grad skool rulz #4 – course work

Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.


[For previous advice on getting through graduate school, please see grad skool rulz #1, #2, and #3.]

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Take a course if you will learn a concrete valuable skill (e.g., statistics, foriegn language, interview technique).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2007 at 5:56 am

11 Responses

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  1. […] school advice Fabio at orgtheory has some advice about course work; I know it is a tad too late for me; however, some of you might […]


  2. I found that by the end of my second year of grad school I was using most course work to further my research. In fact, my first four published papers came from research that I initially conducted in preparation for a final course paper. By my third year I don’t think I took any courses that were unrelated to my research.



    February 16, 2007 at 7:12 am

  3. It’s astonishing how many grad students do not understand these points, even when you keep telling them. I mean, it’s not a secret.

    Of the stuff you enumerate, I’d say point (2) is the main counterweight to the fact that courses are irrelevant in the long run. At least at the start, real techniques (like quantitative stuff or fieldwork methods) require teaching, and there are big long-term as well as short-term returns to courses like that.



    February 16, 2007 at 1:29 pm

  4. I second Brayden’s view of using substantive courses strategically. I never understood why some people took a broad overview course of some substantive area in order to write some useless lit review or proposal at the end that they did not have any intention of pursuing further. That is a total waste not only of your time and skill but of the instructor’s time and skill. My sense is that you should get at the very least a paper that you can present at a regional meeting out of a course (of course a publishable paper should be the ultimate goal).

    This brings me to one of the points that I always harp on, and which is I think one of those perverse unintended consequences of course-taking in grad-school. The biggest challenge that all students face during their graduate training is making the transition from (intellectual) culture consumers to culture producers. My sense is that the median graduate student is afraid–no, terrified–of making this transition (because the institution of peer-review is seen as finally bursting that bubble that you are the most special and talented student since Max Weber that your undergrad advisor built around you).

    Substantive courses, by being built around “discussion” of articles and books, create a haven for those who want to remain consumers and are afraid of becoming producers. How do they do this? They transition into a secondary role, what I like to call the grad student critic. This is a person who through years of taking substantive seminars develops the uncanny ability to dissect and “criticize” any ASR and AJS article on sight in a matter of 15 minutes. This is the same person that has never tried to actually write one, but who instead spends his or her coursework time going through the assigned readings and writing useless proposals and lit reviews.

    Now, most culture production fields have institutionalized the role of critic. Unfortunately in science there is no paid position for full-time critics (in science the producers are also the critics [reviewers] which means that the two roles are collapsed into one), which means that our grad student critic is probably not going to have a very successful scientific career. However, our courses are designed to systematically create these critics, and the would-be critics are happy to oblige, because that way they get to keep their identity as “smart” but never make the difficult transition to actually producing some knowledge. Most graduate programs are populated by these chronic course-taking critics, who continue to sit in seminars in their 6th, 7th, 8th,…etc. years and are able to point out the three main “weaknesses” in the lead article of every issue of ASR.

    This is in my view one of the key problems with course taking in grad-school. The habitus required to be a producer of knowledge, the practical skills that can only be gained by engaging in culture production, are radically different from the skill that all grad students are somewhat proficient at, which is the consumption of knowledge (reading books and articles and regurgitating a digest). The production skills cannot be taught in courses, but must be gained in practice. However, because of the aforementioned fear of actually engaging in practice, and the comfort of sticking to what you are good at (consumption) and what courses make you really good at (criticism), course-taking may in the end become deleterious to your career.



    February 16, 2007 at 2:14 pm

  5. I love you Omar, and I agree, but you must scare the bejesus out of your students!


    mr. chips

    February 16, 2007 at 3:23 pm

  6. Mr. Chips, I frequently thank the powers above that Omar writes for orgtheory, not for a rival blog, savagely slashing me. His keyboard drips with poison!

    On a more serious point, there does seem to be an important sub-population of students that should be working on the dissertation but prefers to sit around and just critique all day. I remember at my PhD institution, there was one student who just showed up to classes for the sole purpose of bruning rational choice theory. Sure, we’ve all had fun doing that, but for a student to spend precious grad school time doing that rather than completing field work is very lame. Unsurprisingly, at the end of grad school, the person didn’t do terribly well, probably because they didn’t accomplish much. Similarly, there was the Nth year grad student who showed up to seminars for the sole purpose of shredding any article/book that was not up to his/her pure ethnographic standards. A google search shows that this person is ABD. They were at least year five or so when I was a third year student – I am now 4 years past PhD, which makes them …. let’s just say it ain’t pretty.

    So alll grad students should heed Teppo, Kieran and Omar: unless it’s your first year, you should really shut up and start thinking about your MA thesis/PhD diss/articles. Get back to work!!


    Fabio Rojas

    February 17, 2007 at 4:03 pm

  7. Omar,
    i agree with all of the subsequent paragraphs in your post, but do have one situation that could provide a reasonable “why” to the question posed in your first. i had no sociology background as an undergrad (well, two courses, but they were both awful), so spent the first two years of grad school trying to figure out what my interests were. i know that is not the normative grad student experience, but i am sure there are more than just me out there who had a similar start to grad school. So, some of those “seemingly useless” substantive courses helped shape where i ended up.

    The fact that we were required to take 19! classes in my program is another issue altogether.



    February 17, 2007 at 7:49 pm

  8. jimi,

    Thanks for your comment. It does bring up a good point. If you have no background in the discipline taking courses is extremely important; after all, it is impossible to be an effective producer if you do not master consumption first (after all, the most avid producers in every culture production field tend to also be the most avid consumers). In fact, that is what your first few years in grad-school should be all about.

    That said, I think that by the second to third year of grad school, you should already have begun to develop a “taste.” These are the things that I like, these are the things that put me to sleep. These are the articles that I consider exemplars of good research and theory, these are the ones that I do not. Notice that some of the habitus of the critic is necessary here; however the problem with the critic is that he stops at this stage.

    In addition to developing a taste, you should already begin to look at the intellectual products that you are consuming not simply as “pieces” that may be fodder for classroom (or drunken bar) conversation, but as products that can be reverse-engineered. When looking at a paper you should not be focusing purely on logical, argumentative, rhetorical errors or other purely verbal circumlocutions (the critic’s favorite tack) but instead be asking “If I wanted to write something like that, how would I go about it?” “How can I get data like that?” “I am familiar with that method/technique?” “How did the author frame his or her argument?” “Is that an effective organizational device that I can use in my own work?” In other words, you want to begin asking practical production questions, rather than superficial finished product questions revolving around vague allegiance to metatheoretical precepts (this article is too rat choice or too macro…) or chic allegiance to this or that methodological dogma (I am SI and I would never touch Stata, etc.), which is once again a critic’s thing not a producer thing.



    February 17, 2007 at 8:32 pm

  9. […] response to my recent post on course work in graduate school, Omar has this useful comment. In response to jimi, who found courses useful because his graduate […]


  10. I somewhat reluctantly took an ethnography course during grad school. It fit my schedule and I needed units during a drought in course offerings. I was working in math ed and felt the course would be mostly a distraction until a fellow grad student told me I’d be a fool if I didn’t use the ethnography course to do a pilot study on my intended math ed topic. She was right, I proposed the pilot study as my class project to my ethnography professor (who was intrigued and approved it), and the result ended up as the kernel of my dissertation research.

    And I nearly spent the school term doing a make-work project that would not have contributed to my progress at all. Dumb!



    September 9, 2007 at 7:35 pm

  11. At my university we are required to complete several courses outside of our department. There are also graduate minors which are about the same length as our out of dept electives. What are your thoughts on graduate minors for doctoral candidates when they fit within these requirements? Do minors do anything for you on the job market?



    January 30, 2008 at 10:36 pm

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