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I'm currently doing a PhD in computational biology, but I have other interests like music and ceramics, and I'm lucky enough to be at a university with excellent programs in both. I've wanted to take a course in either of these fields for the 3 semesters so far I've been here, but my advisor won't approve and sign off on them. I have a free slot this spring and I really want to take a course just for fun, and to learn from the world-renowned instructors. I've tried negotiating about just taking an evening class, or having my work for him improve since I'll be happier overall, but he's just stuck on "this isn't your field". Who's being unreasonable here?

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    Is there a reason you would have to officially register for or enroll in the class? Would the instructor be willing to have you audit unofficially? – Alexander Woo Jan 10 at 22:24
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    Are you paying tuition yourself, or is it being paid by a dept. fellowship, research grant, or similar? – ff524 Jan 10 at 23:31
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    When I was a materials science grad student, courses in any related field were pretty much fair game (engineering, math, and sciences). Outside of STEM, not at all. Why? All the STEM areas knew that they generally had about as many students taking courses outside of their home departments as 'foreign' students taking courses inside their departments, so they basically declared it all a wash on paying tuition. But, for an engineering student to take a course in the music department required a real transfer of money to the music department. That was where the problem was. So no music classes. – Jon Custer Jan 10 at 23:53
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    @AlexanderWoo Auditing is often a good option, but something like ceramics is likely to require hands-on work with materials & equipment that need to be paid for. – Geoffrey Brent Jan 11 at 0:15
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Just turn up for the class. Don't register; just sit-in. Afterwards, explain to the instructor that you're studying a PhD in computational biology and that you have a personal interest in the course. You won't get credit, but you're fulfilling a personal interest, not an academic requirement.

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    I'll add: it might depend a little on the inherent costs of the course and whether the instructor would mind / have extra costs because of you. If the course really has no costs on a per pupil basis, and no physical seat limit, the instructor is likely to be happy to have a student who is there because they want to be. Talk to the instructor. – Van Jan 11 at 15:51
  • I agree with this. Even my own thesis adviser takes a course at my university in an area completely unrelated to his field. It's a great opportunity to learn something new for free. – Grad student Jan 12 at 5:01
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    I don't like this answer. I find it rude to show up in a class where the institution is requiring everyone else present to pay to be present. If you want to audit a course, contact the professor teaching the course first: they may or may not be okay with you attending as an "unofficial"/unregistered auditor. Don't be sneaky about it, it reflects poorly on you. – Bryan Krause Jan 12 at 6:43
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    It's also likely against school policy and an instructor who permits unenrolled attendance (where students could reasonably audit) faces political issues. This is because for every enrolled student, credit or not, the department gets a slice of the tuition money pot. Every unenrolled student means the department is losing out on thousands of dollars of funding they are otherwise entitled to. (Likewise, when you enroll, your department and advisor are losing out on their slice of your tuition payments) – user71659 Jan 12 at 17:57
  • @BryanKrause This isn't about auditing and I'd answer differently if it were. It isn't about being sneaky nor about deceptive, I recommend speaking to the instructor. This is a practical solution that avoids wasting anyone's time. It is a solution that is recommended by departments I've worked at and is typical amongst students. – user2768 Jan 14 at 8:10
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Do I have "the right" as a grad student to take a class just for fun?

I think phrasing the question as you did is slightly the wrong way of looking at the situation. It is more correct to say that you have the right to be treated with respect by your advisor. This includes having the advisor recognize that you are an intelligent human being with many dreams, hopes, ambitions, and a rich set of interests that go far beyond “doing research in computational biology”, and that the years you are now spending at a university community with leading experts in so many fascinating areas of human knowledge are an amazing and unique opportunity for you to pursue those interests and grow and develop as a person.

To be honest, I feel sorry for your advisor for being so short-sighted and narrow-minded that he cannot understand why taking these classes is important to you. It does not sound like he is treating you with the respect you deserve, and by failing to respect you I think he is also failing to respect himself and to be the decent person that I assume he wants to be and might believe himself to be.

Finally, your question reminds me of a part of Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford. Talking about his days as a college dropout taking random classes to pursue his eclectic interests, he says:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.[...]

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.

I know this doesn’t help with the practical question of what you should do, which others have commented about, but I thought I’d offer my take on the philosophical aspect of your question. Keep dreaming, and good luck!

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I once took courses that were not directly in my field. I think it is appropriate but I would just listen to your advisor -- it's easier in the long run. Perhaps take some courses / participate in events at a place like a church, the Y, student groups or clubs, etc.

NOTE: At some places, they expect grad school to be your ENTIRE life, so this is not unexpected, though perhaps not fair. My advisor wasn't like that.

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    If you are a graduate student with tuition remission, you aren't paying your tuition, someone else is, and generally people paying for things for you get some say in how that money is spent. That 'someone else' is probably not your advisor, it could be a government agency for example. This is the not the same as "I want to pay to take a cooking class at night and my advisor won't let me" – Bryan Krause Jan 11 at 1:28
  • True, but under some registrations, one pays the same whether one is taking an 18 credit load or a 9 credit load, so it depends on the particular situation. – JosephDoggie Jan 14 at 13:45
  • That may be, but that's not how the university accounting works behind the scenes. Even if you cost the same amount, the way that money is distributed across departments is going to be weighted according to your credit load. If you are an engineering student taking mostly classes in the engineering department and then you add one in music, that's money the engineering department expected to come back to themselves that is now going somewhere else. Additionally, if that money was from a govt source earmarked for your engineering education it might be against their rules. – Bryan Krause Jan 14 at 16:01
  • I'm pretty sure my advisor wouldn't have approved it if it was against the rules, but it was a long time ago -- I got my Ph. D. more than 25 years ago, and I think this was a few years before that (probably 4) – JosephDoggie Jan 14 at 21:09
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Ask the graduate program director in your department, or some other department administrator. Ask in general terms, with neutral language. That is, avoid terms such as "unreasonable" and avoid finger pointing.

If the answer is "It's perfectly all right, and it's none of the advisor's business, as long as the student strikes a good work-life balance," then go ahead and describe your difficulty. I expect you could get a department signature. (Avoid unnecessary conflict, and don't tell your advisor you made an end run around him.)

If I were the department administrator, I would sign your form with alacrity, and say

I'm glad you've found a rewarding hobby.

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Do you have to formally ask your advisor for approval as a result of actual rules? If not, I would just take the course and not mention it to your advisor. It's like any other extra-curricular thing you might do but not mention to your advisor, like, I don't know, joining a tennis team.

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    Generally, "just do it behind your advisor's back" isn't great advice, especially if the advisor is not of the understanding / reasonable type. – xLeitix Jan 11 at 9:04
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    This needs to be balanced against being obsequious, though; one needs to be an independent researcher and contributor from a professional point of view; one is just learning to live in the 'real' (post-undergrad) world too at this point, too. In general, I agree it's hard to make blanket statements though because profs vary wildly from potentially criminal-levels of stalking-based micromanagement on the one side, to not being debatably even still living on the other. – ijoseph Jan 11 at 22:07
  • I like @user2768's suggestion to merely turn up though, more than even my answer here. Since formal credit won't matter for this course anyway, it's pretty much the correct approach. – ijoseph Jan 11 at 22:10
  • The OP references that the advisor "won't sign off on it", which heavily implies that he does need the advisor's approval, and so taking it without approval is not really an option. – cag51 Jan 12 at 15:47
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    @cag51 possibly. In my opinion, it's equally likely that he merely feels that he needs his advisors approval, even if he does not according to written program rules. I agree that it's possible, however, that it is required according to program rules. This is due to direct experience of the former scenario during my Ph.D. – ijoseph Jan 14 at 0:40
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There isn't an absolute answer to the question: the rights and responsibilities of a student vary between universities, and are probably set out in writing somewhere. At my university, any student could attend lectures in almost any subject (practical labs and medicine are the exceptions that I can recall), although etiquette was to ask permission from the lecturer in advance.

Without seeing the regulations for your university, we can make some inferences.


Do I have “the right” as a grad student to take a class just for fun?

I think you answer that question yourself:

my advisor won't approve and sign off on them.

If you need approval from your supervisor, then you don't have the (unrestricted) right.


However, the body asks a different question to the title:

Who's being unreasonable here?

To answer that, you have to get at why you need your advisor to approve and sign off.

Are the courses you take assessed to determine your progress? If so, your advisor is being reasonable: unless you can show how studying music or ceramics will improve your understanding of biology, the course would skew the assessment.

Do the courses need to be paid for? If so, who's paying?

If it comes down to thinking that you should be thinking about biology 24/7 then the advisor is being unreasonable, but the need to obtain approval hints at a good reason.

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Well, maybe you are both being unreasonable. Do you have the "right"? Of course you do. Do you have the right to do it while committing to your current degree program. Perhaps, or not. That would depend on the rules in place at your institution as well as the wishes of your advisor.

I'm just going to guess that the advisor is concerned that you will not spend sufficient effort on the tasks associated with the degree if you take something extraneous. That may be a legitimate concert. It would be especially important if you are doing joint lab work with others.

It is normally a bad idea to go against your advisor's wishes. He has some say in your future and you want him to be happy to support you now and in the future. After you finish you can do as you please, of course.

You could also, take a course from a different institution. That would add to your load, of course and the advisor might still object if he learns of it, based on your level of commitment.

Perhaps the advisor is telling you something important about his view of your progress and what you need to do to succeed in comp-bio. Think about it.

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    Think about it — Better yet, ask your advisor about it directly. If your advisor wants to tell you something important, they should use their words. – JeffE Jan 10 at 22:56
  • @JeffE, actually, I meant only to think about the consequences of doing things that might distract you from your research and the things you need to do to succeed. – Buffy Jan 11 at 10:20
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    The consequences of doing things that might distract someone from their research are clear only in retrospect, but typically, one of those consequences is sanity. – JeffE Jan 11 at 18:51

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