Can I take graduate courses before I'm enrolled in a Ph.D. program?
July 27, 2006 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Can I take graduate courses before I'm enrolled in a Ph.D. program? Do any grad students do this?

I am going to be graduating in two years, and I am thinking about entering graduate school for philosophy (in the USA).

I am graduating one year early. During the time in between the completion of my B.A. and my enrollment in a Ph.D. program (possibly one year), would any schools let me enroll in graduate classes, and would the graduate program I enter recognize these credits? I would like to "get my feet wet" with a light course load. I know this is done all the time in undergrad institutions (the "non-matriculated student") but is this common at all for grad students? Can I pay to take graduate courses without being officially enrolled in their program?

I suspect this is something I would need to ask each university (the university I want to take the class at, and then the universities housing the Ph.D. programs that I am thinking about applying to) but I was wondering if fellow Mefites have any information.

I have heard that most Ph.D. programs build the M.A. into their program. Is this the way most people go in philosophy, or do most get their M.A. and Ph.D. at separate institutions? Also, if anyone can offer advice about pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy it would be more than welcome.

Thank you.
posted by ifranzen to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Could you stay at your current university for the fourth year and take grad courses there?
posted by clarahamster at 9:13 PM on July 27, 2006

I suspect this is something I would need to ask each university (the university I want to take the class at, and then the universities housing the Ph.D. programs that I am thinking about applying to)

I think this is probably a pretty accurate description of how this is going to work. As for taking graduate level classes, some universities will and some universities won't. I think it also depends upon the class you want to take. Certain required classes are often reserved for their incoming students.

Regardless, you may find, after you enter a graduate program, that those credits are mostly useless. You're right about many Phd programs building the MA right into the program these days. In fact, it seems like students with MA's are sometimes at a disadvantage, depending on the school and their preference. If these credits transfer at all, they'll likely be elective credits. Also, some programs penalize you in funding situations if you elect to transfer graduate level credits. In my program (English), they'll dock you an entire year's funding if you transfer MA credits in. Because of this, even students with transferable credit and/or MA's elect NOT to use their viable credits because they want the extra funding. You'll want to consider this as you could potentially waste both time and money on credits you will later decide not to use.
posted by theantikitty at 9:24 PM on July 27, 2006

I second clarahamster's suggestion that you attempt to take grad courses while at your undergrad institution, if they offer a PhD. You might have to go talk to the professor and clear it with him/her before enrolling, but I took a couple of grad classes as an undergrad and it was pretty par for the course.
I wasn't in philosophy, and I wasn't at your university, so YMMV, but give it a thought.
posted by matematichica at 9:36 PM on July 27, 2006

I took a summer grad course at the end of my second year for no credits, but the experience was well worth the effort. The workload was unlike any of my other classes, and the level of discourse was understandably higher. Give it a shot, if you have the hours to put in.
posted by sixacross at 10:22 PM on July 27, 2006

If your target schools say that it's possible to transfer units, be sure to ask how many. When I checked a similar scenario a few years ago, 8 semester units seemed to be the max for graduate transfer.

Also, they'll likely need to be applied as electives. Grad schools tend to feel that their combination of curriculum/faculty/students/research -- the experience as a whole -- is unique, and therefore no true equivalent can be obtained through study elsewhere. (They're not necessarily being snooty, by the way. Just the goals and direction of a given graduate program are very specific, so breaking from the plan is perceived as putting you at a disadvantage to peers. Since your performance reflects heavily on the school, there's a lot riding on getting you through the program "the right way".)

Even if the classes won't transfer, if you can take some classes cheaply (financial aid or research grant), by all means give grad school a trial run now. It's a great way to gain an appreciation for which types of programs you're willing to commit 5-7 years to, and how different that program will be from your undergrad experiences.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:05 AM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: Yes, it's possible to take courses in between undergraduate and graduate programs. I took a graduate level course in psychology between my B.A. and M.A. Different universities will have different protocols regarding how to do this. However, I think it unlikely that any graduate program will give you credit for these courses. If you take a course during your time off, it'll probably be for your own edification only. Don't bank on anything else.

I suspect this is something I would need to ask each university (the university I want to take the class at, and then the universities housing the Ph.D. programs that I am thinking about applying to) but I was wondering if fellow Mefites have any information.

Here's my prediction: you'll speak with some departmental secreatary or graduate director who, if they don't say "no" flat-out, will sigh, say, "maybe... we'll see...", and refuse to commit to anything. Once you enter the program, that maybe will turn into a no.

You still have two years before you're done with your undergrad... why not try to take some graduate level courses during your final year? Ask a professor who thinks well of you. He or she will probably let you attend his or her class. This will look good on your applications -- particularly if that professor writes you a letter of reference.

Graduate programs in philosophy usually do fold the M.A. into the Ph.D., but some schools offer terminal M.A. programs. It can be worth doing a terminal M.A. if your undergraduate history won't get you into the program of your choice. I didn't do my undergrad in philosophy, so I completed an M.A. at Tufts in order to get into a good Ph.D. program (and it worked!). My route isn't standard, though. It's much more normal to enter a Ph.D. program directly from the B.A.

If you have any other questions about graduate school in philosophy, feel free to e-mail me.
posted by painquale at 1:05 AM on July 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm working on a Ph.D. in physics, and I know that many people in my program were able to get credit for grad classes taken before enrolling. That said, I'd imagine that physics curricula are very much more standardized than philosophy, so it's probably easier for departments in physics to interpret the level and quality of courses taken elsewhere than it will be in your case.

But who cares? Taking a couple of grad classes is undoubtedly possible -- although it might be expensive -- and definitely a good opportunity. At worst, you'll have some valuable experience and will know what to expect when you get to the Ph.D. Plus, as has been mentioned above, it demonstrates that you're capable of doing the work in a grad-level course and increases the likelihood you get in to good programs.
posted by dseaton at 4:59 AM on July 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I had a semester gap between finishing my B.A. and starting my M.A. (both in English). I took a graduate class in the interim--mostly to keep my head in the game. I think they counted it as an extra undergraduate elective (though I already had enough of those), since I hadn't been formally admitted into the M.A. program at that time (I did B.A. and M.A. at the same school). I could have petitioned to get them to count it, I guess, but it didn't matter to me, so I didn't bother. I did enjoy the class, though. I also got a taste of graduate school. So it was good for me.

Why not just get a copy of the Ph.D. reading list and make some progress on that in your downtime? Might be time better spent than trying to deal with the red tape and hassle of transferring credits.
posted by wheat at 5:10 AM on July 28, 2006

I took a few grad-level courses in my senior year of undergrad, and then had the opportunity of applying them to my Ph.D. courseload (electives, as nakedcodemonkey suggests). I didn't end up applying them, as I wanted to take more rather than fewer classes, but the option existed. Seeing as Hampshire doesn't have a grad program (from what I can see on their website), why don't you try to take some grad-level courses at UMass? I would definitely wait until your final year, but I don't see any problem with it (from a social standpoint; the bureaucracy of it, I have no idea). And I don't know you, so I'll assume you're the former, but just be careful not to be too precocious about it, as there is a very fine line in the graduate and faculty mind between "very interested and advanced undergrad" and "snotty know-it-all undergrad."

All that said, wheat's suggestion of getting the reading lists for some of the required Ph.D. courses for places you'd like to apply is a great idea. You can get the profs' names from the course register and email them directly, and they should be glad to send it to you. The added benefit of this is that it will establish contact between you and the professors, thus making you a better candidate for admission to the programs. Again, though, I would wait until your final year to do this.
posted by The Michael The at 5:40 AM on July 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Second hand knowledge: You might not get credit for classes you take, even if those classes are required by the program and you took them at the self same institution... rules are tricky and often about the mulla, by which I mean money.
posted by ewkpates at 6:19 AM on July 28, 2006

In our department, nonmatriculated grad students wishing to enroll in a grad course must receive the ok of the instructor (this is also true for grad students wishing to take our courses from outside the department). The credits will not likely transfer and even if they do, you may be advised to take the course again. However, depending on what your field is, credits for courses may not be that big of a deal. The benefits of doing this as I see it are 1) you get a better sense of your chosen field if the course is in an area you wish to go to grad school in 2) doing well in the course may make your application more competitive when you apply for grad school as it is some indication of your ability to perform in a demanding graduate curriculum 3) and you will likely learn something. The place to start is with the graduate secretary - most schools with grad programs have them.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:19 AM on July 28, 2006

Like many people have said, you probably won't get credit for those classes at the school you finally end up at. But actually, for the most part, credits don't matter. Grad school is basically a 5-year job where the work is becoming an expert about a field (and a particular topic). Taking classes in general is one way to move towards this goal, and credit requirements in grad school have this in mind. But it is really the contents of the classes that matter, and the paper topics that you write about for them. Even if you have to retake a similar class in grad school, that doesn't have to mean you will be bored (though many ambitious grad students in a hurry seem to take it that way) -- it means you will have a really solid grasp on the material, a grasp that may well become useful several years later.
posted by advil at 12:07 PM on July 28, 2006

My experience with grad school is similar to advil's - the coursework is part of it but it's not everything. Taking a course or two in advance might give you a feel for what the courses are like, but it's not really what grad school is about. Also, doing well in the course doesn't mean you'll be a great grad student. The focus of grad school should be doing independent academic research. Some courses get you started in that regard (e.g., methods-related courses where you learn the tools of the trade) but beyond that, it's more what you do in the lab or the library that makes the difference.

(Note that professional training grad programs are the exception to what I'm saying here).

With respect to figuring out how to transfer credits: yes, talk to the grad coordinator of the target grad program. They will be helpful, to a point. But also figure out who the graduate chair of the department is as well. This will be an actual faculty member who is more likely to take your questions seriously and might be more motivated to help you work out the exact rules.
posted by drmarcj at 8:51 PM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: I missed this question the first time around; thought I would comment in case future searchers find it.

If you get into a good graduate program in philosophy, you will not be able to transfer credits. The academic job market in philosophy is competitive enough that it only makes sense to go to grad school if you get into a good place. (Unless you are brilliant and incredibly self-motivated, in which case you might be able to transfer)

But it could still be worth your time to take a grad class while you're still an undergrad (to give you a sense of what they're like, and to get a head start on the higher level of mastery expected of grad students). If you write a great paper for it, that could serve as your writing sample in the grad school application.

Do not pay out of pocket to take grad courses after you graduate. Even if you can do it, it would be a waste of money. In general (unless you have money to burn), do not pay to get any kind of philosophy credential. In particular, if you are admitted only to grad schools that want you to pay them, then don't go. Never, never take out a large loan to finance a philosophy degree. (It may make sense to take out a small loan for living expenses.) Grad programs that have a chance of getting you an academic job in philosophy will fund you to some extent. It is not like law or medicine where you will eventually make big money to pay off a big loan.

It does not make sense to get a "terminal MA" in philosophy in most cases. MA students do not usually get funding (Tufts is an exception and there are a few others), and the degree by itself doesn't qualify you to do anything you can't do with a BA. It makes sense if you need to improve an application to a PhD program, but otherwise not.

So most good programs are PhD programs, usually 5 years as the stated length, and most students take longer than that to finish. In many of these PhD programs you automatically get an MA on the way to the PhD, but not in all.

A final word: grad school in philosophy is not for everyone, not even for every intelligent student who likes philosophy class and gets good marks. Taking a grad class may give you some insight, and you should also talk frankly with your undergrad professors to get their take on it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:36 PM on September 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

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