I’m an incoming PhD student deciding on courses to take. A normal course load is 3. There aren’t many being offered this semester, the only third option is a course I took as a MS student last semester at another school (we have no transfer credit policy). I could take the course for a slightly easier A, since my program has high grade standards and my peers seem highly capable. My study adviser suggested this as it would free up time next year to prepare for the qualifying exam. However, I want to continue an old research project from my MS in addition to starting a new research project. During COVID times, I figure a light courseload is best, and any extra time translates to research progress. Next semester I can take 4 courses to make up for it.

After deciding on just 2 courses this semester, my friends and study adviser still suggested I retake the 3rd course. The lectures are just 2.5 hrs a week, but even if they are easy homework/projects might add up and research is my top priority. As for the course material, I loved the course last semester, but with less novel material it might be less interesting.

Should I follow my friends and adviser’s guidance, or should I focus on research now until I finish my old project and have a lighter first PhD/COVID semester?

  • Do you have a research advisor at the new institution, or a faculty member who you'd be working with on your proposed project? Have you asked them for advice? Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:26
  • Are you required to take a certain number of credit hours of classes (either per semester or during the entire PhD program)? Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:38
  • By lightening your course load for next year, I suspect this means the 3rd course would count towards your PhD requirements? Your friends and advisor know your situation best. Additionally, knocking out course requirements is guaranteed to get you closer to graduation, while this research may not.
    – kjacks21
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:41
  • I am required to take 10 courses in the first 2 years. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:50
  • 1
    I disagree that research doesn’t get me closer to my goals - no one will care about my grades so long as I graduate. What matters is how many publishable discoveries I make. Courses, while enjoyable, are just checklists I need to mark off. I guess it is better to do so sooner, but with COVID I feel like now is not the time to overload. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:52

1 Answer 1


PhD students are judged on their research publications, not their coursework. It is good strategy to minimize the time you spend on courses.

we have no transfer credit policy

If there is no policy, ask for one.

I would recommend taking a low effort course over a high effort course; not to reduce effort expended, but to direct that effort to research. If a course helps you with your research, then take it.

I would not recommend lowering your coursework efforts to the point that you fail; in that case you will need to repeat the effort, which is not efficient.

  • This is not right, my PhD programs are very clear: if you fail courses you get removed. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:59
  • @FourierFlux That's an unusual consequence for failing one course, but no matter what the consequences of failing are, I do not recommend it. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 4:00
  • While I like this answer, it is a bit general. Should I take this easier A course now, even when I could fill my plate with promising research? Or maybe there always be plenty of research, and I should take this opportunity to knock a course req out? But my old/new projects right now are so cool, and the advisers would both like sooner results. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 4:05
  • There is a strict GPA requirement my graduate school takes very seriously. One screwup is fixable, maybe. Two though? You're done. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 4:36

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