“What classes do you recommend I should take next semester?” I have been asked this question too many times, usually by graduate students who are just starting their studies. Because my take on this issue is a bit unusual, I have decided to express my thoughts on this matter as a blog post.
Taking a graduate class is first an opportunity to learn about the professor’s research and second to learn about the actual subject matter. When it comes to graduate classes, with some minor exceptions, professors teach those classes they want to teach. This situation is in contrast with teaching undergraduate classes—some undergraduate classes need to be covered, and faculty are often assigned to teach them out of necessity. In a research university, professors are researchers who occasionally teach, and research is what occupies most of their time and efforts. When teaching a graduate course, professors will always try to use it as an avenue for introducing their research to the students. If you are not interested in the professor’s research, do not take his class.
When shopping around for graduate classes, one should pay more attention to the instructor’s recent publications and research grants than to the actual course curriculum. This advice is motivated by the following observations. Few graduate courses have a required textbook, so the majority of reading assignments usually come from research papers. Course instructors decide what these papers should be, and their research interests heavily bias the selection of reading assignments. Course projects in graduate classes are also commonly open ended, and used as an opportunity for professors to try out new research ideas. Oftentimes, even the course’s title may not accurately express its content. For example, an HPC researcher teaching a graduate networking course is likely to focus on the networking topics relevant to HPC. A student not interested in HPC may feel disappointed.
Overall, taking a graduate course is a great opportunity to try out the instructor as a potential thesis or dissertation advisor or a committee member. By taking a graduate class, one learns not just about the instructor’s research interests but also about her research style and personality. What kind of open-ended questions does the instructor pose to students? What kind of feedback does she provide? How much attention does she pay to the quality of written or oral presentations? All these questions can guide the decisions of whether it may be worth your while to get involved in the instructor’s research or invite them to serve on your committee.
There are some exceptions of course. Some professors may not be active in research, while others may decide to follow a state-of-the-practice curriculum. The easiest way to identify such courses is to see if there is a required textbook. No research focused graduate class will have a required textbook. A graduate class may have a bunch of recommended textbooks to consult for the background information, but most of the reading will come from research papers. Finally, if not sure, just ask the professor how they plan to teach the class.
Finally, what about the prerequisites? You really like the instructor’s research, but you feel you have not had sufficient background in that area. In most classes, this limitation should not be an issue. If you genuinely like a research area, you should be able to get up to speed fairly quickly. Besides, quoting Einstein “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” particularly when talking about research related issues. If the majority of your grade comes from a term research project, your ingenuity in coming up with new ideas will be more important than almost any background knowledge you may lack. Grades matter little in graduate school anyway. Always remember that in graduate school, “A” means average; “B” mean bad; and “C” means catastrophic.