I have been looking into PhD programs in the Engineering field, and I have found different types of programs, such as some with coursework, and others without any coursework.

What is the practical difference between them? (Besides the obvious coursework) What kind of student is expected for each of them?

EDIT: To be more specific, I have been looking into Robotics PhD programs, such as:

  • It might be great if you were more specific about which engineering fields you are talking about and/or including links to the different types of programs you've found... – TCSGrad Feb 16 '12 at 6:39
  • As far as I know (which is little), coursework PhD programs tend to let you shape your thesis by learning incrementally from courses till you are better off on your own. For instance, if you were doing a PhD in Supercomputing; They would probably ask you to take "core courses" like Computer Hardware, Software and Design of Programs along with a few "electives" to strengthen a certain aspect and leave you on your own. Non-coursework, on the other hand, is like a full time job with research (and possibly, teaching) duties. You shape your thesis by interacting with advisors and reading books. – user107 Feb 16 '12 at 6:53
  • @shan23 Done, see edited question. – Matias Valdenegro Feb 16 '12 at 20:35
up vote 18 down vote accepted

It seems to me that there are several advantages; none of these are suitable for every student. It's up to you whether enough of them apply to you, to make it worth doing a taught PhD:

  1. A PhD with a bit of coursework in the first year will help those who are crossing over into a discipline that they're not already deeply embedded in: it will give you some hand-holding through the things you'll need to know but don't yet;
  2. it should (if taught well) also teach you some extra research skills;
  3. it will give you some indication as you progress as to how well you're doing, compared to how well you should be doing if you're going to finish
  4. it will allow you to explore different aspects of the field, to help you finalise your thesis topic
  5. it may, depending on the country and institution, give you an intermediate degree at the end of the taught section, such as an MRes, which will count for something even if you then don't go on to do the full PhD
  6. it lessens the culture-shock for those going straight from fully-taught study to a research degree.
  • 8
    "..it lessens the culture-shock for those going straight from fully-taught study to a research degree.." +1 – user107 Feb 16 '12 at 7:15
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    Also +1 for the culture shock. Very true. Describes my situation exactly. – Austin Henley Apr 19 '13 at 15:40
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    Coming from industry + masters, I found the class requirements annoying as they got in the way of me doing research full time. We had 9 required courses and only 2 of them provided any real value to my research. The major unseen benefit of classes is that their difficulty pushed me to make friends "in the trenches" of group projects and assignments. These friendships lasted throughout the rest of my PhD. – y3sh Jun 16 '15 at 17:16

One thing to keep in mind is that there are international differences as well. In Germany, for instance, doctoral programs almost never require coursework as part of the research program requirements (although it may be mandated for purposes off establishing degree equivalency, if you come from a foreign country or have a degree from another field). This is because it is assumed that you have taken all the necessary courses as part of your Master's program, which is considered the follow up to the bachelor's rather than the precursor to the doctorate.

The reverse is true in the US: I don't know of any PhD programs there that don't require courses, for the reverse reason.

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    Does this mean that non-coursework PhD programs require that students have previously finished a Masters degree? – Matias Valdenegro Feb 16 '12 at 20:37
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    In Germany, it does; however, for programs in other countries, you'll need to check the admissions policy of the individual programs. These are usually available on the Internet; if not, you can always send an email or call the personnel responsible for admissions. – aeismail Feb 16 '12 at 20:45

Also, a coursework PhD program is very useful for someone (like me) who took a break from academia to work for a couple of years - it would be invaluable in refreshing those basics that have atrophied during the time spent at industry.

Sometimes, especially in the beginning, it is easier to measure course progress than research progress, and thus good for the self-esteem. Being able to say "I've accomplished something this semester" is crucial.

  • Doesn't the extra workload from courses mean that to some extent, you will only get around to start concentrating on the research in year 2 and make comparably little research progress then? – O. R. Mapper Jun 17 '15 at 16:19

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