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How important is coursework as a PhD student?



Hi, I've been pretty stressed lately about enrolling for courses and wasn't sure where to go for advice. I just finished my 1st semester in this PhD program and am trying to enroll in courses for the next semester.

However, a course in another department I wanted to take overlap in time with requirements for my own department. Because COVID has made a lot of things asynchronous, I figured it would be okay to be enrolled in both at once (I could make it so I'd be 100% present at my department's class). The department head told me no, and that I should try to take that other class next semester. The problem is, it's offered only once a year and is a prereq for some other classes, so if I put this off I would be setting myself up to take more classes in my 3rd year (which I have heard is not recommended?) So I tried to enroll in an equivalent course from a third department, but apparently you can't take classes there unless you're of that department so that failed too.

My advisor hasn't responded to my first email about what I should do. Before I chose this school, they had been very reassuring to me that this university is very flexible and I'd be able to take courses in other departments, but so far I've been finding that not to be the case. They are also the one who wanted me to take this course that I'm currently not able to.

Is coursework that important as a PhD student? Will research/work be hindered if I'm taking courses into my 3rd year that are pretty foundational (not electives) and would have otherwise helped to take earlier? I'm also concerned something similar like this might happen again in another semester.

I also thought maybe I could ask the course advisor (not my faculty advisor) if I could just take that department requirement another year. This would at least prevent me from taking courses in my third year for the time being. I'm not sure this is possible, but would even asking this question be rude?

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I think what you’re describing is very common for students early in graduate school/PhD programs. Part of this is because of the mentality instilled in undergraduate that coursework and grades the most important things. In graduate school, I have always been told that coursework should be your last priority after doing research and completing your teaching assignments. As my advisor described it to me my first year: “As an undergraduate, you are a consumer of knowledge. As a graduate student and budding academic, you are a producer of knowledge.” That is not to say you don’t need certain coursework to be able to produce knowledge. For example, I took 5 semesters of advance statistics classes to solidify my ability to do the statistics I need to know for my research (my research domain involves complicated statistics well-beyond what first year classes in most programs cover).  Of course, some material can be learned on your own. Indeed, if you are planning on going into academia long-term, you will need to learn a lot on your own throughout your career. 

I think you need to ask yourself: How does taking this class advance my ability to do my research? Would the time I would be spending on coursework for this class be better spent working on my research? If the reality is that course X won’t advance your research as much as having those hours to work directly on your research could, then it probably isn’t worth taking. You are correct that it is not recommended to take classes in your third year. By then, you should be well on your way to working on your dissertation and other independent research. Courses will only detract from that valuable time. 

A couple of things based specifically on your situation: If your department head told you “no,” then I’m not sure pursuing this should even be on your radar anymore for the Spring. In my department, a “no” from the department head is non-negotiable unless your advisor can make a very compelling case on your behalf. However, it sounds like this is a required course? If so, I don’t understand your department head’s resistance. I think pursuing advice from your advisor is probably the best path forward. Perhaps a follow-up email will get a response. 

Best of luck! 


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