While virtually all U.S. graduate programs require their students to take a certain set of classes, each student is also typically allowed to choose two or three elective classes from any department within the university, as long as the classes have some relevance to the student's area of research or study.
International students are often unaware of this and therefore don't always take the best advantage of the opportunity. They can end up taking classes that do not cover new subjects or that don't explore old ones in more creative ways.
Many international students simply sign up for classes with the keyword "advanced" followed by the generic name of the subject they are studying, and end up bored or not really challenged by the class.
If you are already doing research with a professor, ask if he or she has any suggestions or can provide input as you choose elective classes. Your professor may be able to suggest classes that will help you directly or indirectly in your research, or that can help you develop a professional relationship with a faculty member you may not have interacted with otherwise.
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During my master's in microbial genetics, one of my professors overheard me discussing elective class choices with a friend and asked me if I would like a recommendation. He suggested a class called pathobiology in a completely separate department.
The class gave me a great overview of infection mechanisms by pathogens and defense mechanisms by hosts for the entire spectrum of biological species. While it did not directly help me with the research I was doing at the moment, it gave me ideas for future directions for my project.
Moreover, the pathobiology professor later became one of the members of my master's committee, and wrote me a recommendation letter when I was applying for my Ph.D.
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It can also be useful to choose elective classes that will help you hone your skills in research or where you can learn a new skill to enter a field currently beyond your skill set.
An international graduate student in the sciences who has to analyze large quantities of data, for example, may benefit from a class in statistics; an international graduate student in the humanities may find a writing class useful. A biologist I know took a class in programming as an elective and later went on to spend the next 10 years working in the field of bioinformatics.
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Elective classes do not have to be from an unrelated field. In a molecular biology elective class I took for my Ph.D., the professor encouraged creativity. Our assignments involved coming up with all the different ways living organisms could do a particular task before studying the way in which they actually did it.
It was one of the most interesting classes I ever took. All answers were correct as long as they were plausible.
Since each graduate student generally has only a few elective classes, international students should consider their options carefully. An elective class can give you a whole new perspective on your work and field of study or create a valuable professional ally for life.
Swati B. Carr, from India, is currently pursuing her doctorate in synthetic biology at Boston University and advises prospective international students. She first came to the U.S. as an international student for her master's in microbial genetics from the University of Rhode Island.