Advice to Computer Architecture Graduate Students on Why/When They Should take 460N

I've had some interesting conversations over the past few years where a student who wants to study computer architecture for his/her Ph.D. asks me what classes he/she should take.  The most important thing a computer architecture student should take is 460N unless you've taken an equivalent course at your home institution.  So far, I have found that most (about 6 to 7 out of 8 per year) of our incoming graduate students do not have sufficient preparation to skip 460N.  Prof. Patt, who is one of the worlds leading computer architects, designed the class.  It covers about 80% of what I studied in a graduate computer architecture classes at MIT (6.823.)   Patterson and Hennessy's "Computer Organization" is not equivalent. Thus, I really consider it a graduate class that undergrads take.  We are close to giving 460N a graduate course number, which means that it will soon be a graduate class crosslisted with the undergraduate class.

I've seen more than one student ignore this advice and decide to take 460N in the second semester.  Bad idea.  We have many classes in the second semester that require 460N as a prerequisite.  If you are interested in getting started on architecture research and you haven't taken an equivalent course, most architecture faculty will not consider you as a research student unless you've taken 460N and done well in it.  There is a reason to take classes, afterall, and that is to learn the background so you can do the research. 

I've heard all sorts of excuses of why not to take 460N that generally take the form of "460N is a lot of work and I want to focus on other classes first" or "I haven't taken a computer architecture class in my undergrad and, therefore, 460N would be too much to take the first year."  Neither excuse demonstrates either a commitment to architecture or to working hard, both of which are required to be a successful architect at UT.  If architecture is your field of choice, you should not start with classes in other areas.

Thus, unless you talk with one of the architecture faculty who actively teach 460N (Prof. Patt, Prof. Erez, and myself) and one of them agrees that you know the 460N material, I will strongly recommend that you take it your first semester at UT.  Otherwise, your chances of being an architecture PhD student is almost 0.