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Choose your own adventure, pt. 1 March 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, teaching.
Tags: , ,

GEARS has an interesting post discussing his experience with both American and European styles of postgraduate education. At the end, he asks:

What do you think? Would you rather have defined your own series of independent studies than taken classes? How many classes during your graduate work have been useful for you and your research?

During my graduate career, I’ve taken classes in electrical engineering, math, geology/geophysics, and even a class on teaching.

I guess having this broad background gives me a different perspective. I understand what he means on being distracted by pretty, shiny things in new classes. However, if I felt interested in the topic matter and class, I never felt like learning about those things was a waste of time. I view it as needing some breadth in my field.

I also have the experience of bouncing around on a LOT of different projects, so it’s amazing the stuff I’ve realized I should have had but did not, as well as the things that I thought I’d never need but have.

Those pretty shiny things usually end up as some sort of idea for a research project later on. This is also the same reason it’s good to know scientists from a lot of different fields: the ideas and input they can provide are very exciting.

In my personal view, the real distinction between a class that useless or not are the ones where I felt like I got a lot out of it. By the time I was done taking classes, I realized that a good half of the classes I’d taken were a waste of time simply because of poor instruction. I would have been better off studying things on my own, perhaps with some guidance, than sitting in a classroom with a professor who views teaching as a distraction from his or her real purpose.

Teachers who are excited about their topic as well as effective communicators make a class worthwhile, even if you never directly utilize the subject they present. Sometimes you can find connections and analogies that help inform the work you’re doing. Or maybe you see something in one field that no one in the other knows about. (I’ve got about 3 or 4 of those I wish I had time to work on.) And then there’s simply the fact that you’re increasing your breadth of knowledge of your own field.

As far as topics directly pertaining to my research, I’d probably say about half of my classes were relevant (keeping in mind that I’m doing things in two subfields of engineering and another area for my dissertation). But those half were very much because the professor made the material accessible and relevant, helping me to realize I could use the information in my research. I know some information is inherently useful, but if the professor doesn’t teach it that way, you’ll never realize it.

I have more thoughts on the topic which are more relevant to homeschooling…so I’ll save those for another post.



1. GEARS - March 21, 2011

I think the “studying on your own with guidance” is a good thing for grad students. This was especially the case for my controls example. I would have gotten so much more out of the interaction with that professor in 1-3 guidance sessions once I had a specific, relevant example for me to use, rather than abstract equations on a paper.

In this class, he’s been voted a very good teacher and in RMP, he’s got 4 stars in everything (sadly no chili peppers). But my guess is that he wast teaching to the EE/Controls people and not the ME students.


mareserinitatis - March 21, 2011

It’s really tough doing stuff in a different discipline. It was quite a jolt going from physics to EE and later to geophysics. The approach in all three fields really is very different…and I think I was happiest in physics. 🙂

That being said, I did do an independent study class with my advisor, and it was amazingly productive. I was able to cover stuff with depth that wouldn’t have been possible in a classroom setting, so it was very worthwhile.


2. Grad student advice: Picking a topic « FCIWYPSC - April 17, 2012

[…] are to get involved in projects or try to choose something from a class project (I discuss this here).  Generally, you’re going to be spending several years on something, so let your curiosity […]


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