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Is Grad School Hard? (Comparisons to Undergrad Coursework)

After earning your undergraduate degree, there are a few common options that you have. You can apply for full-time jobs, or you can continue your education in a graduate program. But if you decide to enroll in grad school, should you expect it to be hard?

Grad school is hard compared to undergrad school because the courses are delivered at an advanced level. Although graduate programs have fewer required courses, the classes and subject material tend to be more difficult. This means students must study harder, which can be challenging for some.

This article will explore if grad school is stressful, why grad school is hard, and the differences between undergrad and grad school. I’ll also explain what happens if you fail a class in grad school, and provide some resources to help you succeed in your graduate program.

How difficult is grad school?

Is Grad School Stressful?

Grad school is stressful. A study by the ACHA found that over sixty percent of students experienced above-average stress levels during a year in grad school. Another thirty percent experienced average stress (source).

One reason that grad school is stressful is that it is expensive. The total cost for a graduate school can cost as much as $100,000. And, this does not include living expenses, like housing and food. Some students may have to take out loans to cover these costs, which can add more stress to the grad school experience (source). 

Another reason some students might find grad school stressful is because they’re balancing their course work with jobs, internships, or families. Many students may have to take up part-time employment to fund their studies. Juggling work, family, and school responsibilities simultaneously can be extremely challenging.

Why Is Grad School So Hard?

Grad school is hard because the courses are provided at an advanced level. Graduate classes typically require more studying and research, and the professors can sometimes grade harder as well.

See Why Do Some Professors Grade So Hard?

Even if you are studying math and have excelled at it since you were a kid, you will find that grad school is hard. The material you are learning will be more advanced and will require more dedicated studying time to fully grasp.

Differences Between Undergrad and Grad School

There are quite a few differences between grad school and undergrad, which I will outline in this section. Knowing the differences between the two and what to expect in grad school will set you up for success.

Some of the main differences can include the experiences you have, the expectations of your course, and the layout of your program.

This YouTuber does an excellent job of breaking down the differences:

Here’s a breakdown of the main differences between grad and undergrad school:

College Experience

An element that makes grad school easier than undergrad is that you have experience studying at the college level in grad school.

When you first begin your undergraduate classes, and even as you are a few years in and taking advanced classes, you do not have any experience learning and studying at that caliber.

So, part of the difficulty of your classes is not knowing how you are going to succeed in them, what study styles work best for you, and how to handle a harder course load in general.

See What Is the First Day of College Like? (With Survival Tips!)

When you get to grad school, you already have around four years of experience studying at the college level, so you have the skills you need to succeed in grad school. You should know what times of the day you learn best, where you can focus on studying, and what types of notes and resources you need to succeed.

Graduation Requirements

In your undergrad program, you will likely just need to pass your classes, and you can graduate. Sometimes, you have to do a small project or internship, but the most important part of passing your undergraduate degree is passing your classes.

But, in grad school, there will be some extra requirements that you need to complete in addition to passing your classes. The type of project will depend on what you are studying, but it will usually be a thesis or capstone project. These are difficult, time-consuming projects where you need to show off what you have learned over your degree program.

Sometimes you have to work with a professor, who will be your mentor throughout your thesis project. Your mentor will give you some guidance on where to go with your project, but it is ultimately up to you to impress your professor or other program deans who are grading your thesis. 

You also want to build relationships with your professors throughout your time in grad school so you can choose a thesis mentor that is best for you and one that genuinely wants to help you and see you succeed. 

There will likely be a professor who specializes in a field that you are interested in compared to others, so you probably want to have them help you and build a relationship with them that you can continue after graduation.

Another aspect of this is your grades. In undergrad, you can get C’s in all of your classes and still graduate. Some graduate programs may require you to earn all A’s and B’s if you want to move on to the next classes. 

See Do Professors Bump Up Grades?

The Difference in Credit Hours

Furthermore, in grad school, you usually take fewer credit hours per semester than in your undergraduate years. Undergraduate students usually take between twelve and eighteen credits per semester, whereas graduate students take as few as three to six credit hours per semester. 

However, just because you are taking fewer credit hours does not mean that you will have an easier time. Graduate classes will involve more reading and studying than undergraduate classes. So, you can expect to spend more time per credit hour on each class.

For example, an undergrad class may require you to write a paper or two throughout the semester along with a few exams. The exams probably won’t be cumulative except the final, and the papers will be a few pages, likely no more than five to ten. 

But, in a graduate class, you are going to have a much more demanding workload. One paper can be as much as thirty-five pages, in addition to exams and reading assignments. You will have to put in a lot of time and effort outside of class to complete the required coursework. 

Focus on Your Program of Study

Another difference between undergraduate and graduate programs is that you are taking classes outside of your major in undergraduate, but in graduate programs, all your classes focus on your program. 

In any undergraduate program, you have to take some base-level classes. These are sometimes referred to as core or mandatory classes, and you need to take them because of the university, college, or degree program you are enrolled in.

For example, everyone needs to take an English class or two, regardless if their major is English, math, engineering, or business. And, everyone with a business degree will take an accounting class, an economics class, and a marketing class. Similarly, everyone with a science degree will need to take biology, chemistry, and physics classes.

On the other hand, all of your classes will be focused on your degree in grad school. So, if you are going to grad school for a degree in physics, all of your classes will be in physics. You will not have to take any chemistry or biology classes, even though you are studying for a science degree.

Class Size

Another difference is that classes are smaller in grad school compared to undergrad. As I discussed in the previous section, there are many classes that you are taking in undergrad that do not directly relate to your major. 

A lot of students are taking these classes, and they will be larger. When you get into more advanced level classes in your major, you may see smaller classes, but your introductory classes will be relatively large, especially if you are at a big school. 

In your graduate classes, there will only be students in your program of study, so they will be much smaller. The chemistry majors are not going to be enrolled in English classes and vice versa. 

The smaller classes with students in your same program at the graduate level are beneficial, so you can build relationships with other students who share your interests and who you will be taking classes with for the rest of your program. 

Working While Enrolled in School

A final difference between grad school and undergrad is that you are likely working while in grad school. While students do work during their undergraduate years, it is not expected as you work during grad school. 

When you work during grad school, it is beneficial for you to find a job in the field you are studying. For example, if you are in law school, you may try to find a job as a clerk for a law firm. 

Or, if you are studying science, like chemistry or biology, you can find a job in a lab. Sometimes your school might even have positions available for grad students where you are a teaching or lab assistant for undergrad students. 

What if You Fail a Class in Grad School?

Most schools will allow you to retake a class that you failed in grad school. You will have to pay for the class again, and it may change your graduation date, but you will still be able to graduate if you can pass it a second time. 

As an example, Western Illinois University’s policy states that students can retake any graduate courses that they did not receive a satisfactory grade in. 

However, it’s important to note that many graduate programs, including those at Western Illinois University, may not replace the lower grade with the grade from your retake class. Instead, they will average the grades to calculate your overall grade. 

If you want your graduate program to replace the lower grade with a higher, retake one, you’ll have to speak with the department about your available options (source). 

So, you can take the class again, but it will still affect your GPA and your transcript if you cannot petition the school to have the failing grade removed.

Resources for Grad School

Once you decide to go to grad school, you want to set yourself up for success and study hard for your degree. The resources in this section will help you from the beginning to the end of grad school.

First, this video from The Academic Society with Toyin Alli on YouTube will teach you eight ways to prepare for grad school from current grad students:

Next, A Field Guide to Grad School (link to Amazon) will teach you everything you need to know to succeed in grad school. You will learn how to choose a program, how to stay on track to complete your degree, and how to get a job and use your skills and knowledge from grad school after graduation. 

Another great book is Grad School Essentials (link to Amazon). You will learn the best skills that you need to have a successful time in grad school. The skills in this book include how to read, write, speak, act, and research at an advanced level, which will take some of the stress of grad school away.

Finally, if you are still debating whether or not to go to grad school, CrystalOTv will explain the pros and cons of getting a master’s degree and what advice she has for prospective grad school students:

Final Thoughts

Grad school is typically harder than undergrad school because you are studying advanced topics at a higher level. You need to study hard and spend a lot of time proving that you understand the material through your assignments, research projects, and papers. 

There are some differences between undergrad and grad school. The changes may also make grad school harder because you have to adjust to different course loads, complete longer assignments, and work while you study. 

Hopefully, the resources that I’ve included will help you succeed in grad school and make it a little less stressful than normal.

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