Maybe a dumb question, but for example: say I'm doing a PhD in Theoretical Physics (I'm not) but I need to have taken certain undergrad math courses to understand the material, which I never took in undergrad. Do grad students ever end up in undergrad classes for this reason, or do they just learn the material themselves out of books?

  • 7
    It is not unheard of for grad students to be directed to take an upper-level undergrad course during their first year in order to fill in a gap in their background. – John Coleman Jun 13 '20 at 14:00
  • 1
    I took a couple of undergrad courses as a grad. I also TA'ed courses that I've never taken them as courses in my undergrad. It was easier for me to learn and teach at that point. These were some really great learning experiences. – AJed Jun 14 '20 at 1:59
  • 1
    At many cal-state univerisities, the answer is no. As a personal experience, I wanted to get my undergraduate degree in math while getting my masters in physics - even with a verbal “ok” from the administration and signatures from the teachers and chairs of both the physics and math depts, the answer was no (and I effectively wasted a semester by not earning credits for the math course despite passing). Be careful!! – user122705 Jun 14 '20 at 2:27
  • At many universities, lectures are public and everybody may listen to them (of course, there are maximal amounts of people due to fire regulations). – user111388 Jun 14 '20 at 12:25
  • 1
    Please specify the country in the question. – Tommi Jun 15 '20 at 9:01

Depends on institution policies, but usually yes.

That said, the grade you get usually won't matter, and besides you might already know some of the things in the course. You might be better off just focusing on the interesting part then, by self-educating.

  • 3
    Agreed. Just audit the course so that you don’t have to worry about a letter grade. – GrayLiterature Jun 13 '20 at 3:55
  • And auditing is cheaper! – curiousdannii Jun 13 '20 at 11:59
  • 1
    Auditing may be cheaper, but at some institutions it costs the same as taking the course for credit. – Brian Borchers Jun 13 '20 at 20:31
  • ...in which case, just sitting in on the lectures and doing the work on your own is cheaper still. – JeffE Jun 14 '20 at 23:38

As others say, this depends entirely on specific institutional culture and policies. But from my experience (studying/working at various universities in North America and Western Europe):

  1. You can almost certainly audit the class — i.e. go to the lectures, get access to online study materials, etc.

  2. You can probably, but not certainly, take the class — i.e. submit homeworks, take the exam, and get assessment, feedback, and a grade. At some universities, especially in the US, this may incur tuition fees, or count towards an allowance of how many courses you can take. All programmes I’ve been involved in allow this, as far as I know, but I wouldn’t be shocked by an institution that didn’t.

  3. You may or may not be able to use this course as credit towards your PhD requirements. Most PhD programmes require you to take a certain number of courses, but have certain limitations (in both level and topic) on which courses count for this. Some programmes I’ve known have allowed higher-level undergrad courses to count; others haven’t.


There are some institutions where auditing is more expensive than enrolling in a course for credit; often this comes from losing the tax money from the government agency. There are some institutions where there is a pass-fail or pass-no record option; in some cases, a grade of D will either count as a fail, or be reported as a D. In some cases, the professor turns in a letter grade and the registrar changes it to pass, fail, or whatever.

At other schools, there is a Math 505 or some analogous number which is only open to non-math graduate students and covers what they missed in their undergraduate program.

And taking a course for as long as you can and then withdrawing? It may not affect your GPA, but Financial Aid may view that the same as failing the course.

In order not to influence any committees that may decide to pass you or offer you a fellowship, I might ask the main graduate school office of the university(ies) you are interested in, rather than the department, for their answer.

  • And there are institution where all lectures are public and anybody who wishes can just go there. – user111388 Jun 15 '20 at 9:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.