and get a real job?

This is another pretty common sentiment that graduate students hear / feel.

Yes, you’re called a “student”
Yes, you’re in “school”
No, you don’t have a boss or timesheet or paid sick leave

But, graduate school should be considered a bonafide job!

At least, it should be treated that way. When Dr. Pfaller started graduate school, the thing he remembers most that made him think “this is a real job” was when they gave him office space, a desk, and a mailbox in the mail room. That was a pretty job like surprise when he started grad school.

Really, the jobbiest thing about graduate school is the time commitment. In undergrad you’re used to having weekends off, maybe nights off, vacations off. If there are events that cause classes to be cancelled, like hurricanes or pandemics, you get that time off.

In grad school you work all year round. Weekends, holidays, summers… Those are actually some of the best times to get your work done! During the semester you’re often a little too busy with classes, teaching, and lab meetings that you don’t have a whole lot of time to do that much needed work. Especially, writing. So, as far as “real” jobs go, grad school is not a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, Spring Break beach party kind of thing. It’s an all the time kind of thing.

The work you do in graduate school is also contributing to society!

As an undergrad, you’re mostly consuming knowledge and experiences. In grad school you’re doing that too, but you’re also a living, breathing part of the scientific community.

You know those people pushing the boundaries of science and innovations, so we can all live a happier, healthier, and more harmonious lives? Ya, those guys and gals!

In grad school you’re publishing original research articles. You’re giving scientific presentations at conferences. You’re competing for scientific grants. You’re doing all the things that a professional scientist does, including teaching the next generation of scientists, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians, etc., through the classes that you teach.

The last big difference between graduate school and undergrad is money

In the United States, you frequently pay tuition to go to undergraduate school. You also pay tuition to go to medical school, law school, and business school.

One of the best kept secrets about graduate school and science is you frequently get PAID.

Graduate students in Biology and other sciences frequently get paid to go to graduate school. This usually covers your stipend, living expenses, tuition, and sometimes healthcare. So, whether it’s a teaching assistantship provided by the department, or fellowship awarded to you, or grant your advisor receives that then pays your salary… colleges and universities don’t expect graduate students to take out big fat student loans to cover their living expenses and tuition while they’re in graduate school.

So, you get paid! But, it’s not that much. It’s enough to survive and keep you from having to take out student loans or get a second job while you’re in grad school.

To Recap: Grad school is a full time, wild wild west adventure game in which you get paid just above the minimum wage to contribute to society, and the future of our existence on this planet.

I guess that sounds pretty different from undergrad… 😎

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