Is Graduate School Hard?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Is grad school really as hard as they say? Find out what to expect in your advanced degree pursuit.

[Featured image] A grad school student studies in a library.

Going to graduate school will typically come with some challenges—it is an advanced degree, after all—and programs are typically developed with the expectation that students will arrive with a certain amount of background knowledge and experience in their chosen subject matter.

Fortunately, if you’ve met the admissions requirements and have been offered a spot in a program, it’s a strong indication that you are seen as academically prepared to succeed.

Broadly, your program’s level of difficulty can vary depending on your field of study, type of degree, and school. Whether or not your program feels hard to you can depend on your learning style and preferences, and how well those align with your program of choice.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what to expect from grad school, how those expectations may make your program feel harder (or easier) depending on your learning needs, and how you can prepare to meet those expectations.

Is grad school harder than undergrad?

By the nature of learning and growth, it’s fair to expect the subject material in grad school to be more advanced than the material you’d learn in an undergrad program in the same field. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harder; it’s just a different stage of your educational journey.

Undergraduate study may have a greater emphasis on learning and applying established facts and knowledge, whereas graduate study may take that application a step further by centering research and exploration. Both can be challenging, but they’re challenging in different ways.

Additionally, the level of difficulty also varies depending on the type of program. Some graduate programs are designed for people who already have some experience in their field of study, whereas others are better suited for people exploring a new field. Take, for example, the difference between a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Science (MS) in business: MBA candidates typically enter their programs after several years of work experience, whereas MS students may have little to no professional business experience.

You are Currently on slide 1

What to expect in grad school

Since every grad program is different, it’s important to do some research on what to expect from your specific program. You can learn a lot about programs on their websites, through online forums, by reaching out to the department or during the interview process, or by connecting with current or former students.

Let’s go through some of the areas you can research in order to set your program expectations prior to enrollment.

Course and grade requirements

Most programs will publish some type of course list online, and some will even publish a schedule of courses grad students are expected to take each semester. Reading through the course descriptions can help you determine the topics you can anticipate studying, and in some cases, may indicate the way graduate courses are taught (whether it’s a lecture or a research course, for example). From here, you can assess whether these topics will be explored in a way that aligns with your preferred learning style.

In addition to the courses themselves, take note of the program’s grading policy. Whereas undergraduate programs typically consider a “D” or above to be a passing grade, graduate programs tend to require a “C” or higher.

Independent research

Graduate programs may require an independent research project, such as a thesis or capstone, in order to earn your degree. Research projects aren’t necessarily more difficult than other types of coursework, however you’ll likely use a different work style than you’d typically expect from a course with exams or term papers.

Since you’ll largely be guiding your own progress, you’ll find more freedom to explore your areas of interest. This flexibility comes with a greater need for discipline and time management skills.

Networking and socializing

In addition to academic expectations, grad school comes with networking and social expectations. Networking and socializing can occur naturally in your program, for example through group projects, or you can seek out new connections, for example through societies and associations. Some programs also allow, encourage, or require graduate students to lead or assist in some undergraduate courses, for example as a teaching assistant (TA), or work directly with faculty as a research assistant.

Opportunities to connect with people in your field and with similar interests is typically seen as a benefit of going to grad school; as you grow in your career, you may find yourself frequently returning to the relationships you foster with your classmates, professors, and program faculty.

If you enjoy socializing and meeting new people, this aspect of your program may sound fun. However, if you don’t enjoy socializing, you may need to work harder to succeed in the more social pieces of your degree program.

Finding the right graduate school for you

As you explore graduate schools, being aware of your goals, learning preferences, and limitations can help you reduce friction as you adjust to life as a graduate student. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Program structure: Choose a program that aligns with your learning style and will enable you to expand upon your current knowledge and skill set.

  • Location: You have options for how you attend school. You can choose from traditional in-person programs, online programs, or hybrid programs, which offer a mix of in-person and online courses.

  • Schedule: Because many people balance graduate school with other life responsibilities, many programs have flexible enrollment options, either full-time, part-time, or asynchronous.

Next steps

Explore graduate degrees on Coursera. Earn your degree in business, computer science, data science, and more from world-class institutions like the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Michigan, or Northeastern University. Hear from real students like Sneha Natekar and Professor Andrew Femrite to learn more about earning your degree online.

You are Currently on slide 1

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.