• 5.0 credits/year describes a full-time undergraduate course load at my school.
  • 5.0 credits/2 years describes a full-time graduate course load at my school.
  • Students may not enroll in more than 3 credits/term (6/year or 1 extra class/term).
  • 400 level courses at my school can count as a 0.5 credit toward either an undergraduate degree or toward a master's degree.
  • An undergraduate student may take a full course load of 400 level courses.

My attempt to answer my question:

  • Perhaps graduate courses require twice the work that undergraduate courses do.
  • But if that were the case, then one could take mostly 400 level courses and do nearly half as much work as she would do if she took graduate courses.
  • Perhaps 400 level courses require the same amount of work (say twice as much) as lower level graduate courses require.
  • But if that were the case, then an undergraduate student who enrolled in a full course load of 400 level courses would have enrolled in a course load equivalent to 5 credits/term when the university calls 3 credits/term an overload and prohibits students from enrolling in more than 3 credits/term.

So why would a full-time master's program require a half-time course load?

  • 10
    Because graduate students are either doing research, teaching, or doing some other job to pay tuition? (The default assumption for undergrads is that they just pay and take classes.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 13:42
  • Hm. Isn't research-time normally worked in with the thesis requirement?
    – Hal
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 17:08
  • 1
    That graduate students take half the coursework of undergraduates is not some kind of universal academic law or even recognizable rule of thumb. It seems very particular to your school. You haven't named your school, which makes it difficult to answer your question (and indeed it has not been answered, after several weeks). Moreover, what goes for your school need not go for others: the question seems rather localized. Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 15:53
  • Well, now there is an answer. What do I know? Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 15:55

3 Answers 3


It's not clear here if you think a 'half-load' of courses is too high, or too low for a Master's.

Here's a perspective from my university. Here, your course work serves two purposes in your masters:

  1. Course work is there to rectify gaps in your background. As a school with a huge international student population, we have a huge amount of variance in skill-sets. As a result courses are there partially in order to help make up for missing background, or to get the students onto more common footing.

  2. Introduction to topics. Here you're admitted without having to declare a supervisor or a topic. The first year of courses serves to introduce students to topics and professors-- possible supervisors.

After two semesters, most students have paired off with supervisors, and have started their research, which will dominate their time for the subsequent 16+ months, until they defend their thesis.

  • Note that it is entirely possible to get a master's degree without doing any research or writing any kind of thesis. (I did.) There is such a large amount of variation across all master's programs... Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 16:40
  • Indeed-- I just thought i'd dump a perspective here as to why at this school, the course requirements are what they are. I am of course reading the question as though s/he believes there ought to be less coursework though.
    – Matthew G.
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 17:46

I cannot speak for your program specifically, but at my university, each hour of class a week represents one credit.(There are a few classes that are different, but for the bulk this is true.) As an undergraduate, full time is considered to be 12-16 credits.

I am now working on my PhD, and full-time is 6-8 credits, so half the number of credits that I was taking, but the amount of time I have to spend outside of these classes is much higher than the classes I took in my undergrad. Couple that with the fact that I'm also teaching classes and doing research, and I am rather busy.

Now, I took some grad classes in my undergrad at an undergrad course load. In general, the professors would grade things differently for the undergrads in grad classes to compensate for the fact that they have more classes to worry about.

That explains a little bit of the difference between grad and undergrad, but also, (I can't say for sure this is the case for your university as I don't know what university you are at, but...) in most grad programs, student's cant just "choose" to take 400 level courses. At my university, 400 level is considered undergraduate, so most graduate programs require courses at the 500-800 level(in which the workload increases quite significantly) You might take one or two lower level courses at the beginning of your grad work if they are prereqs for the higher level courses, but even then, sometimes those don't even count towards your credit requirements.

In my case, all my required courses are 600+, so I don't really have the luxury of taking easy 400 level undergraduate courses.


At my university (in California), graduate classes require more work for the same number of units. This is in addition to our research and other activities. Our university counts 2 units of grad level as equivalent to 3 units of undergrad.

In areas where enrollment is low, the university often has mixed undergrad/grad classes (my current class in cryptography is just such a class). In these classes, the graduate students do all the undergrad work as well as additional work. In this class, we have to read extra (higher level) papers, do extra reports, do extra presentations, etc. In other mixed classes, there have been more difficult tests or extra chapters assigned. I will receive 3 grad level units for this extra work, while the undergrads will receive 3 undergrad level units for their lower level of work. There's no incentive for them to enroll in the grad level class because they won't get their degree any faster. (For financial aid and work/study, the university looks at the student's grade level for determining full time, not the level of the classes they are taking.)

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