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Current MA Accepted for PhD -- Should I Graduate First?


andiedralls
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Hi all,

Here's the short version: I'm currently in my third year as an MA student, and it looks unlikely to me that I could actually finish a thesis soon; however, I just found out that the PhD program that was probably my number-one pick has accepted me. My acceptance email informs me that the department there will pay tuition (which my current program doesn't do) and fund me by roughly twice as much. The department is also closer to where my research interests have ended up in the three years since I've been here.

My questions are as follows: Can a department rescind an offer after they've extended it as long as I respond in time? How likely do you think that is? How likely do you think academic probation my first year would be? Do I even ~need to earn my MA here before heading for that program? If I don't, then would I count as a transfer student (is there such a thing at a graduate level)? Complicating this matter is the reality that my thesis director got a PhD at the very same program, and I think my thesis director's connections there played a significant role in my being accepted.

My guess is that, formally, this would be an entirely fresh start, and informally, word would probably get back to the PhD department and faculty would view me with some skepticism (and maybe hostility). In fairness, I know that leaving my thesis director hanging after s/he bothered to write a letter is a dick move; I wouldn't entertain the idea unless I thought the circumstances were extenuating.

That leads to a bunch of information that I think is relevant, but which I'll spare for now, that would answer some questions here that I suspect I might get: "If you're struggling to finish an MA in three years, then what makes you think that you can get a PhD?"; "What do you think will be different if you do move [transfer, technically?]"; "Do you think that your heart is ~really in your discipline?"; "Which factor(s) could have been so extenuating?," etc. I'll be happy to field those if/when they come.

I do also have a good sense of the relative disadvantage I'm giving myself by pursuing a doctoral dissertation having not gotten the practice of completing a thesis. I'm aware of the possible (likely?) difficulty of entering the program with a somewhat-sullied reputation if I don't finish here. I have a sense of the human-kind of difficulties that would await me.

What I don't have a sense of (after having poked around a bit online) is the more-formal stuff. To reiterate: "Can a department rescind an offer after they've extended it as long as I respond in time? How likely do you think that is? How likely do you think academic probation my first year would be? Do I even ~need to earn my MA here before heading for that program? If I don't, then would I count as a transfer student (is there such a thing at a graduate level)? Complicating this matter is the reality that my thesis director got a PhD at the very same program, and I think my thesis director's connections there played a significant role in my being accepted." I'm afraid that asking the department outright would raise a red flag. I figure since those with only bachelors' can go directly into PhD programs, then I can, too, whether I ultimately earn a masters here or not. I wanted to ask people who'd know better than I do, though, to be sure.

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1 hour ago, andiedralls said:

Do I even ~need to earn my MA here before heading for that program?

First off, I think that you should probably see if the PhD program requires you to have obtained a master's for one of their requirements for admission. If so, then I really think that you will need to finish your thesis before starting in the fall... But you would still be able to potentially finish your thesis before the end of this summer and graduate in the summer if you can do that at your current school. I'm not really sure I have any answers/advice to your other questions (though some people do transfer schools during grad school so being treated as a transfer student could maybe be a possibility?).

1 hour ago, andiedralls said:

My guess is that, formally, this would be an entirely fresh start, and informally, word would probably get back to the PhD department and faculty would view me with some skepticism (and maybe hostility). In fairness, I know that leaving my thesis director hanging after s/he bothered to write a letter is a dick move; I wouldn't entertain the idea unless I thought the circumstances were extenuating.

That leads to a bunch of information that I think is relevant, but which I'll spare for now, that would answer some questions here that I suspect I might get: "If you're struggling to finish an MA in three years, then what makes you think that you can get a PhD?"; "What do you think will be different if you do move [transfer, technically?]"; "Do you think that your heart is ~really in your discipline?"; "Which factor(s) could have been so extenuating?," etc. I'll be happy to field those if/when they come.

I do also have a good sense of the relative disadvantage I'm giving myself by pursuing a doctoral dissertation having not gotten the practice of completing a thesis. I'm aware of the possible (likely?) difficulty of entering the program with a somewhat-sullied reputation if I don't finish here. I have a sense of the human-kind of difficulties that would await me.

Okay, I am gonna say that I do agree that it is kind of a "dick move" as you put it to leave your thesis director hanging, especially since they seem like they might have been influential in your acceptance to this PhD program... Not only that, but personally I am always super hesitant to do anything that could burn bridges in academia since those connections could greatly help with obtaining a job after PhD... I do recognize that things happen that can be a huge impediment to people finishing degrees, but not finishing should be something you should really think through.

It seems that you are very aware that not finishing your thesis is un-ideal so maybe you're kind of answering your own question as to not finish? I definitely felt like quitting at times during my Master's thesis and I took longer than I expected (3 years), so I understand maybe feeling burned out and ready for something new because that is definitely where I am right now. But if you have already put so many years into this degree it really would be a shame to leave it unfinished (however, this is my own personal stance on my master's myself where I have always told myself I don't quit things once I have committed so much time and effort to them). Also if you did accept this PhD offer it could be a great motivator to help you finish up. How much is left to do to finish your thesis? Because if its mainly at the writing stage I think you could do that in time to do a summer graduation (as long as that option is available to you). It would be a time crunch but it could be feasible. And if you do finish your thesis and do a good job on it then you will likely have one more product that you can put towards publication and that will look great on your CV. I would also be concerned as to how you would detail those 3 years on a CV/talk about a conspicuous 3 year gap on your CV during future job interviews. Lastly, is there an option for you to maybe graduate with your MA, but without having completed a thesis? Or is a thesis required of you for graduation?

I'm not sure how much of what I said holds any weight because I am in the same level of academia right now, but I do think the problems you are aware of are big ones and I don't think you should discount them.

Edited by FishNerd
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1 hour ago, andiedralls said:

Can a department rescind an offer after they've extended it as long as I respond in time? How likely do you think that is?

Usually departments don't rescind offers unless you end up doing something that would result in you getting kicked out of the school (and even so, they would just ask you to decline their offer to save everyone the hassle of going through the process). One potential thing you could do that falls under this category is to misrepresent your background/experience/accomplishments in your application. 

1 hour ago, andiedralls said:

How likely do you think academic probation my first year would be? Do I even ~need to earn my MA here before heading for that program? If I don't, then would I count as a transfer student (is there such a thing at a graduate level)?

At the graduate level, academic probation tends to mean something different than undergraduate level. At many places, it's not even a real formal thing (unlike the undergrad level). For example, at your "annual performance review" (some programs have different names for this), you might be told that you are lacking in areas X, Y, Z and that you should do A, B, C to remedy them before the next review. If you don't make satisfactory progress, this might result in being kicked out of the grad program, so that "review" is kind of like a probation but there's not always a formal note on your transcript or some formal status that gets applied to your student record.

Whether or not you need to earn your MA before your PhD program depends on your PhD program. If you put in your application that you are expected to receive your MA in 2018 before starting their PhD program, then they will expect you to have a MA before starting. @FishNerd above pointed out that some schools may even require a MA to attend, but note that even if the general requirement does not include an MA, if you applied stating that you have an MA, then you should have an MA before you attend. Otherwise, it would count as misrepresenting yourself as I wrote above. In addition, it might have been the case that the school would not have admitted you if you did not have an MA (since admissions are holistic, every aspect counts) or they might have not admitted you if they knew you would be leaving your MA program. At my PhD program, no Masters degree was required but since I said I was finishing a MSc, I was required to submit evidence of completing my MSc within a few months of starting my PhD program (they allow some leeway especially since my degree requirements were finished but the degree itself was not awarded until later).

If you end up not finishing your MA, then what you must do is to inform the PhD school that you will not be completing your MA despite what you said in your application. Be prepared for a change in admission status and/or funding. If they know about this change and have no problems with it, then you would be okay!

Very few places will have transfer graduate students. Some programs waive or change degree requirements if you have a MA or have previous graduate coursework. Often, this change is not a reduction in requirements, but let's say you already took a very similar course that is a required course at the new school---they might then require you to take the next level course (or an extra elective) instead.

1 hour ago, andiedralls said:

I do also have a good sense of the relative disadvantage I'm giving myself by pursuing a doctoral dissertation having not gotten the practice of completing a thesis..

I wouldn't worry about that part. As you said yourself, many people go into a PhD program without a MA and they do fine.

1 hour ago, andiedralls said:

I'm afraid that asking the department outright would raise a red flag. I figure since those with only bachelors' can go directly into PhD programs, then I can, too, whether I ultimately earn a masters here or not. I wanted to ask people who'd know better than I do, though, to be sure.

As I wrote above, just because it is possible for those with a Bachelor's to go directly into PhD programs does not mean that you specifically can go into this specific PhD program without a Masters. If you are serious about dropping out of your MA program, you have to discuss this with your PhD program. If you do not, you could be removed from the program when they find out (as I wrote above, in my experience, I had to provide proof of Masters degree since I applied with one). Also, considering that your MA thesis advisor is well known to this PhD program, they will likely find out even if they don't look for your MA evidence. 

---

I hope that answers your questions. I tried to focus only on the formal stuff as you requested, and I understand that there are lots of "human" stuff that gets in the way. I don't need to know exactly why you can't finish your MA (or that it might be very hard to) but I want to end with a few notes/advice:

- Don't treat your last 3 years in this MA program as something you can throw away and similarly, don't treat your MA thesis advisor as a bridge you can burn. In general, and especially in your case (since your MA advisor and your new school are closely connected), a PhD program really isn't a "fresh start". It's the next step along your professional and academic career/development. 

- If finishing this MA thesis is not at all helpful to you and causing you a lot of real life problems (stress, health, etc.) then I hope you can find resources/help. You also need to discuss this (to some extent) with your MA advisor. Maybe they can help you find another way to finish. If you and your advisor decide that it is not in anyone's best interest to have you finish a MA thesis when you have a good PhD opportunity ahead, then you should also talk to the PhD program in order to let them know that you are going to start their program without the degree you included in your application. With your advisor on your side, they will be much more likely to waive the requirement.

- However, if you don't feel motivated to finish your MA due to a lack of interest, then I strongly urge you to do what it takes to finish it. Seek help, get resources etc. Talk to your advisor or other mentors for tips on working on a problem when you have low motivation. Remember also that a good dissertation is a done dissertation. Your MA thesis can be very minimal and just barely meet degree requirements. That's all you need. (Sure, doing the bare minimum might not make your MA advisor happy, but it won't burn bridges or cause other issues mentioned above).

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