Why do graduate students have to take so many classes?

In much of Europe, it is standard for a student to earn their BS and MS degree before entering into a Ph.D. program. Once a student has reached the Ph.D. level, they no longer have to take courses and their sole focus is on their research. A student applies to a Ph.D. program solely by getting accepted to a project.  It is incredibly common to have research that is only minutely related to the ideals of a department. This means that a students background does not always fit with the department they are accepted too. But the department does not require students to take additional courses to catch them up to the typical focus of their degree title.

In the US, it is incredibly common for students in graduate school to take additional classes past their undergraduate education. There is no requirement for a student to have a Master’s degree before entering into a Ph.D. program. The major difference between Europe and the US is that if a student enter’s a Ph.D. program with a Master’s degree, they are often still required to take classes. The number of classes a student has to take past the Master’s degree varies widely by school and discipline. For example, some schools have their students take only a few classes that are meant to help in their graduate career. These classes may include a coding class, proposal writing, and ethics, for example. Other schools have their students take upwards of 40 credits of science and math classes beyond their undergraduate coursework. Some schools don’t allow their students to transfer any courses from their Master’s degree, even if the classes are exactly the same. This is aside from the makeup courses a student may have to take if they come from a different educational background. The question becomes, how necessary is this coursework (aside from the deficiency courses) to students graduate education? There are a few cases in which this is warranted and other cases where the classes just become busy work and take away from a student’s research time.

I agree that having students take some classes past their undergraduate work helps orient them to the field. It also provides the opportunity to take courses that didn’t fit into a student’s rigorous undergrad schedules, much like the future professoriate course. Personally, I am in a class right not now that teaches me exactly what I need to know to do my research. It is low stress, and I’m learning things I’m interested in. I have also had to take courses that are required but have nothing to do with my research or my future career. They were simply bureaucracy. They were required courses to help me fit the knowledge mold the department wants me to adhere to when getting a degree from them. My question is, why?

There are a few reasons I can think of as to why students have to take coursework beyond a Master’s degree:

1. The department does not believe that the courses the student took for their Master’s degree are sufficient

2. The department is so interdisciplinary, it is unlikely that a student took the exact same course before, and the department wants them to know that material

3. The graduate school enforces each department to have a set number of classes for their students to take – so they can make more money.

This last point seems to be the most likely to me, but I can not find if the graduate school enforces a certain number of classes on the departments. There is one thing in particular that makes this last point incredibly likely. Colleges in the US are very interested in making money while colleges in Europe are not, and students in Europe do not need to take courses in their Ph.D. years.

It seems like graduate schools are always adding more requirements and more courses. The average time to earn a Ph.D. in this country is now 8.2 years with the longest average occurring in the field of Education (12.7 years) and the shortest time in the STEM fields (6.7 years) (NSF, 2008). I cannot find how the time to earn a Ph.D. has changed, unfortunately, but in the late 1800s, it took 1-3 years in the sciences and there was no thesis requirement.

There are a lot of unanswered question on this topic so your thoughts are appreciated!



Dr. Smart was not very smart

In November 2012, it was announced that a senior research associate of the University of Kentucky (UK) had been involved in scientific misconduct for over a decade. Over this time period, it was found that he falsified 45 figures in 7 grant applications, three progress reports, and 10 published papers. Some of these publications accumulated over 100 citations. He was highly renowned in his field and some of his research even led other scientist down research paths that would end up being a dead-end.  In addition, his research brought UK over $8 million dollars in federal grants.

As a result of these findings, Dr. Smart resigned from his position at UK and began working as a chemistry professor at a local high school. The university recommended that he retract or correct the ten papers in question. In addition, Dr. Smart agreed to not be involved in federal grant applications for 7 years starting from 2012. Dr. Smart had 13 researchers employed by him/his grants over this period, each of which were given 1 year from late 2009 to find other work. From what has been reported, these researches were not blamed in his misconduct and have all found work in other labs/institutions.

It appears that there was no request for return of the federal grant funds upon finding this misconduct. This is not surprising because where would the money come from? What is surprising is that Dr. Smart was allowed to keep his PhD which he earned in 2003 from UK. He went on to work for UK as a research professor. It seems as though this misconduct started during his PhD given that it was going on for over ten years and he earned his PhD in 2003. Is it possible that there is systemic misconduct at this institution that UK doesn’t want to get involved in? If this falsification happened during his PhD, it also means that his academic advisor was involved. There is no way he could have published falsified results without his advisor knowing. So now, there are potentially two researchers at this institutions that have been involved in academic misconduct. It is somewhat unbelievable that no one is looking at his advisor or is advisors collaborations.

Maybe this institution breeds researchers that have a poor moral compass. If UK were to look into the advisor, they may open a large black hole that would bring a lot of bad publicity to the institution which would affect their grant money. But not looking into potential misconduct is an ethical issue in itself. Regardless, it seems likely that Dr. Smart is not the end of the road with this case.






Has grad school prepared us to be research professors?

As I read a proposal from my research advisor that was just funded, I find myself questioning if grad school prepares us to be research professors. Sure, by the time I leave here, I will know how to design an experiment, analyze the data, write a scientific paper, and understand what the current happenings in the field are. However, as I read this proposal, I question my ability to come up with a new, novel idea, that is also worthy of grant money. The proposal is well thought-out, thorough, but includes information that I don’t know if I would have thought of. On top of that, it involves collaborations with other schools and areas of study that I have never interacted with.

This leaves me wondering, how does one make these connections? Having connections will certainly assist in being successful in my field.  Maybe it’s easier than I imagine because every researcher is vying for grant money and needs a good collaboration from a neighboring field to successfully obtain it. On the other hand, what niche can I fill that my advisor isn’t already covering? I have a different background but, in the end, they are training us to be them.

Okay, so all that aside, let’s say I get a grant. Now, I have a team of grad students doing the legwork while I assist them to successful results. Sometimes, while I am carrying out a study now, I come to an issue that seems insurmountable. Now, as the principal investigator, I am supposed to know how to solve those issues. For me, I have a hard time knowing the solution unless I have happened upon that problem before. Maybe, it will happen while I’m in grad school, or maybe I’ll know enough about the area of study that I can figure out how to overcome it. But what if neither of those happens? Now, I have a grant that says I am going to do a thing, and I can’t figure out how to get there.

Okay, now on the flip side, what if I never get a grant or I get small grants? I have pressure from the department to take on grad students, so I do, and now their livelihoods depend on my ability to bring in money. Maybe the department will sustain them for a while but that can only last for so long. On top of having no money to support them, they can’t go to conferences which is important if they plan to go into academia.

Aside from this, I asked if I can write a proposal to gain this experience, and I was told that a student can not get PI status at Virginia Tech (or maybe it was my department?) Regardless, there are also very view grants that allow graduate students to apply as the intended PI.

Are other people in graduate school taught these things before finishing their degree? Or do they learn it after they have gotten a tenure-track position?