What Are Graduate Courses For?

2 minute read

Why do we make graduate students, particularly thesis-based masters students, take courses?

Why do we make them take so many (or so few) courses?

I have asked myself these questions since starting at Laurier nearly 7 years ago and have never received a complete, or well-thought out, or satisfactory answer. Too much of the rationale behind the current graduate program structure seems to be fading form institutional memory so the answers are often hand-waving.

Our graduate program is joint with Geography (now Geography and Environmental Management) at the University of Waterloo from back in 1992. Both universities and both departments have changed a lot since then in terms of teaching loads, research, and graduate student enrolments.

Why and how did we end up with 5 courses as the requirement for thesis-based masters students?

  • 1 required all-encompassing course (formerly an -isms and -ologies course and now more focused on professional development)
  • 1 discipline-specific foundations course (the ideas is there are 4 disciplines in the departments)
  • 3 electives

We recently lowered this to 4 total by dropping one of the electives but the assumptions of this course structure remain.

Will there every be enough electives to serve the breadth and depth of graduate student research? Probably not if we have to balance teaching (small) graduate courses with teaching (medium and large) undergraduate courses.

Do we just supplement graduate courses by encouraging students to take courses in other departments? If so, who determines what courses are appropriate electives? Currently, we list which graduate courses are eligible electives for each degree (and each degree’s specialisation) and this inevitably leads to students not understanding that their courses do not count as an elective.

So what is the purpose of all of these graduate courses?

  • If it is training (skills development and acquisition) then the courses need to be offered every year so they are useful to students before they undertake the bulk of their research. This means offering the courses with small numbers of students. This is increasingly unlikely and unappetizing to admin who count dollars and to other faculty who do not or cannot teach these small, essentially bespoke, courses.

  • If it is knowledge transfer about a topic or a field then the courses might not need to be offered each year if the course topic is not directly germane to student research. This kind of course would be about breadth and having a common curriculum for graduate students.

These are two fundamentally different views of the purpose of graduate courses for thesis-based masters students.

These are two fundamentally different views of how thesis-based graduate programs should operate: thesis-focused with a few courses or a common curriculum in the program with a thesis.