The start of a real education? Differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study

A friend who is considering a PhD at Imperial recently asked me what I thought were the key differences between being an undergraduate and a PhD student. We had a good chat over a cup of tea about it and I thought I’d share my thoughts here as I’m sure other people considering a PhD are wondering the same thing. I’m only seven weeks in but this is what I reckon so far.

You no longer learn for the sake of doing well in exams

I feel that I’m now under much less pressure to assimilate information. As an undergraduate, my sole aim was to cram everything I needed to know into my head for the exam. Post-exam, I forgot nearly everything.[^1]

I feel that I rarely ever appreciated the subtleties of a reaction mechanism or generally knew why something was the case (unless I was especially enthusiastic about the topic). Since it probably wouldn’t get me any extra marks, there wasn’t any point spending the time learning details.

Furthermore, as an undergraduate I never had the opportunity to explore anything in depth because the sheer volume of information I needed to know was already overwhelming. Now I can read the literature and listen to lectures or presentations without thinking “what do I need to know for the exam?”. It’s quite liberating. Reading literature is a now a pleasure.

Work is now endless

As an undergraduate everything you need to do is a discrete, self-contained project with a specific start and end. You get given most of the information you need and usually you can find answers in the literature. Once you’ve done everything you need to do, you forget about it and move on to the next lab report or problem sheet…

As a postgraduate this isn’t the case. You’re meant to be finding out new things that no one else knows or has done before. There isn’t a definitive start and end; you don’t know what you’ll find or how long it’ll take. ‘Answers’ don’t exist yet.

I love that I’m doing things that no one else has tried before, but it’s also slightly scary and a little overwhelming. You have to decide what is the best problem to tackle. I don’t really know how long things should take, so sometimes I worry I’m not making progress fast enough, but I think I’ll get used to this eventually.

No one will tell you how to do your PhD

My supervisor gave me a couple of papers and basically said “make these nanoparticles”. If you don’t know what to do, you have to sort it out as no one else knows. If someone else does know, then your work might not be that original.

I think this is the biggest change from being an undergraduate and I know a couple of people who seem to struggle with this. They aren’t used to being so independent and I think they really want their supervisors to give them specific instructions rather than guidance and a general prod in a particular direction.

Miscellaneous perks

You get a desk so you no longer have to work in undergraduate work areas and access to a kettle, microwave and fridge means you can avoid overpriced, depressing campus food. You get access to the senior common room (insanely cheap cooked breakfast) and PG bar where you can drink too much and embarrass yourself in front of your supervisor and other staff. Not that I’m speaking from experience.

Managing your research budget means you can buy things like a new Mac Mini and a enormous display! I’ve also been helping in a undergraduate quantum mechanics workshop and will hopefully start demonstrating in physical chemistry labs soon—extra money and valuable teaching experience. Soon I’ll get to go abroad to conferences and I’ve looked after a visitor from my previous supervisor’s group at ETH Zürich already.

Do I recommend it?

Definitely. I’m under no illusion that my PhD is going to be easy. I’ve been working hard the last few weeks and I think it’ll get tougher over the next few years. Undoubtedly I could earn more in a ‘proper’ job, but I really enjoy it so it’s all worthwhile

If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.

Update (27 November 2011): Inspired by David Smith’s tweet I changed the title from “Undergraduate/postgraduate differences” to “The start of a real education? Differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study.”

[^1]: I don’t recommend this to current undergraduates: it will come back to haunt you in final year vivas.