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In many ways, the differences between being an undergraduate and postgraduate student are as wide - and as many - as they are between high school and college. Many of us start our first degree the same year we left school,  sometimes unsure of what our vocation may be, and unused to the kind of self-directed study that a college degree often involves (1). But during the time it takes to gain a degree, we often learn far more than we consciously realise - how to take responsibility for our successes, how to manage time, how to prioritise, and how to balance an important social life with the demands of our courses. Emerging as a graduate is a great experience - but will student life be the same in a postgraduate environment?

In short the answer is no. But there are some major similarities. The main difference is that now you're older you have more life experience, and you can often actively apply this as you make your way through grad school. That's just one of many good things about being an older student. Yes, you're *still* a student - but it often feels qualitatively different!

So here are the things I found to be the main advantages of studying when you're well beyond your teenage years and into grad school.

Studying feels like a job. That may sound negative, but it's the opposite. The change of atmosphere in graduate school is such that people - even if only subtly - relate to each other and to study in a different way. One of the things that got you this far was dedication. And it will stand you in good stead for the road ahead. 

Postgrad study feels specialised. As a result, it makes you feel special - not in a self-important way, though. You feel good because you've broken into an area of academic study where you are a trailblazer. Nothing could be more motivating than that. And of course now that you're a little bit older, you're all the more equipped to recognise just how lucky you are, and not to take it for granted.

Your network is wider. With all the people you met in your first degree course, as well as the people you meet on your postgraduate course, you have the basis of a very powerful professional network indeed. As well as potentially lifelong friends you'd never have met otherwise.

You know you can last the course. Pardon the pun - but it's true. A one year Master's degree can be fairly rigorous, but it feels short compared to the length of time it takes to gain a Bachelor's. And of course if you're doing a doctoral degree, then depending on where (and what) you're studying, then it could take as long as seven years (or longer!). But by now, perseverance is your middle name, right?

You’ve learned the art of resilience. The sheer effort of gaining a degree – as well as the pressure we put on ourselves to perform – means that at times studying can be stressful. As a postgrad, you’ve been through that – and come out the other side. It’s worth noting just how common stress is. Around 22% of employees suffer stress, while a quarter of people worry about family and relationships. (2)

Learning and research become second nature. There are times in high school and college when learning feels like cramming, and it can be a test of your motivation. But over time, it becomes natural to relish the challenge - and to approach it in a consummately professional way. By professional I don't mean overly serious - some of the most humorous and inventive people in the world are veterans of grad school. And being a little older definitely doesn't mean missing out on any of the joys of student life. (3)


Emily McLaren is a university graduate who runs her own wellbeing and travel blog. You can keep up with her posts at or follow her on Twitter.


Sources/Further reading:

1. “What Makes Self-Directed Learning Effective?” from the Association for Psychological Science

2. “Mind Health – Beat Everyday Stress” by AXA PPP healthcare

3. 15 Things You’ll Miss About Being a Student” by The Huffington Post

07 May 2015

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