Grad vs. undergrad - one student's opinion
Phil, who we interviewed about his job as a crypto-mathematician, has a B.Math and a master's degree in mathematics. Since we interviewed him, he has gone back to school part-time, and is currently working on his PhD. We asked him to compare his grad school experience with his time as an undergraduate.
Here's what he had to say:
Based on my own experience, and some stories I've heard from others, grad school is either far easier or far harder than undergrad. Certain programs treat you as junior researchers - you have freedom to pursue your ideas, but there's not a great deal of pressure to produce original results. Other departments seem to think that grad students are basically slave labour, and will work you as hard as they possibly can. Either way, though, there's definitely more of an expectation of self-sufficiency at the graduate level. It makes sense - grad school is supposed to be where you can study topics that really interest you, and when you're passionate about something, you don't need anyone to push you to work on it.
I found that lectures in grad courses were similar to those in undergrad, but assignments usually required more independent research. The courses typically had a final exam or a major research project which formed the bulk of the grade. The course work was easier overall, (simply because there were so few courses to take) and I finished within the first two terms. The remainder of my time was spent researching and writing up a thesis. I would describe a thesis as a really long assignment, where you get to make up the questions and then hope that there are answers, and that you can find them.