7 Tips in Choosing the Right Graduate Class (and Getting the Most Out of It)

By: Christine Lai

“We have to choose between what is right, and what is easy.” ― J.K. Rowling

As I’m navigating through the graduate school process, I was quickly overwhelmed with the number of choices for classes that are offered. Should I take a class in technology entrepreneurship? I want to start my business someday so that may be helpful. How about a social media class? Learning how to use Twitter from professionals will be helpful for my career. But are there are classes I should take first – perhaps required classes?

Graduate School TextbooksFor graduate students, school is one of our many priorities. Work responsibilities and family life also take up our already limited time. So how do we make the most of graduate school once we’ve been accepted? Is it different from how we chose and attended classes in undergrad? Here are a couple of tips for choosing the right classes and getting the most value out of your time and money.

Why does choosing the right graduate classes matter?

Employers are not looking for those who just check the graduate school box. You need something to show for it. That translates into taking the right classes that (1) furthers your skills and (2) expands your network. Your graduate classes should be strategic in furthering your career or your life goals.

What are some common pitfalls when choosing graduate classes?

Common pitfalls fall under bad content, structure, and network, which I’ll discuss later. The two most common mistakes students make when choosing graduate classes are:

  • Taking classes in subjects you’re not interested in. If you are not interested in the subject – ask yourself, are you in the right program? You are paying for the class in money AND time. If it’s a required course for the program, weigh your investment in the program and the value you get out of it. If you take one class that is less than useful, but 9 great ones – so be it. If half of the classes you are taking are irrelevant, then why are you in the program in the first place?
  • Taking a badly structured class. In graduate school, you should be learning from not only the assigned material, but also from your instructor AND your peers. If the course does not allow you to tap into your classmates’ diverse knowledge and experiences, is it worth taking? If you’re just learning the material in the book, would you get a similar learning experience without spending that extra money for the class itself? If it’s a required class, is there a way to get to know your classmates – perhaps meeting them outside the class or during a happy hour?

So how do I figure out which graduate classes I should be taking?

When you’re looking at list of classes, examine at the syllabus and research the professor. Shop around for classes during the first week. When you are evaluating these classes, think about these questions.

  1. Find a class with good content. Will this class teach me a useful skill or give me knowledge in an area that is helpful for my career or life goal?
  2. Make sure the class is well-structured. Is this class structured well to optimize learning? In other words, are the assignments useful? Will the class incorporate engaging discussions?
  3. Check if the class is taught by a knowledgeable instructor. Is this class taught by someone who is respected in this field? Does the professor facilitate discussion?
  4. See if you can learn from your peers. Does the class have engaging and knowledgeable fellow classmates? Can you learn from them?

If you answer is “no” to 2 or more out of the 4 questions, reconsider taking the class. Think about how much you will learn if the professor isn’t knowledgeable and reads straight off the textbook. Think about how much you will be able to get out of the class if it has bad content and structure.

What are some tips to get the most out of the classes I am taking?

Once you’ve chosen your classes, your work is not done. You need to actually take the class. Here are 3 additional things you can do during class to get the most out of it.

  1. Make sure that you are learning something new. Don’t be lazy and take a class because you already know the material and it’s easy. Especially when you are taking classes relevant to your field of work, the goal of the class is to make you a more attractive prospective employee. You should be learning a new skill – whether it is how to better leverage social media for work or learning the basics of how to build a business plan.
    If it’s nothing new or if you are already a subject matter expert in the material – then why are you in the class? If you are the smartest and most knowledgeable person in that classroom, you are in the wrong room.
  2. Apply what you learn. Grad school is not undergrad because we already have work experience or are currently working. Graduate school should complement what you are already doing in your field or enable you to get closer to what you’d like to do. If you are in the technology field and enrolled in a technology management program, then you should bring what you learn from your classmates and apply them to your daily work. If you are enrolled in a program that has nothing to do with your current field, you can still apply what you’ve learned – be it to become a better writer or critical thinker. All fields are related – you just have to look how they are related.
  3. Make friends. The difference between high school and even college is that your classmates already have large networks. Networks that you are interested in being a part of. You are trying to learn from them as they are to learn from you. They can inspire you to try a new venture, think about a work problem differently, or open your eyes to fields you weren’t aware of before. It’s a conversation, exchange of information, and learning process.

More and more people have MBAs and graduate school degrees. Make the most out of your time and money. Otherwise, your time and money are better spent trying to get a promotion or a raise on your current job or finding a new career. Please do not pay tens of thousands of dollars and spend hundreds of hours of your time just to say you went to graduate school. Instead, make sure graduate school complements your life goals – whether be it to change careers, learn a new skill to get a promotion, or meet new friends who give you insight as to where to take your career.

Do you agree with the criteria for choosing graduate school classes? Are there any other factors that you take into consideration when choosing classes? Please share in the comments section below.

Other Resources:

Here are additional resources for those who are figuring out whether grad school is right for them or evaluating grad school choices.

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