Towards the end of my undergrad career, I got a little bored with my typical classes and I was in need of some units to qualify for financial aid. So, during a brief morning of possible insanity, I decided to sign up for a grad course. Fortunately, that brief moment of insanity didn’t go horrible wrong because the grad courses I took as an undergrad were probably the most fun out of all the classes that I took during university.
Not only were they fun, but I feel it was also pretty beneficial to my academic career. First, it was a nice way to minimize the culture shock of transitioning from the learning style needed in an undergrad class to that which is needed in grad classes. Not to mention, it probably also showed initiative when I was applying to internships and grad programs, because it showed admissions faculty that I was willing to try something new and was dedicated to learning topics in my field.
Of course, I can see how intimidating it could be. There are also many questions that are unanswered until you actually take the class such as how different is it from undergrad courses? How much harder will it be? Are the tests worse? What is it like being in a class with a bunch of older grad students? Do they judge you? Etc. Etc. Etc.
Most importantly, is it harder?
Well, I’m not going to lie. Grad courses can be a difficult at times. After all, these classes are meant for students that are applying this knowledge to whatever research niche they’re apart of. However, in my opinion, grad classes are only harder because there’s a different expectation on what you’re learning and how you are applying the knowledge.
I’m going to take an example from my experience in an environmental science class. In my undergrad version of the course, we learned that soils have different physical and chemical properties that vary with depth and geographic location. We also learned about some chemical reaction that occur–but mostly the common ones and only general cases. It’s essentially learn facts and concepts that you can remember long enough to pass a test. However, in the grad course version, we were expected to already have this general knowledge. Makes sense, right? So instead of taking the time to teach basic facts and general cases, we could now dive deeper into the subject and more postulate/converse on what might happen on different types of edge cases. This lead to there being a larger discussion component, which is also aided by the fact that graduate classes tend to be smaller than an average undergrad class.
I guess to summarize this point, they are harder, but that’s mostly because it’s forces you to learn differently than you might be used to. I pretty much had to tranform from a person that absorbs knowledge/facts and regurgitates them (on an exam, etc) to a person who uses her knowledge bank to apply what I know to a specific problem. If you can adjust to that, it should be too much harder.
How about the exams?
Exams also are different between the two types of classes, it seems. Two out of my three graduate classes have had take-home exams (which at least in my grad school, is fairly common). Also, instead of being the typical question-answer format, all my tests so far have tended to be more in a problem set format. Questions like “if this and this was the case, what would happen” or “conceptually, why would [insert case here] happen?” are more likely what you would see. Of course, these are just based on the classes I’ve taken so far and probably depend a lot of the subject matter and how the department operates.
Are professors harsher?
Well, I fear that the professors would expect more, because this is a graduate level class. It’s a pretty fair assumption, in my opinion, that they expect you to work hard if you’re taking an upper-level course. However, I do feel like the professors of graduate courses are much more willing to help you because 1) you’re an undergrad who is showing such a deep interest in a subject that you’re willingly taking a grad course and 2) because grad courses tend to be smaller in size which allows for a professor to help students on a more individual level.
Do you get judged by the other grad students?
In other words, was it intimidating? At first, sure. But that might be partially because I’m very easily intimidated by things! Regardless, I felt like I was surrounded by students who seemed way smarter and more articulate than I did. But (!!), I soon figured out that this was just because they had more years of education on me! I was unfairly comparing myself. So, once I accepted that I was probably not going to be top of the class at this point, I ended up being just fine.
Besides, the grad students at my school were very supportive of me and didn’t think any less of me for being an undergrad. In fact, they either didn’t care or were somewhat impressed that I was actually going above and beyond my expectations. Most were also there for me if I ever needed help. After all, they were in my shoes at one point. 🙂