University courses are often denoted by 3-digit course codes that start with the year they are designed to be taken in. At my school and in my program, it went like this:

  • 100s: First year – General Topics, high school course prerequisites
  • 200s: Second year – General topics, 100 level prerequisites
  • 300s: Third year – More narrow topic matter, 200 and 100 level prerequisites
  • 400s: General fourth year courses – Usually 300 level prerequisites
  • 500s: Specialized fourth year courses, grad students admitted
  • 600s: Graduate level standard courses
  • 700s: Graduate level highly specialized courses

So, a course called “Calculus 204” tells you that this course is intended to be taken in second year, and likely it had prerequisites that would be taken in first year.

A good friend of mine took a bachelor’s degree in psychology and when they got to their 4th year they had an option of taking nearly any course they wanted with course codes ranging from 100 to 599.  My friend who had struggled taking 300 level courses the year before elected to take entirely 200s and 100s as they believed they were more accessible and wouldn’t mess up their last year of school with a lot of things like primary research and heavy workloads.  When they graduated, they did so, having never taken a course with a code that started with 4 or above. They were happy and did fine after they graduated.

I was faced with a similar decision in my 4th year, but I chose to go the other way.  My first 4th year semester was filled with 400 and 500 level courses.  One 500 level course, Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), went well for me.  I found the topic fascinating and the set of problems that it solved were of great interest to me as I had spent several work terms doing research and development on fluid systems.  My CFD professor approached me near the end of term and invited me to apply for graduate school as his student. In preparation, I could take his 700 level course then next term, and I did.

700s are special

I was used to undergraduate courses which had 100s of students in them, one professor and sometimes a teaching assistant or even three.  The 700s I’ve taken are nothing like that.  The largest class size I’ve ever had in a 700 is 8 – 3 or 4 students was more typical.  A classroom experience for a graduate course is just 8 students in a tiny room with a professor for 3 hours a week. It is a very different class experience.

Most professors are required to teach courses for their faculty and often they don’t get to choose what course they teach, especially for newer professors which is why it sometimes seems like most first-year courses are taught by younger professors or professors that may not always have the best lecture styles.  Not so with a 700.  700s are generally created by a specific professor and they mirror their interests very closely.  As a result, a 700-level class becomes a weekly 3-hour session with a world expert who can show you the inside track on their passion.  My favourite courses of all time were 700s. Two of them with the same professor (the department teaching chair) and the other was the CFD course that I took from my future supervisor in my last term of undergrad.

Not for the faint of heart

To take a 700-level course in 4th year I had to adjust my course schedule.  I signed up for 2 courses that were known to be very low workload (a project course for an engineering team I had already done most of the work for in my past 3 years and a law course that was pass/fail and had only a single page essay and final exam as graded content).  In graduate school, students will typically take 1 or 2 600 or 700 level courses per term because they are a lot of work. My favourite courses probably took me 20-30 hours a week in projects and assignments.  I didn’t see this as a bad thing as it was work I was interested in.  Here’s some work examples of a few of the projects I did:

  • I wrote a program, from scratch, that predicted the two-dimensional fluid flow inside a square cavity.
  • I studied a patent for a supersonic flow managing device and did the necessary calculations to show that claims of the patent were only partially valid.
  • I studied noise generated by air blowing over a deep cavity and I could show sound waves being radiated out into the environment.

Beyond work level, prerequisites for these courses can be a little tricky.  These courses are typically very specialized and professors are notorious for underestimating how trivial a concept is to learn as background material.  I’ve seen multiple people drop out of 700 level courses because they were not familiar enough with the math required to operate in that subject area.

I’d do it again

If I’m ever independently wealthy or I have an employer that has an interest in me taking a specialized course, I would look at taking a graduate level course at a university.  It wouldn’t even need to be part of a degree, as sometimes schools will let you take a single course if the professor is onboard.  The quality of learning be gained from such an experience is difficult to find elsewhere, short of doing a research post-graduate degree under a good supervisor.

If you are considering taking a 700, I recommend you do it if it interests you and if you can make the time required for it.  When you sign up, be prepared for a wild ride and possibly one of the best learning experiences of your life.

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