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What's the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate?

Some obvious differences

There are obvious differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study: for example, you are usually expected to produce a thesis (up to 15,000 words for a shorter thesis and up to 80,000 words for a longer one), which is a longer piece of writing than is generally expected at the undergraduate level. Postgraduate study also typically involves the selection of a research topic that produces some kind of new insight, unique outcome or new knowledge. This isn't necessarily expected at the undergraduate level.

There is also a difference between postgraduate research and coursework; however, the focus here will be on postgraduate coursework. Refer to Learning Support for research students if you're undertaking a higher degree by research.

Some similarities and differences: expectations

Both undergraduate and postgraduate students undertake coursework. There are similar aims and objectives in assessment: taking a position in assignments; supporting that position with a breadth of reading and research; demonstrating engagement with the topic and subject. For postgraduates, however, critique becomes even more relevant. See the section on Postgraduate Study for examples of these elements in postgraduate assignments.

A seasoned traveller

As a postgraduate, you're expected to have a good idea of what your lecturer will regard as the basics. This means you will know and use the appropriate referencing style. Your writing style will be easy to read and easily carry your argument. You will know how to structure your writing. You will know how to present an assignment.

Academic presentation

Academic presentation does not mean just making sure that your margins are neat and the spelling and grammar correct. Consider this example of the academic presentation criteria for a coursework Management assignment.


Criterion Pass Credit Distinction High distinction
Academic presentation (10%)

Average presentation of assignment; some evidence of structure and progression of argument; basic understanding of rules of grammar and syntax; errors still occur; basic level of academic referencing

Well structured assignment; good structuring although internal problems in structuring may still be evident; some evidence of fluency in writing; no obvious errors in grammar or syntax; satisfactory level of referencing.

Clear expression and structuring of ideas; good syntax, grammar and paragraphing; very good presentation and referencing throughout the essay.

Excellently structured essay; logical and superb progression of argument; no spelling or grammar errors; clear expression of ideas; work displays flair and mastery in writing; outstanding referencing.

There are a number of points to note here. Your academic presentation essentially includes aspects of writing you will have developed at the undergraduate level: that is, structure, argument, clear and error-free writing, perfect referencing, and that extra quality - good writing. For all that, this aspect of your work will only be worth around a tenth of your overall mark. This reflects the expectations of your lecturer that you will be able to communicate clearly and in an effective manner at the postgraduate level.

You may conclude that as it's only worth 10% you can't fail if your work is full of errors or isn't done properly. This may be true but this criterion supports the other important elements of assessment - the extent of your research, as reflected in your engagement with referencing, and your mastery of the issues, and your argument, as reflected in the assignment structure and development of topic.

Depth and breadth

It is a little more difficult to define the depth and breadth of understanding you are expected to demonstrate in postgraduate studies, and this also varies with disciplinary expectations. Breadth of research supports the comprehensive coverage of the relevant issues; depth is indicted in the level of critical engagement, analysis and application of theory. The importance of these two features of postgraduate assessment is often reflected in the proportion of marks allocated to the relevant criteria. Check your subject Unit Guide for guidance on the criteria, and contact your lecturer if you're unsure.

There will, however, be some similarities across fields of study. Postgraduate students will need to demonstrate they can effectively apply and integrate the skills and knowledge of a field of study. The expectation is that you will have a broad familiarity with the subject field, the current important issues and concerns, the key theories, ideas and contributors and the relevant history. You may need to focus your discussion in on one narrow topic but you still need to be aware of and demonstrate how that topic sits within the field - especially in a literature review Opens in a new window. It is also expected that your reading will have been broad. Sometimes this is signalled explicitly, as in this example from Human Resource Management which indicates the breadth of coverage required - if you are seeking a higher grade.

Example of breadth of research required

Criterion No evidence Poor Satisfactory Good Excellent
Use of textbooks and at least 15 research articles from academic journals 15 more than 15 up to 25 25 plus

You need to show your reader that you have a grasp of the field of study you are engaged in which means a carefully selected (long).

This breadth of understanding supports, then, your depth of analysis. This set of criteria shows that the lecturer expects you to have done something with your reading. You need to be able to demonstrate you have evaluated the relevant issues. You would also demonstrate that you've have considered the implications and applications of your critique.

This can be illustrated by way of reference to selection criteria, in this example from a Management subject - this time at the distinction level.

Example of criteria indicating depth of analysis

Criteria Distinction level
Interpretation: analytical reasoning, comprehensiveness
Very good understanding and interpretation of the questions; high level of analytical reasoning; coverage of all the issues relevant to the topic
Research: extent, interpretation and application of theory and critical analysis.
Thorough research on the topic; clear and appropriate application of theory; very good level of critical analysis.

Here, breadth of research supports the comprehensive coverage of the relevant issues; depth is indicted in the level of critical engagement, analysis and application of theory.

Postgraduate students will need to demonstrate they can apply and integrate the literature pertinent to their topic of interest into their own writing.


You have more freedom in postgraduate study to take the direction you find interesting. This is where originality comes into the picture. And, this is why a breadth of reading is so important - avoid a mere summary of the literature or issue. (For example, look at the 'competencies' sample in Undertaking postgraduate study.)

Engage with the arguments and debates in the field. Ask yourself what you find interesting about the topic under consideration. Then, defend your choice of interest: explain why it is important and why your reader should care about the topic. Another way to think about this is to ensure you answer the 'So what?' question.

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