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Decisions: perfect fit or sexy funding package?


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Hello All! I am fortunate enough to be sitting with several offers, but there are two that are particularly attractive and I could use some help deciding...

School #1 was my first choice. I received my acceptance notice, but instead of being accepted into the PhD program like I applied for I was accepted into the MA program. When I discussed this with my POC I was told that it was the school's policy to automatically enroll accepted applicants into the MA program who did not already possess an MA. This school has offered me a tuition waiver and TAship. This program is an excellent perfect fit for my work and research interests. Also, beautiful location.

School # 2 also is a good fit, but not as perfect as the first school. They have been actively recruiting me, have offered a very generous funding package + extra fellowship. This acceptance is for the PhD program. This school is also very conveniently located near the archives that I will be using a lot. This school is not located in as great a location as the first, but is still a marked improvement over where I am currently living. My funding in this scenario would allow me to live quite well.

So, what would you choose?

Thank you for your advice!

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After admissions this year? Dear heavens, take the PhD. Obviously, this does not apply if School 1 has a de facto MA/PhD program. Find out about their reapplication process. What percentage of their MA students apply to their PhD program? What percentage are admitted? How much work is the process?

And--most importantly--how likely is it that your TAship would continue from the MA to the PhD? It can be a nasty shock for funded MA students to realize that they, while accepted to their school's PhD program, did not get funding b/c they are seen as an easy 'get' and funding is a way to lure people to the school. I cannot stress this enough. Find out how many continuing students continue to be funded.

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I think that once you establish that you are getting enough funding to live reasonably comfortably, then funding doesn't have to be how you decide where to go - depending on your preferences, things like a closer fit, location and weather legitimately come into the equation. Assuming that the MA offer you got from school #1 naturally leads to a PhD if you remain in good standing (including continued funding) then I think it's a serious contender. I would probably still choose school #2, mostly because of the proximity to the archive you require, but you might have other considerations.

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I think that once you establish that you are getting enough funding to live reasonably comfortably, then funding doesn't have to be how you decide where to go - depending on your preferences, things like a closer fit, location and weather legitimately come into the equation. Assuming that the MA offer you got from school #1 naturally leads to a PhD if you remain in good standing (including continued funding) then I think it's a serious contender. I would probably still choose school #2, mostly because of the proximity to the archive you require, but you might have other considerations.

My vote's for school #2 too, for the same reasons as Fuzzy's.

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My situation is like yours except for some slight differences.

For one, as a computer scientist, I don't have to worry about proximity to any archive :)

Second, the program for which I was only accepted to the M.S. program does in fact accept people for the PhD program even if they don't have a masters degree already. They seem to not accept many students directly to the PhD though and strongly prefer their current M.S. students, and the acceptance rate for current M.S. students applying to the PhD program is 60 - 70 percent. Basically, if you are a good researcher, it seems like a surefire PhD course.

Third, I would say that the location of my M.S. choice is not beautiful in any way and that that of my PhD choice very much is. However, my M.S. choice is in a sizable city whereas my PhD choice is in a small town. I view both as a downgrade from my current location, though the PhD place is probably more of a downgrade than the M.S. choice (I have become accustomed to living in a fairly big city that I love, though other big cities would attract me as well).

Fourth -- and this is the most important distinction -- my M.S. choice did not offer me guaranteed funding at all. It's still hypothetically possible that I could contact some of the faculty that I met with at the visit day and secure (before my decision) an unofficial promise for funding (which would entail a tuition waiver and a stipend of half of what I would get at the other school with its fellowship, and the cost of living is similar in each location). However, barring that, I would have to go in risking having to take out huge loans to pay my tuition and living costs at first. The vast majority of people that go into the M.S. program at this school get funding within a couple of weeks and don't have to pay a dime, but it is not guaranteed.

Now at this point, considering the risks and the fact that (after having visited both) I do like several of the researchers at the PhD school enough to feel very comfortable academically going there, I have all but officially decided to take the PhD offer.

However, I do still feel confident that if I had been absolutely guaranteed funding at the M.S. school, I would still go there, even if the stipend were half of the stipend with the fellowship at the other school (assuming it's still enough to actually live there). The risk is too great and the benefit is not big enough for me to decide that way without that guarantee, though.

If I were you, assuming importantly that you will continue to receive funding when you enter the PhD program as others have said (this is not a worry in this program or in my field, I think), I would take the MA option. As my undergrad research advisor has told me (and I agree and had this notion before his advice as well), the actual money that you get while there should be the very last factor in your decision. Factors relating to your ability to do outstanding research at the institution should be the first thing that you consider, and after that (in my opinion) should be how comfortable you will be living in that location (including all factors -- weather, urban environment, etc.). Money should probably be so far down the list that it is only a tiebreaker.

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Given the financial benefits and the fact that they really want you, I would choose #2. However if #1 is your dream school and you will be satisfied with an MA and might regret not going there for the rest of your life, that ain't worth all the money in the world.

Good luck!

Edited by Aspiring Shrink
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Archives. Archives. Especially if #1 doesn't offer any kind of summer funding for research. I couldn't have done my thesis at my Midwest school without summer funding to do research out of state.

Like others say, look at your personal priorities and go with it. I'd go wherever you can have higher quality of life, including having more money in your savings account.

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