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How do the grades of higher degrees math up with undergraduate qualifications, in terms of quality of work? I'm in the UK. At my current institution, where I'm sitting an MA

  • 70+ -- Distinction
  • 60+ -- Merit
  • 50+ -- Pass
  • < 50 -- Fail

At undergraduate, again in the UK

  • 70 -- 1st
  • 60+ -- 2.i
  • 50+ -- 2.ii
  • 40+ -- Pass

I would very much like to know if the standard of work matches up to the same percentiles, in the UK. So, not how well someone is doing on the course, but if an undergraduate dissertation could be handed in and get the same mark on a Masters. This seems unlikely, of course.

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    I'm not familiar with the UK system, but in the US it's common that graduate grades are interpreted very differently than undergraduate grades.This is because the objectives and constraints of graduate education are very different than undergraduate education, so I'm guessing the same is true of graduate student grading the world over.
    – David
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:01
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    got it. but there is a sense in which any work can be compared according to its very own quality... high school vs university? -- surely ... @David
    – user31864
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:03
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    "Standard of work" is a rather vague term in my opinion. I would obviously expect the standard of work for a graduate student to be significantly higher than that of a high school student. But within any individual age group, defining a standard of work is a relative matter. Some students will likely perform better than others, some will likely perform worse, and others will fall in-between. If you're asking about a way of objectively defining that standard -- then no, I doubt you'll ever find such a thing.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:47
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    ...additionally, if you're asking whether or not you can compare a "high standard of work" for a high school student to a "high standard of work" for a graduate student -- again, the answer is probably "how would you even compare their work in the first place? One's answering questions in a textbook, the other is writing the textbook."
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:49
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    @user3293056: Personally, I don't, and if I'm being honest, I also can't. Part of that stems from the fact that most individuals (like myself) don't know enough of both topics (or any two topics) to be able to make a straight comparision between the two. But you chose an excellent example -- math and science. I'm a computer engineer; I have a good friend who's a mathematician (or mathemagician, if you ask me). He hates the simplifications I make in my calculations; I can't stand the precision he insists on. Yet each of us (I hope) does a "good" job. It's just relative to our field.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:58

2 Answers 2

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You state (emphasis mine):

"I would very much like to know if the standard of work matches up to the same percentiles, in the UK. So, not how well someone is doing on the course, but if an undergraduate dissertation could be handed in and get the same mark on a Masters."

If this were possible surely the need for Master's degrees would not exist. Besides, don't you feel that the standard of your own work at Master's level is much higher than that at undergrad? I know mine certainly was. That's kind of the point.

Say you need to get a 65 at undergrad to start a Master's degree, but you end up failing the course and getting zero. This doesn't nullify the 65 you already achieved in your undergraduate degree- but nor does it mean that you should have also got 65 in the Master's course.

The root of this answer is that you simply can't compare apples and oranges. Undergraduate and Master's degrees are designed to do completely different things, and just because one piece of work satisfies the requirements for an undergraduate degree does not mean it will satisfy the requirements for a Master's (and vice versa).

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  • Of course, and while probably statistically accurate, this type of answer presumes a certain passivity (and non-precociousness) on the part of students at all levels. Yes, such assumptions are nearly universal on the part of academic institutions, and may be statistically accurate, so to respond in this fashion is completely reasonable. Nevertheless, in principle, the question could make sense. That is, an exceptional undergrad thesis could also be an exceptional M.S. thesis. Or even an exceptional PhD thesis. [cont'd] Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 22:02
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    [cont'd] Although I'm in the U.S. and our way of appraising theses at all levels does not attempt to do so in terms of "percentages" or "comparisons" to cohorts, so maybe I completely fail to understand the U.K. context, still, surely not all appraisals of theses are based on the "curve" of comparison to one's cohort. E.g., if a reasonably good person by mischance is compared to a gang of exceptional people, they have no chance of passing? Such things. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 22:04
  • @paulgarrett The UK system does not evaluate students based on the entire cohort. Rather, in theory, theses should be evaluated on an individual basis. That is, a reasonably good thesis should receive a resonably good mark, even if compared to exceptional theses. Though in practice, it is not easy to stay completely objective when assessing theses of vastly different quality. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 22:53
  • @paulgarrett re: your first comment, I agree in principle with what you're saying, but in reality, what undergraduate thesis has the depth, originality and maturity of writing to be comparable with a PhD? My logic when writing this answer ran thus: a Master's is inherently more valuable than a bachelors, therefore a bachelors is inherently less valuable than a Master's, hence while a numerical grade may be the same in both, the value of that grade differs depending on the qualification it is part of. (1/2) Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 23:11
  • (2/2) Thus, the answer to the original question ("How do the grades of higher degrees equate with undergraduate qualifications, in terms of quality of work?") is that you simply cannot equate them. The quality of work done is significantly different (except in the case of some hypothetical super genius who wrote an undergrad dissertation so good they were automatically awarded a PhD). Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 23:14
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To better respond, in effect, to @astronat's responses to my comments on their own answer, and also to clarify my reaction to the original question:

First, I cannot endorse any notion that scholarship, research, and advance of our collective understanding(s) are measured by "grades", scalar numerical values, hono(u)rs-or-not, and so on. Nor can I endorse the idea, implicit in much of academe, that students and teachers are somehow antagonists, in the sense that students are (allegedly) trying to avoid education, or that teachers should be trying to "trick" students by bait-and-switch in order to make them fail to some degree... supposedly for their own good.

Also, of course, any given individual mostly does better at everything when they are older, thus having acquired more information, and having matured. So any given person's undergrad work is presumably less sophisticated than their post-undergrad work, and so on.

Nevertheless, I think is it profoundly misguided to think that the institution(s) have any sort of true measure of students' progress, nor of their "success". True, there is the obvious general correlation of age and maturity/sophistication, but this is not due to any rules or conventions. So, again, undergrad work tends to be more naive than later work. But this is not a rule, and is not a property of universities and their administration.

So, although it is not really purposeful in general, yes, one could compare various peoples' work at different stages of their development. Yes, some undergrad work is as good as or better than some graduate students' work. So what? And, in particular, any pretense of giving "objective" comparisons, in terms of percentages, in whatever meaning, is not to the point, and probably unjustifiable in any sane context. If nothing else, no matter how wonderful a lunch someone else has, one still wants one's own lunch.

I think that "grades", "impact factors", and other numerical artifacts give people an over-simplified, and grossly misleading, impression of the (worthwhile) goals of scholarship and research. E.g., that it's a competition. Yes, the administrative powers can make it be a competition, and can unilaterally declare that GPA or impact factor are the scores that matter, but that does not make such things absolutely true... only contingently true, for the usual reasons.

In summary, first, the original question is a bit misguided (in my opinion), although understandable. Second, with some disclaimers, there is in principle no reason that undergrad work of exceptional people couldn't surpass that of grad students, etc. Third, no, this happens rarely, for obvious reasons. Fourth, and this might be the most immediate point here, I'd disrecommend thinking that institutional/bureaucratic fake objectifications of all these educational/research/scholarly processes truly represent reality. In the latter sense, the question itself has been corrupted into granting several implicit hypotheses that have certain appeal, if only that reality really is that straightforward, while, in fact, reality is not so simple, both for good and for ill.

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  • Thank you, I now understand your point much better and for the most part, I agree. Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 1:23
  • @astronat, good! Thanks! A quip I use with grad students at my uni is that the notion of mathematics as "a school subject" is wildly corruptive: mathematics (as an intellectual/scholarly pursuit) is not about grades, honors, or any other similarly bureaucratically-mediated thing! In fact, grad students (in math, at least) do often become a bit confused by the notion (which I aggressively promote) that the goal is not to guess what the "teacher" will put on the final, nor to do all the homework perfectly, nor... but to do a thing which has no convenient measure. :) Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 1:36

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