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Does Course Load Really Matter for Grad School?

  1. Jan 30, 2014 #1
    Hi, I'm a sophomore undergrad and recently I've been wondering how much weight grad schools in the sciences actually put into your "course load." I've read some conflicting views on the internet, books on grad school admissions, and faculty. The websites for some grad/professional schools list course rigor as one method of judging an applicant, but I am skeptical about those claims.

    I'm taking the minimum amount of units at my school right now, 13 but it's in courses that I have had difficulty before in the past not to mention I plan on engaging in research in my department which will noticeably cut down on my time. I don't have a problem with units and graduating within 4 years; in fact, I can take the minimum amount of units per semester in my current situation and still graduate a year early. I see no point in taking extra classes for the sake increasing my unit count just to show a "full course load" when I can do research and get a job.
    Should I take an extra class and potentially sacrifice my gpa or leave less time to pursue research just to say I took a "full" course load? Thanks!
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  3. Jan 30, 2014 #2

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    "Course load" is not the right way to look at it. "Learning the minimum" and "not taking advantage of all the opportunities" are what you don't want people to be thinking.
  4. Jan 30, 2014 #3
    I am a phd student myself. I think:

    -It is better to take less courses and get good grades.
    -Grades matter much more than a full course load.
    -Research will greatly help your chance of getting accepted. Especially if you are able to get your name on a paper.
    -You will get much better recommendation letters from doing research with a professor rather than taking classes with one
    -Physics classes are difficult, so you should take it slow you can actually learn the material well and actually enjoy your classes
    -If you want to get in grad school, never sacrifice your GPA
    -research is the best extra curricular activity to get in grad school

    Ask professors in your department and other related departments (like mech eng) if you can help them in their research, even for free. Even if you have little interest in their subject, you will likely develop an interest once you start learning. At least you will have some valuable research experience by which to leverage acceptance for grad school. Eventually, they would probably pay you once you show your worth.
  5. Jan 30, 2014 #4


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    Really, really, really good advice. Listen to this person.

    Also, a coherent statement of purpose is key. The committee knows you don't really know the breadth of the field yet, but at least have a good plan. You can always change it later. A statement of purpose that dovetails into a current professor's research is a big plus on your application.
  6. Jan 30, 2014 #5


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    I'd like to offer a few additional points.

    1. Reducing your courseload to something less than standard to give you more time to "concentrate on the courses you are taking" can easily backfire.

    2. If you can't handle a full undergradaute course load (intellectually) - this is a flag that graduate school may not be the right choice for you.

    3. Having assessed incoming applications into our own program, it's very easy to spot those who've played a game of "striving for the minimum."

    4. One of the big reasons to take a full courseload in your upper undergraduate years is to survey the different available sub-fields. You're in a much better position to study something in gradaute school if you've already taken an introductory course in it.

    I'm not suggesting that you should absolutely strive to fill your course load every semester - particularly if you don't have to to graduate. But it's important that if you're not, you're doing something else constructive with your time.
  7. Jan 30, 2014 #6
    Yeah that was a great response.

    Any response to this question that doesnt include or mention research in it is pretty off base as far as graduate school. The more time you spend in graduate school the more you will realize that the number one metric is research.

    I imagine "absolute minimum" for a medical physics is completely different than "absolute minimum" for a grad physics program since there is a higher ratio of physics majors to non physics major in the latter. There is also a higher degree of expectations to go into industry in that field which will reflect in how applications are viewed.

    Physics degree programs are fairly structured.

    Physics graduate school is about physics research so a lot of what you will be judged on is how good a researcher you will be.

    Join a research group and use that to decide what field interests you. This will be a better measure of compatibility than courses.

    and study for the PGRE.
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2014
  8. Jan 30, 2014 #7
    This is quite interesting. Would you care to elaborate on some of these points? For number 1, how exactly can taking less units backfire on me? Perhaps lazyness or apathy might set in but I don't plan to "take it easy" by taking less units, I'm simply freeing up my schedule in a manner I think would allow me to do the best in my classes as well as pursue research and maintain a job.

    For number 2, I guess this depends on how "full" is defined which I admit I don't really know. I took 16 units last semester and it was much easier than my 13 units right now, but just looking at my transcript you couldn't really tell unless you actually took the time to contact the department that taught the classes. An unwillingness to fill up on hard technicals to make a full schedule isn't a fair assessment in my opinion on the capabilities of a student in grad school.

    I for example, never took physics in high school (yes, seriously, my school didn't offer it) so the general physics series was very difficult for me because almost everyone already had AP level exposure to the material. While they can tack on an extra class, I can't because I need the extra time to catch up. Does this mean I'm not ready for graduate school? I'm not sure. My grades aren't stellar, but they aren't terrible either.
  9. Jan 30, 2014 #8


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    I look at job applications in industry not academia, but I think the basic point is the same. The only thing you know about the applicant is what is on the paperwork in front of you. There may be all manner of good or bad reasons to explain it, or hard-luck stories about being at a school on the wrong side of the tracks, but not knowing that much detail about you (and taking your personal statement, letters of recommendation, etc for what they are, namely a sales pitch, not an objective assessment!) the rational thing to do is bet with the odds. If you took fewer courses than "average", and/or fewer than another applicant, it's a rational assumption that you don't have as much breadth of knowledge about physics as the other guy - even if your GPA was 4.0 on the courses that you did take.

    And if you skipped courses that are generally thought of as "hard", that makes the comparison worse.

    Of course that doesn't necessarily mean you "aren't ready" for grad school, or that you won't be accepted. But it does put you are further from the top of the list of applicants.
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2014
  10. Jan 30, 2014 #9
    People list the number of classes they took on job applications? :O I was under the impression that asking for a transcript wasn't a very common thing in industry but I guess it depends on where and what...
  11. Jan 31, 2014 #10


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    I threw this out as a warning because I don't think the wisdom of taking a reduced course load specifically to improve one's GPA applies universally. I've seen lots of students try this. Some believe they accomplish it. Others are sure they don't.

    Why? Laziness is a part of it. Free time is a vacuum that fills up quickly. If you have X hours of free time each day, you develop habits that fill that time. Then when you need to dig into that time to get other things done those habits are an obstacle to overcome.

    There's also the fact that some people thrive under pressure and actually perform better when they have more on their plate. On the other hand some people are going to fail regardless of how much time they put into a class.

    On top of that, there's also the cross-over principle. Not all course material is mutually exclusive. Sometimes covering the same material from two different points of view will help you to learn the core principles better than covering it from one point of view and reviewing that over and over.

    Of course a lot of this depends on the person in question, self-discipline level, etc. You know yourself better than anyone on these forums does.

    The point I was making here was meant more for self-assessment, not from an admissions committee point of view. From a committee point of view, they can often allow for a reduced course load because they don't know the student's particular circumstances - many will have other inescapable, not-by-choice commitments.

    But, if you really want to be a physicist and you're having difficulty keeping up to the pace of the median of the grad school applicant pool, or if you would rather take a "spare" than another physics class that would bring you up to a standard course load (this should be defined in your school's calendar), it's probably worth stopping to ask yourself if you think it's a good idea to go on to graduate school.

    That doesn't mean you CAN'T go on to grad school. That doesn't mean you SHOULDN'T go on to grad school. Based on your specific posts it seems like you could very well be just fine to go on. If you can get a research position and feel like you can spend those extra hours in a lab getting practical experience and would rather do that than take some arbitrary class you don't feel you would learn as much from then I think that's valid. On the other hand, if you're simply avoiding the challenge of a full course load because of some technical loophole, you should question why avoiding a challenge is important to you.
  12. Jan 31, 2014 #11
    Thanks for the insight. This is turning out to be a very informative thread. There is one issue I should probably raise up though that I should have in the beginning: I am not a physics major. I am an earth and planetary science major that simply has to take physics (my last pure physics class I am taking now). There are no classes in my department that I can add right now because they either require a class I am taking now, are not being offered, interfere with my schedule, or require a prereq I do not have (its a very small department). Any class I would take to raise my unit count would simply be there to well....raise my unit count. It's a very peculiar situation.
  13. Jan 31, 2014 #12
    I used to take enormously challenging course loads but have since avoided this tactic since it undermined my GPA. Taking a fair course load and doing very well in research is more interesting and more helpful than taking lots of courses and doing well in them. If you have a 4.0 and didn't do research or take challenging courses, you will probably have a problem, but if you have a 4.0, took "reasonable" courses and excelled at research this will probably be very helpful.

    EDIT: A commenter on these boards by the name of SophusLies once claimed to have gotten into top 10 graduate schools with a 3.42 GPA earned while taking extremely challenging classes. I have no idea what other factors played into this, but it suggests that going this route and doing less than stellar may not hurt you as much as you'd think. That said, I'd take a 3.8+ and good research over a 3.42 with lots of hard classes any day.
  14. Jan 31, 2014 #13


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    I can tell you that when it comes to the physics department at my university, course load won't mean much because pretty much every physics major takes as many hard undergrad classes and grad classes as possible before graduating. I know a couple of freshman who have already taken general relativity, intro QM etc. and are in the process of taking particle physics, advanced QM and the likes. You can't rely solely on course load in such a case and you need other elements of academia to set you apart such as research.
  15. Jan 31, 2014 #14
    ^^A very important point which highlights the value of research, since from my experience it is easier to succeed in course work than it is to succeed in research. The fact of the matter is that there are many people who can take lots of hard courses and do decent or even well in them (the multiple freshman who have taken QM and GR before arriving in their undergrad highlights this point). After figuring out an appropriate routine, obtaining good grades in my courses has become fairly straightforward; succeeding in research is still significantly more challenging. Course work is after all quite artificial.
  16. Jan 31, 2014 #15
    This seems a bit backwards. If he has a better GPA than someone else who took more courses, it will take him longer to graduate, but when they've both graduated, that higher GPA pretty much means he has more breadth of knowledge of physics than the other guy. That's what the grades are for, to quantify how well someone knew the material.
    The other guy got done faster, didn't quite understand everything (hence the lower GPA), but somehow he understood more?
  17. Jan 31, 2014 #16
    Grades aren't really an accurate indication of current knowledge so much as they measure learning ability and discipline; if you get an A in E&M two years previous to graduate school, you may have forgotten how to calculate surface charge density or what Larmor power is, but you were at least able to understand such concepts once in your life, and you were able to complete the requirements of the professor in a satisfying manner.

    Therefore I would imagine (and this appears to be borne out by anecdotal evidence) that lower grades/larger course load is admissible compared with higher grades/lower course load since the learning ability and discipline required to complete a more challenging course load at a lower performance is likely comparable to the learning ability and discipline required to complete a less challenging course load with superior performance. It also indicates other positive traits, such as a desire to challenge oneself rather than shrewdly GPA protecting.

    Of course, one would need to chat with actual admissions advisors to know for sure.
  18. Jan 31, 2014 #17
    What I've seen from peers at my school, people with very high GPAs with limited advanced coursework (for instance, people who were taking quantum 2 and statistical mechanics as seniors) get into top programs, as do students with lower GPAs who have more advanced coursework.
  19. Jan 31, 2014 #18
    Then the same student scores awful in the PGRE and you begin to rethink the value of those courses.

    Do well in the classes you do take no matter what they are. Do research. Do well in the PGRE. Develop good relationships with your research mentors to get good recommendations. Behind all of these is your course selection.

    What if I told you most physics graduate students take graduate QM as a first year graduate student?

    You are being judged on how good of a physics researcher you will be not how good of a physics course taker you will be.
  20. Jan 31, 2014 #19


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    My plan is basically to take as few courses per semester as possible and do as much research as possible. Not neglecting important "hard" courses though obviously.
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