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!



5 Replies to “Why do graduate students have to take so many classes?”

  1. I think that Ph.D. students need 12 – 15 credit classes in research methods, theories, and ethics. although classes is a source of income, but it is not the ultimate goal for the graduate school. I believe the aim is to equip the students with adequate knowledge. I really benefitted from my Ph.D. classes and what I’m learning know will contributed toward my dissertation. I’m learning many valuable subjects such as how to appropriately conduct research, how to deal with researches that involve human subjects, how to sampling appropriately, and how narrow your research topic and etc…
    If I started my dissertation without these classes, I would be struggling. Regarding Ph.D. studies, I think the US model is better than the European model. In fact, some universities in Europe are starting to enforce classes which mean that there is a need for few classes before one starts to work in his/her dissertation.

  2. I have had graduate student advisors say they wish graduate students didn’t have to take classes, as it wastes graduate student’s time and detracts from research, which is what a PhD is about. I agree that part of it is likely for making money, and part a doubt of students skills. Though I think departments do want to ensure a certain level of knowledge in graduate students, as if that student leaves with a poor knowledge base, it reflects poorly on the department. This being said I dislike the European system of assigning PhD students projects. Though it speeds up the process, it hinders the growth of PhD students and is a major factor as why American PhD’s can beat European PhD’s for jobs in Europe.

  3. I am in the Civil Engineering department and the department does suggest some necessary background courses but it is not compulsory to enroll in them. I agree that after starting a Ph.D., one does not have enough time to give to graduate level courses. But, I feel that a background knowledge for some interdisciplinary subjects is a must. It might not help one get a Ph.D. but will definitely help in widening the knowledge horizon. And in case you happen to guide a student in the future, who knows some knowledge might come in handy.

  4. I think the purpose of a PhD (advanced degrees more generally) is to educate and allow a student to further develop the ‘skills’ required to be successful in academia/industry. I know this is very much a ‘duh’ moment, but I find myself quite frequently forgetting it. I think being a graduate student it is easy to forget the real purpose of why you are doing the things you are doing. It’s easy to get caught up in your research, deadlines, day to day activities and view requirements (classes for instance) as barriers for achieving the things you (you being a general graduate student, myself included) think you need to be achieving. Sadly, I think there is such a strong emphasis on production of results/papers/ideas/etc that it is easy to forget about the process of education. Personally, I sometimes wish graduate classes were handled a little better (more effort, more education, ect), but I still understand their purpose even if the execution needs refinement. In the same vein, I think the requirements in my own department (CEE) are very reasonable. A direct PhD student has to take 39 course credit hours while a master’s typical ranges anywhere from 24-30 hours depending on type. Therefore, a PhD student (regardless if it is direct or continuing since 15 hours from a masters usually transfers) only need to take 15 additional hours. Factor in the idea that our department ‘required’ classes are extremely lax (requiring 2 of 3 core classes) and you have a lot of flexibility to explore and learn topics that interest you or enhance your work.

  5. I would think that taking a methodology course and maybe a few stat course would be good. More classes just take your research time. It would also be good if you transfer out to other PhD programs you don’t loose much and mobility increases as you don’t need to sacrifice staying in a place you like juts because you can not transfer your courses.

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