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Advice on deciding between schools


dhg
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Hello,

I'm considering three programs: 2 MAs and 1 PhD. I am unsure whether to just dive into the PhD or do an MA first, as I'm taking my PhD admission without an MA as a sign that I might be able do even better after an MA and I don't want to sell myself short.  

UC Davis-PhD (History)

Pros:

  • 5 years of funding
  • Some summer travel money
  • Some conference travel money
  • Some big names in my field to work with. 

Cons:

  • Worried about job prospects coming out of Davis. 
  • The feeling of regret that I could have maybe done an MA and avoided underunemployment.

UMichigan MA (Area studies)

Pros:

  • Get to work on some of my languages
  • Get to take more classes in my area
  • FLAS (possibly) first year
  • Get to stay with my partner
  • Get to reapply to PhD programs.

Cons:

  • Might not get FLAS (I won't know until after I commit), which will cause me to take out loans. 
  • Might not get funding the second year
  • I don't know if my MA project will be done in the first semester of my second year (in time to move uninterruptedly from MA to PhD)
  • Might not get into a PhD program after the MA
  • The feeling that I'm spinning my wheels (I'm already pretty focused in my area). 

UT Austin MA (Area studies)

Pros: 

  • Get to work on some of my languages
  • Get to take more classes in my area
  • Half of my first year is paid
  • Get to reapply to PhD programs.

Cons: 

  • Might have to take loans of if I do no not get FLAS
  • Might not get funding the second year
  • I don't know if my MA project will be done in the first semester of my second year (in time to move uninterruptedly from MA to PhD)
  • Might not get into a PhD program after the MA
  • The feeling that I'm spinning my wheels (I'm already pretty focused in my area). 

Side question: I guess the big question here is what do those people who get hired from the slightly-less-than-top schools do during their time in the PhD that makes them stand out? I think the answer to this side question will help me out. 

*Some schools names have been changed for privacy.

Edited by dhg
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Academically-speaking, I would go with Davis since you have a 5-year funding guarantee and have already been accepted to the PhD program. If later on you don't like the program or wish to apply to more prestigious ones, graduating with a master's and applying to new PhD programs is always a possibility. I was in a PhD program in food science at UC Davis and left with a master's after three years. It's really not all that uncommon. Davis also has a LOT of flexibility when it comes to course work. Regardless of which program you're in, you can always take classes in other fields as long as you have room in your schedule, so if working on your languages is a goal, there are a lot of ways that you can work that into your program plan. So now the only real issue comes down to how much you feel like you need to stay with your partner. It's hard to give you advice on that front. Some questions to consider might be: given the length of time and the nature of your relationship, how likely are you going to be able to handle long-distance? Is your partner fully settled in a full-time permanent job that he/she does not want to quit, or is there a possibility that he might be able to move to be with you after a semester or two? How much are you willing to invest in visiting each other as often as possible? Once you finish course work and reach dissertation phase, is there a possibility that you might be able to work away from campus or spend time as a visiting student/scholar at another university?

Edited by ThousandsHardships
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18 minutes ago, ThousandsHardships said:

Academically-speaking, I would go with Davis since you have a 5-year funding guarantee and have already been accepted to the PhD program. If later on you don't like the program or wish to apply to more prestigious ones, graduating with a master's and applying to new PhD programs is always a possibility. I was in a PhD program in food science at UC Davis and left with a master's after three years. It's really not all that uncommon. 

Thank you for responding. 

The first thing that comes to my mind is "letters of recommendation" for future applications if I decide to switch programs. How would that work?

23 minutes ago, ThousandsHardships said:

So now the only real issue comes down to how much you feel like you need to stay with your partner. It's hard to give you advice on that front. Some questions to consider might be: given the length of time and the nature of your relationship, how likely are you going to be able to handle long-distance? Is your partner fully settled in a full-time permanent job that he/she does not want to quit, or is there a possibility that he might be able to move to be with you after a semester or two? How much are you willing to invest in visiting each other as often as possible? Once you finish course work and reach dissertation phase, is there a possibility that you might be able to work away from campus or spend time as a visiting student/scholar at another university?

We've actually been together for many (many) years now. Two of those years have been apart, so I think we will manage. We've decided to alternate visiting months, as they need to stay where we currently are for the next year and a half for work. 

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26 minutes ago, dhg said:

The first thing that comes to my mind is "letters of recommendation" for future applications if I decide to switch programs. How would that work?

Once you've been through a graduate program, it would look a little questionable if all of your letters came from your undergrad program (one is okay but definitely not three), so be sure to do well in your classes and get along with your professors. People switch programs for various reasons. As long as you don't make it seem like you have something personal against them, your professors will treat you professionally and it shouldn't impact the quality of your letters, if that's what you're trying to ask. And if you do use an undergrad professor, make sure to update them on what you've been up to since you last saw them.

Edited by ThousandsHardships
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Fellow UCD History admit here!

Please DM me if you'd like my thoughts on choosing Davis over some of my other options. I'm looking at four schools at this point, but it's really down to Davis and another university. I can share some of my pros and cons, if you wish. The TL;DR is Davis has some very impressive Americanists.

Placements may be better at other schools, but going to a "top tier" institution doesn't guarantee a thing in this market. Being the best job applicant you can, grabbing as many outside opportunities (Fullbright, conference papers, article publications), will make the biggest difference, in my opinion. The level you have to worry about institutional rigor is if you were looking at a program with relatively unknown professors in their fields. Davis is a powerhouse in US History, at least. A Davis professor has won the Bancroft Prize in three of the last five years, include 2018 and 2017. No other school anywhere can boast that!

 

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1 hour ago, dhg said:
  • The feeling of regret that I could have maybe done an MA and avoided unemployment.

There are never any guarantees about avoiding unemployment. Of course, some of that also depends on what type of employment you're seeking. Are you set on being a tenure-track professor at a R1 in the US and nothing else will do? If so, avoiding unemployment will be difficult no matter where you decide to go to school. 

 

1 hour ago, dhg said:

Side question: I guess the big question here is what do those people who get hired from the slightly-less-than-top schools do during their time in the PhD that makes them stand out? I think the answer to this side question will help me out. 

They publish, network, get external funding, and build up a huge backlog of primary sources they can use in the first years on the job to keep churning out publications. They publish interesting work in understudied areas which makes people turn their head to the side and wonder why it hasn't been done before. And, um, even then, that doesn't mean you'll land a tenure-track job at a R1.

I have a bunch of friends with history PhDs. One of them published a book based on his dissertation that won an award. What were they doing then? Working as a 3 year renewable lecturer. They now have a TT job at a R3 and that book doesn't count toward tenure. Another friend works at a R2 (master's granting department) and has published two academic books (both have gotten awards within the discipline) with a third in progress in their... 5th year on the tenure-track. That has not been enough to secure said friend a job at a more prestigious institution or to negotiate a TT line for their partner at the current institution. YMMV obviously but, even doing all the things may not be enough.

1 hour ago, dhg said:
  • I don't know if my MA project will be done in the first semester of my second year (in time to move uninterruptedly from MA to PhD)
  • Might not get into a PhD program after the MA

These two points stood out to me in your description of the MA programs. First, I don't know anyone that finishes their MA project in the first semester of their second year. It usually takes a few months in the spring semester to finish, even for the most dedicated students. Of course, the easiest way to ensure that you're one of those who does finish that soon is to plan your project with that in mind. 

FWIW, I think you can have an easy transition from MA to PhD even while finishing your MA thesis in the fourth semester of your two year program. I submitted the first draft of my MA thesis to my advisor February 1. That gave me plenty of time to revise (I'd get a draft back after a week or so then have another week to revise it before giving it back to them) and time to visit PhD programs I was admitted to. I defended my thesis a little later than planned in order to maximize funding from my MA institution (they offered me a summer TA position that ran through June but required me to maintain student status). Also, FWIW, I was the first in my cohort to defend their MA thesis and not the only person who was continuing on to a PhD. So, I wouldn't necessarily limit yourself upfront to only doing something that you could finish a little over one year into your program (also, in doing so you're limiting the ability of your coursework to help/guide/influence you as you work on your thesis).

There are never any guarantees about getting into a PhD program. Sure, you might not get in if you apply in the future. But, you also might not want to. Things change. Your application will be stronger if you do well and write a strong MA thesis. The question is really whether you think the MA is worth the investment in yourself.

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I'm at Davis now, so feel free to PM me.

Davis has a good placement record, and they're transparent about where people end up (you can look at our placements on the website, but it hasn't been updated this year--we had two more TT placements, and have 2 or 3 people going to campus interviews this quarter. Davis grads also do well in getting postdocs).

About half of our cohorts are people coming straight from a BA. I came in with an MA, and I can say the only difference I noticed between myself and my BA colleagues was that I've read more books. By the end of the 1st quarter, you can't distinguish between MA and BA students, and some of the most impressive people in our program never got an MA. I wish I had the skills to do a PhD right after my BA, but I wasn't a good student and didn't even know what historiography was. If you were admitted, then you have what it takes to go straight to the PhD.

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1 hour ago, Kapakahi said:

Fellow UCD History admit here!

Please DM me if you'd like my thoughts on choosing Davis over some of my other options. I'm looking at four schools at this point, but it's really down to Davis and another university. I can share some of my pros and cons, if you wish. The TL;DR is Davis has some very impressive Americanists.

Placements may be better at other schools, but going to a "top tier" institution doesn't guarantee a thing in this market. Being the best job applicant you can, grabbing as many outside opportunities (Fullbright, conference papers, article publications), will make the biggest difference, in my opinion. The level you have to worry about institutional rigor is if you were looking at a program with relatively unknown professors in their fields. Davis is a powerhouse in US History, at least. A Davis professor has won the Bancroft Prize in three of the last five years, include 2018 and 2017. No other school anywhere can boast that!

 

The Other Slavery and God's Red Son are both gorgeous books and absolutely deserved the Bancroft imo. But I may be biased, as I'm a huge fan of both authors!

Davis also has a really strong Latin American field, and there's a ton of dialogue between the different fields, which is one reason I love it.

Good luck making your decision!

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Davis, hands down.  Trust us, you don't want to take out loans if you don't really hav to.  Davis is well-regarded but certainly much better than many, many other PhD programs that choose to exist for the sake of grad labor and as crutches for professors' ego and desire to pass their legacy.

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