What Is The Average Class Size In Doctoral Programs? (How Does Graduate School Work?)

Graduate school classes are not like undergraduate university classes. You often see and hear about massive 1000-2000 person undergraduate college classes. This is the complete opposite in grad school.

Generally, most graduate-level classes are quite small. Most doctorate classes at most universities around the world are no bigger than 15 to 20 students, and many of them are 2 to 5 students. This includes both Masters level and Doctorate level courses, unless you include professional courses, like MBA, Masters of Nursing classes, and the like. These professional classes tend to be much larger.

Masters-level courses tend to be a bit bigger, say around 20-30 students. As PhD students can and do take Masters-level courses, I kind of include them together as just graduate level courses.

What to watch the YouTube video about the size of PhD classes?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 🙂

I wrote a post about how long it takes to get a PhD, if you are interested.

How Many Graduate Classes Do You Take During Grad School?

Generally, most graduate programs would require you to take 3-5 courses a semester. When you do a Masters, you are likely to do 3-5 courses for 2 semesters, and then you will do about 1 year of independent research. When you do a PhD, you are likely to do 3-5 courses for 4-5 semesters, depending if you choose to take courses in the summer. You will then do 2-4 years of independent research.

These are American and Canadian numbers. The British system, I believe is much shorter. A typical PhD is around 3 years today. I think this is similar in the German system. The Australian and New Zealand systems are similar to the British systems. Unfortunately, I am unaware of current requirements in China, but the Singaporean (NUS), Hong Kong (ie. HKUST), ,and Japanese schools tend to follow the American system. Of course, I have never attended these institutions, so please take this advice with a grain of salt. This is just want I have come to understand after getting to know Professors at these different places.

Is it better to have a shorter graduate school program / PhD or a longer one? It really depends on your outcomes and goals you want to achieve. If you are interested in going to industry, then the best option is to go quicker through the program. However, if you want to go to academia and become a professor, the general trend is towards increasingly longer graduate programs. Why? The reason is that you will need publications before you get can academic positions, and the longer you stay in graduate school, the higher the chance you have to publishing a paper or two. Keep in mind that publishing requirements varies dramatically between disciplines, but the bottom-line is that larger time in graduate school helps you get academic jobs (as long as you are doing work in grad school).

Want to learn about my biggest lesson from doing a PhD? Watch this video about lessons learnt from doing my own PhD:

What Is Your Graduate School / PhD Cohort?

One important thing that you should pay attention to is your PhD cohort. Each year there is a new group of students that enter a PhD program. Generally, this is called your PhD cohort. These students are the people that you should pay attention to benchmark your performance. If you are keeping pace with this PhD cohort in terms of publications, than you are likely on the right track.

Your PhD cohort is also helpful because they help you through the first few years of your PhD program. They will be the ones that you will work closely with, and turn to to get help. Most people will maintain in contact with their PhD cohort, even when they go in different directions in the future. Believe me, everyone will go in different directions after the comprehensive exams. However, it is still nice to hear how everyone is doing in this PhD cohort.

What you probably do not know is that your PhD cohort can sometimes be helpful to find jobs later in the future. Because these people will be at different institutions, you can sometimes call on them for career changes in the future.

I Hope You Find This Post On Graduate School Class Sizes Useful.

I wish I had this information when I first started my graduate school program. Few people have a frank and open discussion about what graduate school is actually like. Graduate school has its ups and downs, and people either talk about how terrible graduate school is, or how amazing it is (particularly, if you go on to the course websites).

I really want to point out that being in grad school is a journey of personal discovery. If you don’t like a specific course or program, you should take it upon yourself to develop your own course of study. Or, if there is course that does not exist, then you can ask a professor to help you draft your own course. Being in graduate school and academia is very entrepreneurial, and it is up to you to make the most of your career. You have to be your own advocate. If there is a course that does not exist at your school, or the class size is too small, find another school that offers that course. I know of several people that drove several hours to attend a specific methods course. I wanted to get teaching experience, so I drop 2 hours every week (one way) to teach at a nearby university. It is up to you to create your own life.

Last, one thing that I should point out is that everyone is different, and every school is different, and they all have different objectives. Your experience in graduate school is going to be much different than mine. And, if you take graduate level courses, expect them to be challenging, or at the very least much more work than you were used to in undergraduate courses. Grad courses are also much more different than undergraduate courses. Namely, they are smaller, and they involve a lot more interaction and involvement by you.

Good luck with your course work! You will do wonderful. 🙂 You should know that many people have done these courses before you, and they survived. You will too.

Are you applying to a PhD program? Awesome! You are going on a journey that is both difficult but can be quite fun. Check out this video or this more in depth blog post about tips for a PhD:

By the way, I should mention that this post is part of my r3ciprocity.com project – its a sharing economy proofreading platform that I am trying to build. The goal of the project is to make the world a better place by encouraging others to be nice to each other. I also really want to help out graduate students and potential graduate students, because, well, grad school was difficult for me, but lots of people helped me get through, so I want to pay the favor forward.

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