Taking undergrad courses as a grad student

Hi there,

So I’m starting my phd in philosophy in August. I’m pretty unfamiliar with the US way of doing things. The first 2 years are taught, 4 courses per semester.

Is it feasible/advisable to take an additional undergrad course for my own interest? I was thinking of Chinese or Japanese - I already know some Japanese and don’t want to forget all my kanji.

I guess my question is - do people do this kind of thing in the US? Note I’m just asking in general, obviously I wouldn’t go ahead and register without talking to my advisor - I just want to make sure I wouldn’t be asking him a stupid question.


First thing to do is to ask your advisor. They’ll know who has done undergrad courses in the past, and how it generally turns out in your specific program.

My personal experience (and I’m not in philosophy) is that undergrad courses are a huge pain in the ass. Language courses are perhaps the only exception, as they’re quite useful. Nevertheless, studying for undergraduate exams is an unbelievable time sink, especially if your program is research-oriented. After you talk to your advisor and get their opinion, I would advise not taking undergrad courses during your first semester; give yourself a bit to get a feel for the program before you sign yourself up for work you won’t end up having time to do.

You’re probably not going to have time for any classes in addition to your regular coursework. When I did my doctorate, I took a cram language class each fall semester to pass my French and German exams – and each fall I had to take an incomplete in one class to write the paper during the Jan term (month for intensive courses, including a language, for me, before the regular spring semester started in February).

It might make sense to audit an undergrad class to keep up your skills without the time commitment of actually taking the class.

ETA: There’s no rule against taking undergrad classes, usually, esp. if it’s something you need for your degree that isn’t offered at the grad level. I had an undergrad soc theory class one semester.

We were advised not to take undergrad courses, but language courses were always the exception - we didn’t even need special permission for those. No one ever took a language course in addition to their other courses, though - the language course was considered part of the three courses we took per quarter. I seriously doubt you’re going to have the time or the energy to indulge in an extra course in grad school - my own MA program was an intensive one where we wrote our theses and did coursework all in one year, and it was ridiculously intense.

4 doctoral level courses per semester is aggressive by itself. You may want to talk to other students in your program to see if folks really take the 4 recommended courses all the time, or if they often cut back to 3 and take a little longer to complete the requirements. Also, will you have any TA or RA responsibilities? One other thing, you should look into what the library has online for foreign language learning resources. These will be available to you free as a student, and you can learn at your own pace.

It depends on the school, and it depends on the program, and it may depend on how you’re being funded. You’ll just have to see what your advisor says. :slight_smile:

If it’s not related to your PhD, they almost certainly won’t fund it, of course. But hey, maybe you can go into Japanese Philosophy. There is some, you know. :stuck_out_tongue:

Do you know what kind of Philosophy you want to do, btw?


Yep, I’m a metaphysics/phil-math/phil-physics bod. Though that may well change of course.


I did exactly what the OP is suggesting when I was at UCLA, even though I didn’t “need” an extra language. It was extra work, and probably tacked some time onto the total process, but it was well worth it. I also found that it was a nice structured break from the intense focus on my field.

U.S. grad students can also frequently take undergraduate courses that count toward their requirements, but usually the professor will adjust the requirements to your level — a longer paper or an extra research project or something. I think as an M.A. student we were allowed two of those, and one for the Ph.D. course requirements, but I cannot remember now.

I also agree that four courses per term is excessive, but I did as many as five without a problem other than severe stress. Of course, I was completely crazy to do it, but when I got out I had to teach six courses per term at two different schools to make ends meet, so it was good training.

I second Harriet the Spry that four courses per semester is a lot–when I earned my PhD (in philosophy, incidentally), it was 3 grad courses per semester and it was a given that you couldn’t do all the required and recommended readings on the syllabus for every class. I really wouldn’t want to try to take 4 per semester. And 4 grad + 1 undergrad? Fuggedaboutit.

4 grad (or 3 + teaching) is required at my school I think.


I took two years of a language during my 3rd and 4th years of my PhD program (Hopefully next year (#6) will be the last). A friend of mine sat in on History and Philosophy classes at various times. The trick is to sit in, do as much reading as you want/have time for, and do none of the papers/tests. Oh, and last Summer, I sat in on a History course.

And we are both in Math, so the language was not at all helpful for my PhD.

Mileage will certainly vary on funding. However, at a lot of schools once your tuition is covered to full-time status, you can take as many credits as you want at the same price. However, departmental approval will be required after a certain number of credits. For example, full-time status could have the same price for anywhere between 9 and 15 credits.

You’re going to UNC-Chapel Hill, right? Yes, it’s allowed and I’ve done it. I don’t think you’ll have any problem with the funding because 9+ credit hours as a grad student is a full load anyway; they don’t charge extra if you take more than that.

I came in to say this. “Sit in” is a lot less formal than auditing- it’s done with the professor’s “c’mon in/fuhgeddabout it” permission. Some profs are very sit-in friendly and even find it a compliment somebody’s taking the course for personal interest alone, others are total dicks of course.

The advantage of auditing over sitting in is that it will appear on your transcript, which may or may not help you at some point.

The advantage of sitting in over auditing is that there’s no charge. Most universities have fees for auditing (at U of AL it was particularly steep- about half the regular tuition in fact) and almost NO financial aid packages/fellowships cover audited classes. Sitting-in doesn’t require payment of any kind.

(I’m sitting in on an intro biology course next quarter strictly for my own purposes; it’s been 25 years since I took biology, I didn’t pay attention then, and we’ve probably evolved since then.)

Well, 3 + being a TA was what I did. Still, it didn’t leave a lot of time for me to take other courses.

if you already know the language and plan to take one for review I’d say it’d be ok time wise because you already know it.

But learning chinese or japanese from scratch without any background is hard. The writing/reading takes a lot of time and practice, as well as the pace of college language courses being pretty brisk. My college covered the equivalent of a year of high school language in a quarter (10 weeks). Class required 5 hours of instruction a week plus 5-10 hours of work and practice on top.

If you can speak fluently and only need to learn to write (and read), it might be manageable, but trying to do both writing/speaking from scratch is difficult.

I was in grad school going for a Masters Degree In Electrical Engineering. My faculty adviser refused to let me take out of major undergraduate courses. He went on sabbatical and I switched advisers to an 80 year old coasting on his laurels about to retire professor. He let me take whatever I damn well pleased, and I took the full on cruising 2 year time period to get my degree.

I took art classes and film studies classes. I am now an aficionado of films from the 30’s to 50’s (and all other decades of course). I cannot describe how fantastic it was to be in a watercolor painting class surrounded by 19 year old coeds. If I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it too, and my greatest accomplishment in grad school was to get 2 paintings in the annual undergraduate art show.

I took undergrad classes in public speaking and technical writing while I was working toward my MS in mechanical engineering. While the rules probably vary from university to university, I would think that it wouldn’t be a problem at most. My feeling was that I was in grad school to learn, so I took advantage of available classes that I wanted even if they didn’t count toward my degree.

I’m very glad that I took the classes. I think they provided me with real value, and were a walk in the park compared to my regular classes.

I audited a few undergrad classes while in grad school. No homework, no assignments unless you want, just come for the lectures.

I didn’t even do it formally; just caught the prof and asked if he minded me sitting in.