grad skool rulz #4 – course work
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This edition of grad skool rulz focuses on course work. First, you should know that course work is highly ambigous at this stage of your career: In the short term, courses are extremely important. Fail and you will be ejected. Even if the program keeps you, you might be tagged as a loser. Also, fellowships often depend on having good grades. In the long term, courses are irrelevant. Nobody was ever hired for a competitive research position because they got an A+ in a seminar. You are hired because of your dissertation, your articles, and in the case of teaching colleges, your teaching record.
Given the different perspectives on course work, what should you do? Well, when it comes to taking courses, you should probably use the following rules of thumb:
- Take a course if it is required or fulfills an elective slot. If the instructor is horrid, you might petition for a substitute in another department.
- Take a course if you will learn a concrete valuable skill (e.g., statistics, foriegn language, interview technique).
- Take at most one or two courses on topics that are fun or deepen your knowledge. Any more than one or two, you are wasting your time. You should be able to learn on your own at this level anyway.
- Learn diminishing marginal returns: the first course might be useful, but the 10th or 12th probably isn’t. Learn to say no to courses.
Then there is the subject of how much effort you should put into course work. My personal view is that effort expended learning real skills is probably good, but there is a point of diminishing returns. One or two semesters of multivariate statistics is probably good, but unless you are training to a statistician, any more than that is probably a waste. Also, do well in any required course. If you are mediocre in a required course, then the faculty will probably know and it might be hard to recuit them to be on your dissertation committee. If you do real bad, you won’t be allowed to continue. In other circumstances, you might justifiably decide that a course really isn’t relevant to your plan of study, that you will never deal with that lame instructor ever again, or it’s just a really bad course. In that case, the minimum non-embarrassing effort level might be appropriate. Finally, unless you are in the 1st or 2nd year doing required courses, effort in courses should *never* crowd out effort learning the craft of research. Research should be your main activity, and after the first year or so, courses should be your extra-curricular activity.
To summarize my view on courses: they are important in short term, but irrelvant in the long term; only take them if you have to, but you can indulge in one or two fun courses; don’t bomb in any course and thus jeopardize your self, but you can probably scale back your effort in courses that don’t directly benefit you; and in the long term, courses are not as important as your research.