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I'm a Ph.D student who needs to take coursework each semester and also (obviously) do research. I find some of the coursework assignments particularly interesting and I end up spending a lot more time than necessary, sometimes doing extra bits that are not really required to get a full grade. The assignment problems do have this small statement at the end that says something to the effect of -"you are encouraged to provide additional observations", giving a small open-ended dimension to each problem.

I tend to go the extra-mile route often as I am a bit inquisitive by nature and provide extra observations/validations to claims.

My concern is if this practice is healthy or harmful. One school of thought goes along the line of - "Just do bare minimum on coursework and focus more on your research", which I agree makes sense, since the amount of research work in itself is a massive chunk. I do feel that my assignment has taken up a lot of my time which I could have otherwise devoted for research.

The counter reasoning from my side has has been - grad school/Ph.D programs are what provide the setting to think and do beyond what is asked, and thus I should do the extra-bits if I am compelled to.

May be I am too idealistic, I am not sure. Some perspective and advice on this inner conflict would be helpful.

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  • In my experience, students who go the extra mile in coursework become better researchers (on average) than those who don't. Just make sure that this doesn't become a way of procrastinating necessary research work.
    – Roland
    Nov 24 at 6:26

3 Answers 3

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Every person is different and so the balance will vary with each person. If you have the time for it, I think going beyond the minimum in the courses would be a long term plus if you intend to stay in academia.

An academic needs a broad view of their field and possibly related fields as well as deep and specific knowledge of their main research area. The coursework provides the former and the research the latter.

But it would be a bit of a problem (more than a bit, actually) if you get too distracted and end up with poor research results, or too slow progress toward finishing.

In the US, the major coursework comes prior to starting dissertation research, and prior to qualifying exams in most fields, so the question doesn't arise so much.

Do what you must. Do what you can.

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  • Thank you very much. Your response provides some needed perspective. Side note: I am studying in a public US university. In my University, pretty much all Ph.D students start their program with coursework and research in parallel.
    – Neb Uer
    Nov 24 at 2:03
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I think you should try to consciously "evaluate" your learning from your "going the extra mile". By this I mean, you should ask yourself what kind of benefit the experience of doing these extra things may give you, apart from just having fun the moment you do them. In many cases I believe that this is very valuable. You train you problem solving skills and some of this may give you some information or skill that will be useful later, even if only in a rather general "having a better overview of problems/more experience in a field" way. You may later encounter problems that are similar and your experience gathered in this way may be of use. Obviously this is a bit speculative, and cannot be taken for granted. In some cases it may be rather pointless, and you may even have a sense that it is, if you consciously ask yourself. You can also ask a supervisor for their opinion about this. In any case it will depend on what exactly are you doing and how this is related to your future plans (maybe long term like staying in academia and coming up with your own research ideas).

I have done such things often and would say it has generally served me well, although I could have been a bit more selective.

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This is a question of nuance, which general guidelines such as "do the bare minimum" rarely provide. At the end of the day, you can do more if:

  • You feel you are learning a lot from going the extra mile, particularly if what you learn is also relevant to your research or your development as a researcher - or you simply enjoy doing it a lot, and see it as a hobby of sorts
  • And you are not spending so much time on it that your research suffers (spending an hour more than necessary on the ocassional assignment is unproblematic, spending a full week on something that could have also been done in a morning is a different story).

At the end of the day, I suggest to not overthink it. You can of course spend more than the absolute minimum time on course work, as long as it's not getting out of hand and you are not just doing it because that's what you have always done during your undergrad. Nobody manages their time down to the hour and minute, and everybody does some things during a work day that are not directly contributing to their research - for you it might be extra work in course work, for me it's writing this Stack Overflow answer.

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  • Your second bullet point pretty much summed up my issue. Appreciate the perspective provided.
    – Neb Uer
    Nov 26 at 0:14
  • @NebUer Well, if you actually spend days or full weeks on something that should be done in a few hours, then yes - this is wasteful and should be avoided. But that's not doing "a bit" extra, as you say in your title ;)
    – xLeitix
    Nov 27 at 11:05
  • @NebUer I think the comparison to answering SO questions is pretty good - nobody gets upset if workers (or students) spend 20 minutes while drinking coffee answering a SO question, but if I were to spend a full week researching a topic to write a perfect answer that would be a different story.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 27 at 11:07

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