How to prioritize (and complete) the coursework for your PhD program

Pretty much all PhD programs in the United States require a year or two of coursework. Yet as Steve Horwitz has correctly noted, writing, not coursework, is king in graduate school. When you eventually get to the academic job market, your grades will matter very, very little, if at all. On the other hand, whether you’ve presented at academic conferences, solo-taught courses, and published refereed journal articles will matter quite a bit.

Given that, what’s the right way to approach coursework for PhD programs? How much emphasis should you put on it? And how do you get it completed so that you can spend more time on writing? 


View your coursework as an input into the overall production process that turns you into a scholar.

If you plan to become an economist, you need to learn the language that professional economists use when they speak to each other in their capacity as scientists. This will require studying quite a bit of math and statistics, especially as these subjects apply to economic questions. You should learn this material, and learn it well, even if you do not plan on using it much in your own research. You will be tested on it in your comprehensive exams (more on those later). 

Even more importantly, you never know when an idea will come along that, in order to be fleshed out, will require the use of the tools you should have acquired during your first year.

Understand how your work will be evaluated.

One thing that sometimes takes new graduate students by surprise is how grading works in a Ph.D. program. Although it’s rare anybody explicitly mentions this, know that graduate school grades are not like undergraduate grades. As an undergraduate, getting a B in a course can sometimes be a signal of competence in a particularly difficult course. In graduate school, there is really only one acceptable grade. An A (or sometimes A-) means you had your act together. Anything else means you didn’t. For those on funding, pay attention: Most funding has a GPA requirement, such a 3.5 or higher, to continue to receive resources.

For those on funding, pay attention: Most funding has a GPA requirement, such a 3.5 or higher, for you to continue to receive resources. But you should not even be coming close to these cutoffs. Putting in the expected effort in your courses should not result in you getting anything other than an A. This is the sign that you learned the material not merely well enough to regurgitate the core models but to apply them in new ways—and perhaps develop your own.

Get your coursework out of the way early on.

Some other academics may disagree with me, but I think your first semester should be entirely devoted to coursework, as well as outside readings that will eventually—ideally next semester—get you prepared to put together some paper outlines, as well as actually writing papers.

The “goal” you should be working toward is having a draft of something presentable at an academic conference by the end of the summer after your first year. But this means you have a year of coursework to get through—and again, those pesky comprehensive exams—first. Learn the material well enough so that, at a minimum, you are not lost beyond comprehension in your school’s brown-bag lunches and other academic seminars. Ideally, you should learn the material well enough to apply it.

That is the purpose of the coursework required for your PhD: to equip you for a career of research, writing, and original thought. Prioritize it accordingly, but don’t mistake it for the end goal.

See more posts: Surviving Grad School 

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