The Forgotten Element of Graduate School: Coursework

A member of my dissertation committee once remarked “Grades will keep you in graduate school but research will get you out.” The implication was that coursework is a necessary evil on the road to a Ph.D.  Indeed, most of the discussions on BenchFly focus on research projects, research advisors, scoring the big paper or passing the dreaded prelim exam. However, the fact is that graduate students spend most of their first year-and-a-half or two years taking courses while they do research rotations and begin their research projects. Someone is paying for that coursework, students are spending a lot of time taking it, and faculty are spending time teaching it. So what is everyone getting for their money and time?

Ideally, graduate coursework should provide an intellectual basis for a research career but in some cases graduate curricula constitute a dog’s breakfast of topics that look a lot like professors’ recent research articles. A typical graduate curriculum requires the equivalent of 6-9 three-hour courses along with a couple communication courses and some research seminars. The courses have different structures but are usually a mix of core concepts and special topics – required courses and electives. The number of required courses has declined over the past couple decades in favor of more electives and the standard three-hour course is evolving into multiple one- or two-hour courses.

The original model for a course was like the structures of bacterial genes – one course/one professor.  That evolved to eukaryotic genes with multiple exons and introns – team-taught courses that in the extreme resemble a loosely structured seminar course. In the latter scenario establishing a rapport with students is challenging to say nothing of grading and evaluating classroom participation. Although most courses involve faculty talking to or at students, some courses involve faculty assigning readings then leading critical discussions of the research articles. This variety is probably a good thing because learning, especially at the graduate level, is highly individualized. But it would be nice to know what students think. What kind of courses do you get the most out of?

So here is the latest BenchFly quiz. Which of the following types of courses have you found most valuable? We’re just talking about course structure here so ignore the reality that a really good lecturer can make anything interesting whereas a really bad lecturer … well, you know.

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Which of the following types of courses have you found most valuable?

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Larry Marnett is a professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Vanderbilt University and has taught in a lot of different courses.

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How was your experience with graduate coursework?

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @sciliz

    wrote on February 20, 2012 at 10:35 am

    In grad school I was appalled by the "dog's breakfast" style, not so because of the different semi-arbitrary topics (I do like a good lecture series with crazy variety), but of the semi-arbitrary grading strategies each instructor used. There is a huge investment in time/energy that is essentially wasted in attempting to adapt your testing skills to 10-15 different styles each semester. Well, I suppose "proving what you know" to a variety of audiences is probably useful in its own right, but it really felt like it was getting in the way of actually learning to me.

  2. Ragamuffin

    wrote on February 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    i'm in semi-agreement with you here. although i enjoy having multiple instructors, each with different teaching styles and some who revisit material taught in the previous section with a new perspective, the arbitrary grading/examining styles can be devastating. i learn a tremendous amount from these courses, which is evident in my evolving approach to my own research and in what i glean from reading literature. but this is not accurately reflected in my examinations (as is the case for most of my classmates).

  3. marc

    wrote on February 20, 2012 at 11:41 am

    i also think it depends on the goal of the class. in grad school we had required coursework and optional electives. the required classes were general and seemed more successful when they were taught by several professors who do research in the relevant fields. elective classes, on the other hand, went into more depth on a specific topic and in these classes it made more sense to have a single professor.

  4. Larry

    wrote on February 21, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    It seems like differences in testing and grading are the main knocks on the multi-faculty courses. Is that correct or is it easier to learn from one or two faculty with whom the class develops a rapport?

  5. [email protected]

    wrote on February 23, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    In thinking about this question initially, I kept the issues "which one did I learn more in" and "what were the grading implications" separate. What I did not appreciate, however, is that some departments use grades as a qualification for acceptance into certain labs since department (or training grant) funding would be given only to the top X students in the class – as measured by grade performance. So students who didn't perform well in classes would have fewer options than those who did. As a result, in deciding which class structure is "best" we must take into account the implications for learning and grading, as both may impact a student's future.

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