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Unusual Advice: Take a Class Outside Your Field

As a third-year Ph.D. student, having finished all of my required courses and much to the confusion of many of my friends and colleagues, I decided to take an additional class during a semester when I already had little time to spare. While there were times that my schedule regretted it because of my love-hate relationship with over-commitment, I found this experience of my graduate career to be one that I would not trade.

Here are some of the reasons why I stand by my decision and encourage you to consider doing the same:

From class assignments to casual conversations, taking a class outside my field was an opportunity to learn about different areas of study. In addition to the course material, I interacted with students from all over campus, which afforded me the occasion to engage with others who see the world differently than I do. I encountered a variety of opinions on everything from politics to paper-writing. The discussion-based course that I took was a particularly good exercise in seeing things from a perspective other than my own. While it is true that you could at any time pick up a book to be exposed to a perspective other than your own, it is a lot easier to dismiss the contradictory ideas of an aloof author than those of your own classmate (usually).

Venturing outside the halls of my discipline was also an opportunity to teach others about my own field. I am continually growing to appreciate the necessity not only of knowing what I know and doing what I do, but of being able to articulate the importance of these things. As a connecting point between two different worlds, I sometimes felt like an ambassador. In addition to being the spokesperson for my field in an interdisciplinary room, I also had the chance to open conversations with my own colleagues about the importance of studying, understanding, and yes, even valuing and respecting, fields other than our own and its closest siblings.

This academic setting was a safe distance outside my comfort zone, as most of my best learning experiences have been. Sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone means speaking up when your opinion is different from the majority of people in the room. Sometimes it means learning how to write a paper from a perspective you do not agree with. Sometimes it means navigating your way to a building on campus that you have never entered before.

I leave you with a few practical considerations:

There will not be a time when an extra class fits into your schedule neatly. While I am all too familiar with the personal and professional disasters that can result from taking on too much, and I do encourage you to manage your time and mental health wisely, I also urge you not to let vague schedule constraints keep you from a valuable experience.

If you can, convince a friend to take a class with you – especially if you can convince a friend from a different field of study. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was actually the friend that was convinced.) Exploring new ideas and a new area of campus can both be a little easier with a familiar face by your side. Just be careful not to use your friend as an excuse not to interact with others in the class.

Some advisors will take to the idea of a non-required class better than others. Personally, I am fortunate enough to have an advisor who is willing to support any academic or professional pursuit that I think is worth my time. If you think your advisor will be on the fence about a class you want to take, it is still worth having a conversation about it. I recommend having a particular course in mind and thinking through some talking points about how it will help you with your future career goals or other pursuits. (Will the course assignments help with your writing or public speaking abilities? Will it help you make new network connections? Will it look good on your CV/resume for the type of job you want to pursue post-grad school? Will it help you figure out what type of job that is?)

Having completed my undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts college, I already knew the value of studying multiple subjects. Taking a graduate course related to but distinct from my own field of study opened my eyes to the possibility of introducing this value to my graduate career as well by taking advantage of the offerings of the top university I am privileged to attend.