This might go better on academia stack exchange, but it seems probably the people who know the answer are on cross validated..

This is a pattern across the US. My classmates in, e.g., neuroscience PhD programs take only a few courses. The structure of the PhD is far more like an apprenticeship. Conversely, my classmates in PhD programs take on the order of 12 courses. (Computer science PhDs take about the same.) Why the difference?

Could it be that perhaps statisticians have to be prepared for anything? They might work on a project where a new clustering method is required one day and have to develop a hypothesis test the next?

Could it be that a student could technically have great insight and prove a theorem during the first afternoon of their PhD, so the coursework ensures that they stay at least a fixed amount of time? Experiments in neuroscience usually take much longer, so the PhD program is guaranteed to have the student for a while.

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    $\begingroup$ Scientists have labs, which require labor, whereas statisticians typically do not. Statisticians need coauthors (and occasionally programmers), but that is a higher bar to clear, and longer coursework is needed for preparation. $\endgroup$ – Dimitriy V. Masterov Jul 18 '18 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ @DimitriyV.Masterov this sounds right to me $\endgroup$ – user0 Jul 19 '18 at 14:05

I don't think the coursework is intended to be there as busywork in case you prove the Riemann hypothesis on your first day. More likely, the faculty has made the decision that it wants to get all of its graduate students up to some minimal level of mathematical/statistical competence prior to research training, and a substantial program of graduate-level coursework achieves this.

University faculties have a great deal of discretion in deciding on the coursework component (if any) of their PhD program. Some have no coursework, and some have a substantial amount of coursework. In cases where a student comes in well-prepared (e.g., with an existing coursework Masters), the faculty might exempt them from some or all of the coursework. These decisions tend to be made at the level of each faculty, so they depend heavily on the preferences of the Head of School, the Graduate Coordinator, and other senior academics in the faculty.

I can't speak to what is common in the US, but when I did my PhD (Statistics) at ANU (Australia) there was no coursework in the degree; all the entrants had either done a full year of Honours-level courses as undergraduates, or a Masters degree, or they had substantial industry experience, so they came in with a fair bit of solid coursework behind them already. Evidently, in that particular case, the senior staff in the faculty decided they did not need us to have any more coursework before starting research training.

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    $\begingroup$ britain is similar to australia in that respect. I think it is the north american uni's that pile on the course work. Although a student interested in biostatistics can do a phd in medicine and then the course load will be very low since it is application rather than theory that is emphasised $\endgroup$ – PaulBrownPhD Jul 22 '18 at 19:59

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