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Spending an extra year in undergrad to take grad level courses?

  1. Jul 9, 2013 #1


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    Hey everyone. This is something I've been wondering about lately. I'm currently in a community college, with plans to transfer to a university, and eventually go on for my doctorate(I'm majoring in physics). How unusual would it be to spend an extra year as an undergrad to take more upper level courses?

    I know it's fairly common for undergrads to take a few graduate level courses while still in undergrad, but because of the fact that I'm transferring from a community college, I'm not going to be able to do that, and still graduate in 2 years after transferring. I've figured out some rough potential schedules, and I'd most likely be able to complete my degree requirements in two years after transferring, although that depends on different factors like scheduling and such.

    I'd really like to take a few graduate courses before grad school, simply because I feel like I'd be much more prepared for it. Specifically, I'd want to take a graduate level sequence in QM, a semester course in GR, and a semester course in subatomic physics. I'd also try to take a grad level partial differential equations course, and possibly something like Lie Groups/Lie Algebra. If the tentative schedule that I've figured out actually stuck, the hypothetical third year after transferring would consist solely of grad level classes, 3 per semester. Is this something that would be widely discouraged, or considered rather unusual?

    Any input would be much appreciated. :)
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  3. Jul 9, 2013 #2


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    Keep in mind that if you spend that "extra" year in undergraduate, you'll have to pay for it. If you spend that year in grad school, they'll pay for it. :wink:
  4. Jul 9, 2013 #3


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    Yes, that's something that I've definitely kept in mind. However, I don't think it would really cause me to finish with any more debt than I would be if I'd gone straight to a university, rather than starting in a community college. My first two years in community college aren't costing me anything, because I have a 0 EFC. So, I'm actually getting a refund from my financial aid money, because it's more than the cost of my tuition. That is definitely an issue that needs to be kept in mind though.

    My main concern though is the limited number of elective courses one can usually take in grad school. I would likely have to use most of my elective credit on just the prerequisite courses. I ideally want to go into some branch of particle physics, and having already had the upper level QM courses, as well as subatomic physics completed before grad school would allow me a lot more flexibility for taking the upper level particle physics and quantum field theory courses that I'd need in grad school.
  5. Jul 9, 2013 #4
    Many of the physics graduate programs I've looked at require (or recommend) about 18 credits of coursework for comps. That would leave you 12 credits or so for elective classes, so you'll still have plenty of room to take courses on particle physics and quantum field theory.

    The main problem is whether your institution would even allow you to take only grad level courses as an undergrad.
  6. Jul 10, 2013 #5


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    Well, I've done some more research, and it looks like it wouldn't be too bad to go on to grad school without having any grad level courses in undergrad. If that were the case, I most likely would be able to finish in two years after transferring, assuming that I didn't have any issues with scheduling conflicts and such.

    I'm shooting for Berkeley for grad school at this point. It's still a long ways off, but it's never too early to start planning. In the expected progress to PhD description on Berkeley's website, they say this-

    "Many students complete their course requirements by the end of the second year and in general students are expected to complete the requirements by the end of the third year. An exception to this expectation is that students who elect (with the approval of their mentor and the head graduate adviser) to fill gaps in their undergraduate background during their first year at Berkeley often need one or two additional semesters to complete their course work."

    The typical PhD program there has 19 hours of required courses; QM I and II, Classical Electromagnetism, and Equilibrium Statistical Physics. They also require 19 hours of elective courses, which adds up to roughly 5 courses. As far as I can tell, there would probably be 8 elective courses that I'd want to take. Particle Physics Phenomenology, QFT I and II, Standard Model I and II, String Theory I and II, and General Relativity. Assuming two courses per semester, it would take 3 years to complete them all.

    Does this seem that unusual?

    Also, I've gathered that it would be considered somewhat unusual for a grad student to take more than two courses per semester, because of the added time involved in teaching duties and such. Is this true?

    Here's the expected progress to PhD information for Berkeley that I referenced above.

  7. Jul 10, 2013 #6
    You're way ahead of yourself. Why do you want to go to berkeley? There's no way you have any idea what you'll really want. Just enjoy school and classes.
  8. Jul 10, 2013 #7
    QuantumCurt, I'm gathering from your threads that you're learning trig right now. If so, don't worry about all this grad school things right now. Focus on learning the math.

    Thing is that your interests are very likely going to change over the years. So planning things right now and worrying about it now is of no use.
  9. Jul 10, 2013 #8


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    Yeah, you're probably right. I'm just the type of person that likes to think ahead. At this point, I'm mainly just trying to figure out how long it's going to take me to finish my undergrad. Finances and such require me to have some kind of an idea as to how long that's going to take. It's still going to be about 4 years before I go to grad school(two more years at community college, 2 years at Uni after transferring), but I just feel like planning ahead somewhat and getting to know my different options will be advantageous.

    Why Berkeley? For one, I love California, and the fact that Berkeley is both in California, and one of the best schools for physics in the world is a big motivating factor. The extremely liberal environment there appeals to me a lot. Some of the most cutting edge research in the fields that really interest me up to this point take place there. There are plenty of other schools I've looked into as well though.

    As I said above though, my concerns about grad school are really pertaining more to how I should go about finishing my undergrad at this point.
  10. Jul 10, 2013 #9
    QuantumCurt, the thing is that you're possibly making things hard on yourself. You say things like "I want to do GR, string theory, QFT, etc." You're setting up expectations for yourself that are tough to meet. What if you end up not taking all these advanced courses in undergrad due to circumstances? You might start thinking of yourself as a failure because you didn't meet your expectations.

    I think you should live more in the moment. Take things as they come. Don't start making plans for what courses you want to take several years from now. Worry about what courses you'll take now, and make sure you do well in them and understand everything.

    If it turns out you didn't do any grad class in undergrad, then so be it. Nothing is lost. Don't worry so much about it.
  11. Jul 10, 2013 #10


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    Thanks, that's good advice.

    That's really what my main concern is though. I'm just trying to figure out what the typical protocol here is. From what I can tell after doing a little more research, it's now looking like taking these graduate level classes in undergrad shouldn't really be of much concern. I've always heard that grad students typically complete their core/elective requirements by the end of the 2nd year of studies, but from what I'm seeing in several different places, it looks like most schools are fairly flexible with this, and taking 3 years to finish them isn't too unusual.

    That being the case, I'm not going to worry about trying to take them in undergrad.

    Also, note that I wasn't implying trying to take all of those grad classes in undergrad. I was referencing the electives I'd potentially want to take in grad school. That's just pure speculation at this point though, of course. If I did hypothetically spend an extra year in undergrad to take some upper level classes, there would only be a few of them. But, I think I'm basically writing that idea off now after researching my options a little more thoroughly. I'd be better off just trying to finish my undergrad in two years after I transfer.

    Thanks for the advice, it's much appreciated.
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