I've received conflicting advice as to whether I should choose my coursework based on my research topic or not. The main pro usually is that I'll quickly be able to get up to speed on my research. The con is usually that there are so many other courses that I could take, in which I could learn topics I may not ever have a chance to formally learn, and given the constant need to hunt for funding, I may never have a chance to put aside and study in-depth again. Any definitive answers to this topic?

7 Answers 7


I don't think a "definitive" answer is possible, but the following is based on personal experience and observation of many other students.

If your advisor is okay with it, take as many courses as you can in things that interest you and are in the realm of your discipline. As an applied math grad student, one of the best things I did was to take a graduate course in optimization from the CS department, even though I thought it had nothing to do with my thesis (in numerical discretization of PDEs). It ended up being crucial and allowing me to publish at least one paper that I never would have written if I hadn't taken that course. I also took courses in things like astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and turbulence; I don't use those things much but I can converse with scientists in those fields, which is often useful.

Of course, I didn't take, say, philosophy or Italian or business management courses -- stick to courses related to your field. And make sure that whoever is paying you is okay with it.


As with David Ketcheson, I don't think a definitive answer is possible, but here are my thoughts:

  • It depends on the attitude of your program. Are they trying to ramrod you through your coursework as swiftly as possible? Do they support "dabbling" in other aspects of your graduate career - side projects, practicums, etc.? The answer will likely change wildly depending on those answers.
  • How set is your "research topic"? I've bounced around several in my time - I think picking up skills that might be useful trumps "Is it directly relevant to Thesis Aim #1". After all, the moment you get out of your PhD program, your research agenda changes again. If all you have is a hammer, and what you'd really like to do is research screws, you're in trouble. If on the other hand, you took 'Seminar in Advanced Screwdriver Theory'...
  • When it comes down to it, do you need to "take" the course, or do you just want to learn the material? I've sat in on several classes (my university doesn't have a formal auditing system) because I wanted to hear what they had to say. That's a nice, low risk way of expanding one's horizons.

I've found if nothing else it widens your contacts in the university, gives you a better feel for "Surely someone in Department X knows how to deal with that...", etc.


If you are interested in a teaching job, my answer is yes, definitely. You may be asked to teach some courses that are not in your field, or even before it happens, the search committee may want someone who can teach a wide range of courses.



How do you know in advance what's going to be useful later? The wider a net you cast, the more tools you have at your disposal.


I think this does depend a lot on the kind of person you are/ the way of job you like to have.

I studied IT, but I visited a broad variety of courses. Even history, chinese for beginners, and some other stuff which you might think is not related to my field of work. I don't regret it!

But as a Software Engineer it's actually important to understand a lot of different fields. As you can be on projects that differ a lof from each other.

Also you propably can widen your personal network of contacts, if you go to class with students that you didn't know before!

I would stick to the topics you are interrested in, instead of ending up as an unhappy person after your studies.


In graduate school, you have to maintain a higher GPA than an undergrad. In some schools I've been to, a C lands you on probation, and a second C gets you dismissed. In my view, this means that courses too far away from your core research will be excessively risky. I dislike this, as it means that I can't afford to learn things that stretch my boundaries.


As @EpiGrad, @JeffE, and @Swiss Coder said, you should learn about subjects that are outside the direct focus of your research. This provides you with knowledge and tools you might otherwise never obtain. I would add though, that it is rarely wise to take a course in something you have no interest in simply for the sake of "knowledge". However, if you are truly interested in something, don't scrap the possibility of taking the course just because it is not directly part of your research topic. Higher education is intended to help us become well-rounded humans,not force us into the narrow trench of knowing only about a specific field.

Also consider, of course, whether you really need to take a course on this, or if there are other ways to learn what you want to know. Auditing a course is a good option, especially if you don't need to receive credit for it. There are also numerous online options for learning,on your own time and without tuition costs. For myself, though, online learning without the support of a professor and peers rarely works well. I need the motivation of knowing that someone is tracking my progress.

So definitely explore subjects outside "your" area of expertise, and keep in mind that a formal course may not be the only or best option.

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