Why Are Graduate Classes So Small?Research-oriented Masters classes and PhD classes tend to be rather small because of the small supply of graduate students. You can think of course work in education systems as a funnel. In high school, there are many students. In university / college, there are fewer students. In graduate school, there are even fewer students. The terminal degree (i.e. a PhD) should have the fewest amount of students. Why? There are just fewer people that are both willing and capable of doing the courses. Not many people around the world are interested in doing a doctorate. If you think in terms of capability, if you take graduate level Chemical Engineering courses on reactor design (I am a chemical engineer), you need to have taken undergraduate courses in thermodynamics, organic chemistry, and process design. There are just not that many people around the world who have done that. (Want to learn about what it takes to become a business professor? Check out this post). Graduate-level courses are also very intensive. These courses require a lot of work for both the professor and the students to go through all of the material. Imagine an undergraduate course, and then multiply that course by about 2-3. This would give you a fair estimate of the workload during a graduate-level course. Each individual student has to work a lot more, and the professor has a lot more interaction with each student.
What Is The Smallest Class Size?In graduate school, the smallest course that I took had a class size of one – me. This is what is called a ‘reading course’ or something along that line. Its going to have a different name at every school. I call it the DIY (do it yourself) course. ‘Reading’ courses are self-directed, as long as you have someone that is willing to help you create this self-directed course. I did one of this self-directed courses with my Masters supervisor (it was about international entrepreneurship), and it was a wonderful experience. I created a reading list of journal articles, and then he added a few more things for me to read during the course. You will then have to write a paper about this research (I created a guide for writing research papers here). I would highly recommend this style of course if you are ambitious, or you want to learn about a topic that very few people care to learn about at your institution.
How Are Graduate Classes Different Than Undergraduate Classes?The type of graduate class you experience during your graduate education varies extensively depending on the discipline you are in. However, there are some similarities across most graduate classes that are distinct than undergraduate classes.
- Graduate classes tend to be discussion-based where are you as the graduate student actually talk about the research that you are studying. You will be expected to read the material before class, which are usually several (2-8) papers and/or books. Then, you will simply talk about the pros and cons of each paper, how the research was constructed, and what to do with the findings of the paper. Why do you talk about the research that you are studying? You tend to look at these research articles in a critical view, and what you’re trying to do is find out the assumptions that they made in the article. You are also trying to find ways that you can study that particular area, by being critical of that research.
- Graduate classes tend to be much longer. I remember some of the graduate classes that I had – we would talk anywhere up to 5 hours. As I am a bit of a wiggly person, it was pretty difficult for me to sit there that long. However, after, you look back and you realize that you did learn a lot during the class.
- You have personal interaction with the Professor. This person interaction was a lot of fun, and you actually got to know the professor as a person, not just the instructor. I look back quite fondly upon these professors, and all of the lessens that they taught me.
- You will be expected to write and think about ideas, and not just memorize ideas. One of the things that is quite fun is when you realize that you can actually build knowledge in graduate school. You actually are the ones that get to make the ideas up. It is a bit of a mind-trip when you realize that the ideas in the textbooks that you studied are not actually set in stone, but constantly changing.
- You will be expected to lead some of the class in graduate school. So, the leadership role that you take in graduate school classes does vary, but in many of the seminars that I have taken and received, students will be expected to lead either a class or a portion of the class. They will also be expected to give presentations in the class about what they expect to do their research on.
- You will get critiqued by your other students in the grad class. You might think that the instructor does all of the work. Actually, the most critical people in a graduate class are generally your peer students. They tend to be quite critical of your ideas, and push you to do better than the Professor would. Actually, I find that most Professors hold back because they know how difficult research is to perform, and thus, they will have a restrained assessment of your idea. Unless, of course, your ideas are truly bad. 🙂