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I am in the last semester of my undergraduate degree in computer science. I plan to apply for masters and PhD positions thereafter. I did not have a good classroom experience in my bachelor's programme – I did not find my professors to be great (in terms of knowledge, research or teaching). As a result, I soon lost interest in my courses [1]. To be fair, many of my peers enjoyed the very same courses and excelled in them due to their interest.

Due to these experiences, I am not interested in doing courses further – I also realised that I learn much better on my own and while doing research. On my own, I don't have to stick to a curriculum decided by someone else and can move in and out of material, as required by my research, which would otherwise span a wide variety of courses. Thus, I am partial to programmes offering full-time research opportunities with little to no coursework.

A large part of my research has involved reading papers on new techniques and figuring out how these techniques worked, how they were implemented, reimplementing them myself, etc. This required a fair bit of figuring things out by myself, which I found to be very different from coursework – where you had a professor, TAs, tutors, office hours, etc which provided an extensive support system.

My question is, how closely are research and coursework linked in academia? Would it raise eyebrows if I were to say to someone in academia "I like doing research, but dislike doing coursework"?

Now as I understand, through my SOP I have an opportunity to convince the admissions committee about why I am a good fit for this programme and vice versa. In such a scenario, I am very tempted to include the following points in my argument, because they are absolutely true and form the crux of why I am interested in such programmes (primarily applying in the US):

  • I dislike doing coursework.

  • I have quite a bit of research experience where I have performed well without doing coursework.

  • I learn better on my own and while doing research, as my research experience shows.

  • This programme will allow me to pursue research uninhibited by distracting courses, which is exactly what I want.

But this is where I am confused. Will this unabashed honesty work in my favour? This is primarily because the vast majority of researchers I have interacted with happen to be professors – and as such have been very involved in teaching courses. Moreover, since they do spend a fair amount of their time teaching, they also invite students who do well in their courses to join their research. Now I understand there are also independent research organisations who are not directly involved in teaching, but the ones which I have had the experience of working with have invariably been associated with a partner university and involved in sharing of researchers, professors and students.

[1] Due to the vast number of questions on this site regarding grades, I wish to categorically state that this question is not about addressing bad grades. Indeed, I don't wish to address this issue at all because although I was not very excited with my coursework, I made average grades and directly dived into various research endeavours. This allowed me to accumulate substantial research experience and include impressive research positions on my resume, including a prestigious scholarship. This, I believe, already compensates my not-so-good grades (as I have received offers from reputed research institutes based on this profile). My question is only about the aspect of 'not liking coursework'.

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You would certainly be an exceptional case. Some would interpret that as a difficult case. When you don't fit the expected mold it is harder to evaluate you. That doesn't mean that you are at a disadvantage, necessarily, but you would be at some places that aren't very flexible.

I think that a research focus at the MS level is more typical in Europe than in the US, however, so you might consider location as you look for a position. In some fields in the US research is also dominant, of course.

But even in the US, if you can make contact with a professor or two at the graduate level who might be willing to give you a close look, you might be fine. However, many programs have fairly strict rules about things. You might, be able to do independent study to cover many of them, but that can be intensive for the faculty, so don't expect too many concessions unless you are exceptional in the positive sense as well.

Your real problem, however, is that if you don't follow the "accepted" course of study you are liable to miss some things that it is valuable to know. The advantage of coursework is that someone has seen the bigger picture and has selected topics that are useful and given thought to how you can develop skill in those areas. Missing that can be a long term disadvantage, so tread carefully and seek advice on your personal academic journey.

  • Thank you for your answer, I can appreciate most of the points you made. However, I seem to have missed the point of the third paragraph of your answer completely. "... if you can make contact with a professor... be fine" do you mean someone who is interested to take me on as a student and could weigh in with their opinion to the admissions committee? – James Bond Oct 13 '18 at 16:17
  • Also, by "many programs have fairly strict rules about things... cover many of them". Do you mean programmes have rules about students having done prior coursework? And if I were to do independent study to cover up, why would that be intensive for the faculty? I'm sorry if I'm misunderstanding your point completely. – James Bond Oct 13 '18 at 16:20
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    No, actually. Many MS programs require coursework in specific areas. Especially in the US. You will need to deal with that issue somehow. And yes, to the first comment. Someone who will try to convince the admissions system that the normal rules don't apply. But it is an uphill road. Maybe bumpy. – Buffy Oct 13 '18 at 16:23
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While I can sympathise with this, having once had an (excellent) student in a course with a similar take on things, part of the coursework exercise is discipline, also in doing things that you do not like.

Unless you are absolutely brilliant (say, Terence Tao-level), you will likely come to a point where you pay a price for having holes in your education due your nonconformist syllabus, potential lack of contacts, and unconventional approach. You will very likely to strongly have to compensate for this, unless you are very lucky finding an understanding prof who will support you.

Now, you say, you have already something to show for it, such as scholarships and research projects; if you have publications, say, you might convince people to take you on as, say, a PhD student, even if your grades are mediocre.

Does the lack of your coursework experience affect your research capabilities? It is possible, because you will not be acquainted with the standard techniques that everyone in your field is expected to know. Where this is critical depends on whether your research - otherwise - is sufficiently strong. If it is, you might have the ability to compensate for your lack of standard education.

However, keep in mind that, in the end of the day, if you wish to survive in academia, you will have to take into account that there will be other things you have to do apart from coursework, that you will not be pleased to do and will be difficult to avoid.

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    Indeed, the people designing the curriculum aren't infallible, but they know more than a student does about what's important for a researcher to know. – user37208 Oct 15 '18 at 14:04
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"Will this unabashed honestly work in my favour?" Nope.

Stay away from the negatives and stick to emphasizing the positives. Course grades tells us both the skills you have accumulated as well as your potential for the future. Quite frankly, if you were a better candidate (defined as well-prepared in fundamentals, good study habits, seriousness about succeeding, etc.), you'd still have "held your nose" and aced the classes. Not succeeding in one aspect you were tested on is just going to be a negative. In the real word a job is not always just the fun stuff you enjoy doing either. Sounds like you will do fine despite it, however. There's a lot of competition to get into grad school, but also a lot of schools. Sounds like you're well above the supply vs. demand cutoff there.

Also as for grad school, standardized test scores scores are another thing we look at to identify potential, apart from grades.

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    I like your point about "holding my nose" – even though it makes me a little uncomfortable. I never thought about it from that perspective. I always looked at university from a very self-serving perspective – cherry picking what I wanted to learn and ignoring what I didn't (even when that included crucial evaluation components). I think where you're coming from is that this self-serving was not well-thought-out keeping in mind my long-term goals of research. – James Bond Oct 13 '18 at 16:10
  • I would argue with your point about standardized test scores—it's very discipline-dependent and many schools are starting to deemphasize their importance. Some schools are now even starting to drop the requirement that students even submit such scores. – aeismail Oct 14 '18 at 18:19
  • My CS department does not look at standardized test scores in grad admissions. Neither does MIT. – JeffE Oct 15 '18 at 4:27
  • Regarding test scores, that was not the "royal we"; I literally meant to specify that my department does. Obviously one cannot speak for every admissions committee in every department. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 15 '18 at 16:47
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Yes, honesty will work in your favor.

You will not be accepted by a program/professor who will later abandon you once they discover you were hiding these things about your work style and production.

However, this might mean you do not get accepted to any programs.

One concern after reading your question: You describe part of your research as "reading papers on new techniques and figuring out how these techniques worked, how they were implemented, reimplementing them myself".

That is not research, unless you are generating new knowledge in the "reimplementing them myself" part. That sounds more like you enjoy learning new things, but that you are not as interested in creating new things. Coursework is important because it helps you understand whether something you want to create is a "new" thing or whether it has already been done. Your lack of interest in coursework implies you might think you have many good "new" ideas that power brokers in academia with a better understanding of current topics/fads in the literature will think are stale or unpromising.

The first part of a PhD program is usually about learning new things--hence coursework and comp exams, etc--but there is a crucial transition from learning to producing new things in order to finish a PhD and have an academic career.

That might be your weak spot. Don't waste several years of your life in a PhD program if what you enjoy is learning new things, especially given all the things about PhD/academic life it appears you will really not enjoy.

  • Good points. But let me clarify: what I meant by "figuring things out, reimplementing them myself" holds only for when I am surveying literature. I like to implement the exact technique mentioned in the paper to get a better understanding. Later, I of course work on my own contributions. – James Bond Oct 21 '18 at 10:02

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