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Are grad classes a waste of time? February 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geophysics, grad school, physics, research, solar physics, teaching.
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I have seen both Gears and Massimo post comments about how grad classes are a waste of time.  Last week, Gears said this in his EngineerBlogs post (which I’d like to address several points, but this will have to suffice for tonight) and Massimo has suggested ‘workshop’ classes. I have to say that I disagree with both of them, but I think it’s because of my weird background.

For review, I did an undergrad in physics with a math minor, my masters in electrical engineering, and my PhD will officially be in geophysics (as was all my coursework) though my project is actually on solar physics.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could have done that without the coursework.  On the other hand, I think my attitude would be different if I’d stayed in one field. In my work in electrical engineering, I use almost every class I took, especially the grad courses.  I use antennas and microwave engineering a lot…so much so, that my circuits classes are probably the most rusty.  (I know, that’s completely backwards for an EE, but that’s how it goes sometimes.)  I find myself often wishing I’d had the opportunity to take some advanced signal processing, as well.  And one of the most useful courses was numerical techniques in electromagnetics.  Not only does it help me with the work I’m doing in EE, it’s also helping with many of the things I’ve run into looking at geo- and solar physics research.

The flip side to this is that if I’d continued on to get a PhD in EE, any further coursework would not have been terribly relevant.  I think there’s an optimum point, and that may have come earlier if my undergrad was in EE.

My classes in geophysics were not as useful, and I think there were probably 2.5 classes that had anything at all to do with my research and what I’m doing now.  Realistically, for the stuff I was interested in, I probably should have looked at a PhD in physics or astrophysics…but that may not have been much better if I was taking a bunch of classes on stuff that had no bearing on my research, either (which is likely).  However, the 2.5 classes that were useful have been REALLY useful.

I’ve got a breadth in classes that most students never get.  This is one thing that I think is a bit of a sticking point for some students.  Most places have a ‘breadth requirement’ – i.e. so many classes outside of their department.  I think this is a good thing as it helps people to see what other types of things could be relevant to their research.  I really think this is something that should be required because of all the ideas that come from seeing how different disciplines approach their fundamental problems, and even having some exposure to what those problems are is a benefit to students.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that so many places require a LOT of credits.  It’s fairly common in most good EE programs to require somewhere between 50 and 60 credits of JUST coursework.  I don’t like the idea of no classes, but I really think you could trim them back and just make students take classes that are relevant to their research as well as a couple classes for breadth.  I was very disappointed with my PhD program because once you hit advanced candidacy status, you’re not allowed to take any more classes unless your advisor is willing to foot the bill.  Not likely because most advisors want their students working on their research and getting done (not that I blame them).  The down side is that there are a couple classes that I could have really used but was unable to take because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my degree.  Most of my classes had to be in the department as I’d already fulfilled my breath requirement, so taking a class here or there outside the department was viewed as a waste of time because they didn’t allow me to tick off some of those boxes in the red tape.  And of course, it becomes obvious that you would really benefit from a course once you’ve hit advanced status and can’t take any more.

It would be nice if there was a system where your advisor could sit down with you and figure out where you’re interested in going research-wise and plot a course through the classwork that makes sense and is flexible.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you discovered you need to learn about a particular topic and could then go take the course on it? It makes more sense to me than filling in boxes to get to a certain number of credits or hedging bets that something will be useful later on.

Let’s face it: research degrees are already very specialized and take a long time, so it would make more sense to cut the classes down to those that are relevant.  This would ideally save time without sacrificing the background required for a research project. Finally, a really good option, which more universities ought to allow, is independent study classes.  During my MS, I took one class as an independent study working on emag stuff.  It was awesome as I got the material I really needed in a more structured way and was able to do a project which (I’m still hoping) would be a foundation for some decent research down the line.  Therefore, I don’t feel grad classes are a waste of time, as long as they make sense, and I wish universities would be more flexible in some of their requirements.

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Comments»

1. Miss MSE (@MissMSE) - February 6, 2012

My department is actually very flexible about most of their course requirements, mostly stipulating that we stick to advanced STEM courses. Consequently, my classes haven’t been a waste, because I’ve been able to explore breadth beyond what my undergraduate education covered. The least useful classes I’ve taken have all been within my department, though. MSE is a very interdisciplinary field, though, so it’s easier for the department to let us wander to where the classes already are than to keep up with the demand for courses from students.

Once we reach candidacy, we’re allowed one course per semester unless our advisor is willing to foot the bill, and there’s talk of changing it to 2 courses per academic year in case there are two courses in the same semester but none the next.

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