Coursework: How Much is Enough?

Following on from last week’s post by Michael Blaakman, in which he reflected on his experiences preparing for oral exams and their practical value, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on another aspect of graduate education. Today—two years, four semesters, twelve courses, a couple hundred books, two research papers, and a dissertation prospectus draft later—I am attending the last seminar session of my coursework. Now, it’s nowhere near the equivalent of reaching ABD, but it is something of a milestone, for me at least. I was a non-traditional student who began my undergraduate work at the age of 32 and went straight from undergrad to a PhD program. So today marks the end of what was effectively six years of coursework.

As I come to this point, I have found myself thinking about the value of coursework. I have had a number of conversations with fellow students about the role of coursework in graduate education and how much is enough. The range of responses has been quite broad. After all, some people enter PhD programs with MAs in hand and others come either right from undergrad or after some time out of academia. This variety in the previous experiences of students means that two years of coursework errs on the safe side. Furthermore, Michael Bérubé made the point recently that changing one aspect of graduate education–such as the amount of coursework–requires reworking the entire structure. If one thinks that a single year of coursework is enough, does that mean that orals should be taken in the second year?

Last year, a group at Stanford released a report entitled “The Future of the Humanities PhD at Stanford” detailing the university’s attempt to rework the structure of their graduate programs. At the center of much of the discussion surrounding reform of graduate education in the Humanities is the primary goal of reducing graduate students’ time-to-degree. The desire to lessen time-to-degree is shared by two very different groups for two very different reasons. Administrators want to do it for purposes of efficiency and lowering costs. At the same time, scholars in the Humanities want to do it because it is simply not practical for students to spend nine years preparing for practically non-existent jobs. Proposals range from seriously reforming the dissertation to shortening coursework and doing exams sooner.

Personally, I have found coursework to be highly beneficial in all the ways it is supposed to be. I got to read in and get a grip on numerous fields outside of my own. I also improved my ability to assimilate large numbers of readings in a relatively short time and analyze previously unfamiliar historiographies. I also improved critical professional skills such as writing book reviews and journal article-length research papers. But the most enjoyable aspect of the coursework experience has been the seminar discussions. I suspect getting to sit in a room and talk about a book in great depth a couple of times a week with a dozen of my fellow students is what I will miss the most, especially since I am fortunate to have been surrounded by terribly impressive peers in all kinds of fields who often turned seminar discussions into enlightening experiences. That said, I would be lying if I said I have not been feeling a bit anxious over this final semester about getting started on orals reading and dissertation work.

So while two years of coursework may have seemed a bit long for me personally, one year just doesn’t seem enough (at least for most people). Some proposals have suggested incorporating exams into the second year of coursework in some way. The question for me would be whether it can be done while also accomplishing the goals mentioned above.

So what was your experience with coursework like? Was it too long, too short, or just right? How might it be reformed?

5 responses

  1. The answers to this lie in the purposes of the coursework, the curriculum in which it occurs, and the desired outcome for the students as they pass through the program. Are we seeking to introduce students to a field? To help them develop their own specialized research agenda? To prepare them for R1 jobs, or more generalist, teaching oriented jobs, which certainly constitute the numerical majority of available positions? Shortening the coursework phase certainly pushes people out earlier, but this gesture alone still leaves questions that the whole program needs to answer about what the grad program is designed to produce.

    I don’t know anyone who feels that a single year of courses (6 courses?) would be enough to engage in research, unless we assumed, like the British universities apparently do, that all the preliminary reading was done at the undergrad level. We’ve got similar pressures to admit people directly into PhD programs from undergrad, which is apparently commonplace in the sciences. But I think these kinds of changes would have really negative consequences in an already depressed job market. Happy to be proven wrong.

    • British universities can assume that because generally speaking undergraduate education there can be far more specialized. I suspect there are pros and cons to that.

      Can you honestly say that a history PhD student picks up 2-3 times as much knowledge and skill as a medical student or a law student does in their time in school?

      By and large we’re not making Jesuits here, for better or worse.

      • Because of the scattered offerings in the typical US undergrad curriculum, and because relatively few students go through college in a way that translates easily into grad school specializations, I think US grad students have to develop the focus necessary for professionalized work. I think that most of the changes designed to push people through more quickly would end up tossing out almost everyone besides the most affluent and committed: not a good outcome if you’re interested in diverse backgrounds and perspectives in the profession. Having said that, I think institutions are obliged to provide direction and advising for people so that they can take full advantage of what amounts to a very limited time of direct instruction with faculty members.

    • Quick one on British PhD programmes, because I was thinking about this too. In fact, if you factor in the one- and often two-year Masters courses that are required before you can start a UK PhD course, it’s not so different from that aspect of the US system. That Masters year or two is structured around coursework and peer-group interaction in the same way as Michael describes here. We also (at least at Oxford) have written exams at the end of the Masters which might be considered to take the place of oral exams: they’re designed to assess our engagement with the breadth of secondary literature.

      I’ve often remarked how different the systems are on each side of the pond, but thinking about it again, I’m actually not so sure.


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