I'm enrolled in the last doctoral-level course required for my PhD, and the course material is very difficult, requires a tremendous amount of time, and yet has no relevance to my research. I'm a hard worker who regularly puts in 90+ hour weeks balancing a full time job, research and course work. I'm no slacker, and I love a challenge; I'm no genius, but have a near-perfect GPA.

The course is infamous among students, and I discovered that, due to its difficulty, most students simply resort to cheating on the problem sets, copying answers from prior years. Meanwhile, I've regularly sought assistance from the instructor and TA, and reached out to fellow students in the course (no other student seems interested in working/studying together). You know, the typical things any intelligent adult would do. The problem sets alone occupy about 40 hours a week of my time - yes, really, and I am typically an efficient person.

Sure, I get the fact that the course is helping to identify a weakness in my knowledge of this domain, but it also has little bearing on my research. What are some strategies in dealing with this situation? The course is my "last requirement barrier" to being free to focus solely on research.

Informing the instructor about the cheating would be unwise, because I know that this has happened in the past, and that the instructor simply makes the remaining work impossibly difficult and rescinds assistance. It would just make the situation worse.

"Talk to your advisor" is an obvious thing to do, but my machismo and refusal to fail makes we want to seek other options besides begging to be able to not have to take the course. Any ideas?

I'm really touched and appreciative of the responses. I've chosen to "stick it out" and significantly de-prioritize other obligations besides my job and this one course. I'll update this drama at the end of the semester so others can see what happened.
With one month left in the semester, I've dropped the course. "Toughing it out" has been a rather futile waste of effort. Details below.
The midterm exam had problems that were barely related to any of the lecture topics or problem sets; no assimilation or synthesis, no re-application, and no exam problem was even in the ballpark of our coursework. Despite my preparations, it was not an exam one could prepare for. I welcome and believe in tough exams, but this was absurd; it was as if the exam was from an entirely different course.

Details of a term project have been released with only one month left in the semester, leaving little time to accomplish a very significant project. It's too bad, because I welcome the challenge and it seems fun. But the scope of the project, in addition to upcoming problem sets that alone take 40 hours a week, is a bit unreasonable at this point.

I do encourage others to stick out a tough course by removing other commitments and focusing on succeeding in the course (e.g. doing nothing but the coursework). It's just not possible in my case.

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    You mention a full-time job -- is this approved by your program? Most PhD programs explicitly disallow having another job at the same time, for precisely these reasons. Also, are you sure your GPA matters? Neither I nor my professors nor anyone I'm applying to for jobs has any idea what my PhD GPA is, and none of us could care less.
    – user4512
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 22:21
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    WHO requires this course? In a sane PhD program, course selection is up to the student and advisor, with some restrictions from the university/department, such as only counting graduate-level courses toward the degree, but individual classes aren't specifically required. If your advisor is insisting on this one, then perhaps your belief that it has "no relevance to my research" is in error. If someone else is mandating it, maybe your advisor can push through a waiver.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 22:22
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    In a sane PhD program...individual classes aren't specifically required — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 23:15
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    A PhD is a full time job. Your problem is trying to do two full-time jobs at once, and you're burning out. There is no problem with this situation - it is the expected outcome. This is like an alcoholic complaining that they behave like a moron and then lose consciousness when trying to drink three bottles of vodka every night. What did you expect would happen?
    – J...
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 13:17
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    Most students simply resort to cheating on the problem sets, copying answers from prior years... That makes me wonder: What kinds of "problems" are in these problem sets? Why are the solutions so readily available, and where are students finding them?
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 15:23

8 Answers 8


Perhaps you should consider not trying to do all the problem sets.

If you only spent, say, 20 hours on each problem set, what would the consequences be? Maybe you could still complete 75% of the problems, and skip the most difficult or time-consuming ones. And maybe you'd still learn the material almost as well.

It sounds like you're not terribly concerned about the material in this class with regard to your research (though I would get a second opinion from your advisor on that - there could be connections that you simply don't know about). If so, then your motivation for taking the class is just because it's required. So try to estimate the minimum amount of work needed to pass the class, and make sure you're doing at least that much; but perhaps it's not worth it to push for a perfect grade.

In many graduate classes, one could skip a large fraction of the coursework and still get a grade of B. People will know you didn't do a great job in the class, but it won't get you kicked out of the program. And unlike the situation in undergrad programs, where every GPA point can seem critical in the race for grad school or a good job, in many contexts graduate GPA means practically nothing. People will look at your thesis, your papers, your advisor's opinion of your work - but your transcript gets only a cursory glance.

Given the difficult circumstances and the lack of other good options, I think this might be worth seriously considering. Of course you will have to set aside your "machismo and refusal to fail" - but these traits, taken to an extreme, can be a serious detriment to success in grad school, academic life, careers, etc. So you're going to want to learn how to temper them anyway, the sooner the better. Keep in mind that a B is not a failure; it's a strategic decision to prioritize other things. A good general doesn't try to win every battle; sometimes retreat is the best option in the long run.

  • Problem sets are a 1/3 of the final grade, and I know the exams will be equally painful - hence the need to get as many of those problem set points as possible.
    – ybakos
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 18:08
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    @ybakos: Okay, but if you get 75% of the problem set points, that's only an 8% reduction in your final grade. Graduate courses often have a lot more grade inflation than people realize, so the overall effect may not actually be so great. There's a cold-hearted calculation to be made here - I know you want to give this your best effort, but it may not actually be worth the rewards. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 18:10
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    I'm not concerned about my GPA, rather, I'm more concerned with putting in an immense amount of work only to find that I fail to receive a passing grade (B) in the course.
    – ybakos
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 0:30
  • One thing that you don't address, at least for the US, is fellowship applications during the graduate career. A grade of B in a class will often put your application in the trash pile in today's competitive, low funding climate, unless you have some very well known papers already published...but otherwise yes, grades don't really matter unless you fail a class.
    – daaxix
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 5:21

Your description of your PhD program makes it sound quite unhealthy. There is a required course that students can only pass by cheating, the faculty have been apprised of this and that "only makes it worse"? Yikes. If the students don't care about academic integrity and the faculty don't care about the students, then things are dysfunctional to say the least.

It is not reasonable for one required course in a PhD program to take 40 hours a week of a student's time: that's a full work week. Spending that much time in the course in order to pass it doesn't make sense to me: something else will suffer in your program. (By the way, you say you also have a full time job, so that's another 40 hours a week. So you are spending 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday, on your job and this one class, and then whatever else you have to do for your PhD program gets done on the weekend? That's not being a hard worker. That is dangerously little down time. Putting yourself in that situation is a very poor investment for your own health, sanity and success.) To say that you can only pass the course by doing this much work sounds to me like saying you can't pass the course and that you must seek out another option. If you're not doing that because of "machismo": please be aware that that doesn't actually make any sense. Neither does a "refusal to fail": what you currently have is a plan that is very likely to lead to failure. Get a better plan.

I am very concerned that -- apparently, anyway -- everyone else is succeeding in the course by cheating. That's not acceptable. You say that it wouldn't help to point this out to the professor. Unless you have already personally contacted this professor about this issue, I don't see how you could know that. In my experience, the way that skullduggery like this gets perpetrated is because the people involved think they have "no choice". Of course you have a choice. I strongly recommend that you tell everything you've told us to the course instructor. Yes, there is the possibility that this could "make things worse". It could even jeopardize your future in the program. However, your future in your program is by no means secure at the moment, and if all your negative fears come to pass it does not sound like the program is worth your time.

If you approach the faculty with the attitude that the program has to be functional and ethical for you to stay in it, I find it very likely that they will work with you and help you through it. If they don't, then I think you're better off out of it. I realize that's a hard answer, but it's what I feel is the correct one.

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    I believe I like your advice, however I'm constantly stuck on: this course is the penultimate step of the OP's PHD, according to him. "You're better off out of it?" Really?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 17:53
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    @CGCampbell: This is the last required course in the OP's PhD. In most PhD programs, required coursework occupies perhaps the first 25-30% of the program. It is what happens before you get down to the real work of the program. In this case in particular the OP has said nothing about thesis work and, given that he has a full time job and is spending 40 hours a week on this course alone, how much time could he possibly be spending on that?!? Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 17:57
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    @ybakos you mean the same students who are cheating and have an incentive to tell you anything such that they can continue to do so? Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 18:58
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    @ybakos: "The reason I know that reporting the dishonesty issue would make things worse is because previous students have told me it happened in the past, and what the result was - I'm assuming the same outcome here." So you don't know; you're going by what other students have told you. Don't you deserve to give things a chance to work well for you, rather than assuming they will work badly? I think this is one of the ways that bad practices get perpetuated: people convince each other that it can't be done any other way. Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 1:04
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    @ybakos The amount of falsehoods that propagate as folklore through student bodies across generations is amazing. Don't take such stories for granted.
    – Raphael
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 7:28

Here's what you do. Ask the professor if this challenge is actually reasonable -- if it's some sort of final "trial by fire" strategy within the department. If so, ask him to state that. And then, as long as it is humanly possible (others have succeeded), you can simply put your nose to the grindstone and try to accomplish it.

Otherwise, it could be the department has slacked in evaluating student complaints. It might be an unreasonable request. Ask your Provost to investigate the matter. Burn-out is not an accomplishment for the department.

  • It's definitely a trial by fire, and I do believe it is humanly possible, given enough expertise which I obviously lack in this particular domain. I agree, one has to man up. What I fear is putting in all the work and then simply failing the course in the end.
    – ybakos
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 0:23
  • [Just now saw your comment. Was censored (kicked off for a year) by the site for saying "fart".] It looks like the instructor and/or department was unreasonable. If you don't think it's helpful towards your PhD, either you are wrong or the department is being unreasonable and you need to discuss the matter with the provost.
    – Marxos
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 20:34

There's one possibility which hasn't been mentioned:

Perhaps this is the test of character?

I'd hunt down some prior students and find out what happened in that course. What did they (class members) do when they faced the fork in the road? (Cheat vs. Unfinished work) Even in 3rd person so they might be willing to share what others did (without betraying their own actions).

Are you willing to cheat and turn in complete solutions across the board? Or, are you willing to submit unfinished work, where you answer a reasonable number of them and present what direction you'd take with the remainder?

  • It's definitely a test of character, whether intentional or not. Prior students in the course informed me about the cheating.
    – ybakos
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 0:21
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    I don't know if it really happens in real life or not, but I use to read that in... manga.
    – Ooker
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 5:19

If you think that talking to the course instructor will not help, talk to your advisor first.

If this is a course everyone in your program must take, then your advisor will already have experience with students struggling in this course. They might have solutions we don't even know about, e.g. a helpful book which explains everything more concisely so you don't have to spend as much time with the course book, or an older student who'd be happy to answer some of your questions.

Or they can talk to the course instructor about the workload, which might turn out better than students complaining about the workload (which - from the POV of a TA - they always do, regardless of the actual workload).

I know you said you don't want to go to your advisor, but this is one of the things to learn during such a program - when to ask for help. Trust me, as long as you're not on the top step of the career ladder, it's important to report problems early enough that your boss can do something about it. If you wait until you get a burnout, your advisor won't be able to advise you how to not get one.


As you seem to have exhausted all natural support ideas that come to my mind (collaborating - particularly surprising that no one wants to, and not a good sign for your program's climate; seeking advice by TA and instructor), I don't see what else you could do but suffer through one harsh semester, and stick it out. Not working 90+ hours, instead trying to get more sleep, would almost certainly help; but saying this would be patronizing as you probably know it yourself.

Keep also in mind that in most fields, if your GPA is currently spotless, one poor grade in coursework should not matter at all.

If you are absolutely certain that every other student copies their solutions, you are put by their actions into competitive disadvantage, and a strongly unfair position. Your honest attempts are probably less good solutions than the accumulated-over-several-years answers of your classmates. You shouldn't be penalized for being the one honest student. As you don't want to make it known, it would be natural to thus think of getting a short-term fix by copying solutions too. I like to think though that producing less good homework on your own will pay off in the final where your hard work might be rewarded, and the others might find themselves at a loss as they merely copied solutions.

It boils down to sticking it out, unfortunately.

  • @gnometorule: It certainly seems that you are suggesting that academic dishonesty is a viable option here, although it has tradeoffs. Others (perhaps Pete) would say that it is not to be considered under any circumstances of this kind. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 18:08
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    I disagree with the commenters; @gnometorule is only positing the cheating option, emphasizing that not cheating is obviously better. I think we all agree that cheating is absolutely not an option.
    – ybakos
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 18:09
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    It's still a rather convoluted paragraph, and I had to read it several times to figure out what (I think) you're really trying to say. As it's written, you're basically arguing for one position for half the paragraph, and then turning around in the middle of the "wall of text" and arguing against that position. That's confusing, and easy to miss. You might want to consider rewriting the whole paragraph from scratch, and maybe splitting it into several pieces. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 19:00
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    In my experience, many people need to be reminded that sleep and rest are very important. I don't think it is patronising.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 10:59

Good Ph.D. training requires that you are able to opening talk to your research advisor. You need to have this conversation, and explain your situation. I do not know of any graduate programs that will kick out for postponing your research in order to pass a class. I do know there are programs that will kick you out for poor grades, and programs that will not award you a degree if you do not take and pass a class.

Having said that, there are going to be inevitable delays in your Ph.D. research. This is going to be one of those delays. Your advisor's hands might be tied, but getting research done is probably very high on their priorities. If they receive government grants for research, then they most certainly need to maintain productively.

Simple put, you wont win if you fight the system. Focus on the class, and tell your advisor what you are doing and why you are not working on research. Nothing more that you can do. Your advisor will likely take up this issue with the director of the course or in the next department meeting. Finally, get all of the required (and only required) classwork out of the way before you start to get serious about research. At some point in the very near future, you should be able to teach yourself about any topic in your general field. That is one of those skills you should develop as a Ph.D. student, and as other have suggested, this might be testing that very ability.


It is important in life to know when it's time to go to the next level of the hierarchy (I miss the correct expression in English).

If the work is basically impossible to be completed without cheating, and without sacrificing everything else, you MUST report that to the head of department, to the boss of your professor.

In a job, in the future, will you always comply with directives from your boss, even when you are sure they are counterproductive? you must go to the higher level in the hierarchy and complain.

The same now.

  • to the boss of your professor I am not sure what you mean by "boss".
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 10:40
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    "will you always comply with directives from your boss," well yes and no. Yes in general, because that's what I get paid for, and no, when the directive is poor. Believe me, I'm a grown up and know how to handle a problem; in this case I feel like I should handle it myself rather than "whine to daddy" (advisor).
    – ybakos
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 12:47
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    My point is: sometimes you need to complain at one level higher than the one where the problem is originated. If the prof is giving objectively unreasonable tasks, go above him to complain.
    – FarO
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 14:13
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    @ybakos: 'asking for advice' and 'whining' are not the same thing. Matter-of-factly lay out the situation, and ask your advisor for suggestions on how to handle it. Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 14:51
  • I guess I'm just a tough guy. Like that Vin Diesel dude. Or not.
    – ybakos
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 22:45

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