Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degrees: A Quick Summary 

  • Undergraduate degrees refer to bachelor’s and associate degree programs. Degrees at the undergraduate level give students a strong foundation in their chosen subject. Examples include Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng), Associate of Science (AS), and Associate of Arts (AA).
  • Graduate degrees are pursued after completing undergraduate degrees, being more advanced and specialized in nature. Examples include Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), and Doctor of Medicine (MD).

Undergraduate and graduate degree programs are two vital stages of education. Understanding what exactly each stage entails is important so that you can effectively comprehend the educational landscape and make choices that match your education goals. This article will break down the ‘undergraduate vs. graduate degree’ topic and outline all the key differences.

What is an Undergraduate Degree? 

An undergraduate degree refers to the higher education programs taken after high school and before graduate studies. Undergraduate degree programs can be broken down into associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees.

An associate degree is a two-year long program focusing on giving you a foundational understanding of the subject, whereas a bachelor’s degree can be considered a more comprehensive form of education. An associate degree prepares you for either entry-level roles or further education at the bachelor’s level. With a bachelor’s degree, you are prepared to pursue a career or study further at the graduate level. 

Common associate degrees include Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), and Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.).

Bachelor’s degrees include Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.), Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.), Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.), Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.), Bachelor of Nursing (BSN), and various others, each tailored to specific fields of study.

Related: What is a bachelor’s degree?

What is a Graduate Degree?

Graduate degrees are academic programs that are studied after the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Graduate degree programs are advanced and focused,your bachelor’s degree. It helps you advance your knowledge and specialize in a particular area of study, helping you learn specialized skills and even be ready for leadership roles. You can also expect to be well-compensated for the advanced expertise that you will bring to the table. 

Graduate degrees are of the following types:

1. Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is pursued after completing a bachelor’s degree. It typically takes 1-2 years to complete and offers specialized knowledge and skills in a specific field. Master’s programs involve advanced coursework, research, and often conclude with a thesis or capstone project. Some common examples include Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Arts (M.A.), and Master of Business Administration (MBA).

Related: What is a master’s degree?

2. Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree is the highest level of academic achievement in most fields. A doctoral degree is usually the next step after you earn your master’s. It typically takes 3-7 years to complete and as part of the program, you’d be required to conduct an original study that adds new knowledge to the field. A doctoral degree signifies expertise in a specific area and prepares you for careers in academia, research, or specialized fields. Examples include Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), and Doctor of Medicine (M.D.).

3. Professional Degree

Professional degrees are specialized graduate-level programs designed to prepare students for specific careers or professions. These programs focus on practical training and often require licensure or certification. Professional degrees typically take 2-4 years to complete and combine academic coursework with hands-on experience, internships, or clinical rotations. Examples include Juris Doctor (J.D.) for law, Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) for medicine, and Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) for pharmacy.

Undergraduate vs graduate degree

Undergraduate Degree 

Associate degrees typically take 2 years to complete, while bachelor’s degree programs are generally 4 years long. These estimates are for full-time study. If you decide to study part-time or online, then the time frame may vary. 

Graduate Degree 

Graduate degrees vary in time commitment. Master’s programs typically take one to two years, while doctoral degrees, like PhDs, may range from four to seven years or more. Professional degrees, such as JDs, MDs, and PharmDs, typically require three to four years of full-time study, plus additional residency or internship periods for practical experience.


A bachelor’s degree provides a comprehensive foundation in various academic disciplines. It allows students to specialize in majors such as English, biology, engineering, or psychology. The coursework includes general education classes, major-specific courses, and electives. An associate’s degree offers introductory coursework in specific fields along with general education requirements. 


The graduate degree curriculum builds upon the knowledge acquired at the undergraduate level. It typically comprises advanced coursework, research projects, and practical experiences tailored to the specific field of study. This curriculum often emphasizes critical thinking, problem-solving, and advanced theoretical concepts, preparing students for specialized roles in their chosen profession or further academic pursuits. Additionally, graduate programs may offer flexibility through elective courses or concentration options, allowing students to tailor their studies to their career goals and academic interests.

Undergraduate Admission Requirements

Admission to undergraduate programs usually requires you to hold a high school diploma or equivalent. You also need to submit your high school transcripts, which showcase your academic performance. Standardized test scores, such as the SAT or ACT, are also a requirement. Additional materials might include letters of recommendation, a personal statement or essay, and a list of extracurricular activities. Some programs may also require interviews or portfolios, especially for specialized fields like art or music.

Graduate Admission Requirements

The admission requirements for graduate programs generally require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. You’ll need to submit your undergraduate transcripts to demonstrate your academic record. Standardized test scores, such as the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT, are often required, depending on the program. Additional materials include letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose or personal essay, and a resume or CV. Some programs may also require relevant work experience, interviews, or a portfolio, especially for professional or creative fields.


With a bachelor’s degree, you’ll be prepared to pursue a broad range of careers across diverse sectors such as business, education, healthcare, engineering, technology, and the arts. You’ll be prepared to pursue roles like marketing coordinator, financial analyst, elementary school teacher, registered nurse, software developer, or graphic designer.

The associate’s degree prepares students for entry-level careers in specific fields. Some roles you can pursue after obtaining this degree include dental hygienists, paralegals, or computer support specialists.


Graduate degree holders qualify for higher-level positions such as manager, senior analyst, professor, researcher, or specialized practitioner (e.g., clinical psychologist, architect, or attorney). These degrees are often crucial for leadership roles, academic careers, and research positions. Earning a graduate degree can enhance your value in the job market and can lead to higher earning potential along with career advancement opportunities.

Related: 18 management jobs with a bachelor’s degree.

Here’s a quick side-by-side comparison of the two. 

AspectUndergraduate Graduate 
Curriculum FocusBroad foundational courses.Specialized knowledge and advanced coursework.
Time to complete Typically, 4 years full-time for a bachelor’s, while an associate spans two years.Varies: 1-2 years for master’s, longer for doctoral.
Admission Requirements High school diploma and standardized tests.Bachelor’s degree, standardized tests (GRE), letters of recommendation.
Cost It varies widely, typically from tens of thousands to over a hundred thousand dollars.More expensive than an undergrad. The cost varies by program and institution.
Careers Entry-level positions.Specialized roles, academia, research, and leadership.

While undergraduate degrees give you a solid foundation to work with, graduate degrees build upon it, helping you specialize and advance your career. Now, you have a fair idea of the key differences and this knowledge will help you better understand the higher education landscape. 

How do I know if I am an undergraduate or a graduate?

You’re considered to be an undergraduate if you’ve completed a 4-year bachelor’s program or a 2-year associate degree program. You are considered to be a graduate if you’ve completed a graduate degree program like a master’s or doctorate. But don’t get confused, because undergraduate students who have completed their degree are also called graduates.

Do you have to be an undergraduate before you graduate?

Usually, yes. Most master’s degree programs expect you to hold a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field as an admission requirement. However, there are some cases in which graduate programs use work experience as a replacement for a bachelor’s degree.