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Value of Graduate Courses as an Undergrad

  1. May 7, 2014 #1
    I have the option of taking several graduate courses as an undergrad next year. That being said, there are several undergraduate courses in mathematics, computer science, and engineering that look interesting to me. I will apply to physics graduate school this coming fall, but I have not decided which field of physics I would like to pursue.

    Do you think that gaining a broader undergraduate education by taking more undergrad physics, math, CS, and engineering courses should outweigh taking graduate physics courses such as classical mechanics or electrodynamics?

    I appreciate your help.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 7, 2014 #2
    Maybe I should add some caveat in my signature saying that what I post is strictly my opinion and that I apologize if I say something stupid.

    I think graduate level courses are made to be taken in graduate school. You are going to have to take graduate-level classical mechanics and others in graduate school anyway, so why not take the more interesting undergraduate level courses right now (since you probably will be so busy in graduate school that you won't be able to take them). I think, when applying, graduate schools will be happy to see that you took graduate level courses in your undergraduate years, but I do not think that it will harm you too significantly if you rather take courses which interest you more. In fact, they may be (slightly) impressed that you courses outside of your major.
  4. May 7, 2014 #3
    If you still aren't sure what specific field you want to go in, getting a more broad education will expose you to more topics and might help you decide on what you want to do. But then again, I figure that doing the grad courses will probably help you get ahead. But then again again, if you don't know what you want to do, how much will getting ahead really help?

    I should mention though, I am still just a dumb ol' undergraduate freshman, so I don't really know exactly how all of this stuff might affect you. There are people here with more expertise that will probably all give you a better answer, but I figured I'd share my thoughts anyways.
  5. May 7, 2014 #4
    Since he has almost completed his physics degree, I do not think taking courses in other subjects will persuade him to switch fields entirely (of course, he may change his specification in physics).

    I am an undergraduate too, so like you I do not know a lot.
  6. May 7, 2014 #5
    I didn't mean to change his (her?) whole major or anything. I don't know, I figured any sort of additional knowledge might help him draw parallels to other interests that could equate in a more specific field. In my experience, learning and experiencing new things can certainly help narrow down what you want.

    Before I decided that I wanted to be a physicist, I was kind of torn between science and interestingly enough, graphic design/animation. When I educated myself more in both things, I found that I didn't like graphic stuff nearly as much as I thought I would, and I found myself to love science even more than I had before. Who knows, maybe taking these different courses means the difference between being a depressed physicist and a happy engineer?
  7. May 7, 2014 #6
    I don't necessarily agree with you all on this subject matter. Based on the OP's question, I'm thinking that he's conflicted with the fact that he really wants to take these graduate courses, but is in the predicament of people telling him that he should be well-rounded. Go ahead and take graduate courses if you feel prepared. They will certainly prepare you for graduate school, and maybe even allow you to discover which field of physics you would like to study. If you want to take some other courses outside of physics that pique your interest do so as well, but don't do it because you'll be "well-rounded." That being said though CS and Engineering courses could be helpful if you decide to go into experimental physics.
  8. May 7, 2014 #7


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    If you're already sure you're going to physics grad school, I would take the graduate classes and get a head start if I had the option.
  9. May 7, 2014 #8


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    It's important to realize that graduate courses tend to come with a much heftier workload than your average undergraduate course. When I first started graduate school a full load was considered two graduate classes (plus a teaching assignment, plus time for reading towards your thesis project), whereas a full undergraduate courseload was five courses. So there is potentially some risk in assuming that a graduate course can be taken in place of an undergraduate course.

    There is also a question of trasnferability. Some gradaute schools will not recognize graduate classes taken as an undergrad... or those taken at a different school. So you could very well end up taking the same course over again.

    And then, as suggested in the initial post, there is the opportunity cost of excluding other senior undergraduate courses. Your senior undergraduate time should be used to explore your interests and pick up some marketable skills. Sometimes a single course in something outside of your major can make all the difference in the world to your career. (Sometimes not, of course. It is a gamble.)

    On the other hand there are some advantages to having a graduate course under your belt. For one, it allows you to challenge yourself. If you've found your undergraduate studies unchallenging and managed high grades in them easily, maybe taking on a graduate course is a good idea. If you take one and do well, it demonstrates clearly the potential for success as a graduate student, which admission committees generally look for.

    If you are certain of your direction and adding in some additional undergraduate courses feels like you're just adding in some fluff to your degree, then those would be other reasons to consider the graduate course path.
  10. May 7, 2014 #9


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    Top undergrads often take graduate courses. Applying to graduate programs with good grades in graduate courses will help identify you as capable and ambitious (in the sense that you challenge yourself). Presumably this would be a good thing.

    Graduate courses tend to move at a faster pace, assume you are (more) responsible for your own education, and may leave out lots of things that would be explained in a class for undergrads. If a lecture covers things that you don't even know the prerequisites for, you're likely expected to go learn them and then learn what was covered in the lecture. No excuses.

    If this level is appropriate for you, go for it. Grad courses vary too. My kid was in a math grad course this past fall term where all the undergrads dropped out part way through because it was too hard. He was in another one in the winter term where most of the undergrads hung on but did noticeably worse than the grad students (pretty much a bimodal distribution in grades).

    What's the most effective means for you to learn the things you want to learn? If grad courses work best for you then that's what you should be in. Admittedly this will vary by subject, department, and school.
  11. May 8, 2014 #10


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    If you want to apply to grad school in physics and have the opportunity to take grad courses, you should definitely take advantage of it. Grad courses are much different than undergrad courses in that the material is much more advanced (significantly more math is involved) and you are expected to be looking at other resources on your own to get the most out of the class. If you have already had this experience in undergrad, you will be much more prepared for grad school.

    It also definitely helps in admissions by showing that you can succeed in graduate coursework and have the initiative to learn physics at the highest level.

    I myself will have completed eight grad courses in undergrad. In regards to which grad courses you should take, the ones I would recommend the most would be a math methods course, the grad quantum sequence, and stat mech. A lot of the time most of grad mechanics has been covered in undergrad or is covered in the courses I mentioned (several schools I know don't even have it). E&M may also be good, but many professors (even theorists) tell me that at the graduate level, the emphasis is really not on the physics but on doing complicated boundary value problems in Jackson which could be done in a math focused course. One very famous theorist I know said he actually never took grad E&M.

    As for how these courses may count for grad school, for me it seems like I will be able to get out of most requirements and will be able to use the others to start taking advanced courses right away at the school I will be attending.
  12. May 8, 2014 #11

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    Choppy gets this right.

    You need to look at your goals. Will this save time during graduate school? Probably not. The class schedules in grad school pretty much expect each cohort to be in lock step. I was at a school on the quarter system, and the 1st and 4th quarters of quantum were in the fall, 2nd and 5th were in the winter and 3rd and 6th were in the spring. You can't really get a jump on this unless you were to be a whole year ahead *and* the school would accept this for the requirement.

    Will this give you a taste of what is expected in graduate school? Absolutely. Is there a risk in overloading? Again, absolutely. You might see if there are advanced topics courses that are taught at both the undergraduate and graduate level. These have common lectures, but more difficult problem sets and exams at the graduate level.
  13. May 8, 2014 #12
    For the most part, I am against taking graduate courses as an undergraduate for the following reasons:

    As Vanadium says, the school calendar is set so that courses are given at selected semesters according to the cohort group. Suppose you obtained credit for example Classical Electromagnetism 1 given in most schools in the Fall. Are you going to enter the school in the Spring? If you do not take CE 1 in the fall and wait for spring, are leaving a gap of 1 year in your CE. Are you going to compete favorably with students who may be taking CE 1 and 2 or QM 1 and 2 with (usually) the same professor, with the same teaching outlook; environment etc.

    Personally I took graduate QM 2 without QM 1. It was a disaster. After the disaster, the professor said, "I warned you not to do this when you came to be admitted into the class. " He was right(I passed with a B-)

    When I did instituted this debacle above, I did not save anything anyway. The school gave me credit for QM 1 but to fulfill my requirement I needed the same number of core courses (in residence?) anyway. I might as well have taken QM 1. (However credit for QM 1 and EM 1 did allow me to start in the spring rather than the fall but most schools do not allow it. Even my school says they do not allow a spring start (anymore).

    However, I did have a good experience taking a graduate course (after undergrad). I had a very poor GPA and after graduation I worked a year and took Graduate Math Physics as a "special" student, paying for the course tuition myself. My grade allowed me to ask the prof for a recommendation and showed the graduate schools I was applying for I could do graduate work successfully.

    Bottom line: If you GPA is poor and you need to show them; consider the graduate course. If you want to take a graduate course; maybe. If you prefer to broaden take undergraduate courses.

    Remember the physics GRE examines breadth more than depth. There are a lot of questions on optics, and experimental physics as well. Graduate courses may not help you here.
  14. May 8, 2014 #13
    I had a bad experience which may relate to Radium's comment, regarding taking advanced courses immediately in graduate school.

    I started taking advanced courses in solid state; nuclear physics; chaos theory; and general relativity without recent core courses in one graduate program many years ago. (I had only second and third-year graduate students in my classes) The physics faculty saw I had a great deal of previous grad study and waived the first year courses. These advanced courses did me no good in passing the physics qualifying exam.

    I was competing with typical first-year grads taking emag; mechanics; stat mech; and quantum, and the exam committee was made up of these instructors. Some students commented some of the questions on the exam were addressed in their homework. (Guess who was out of luck). They passed; I didn't.
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