Thursday, August 7, 2008

Graduate Electives

I am now entering my third semester of classes at the University of Colorado and that means I get to take electives. Technically I took an elective each of my first two semesters, but to give you a feel for those classes, out of the 10 incoming students last year, 9 were in my first semester "elective" and 6 were in my second semester "elective". So while those two classes were not formally required, they were really no-brainers for incoming students.

Now that I have completed the core courses and the two electives that almost all incoming students take, I am at a place where I can take classes that I really get to choose. I can take classes outside of my research area and even outside of my department. This fall, for example, I will be taking a class on stellar structure and evolution for my research, a cosmology class for "broadening", and a course on spectral and radial basis function numerical methods from the applied math department for research, "broadening", and personal interest. Isn't choice wonderful?

This brings me to an interesting point that has been debated extensively over the past year as my department retools its graduate curriculum - what is the purpose of graduate level electives? In the first year here in the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences graduate program, we take mostly "core" courses. These are things every astrophysicist should know, such as quantum and statistical mechanics, radiative transfer, statistics and data analysis, math methods, fluid dynamics, and magnetohydrodynamics. These core classes theoretically provide the basis for any research area that one might choose in astrophysical and planetary sciences.

Beyond the core courses, which total 21 credit hours when you include 4 credits of seminar courses, we are required to take a total of 39 credits to graduate. That means we take approximately 6 elective classes. At least two of these electives must come from the APS department, but the other 5 can come from anywhere that the adviser deems "appropriate" for the student's graduate study. So I face a dilemma - do I take classes that will directly benefit my research (like a stellar structure class or a class on massively parallel computing from the computer science department) or do I take classes that explore other research areas in physics and astronomy (like a cosmology or particle physics class)?

Both options have their benefits. If I take classes related to my research I will learn my research area faster and it will benefit me in terms of publications and time to graduation. On the other hand, how can I call myself an astrophysicist if all I know is fluid dynamics, MHD, and scientific computing? Shouldn't everyone take a couple classes outside of their research area so they understand a little of what else is out there?

What do you think? What kind of electives are you taking? How do you balance depth in your research area with breadth in your field?


  1. Hey Nick,

    Wow! I beat Joe to the comments this time! Anyways, I've also been looking into that dilemma here in Illinois. I think you cover the pros/cons just about right. The way I see it, a university, and education in general, is about getting some breadth of knowledge. In high school, breadth of knowledge meant art/band/English/history/etc. In undergrad, breadth of knowledge meant GE core classes. In grad school, breadth of knowledge means more physics and astronomy classes, but ones that aren't directly related to the narrow field you are researching. (It's kind of funny how our breadth keeps shrinking.) Anyways, like you said, I have a hard time considering someone a real scientist if all they know is their narrow discipline. Science these days is all about interdisciplinary collaboration. We at least need to be able to speak each other's language. On the other hand, we all want to graduate someday. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Bill, I too "have a hard time considering someone a real scientist if all they know is their narrow discipline", but on the other hand, taking a cosmology class isn't going to help me publish or get a grant in the future. Having a general view of different fields is important, but it is not rewarded by the academic system - hence the dilemma.

  3. Here at UNC I have to option of taking one of two tracks. The first is the general physics which includes the standard quantum, E&M, mechanics etc. The other track includes some of those but allows me to take classes on galaxy evolution and modeling, cosmology etc. I'm thinking I will go with the first track because it will give me more depth of understanding in physics, even though the other would be more related to my research.

    As a related example, when I was emailing the Professor in charge of TA's I told him about my experience with 340 and 350 as a TA so I will be starting this year as a TA for those type of classes rather than the equivalent of 107. In all of this he noted that I am emphasizing astrophysics and he wondered if I would not be better off as a TA for astronomy or some other related class. The point is I decided to go with the electronics lab and the advanced experimental lab because of what one of the professors said to me when I cam visiting in march. He said that being a theoretician is good but if you ALSO know how to actually build the stuff for your experiment AND can speak the language of the experimentalists and the observational astronomers then you have an advantage over many other theoreticians.

    This reminds me of when I was studying for the GRE and Dr. Hirschmann put together a study group. There was a question about oscilloscopes and Dr. H said that he had no clue about how they worked or how to read them. Great theoretician, but he would have a hard time actually putting a real experiment together to prove a theory (but he may not have to do that anyway).

    In the end you may choose to specialize so that you can really understand your field of research, but I am leaning towards having a broad experience which will be more conducive for my research. Hope this helps.

  4. "Wow! I beat Joe". Yes, I got behind.

    I think it depends on what stage you are at. For first year type classes I think you need to be well rounded.

    As classes get more advanced, they become such that they teach you how to do research in a specific field.

    For example, At Irvine if you wanted to learn QFT, taking "quantum 3" and the first particle class is all you need to be well rounded.(You review the whole standard model and basic QFT ideas). The rest of the classes are really designed to do current research in the field.

    Personally, I think it is good to be well rounded, by at some point you have to realize advanced courses outside your field may only help people do research in that field. You are not a bad physicist because you can't immediately do good research in every field.

    My advice would be this: only take classes that either are helpful for your research or are something you are really excited about learning. I don't think there is much room in graduate school to waste time and unless it helps your research or is something you are passionate enough about that you will get a lot out of it, I don't know how worth it, it is.

    Two things to keep in mind:

    1. Surely, between the journals Science and Nature and lesser things like Science Daily you can stay on top of the other fields and stay well rounded.

    2. At some point, as you know, you have to make that transition where you don't need to take classes to learn new things well. I know several post docs and professors here at Irvine that are specializing now in things that they never studied as a graduate student. They taught themselves new things on their own and now they are experts in new fields.

    My point is any day now you won't need to take other classes to be just as well rounded in other things as people who did.


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