Getting Ready for Grad School… Part 3: Courses.

Hello everyone,

It’s another beautiful day in Vancouver. The sun is shinning and there’s abundance of summer berries in the markets — for cheap!

That also means that I am in the mood for having berries mixed in ice cream and whipped cream and condensed milk all together, everyday. It’s perhaps terrible for my body. But I assure you I’ve got at least some exercise done this month to account for it. Organized by MEGA, I went hiking with Mech Eng grad students to the Shannon Falls. It was about six hours of hiking alongside this beautiful body of water that falls about 335 meters (the third highest fall in BC, apparently). It turns out that everyone who went hiking with me were completely fine the day after, whereas I had to take the elevator to go up half a flight of stairs because my thighs were screaming to me “stop moving so much, bah~!!!”

Anyways, long story short, it’s wonderful to spend time in Vancouver in the summer. Unlike Toronto, where the humidex is hitting something above 40 making you feel like there should be a law to make A/C mandatory in all buildings, you probably feel quite pleasant wearing nothing to wearing a long-sleeve shirt in Vancouver.

So if you’re a student coming from another country/city where summer isn’t so pleasant, I would say that it might be worth while to arrive here a bit early, so that you have some time to enjoy the city and its weather before the Fall semester starts in September.

Speaking of the upcoming semester, I should really talk about courses.

I actually blogged about this a while back, and gave an example list of courses I took. So, some of it is repeat, but I figured I’d mention some of the same things and add some other, just because it’s that time of the year.

When I first started grad school, I wasn’t sure what I should be doing differently from undergrad. At the University of Waterloo, courses were more or less chosen for you, schedules optimized to help you survive the week with your classmates. Their Mechatronics program was prepared such that you don’t really have to pick anything other than electives until you hit fourth year. Everyone in my class took the same course with me for the first three years of my undergrad.

So, when it came to choosing my courses for grad school, it was a bit of a confusing experience for me.

First of all, it looked like I had to choose everything. There was/is this helpful program guide the Department has set up that let me know what mandatory things I had to take are. Simply put, if you are an MASc student, you must enrol in the MECH 599 and 598 courses. You should also register for the section that last for both winter terms 1 and 2. If you’re a PhD student, you should enrol in the MECH 699 and 698 courses. Keep in mind, these are not your typical classroom courses where you sit down and take notes. It’s just some administrative thing you need to do to make sure that the Department and the University knows that you’re enrolled in the MASc or the PhD program. MECH598 is actually a seminar course, and you need to attend it for an hour every week. There’s more to it, but maybe I’ll talk about it some other time (I can babble on about that course for quite a while I’m sure).

Oh, and I never really got used to what Winter 1 and Winter 2 terms mean. But I figured it out eventually. So a typical ‘Fall’ term in other schools are considered Winter term 1 at UBC. It starts in early September and ends in early/mid December. Winter term 2 at UBC is kinda like a Winter/Spring term, because it goes from January until the end of April. And then, there are two summer terms, also named 1 and 2. The Summer Term 1 lasts from May until June, and Summer Term 2 goes from July to August.

One thing to keep in mind, for those of you who are international students, is that Canadian universities usually consider an academic year to last from September to April. That means that if an academic year starts in September of 2012, you’re still in the academic year of 2012 in April even if your calendar tells you that it’s April of 2013 today. Confusing? Yes. I know. So if you see the two options, 2012 Winter and 2012 Summer, in the UBC Student Services Centre (yes, it exists online : keep in mind that your 2012 Winter Term 2 selections are actually for the semester that lasts from January to April of 2013.

When you first decide on courses, it’s wise to book yourself into courses for both the winter terms. That’s because most students do it that way, from what I’ve heard, and hence all the courses you might like to take in Winter term 2 may be gone by the time you feel like registering for them in November/December. Don’t worry about the summer ones for now.

The key difference in choosing courses in undergrad vs. grad I think is that you need to kind of talk to your supervisor(s) before you enrol in courses. I know some profs don’t really care. Some students take super irrelevant courses, just for fun and just because the tuition is the same. But you should at least take courses that are relevant to your research, so that your courses will help you along the way. So, before settling down on a course or two, ask your supervisor about what courses he/she/they’d recommend you to take. They might even have a canned list of courses to recommend for you (like a list of courses they’d recommend all of their grad students to take).

Another difference is that you don’t really take as many courses in grad school as you would in undergrad. Back at the University of Waterloo, I used to take five courses per term or something along the lines. I think it’s kind of typical of engineering undergrad students in Canada to take just as much. But in grad school, it’s a bit different. You’ll be studying things that no one will teach you in a course, because you’ll be working on things that have not been discovered yet, thoughts that need further thinking, knowledge that hasn’t really made it to the world. That means you become your own teacher, with the guidance of your supervisor(s). So consider your research time as taking an independent study ‘course’ and be prepared to leave some time in your week to do just that — teach yourself.

One thing that I didn’t know before is that you can actually take courses from the Simon Fraiser University if you are not satisfied with the list of courses offered at UBC. I haven’t done this myself, but I know a couple of people who did this. Apparently UBC has an agreement with SFU to make this happen in an not-so-painful way.

Anyways, now that I’ve enrolled for my mandatory courses, I think I will just slip out of the lab and ‘continue working’… outside…

4 thoughts on “Getting Ready for Grad School… Part 3: Courses.

  1. André

    Hey AJung!

    Just letting you know that you’ve got another reader for your blog =)

    And keep blogging, it seems you know how to write interesting posts!

  2. Edwin

    This is a must read post for people considering grad courses. I think it is definitely important to figure out what you really want to do and to talk to your potential teachers/ profs first to see if it is the right fit. There are so many ways to get into new jobs these days that you may not even need grad school to get to where you want to go.

    The best way to do it is to cast a wide net out there in terms of jobs, and from there see what you need to get in. If it’s really grad school, then speaking to the right people will ensure you take only the courses you need. Remember that the itnent of some universities may be mixed as they are a ‘business’ too, so may push you towards signing up when it may not be 100% necessary.

  3. Irfan

    It was really helpful. Can anyone tell me that is it possible to opt for a course from different department such as a course in operation research or something else?

    1. AJung Post author

      Hi Irfan,
      Glad you found the post helpful. Yes, you can definitely register for courses outside of your own department at UBC. I took courses from Psychology, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Computer Science, although my home department is Mechanical Engineering.
      However, it is strongly advised that you speak with your advisor about your course choices before you register for them. 🙂 I hope this helps!


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