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Help with MA Course Selection/PhD Application Profile

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Hello everyone,

I'm asking for help with course selection, as I'm a bit of a atypical student and I want to maximize my odds of making it into my ideal program(s).

About me:

I did my BA at McMaster University (a Canadian university not known for the humanities or social sciences) in History and Classics, with a minor in French. During my first two years of university, I had no clue who I was or what I was doing. I did fine in my first year, but my grades in second year definitely have hurt me.Things started to change during my 3rd year when I did an exchange to the University of Lyon in France. Long story short, I started to take an interest in my education and finally put in some effort. By my 4th and 5th year, I was at or near the top of my class in both my major courses and my electives. Still, despite posting a GPA over 3.9 in my final 2 years, my overall GPA was a 3.57.

Having discovered my passion for education and realizing that I have some potential, I decided to pursue an MA in History. I got into McGill and the University of Toronto, 2 of the top 3 schools in Canada. I ended up choosing McGill because of the location. Though I have enjoyed my time at McGill, I do regret my decision to some degree. I realize now that the added prestige of UofT (it ranks about 20-30 spots higher than McGill) would have helped me down the road. Even so, McGill is no slouch, and depending on how things skake out as my MA in History comes to completion, it looks like I'll have a grad GPA between 3.83 and 3.95.

Oddly enough, the most valuable part of my MA in History might be discovering that I want to do Political Science instead. Ironically, the idea of switching to Poli Sci came from a prof whom I had gone to see to ask whether she would consider supervising my future PhD thesis in History. She told me two things: don't do History at McGill and don't do History. Aside from the poor job market, she noticed that my interests were probably better suited to Poli Sci, given the direction in which these two disciplines are going. To her credit, I have always been interested in the kind of Intellectual and Political History that nowadays falls under Poli Sci, and Political Theory more specifically. This is why I decided to pursue a second MA in Political Science. The only school that I got into is the University of Chicago (MAPSS), which is not the worst consolation. The rejections are probably due to my lack of undergrad background in Poli Sci, as well as my pedestrian undergrad GPA (my graduate grades weren't out by the time I sent out my applications). I know that a lot of people consider the U of Chicago a cash-cow, but from what I can tell, if you can find a way to shine in this program, make use of the university's resources and make connections with the many highly respected Poli Sci profs in the department, you have a decent chance of getting into a top-20 program.

So now here's my conundrum:

My interests are *primarily* in Political Theory, but let's be honest, this subdiscipline is no better for job prospects than the discipline of History as a whole. However, the U of Chicago has one of the best departments for Political Theory in the world. I'm also well above-average in mathematical skills (though I haven't formally studied math since high school) and my general interests are much broader than Political Theory. Specifically, I could also see myself studying quantitative methods and formal theory, international relations or political economy (the latter two with either or both of a qualitative or quantitative focus). Just to be clear, I am very ambitious and I'm well aware of it. If I stay in Political Theory (with a more traditional bent within this subdiscipline), my top choices are Princeton, Columbia and Harvard. I didn't just pick these out of an Ivy League hat; these departments are actually great fits for my interests in PT. If I end up focusing outside of PT, I'd have to reconsider my top choices.

I'm thinking that I'll pair my PT concentration at Chicago with something else, but I don't know what. I'm thinking of taking about 2/3 of my courses in PT and the rest in quant. methods or quant. substantive courses. Do people think this is a good idea? My reasoning is that admission committees might see my general lack of background in Poli Sci (precisely, 0 courses pre-U of Chicago) as admissible if I can excel in quant. courses, which might indicate that I could excel in other subdisciplines. Or do people think that I should just go straight for courses in IR or Political Econ.? Or do people think that I should dump PT as my primary concentration altogether and go for something more quant. focused? (Let's assume that I'm equally apt to excel in PT and quant.-heavy courses).

I should reiterate at this point that I would consider anything outside of the top-20 for my PhD as a failure. I'm not a snob (okay maybe I'm a bit of a snob), but I am eyeing the market for TT positions in Poli Sci with trepidation, and I'm excruciatingly aware of how difficult it will be to ultimately be able to work at an institution that interests me if I don't get into a prestigious program. My GREs are competitive (169V, 164Q, 5.0AW) and I'll have to see how grad grades, LORs and everything else pans out as my year at Chicago progresses.

Anyway, I know that this is a long one, but if anyone has made it to the end, I'd love to hear some advice.


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I don't think anyone can make this decision for you. It depends on how much you love PT. 

I hate PT so it's easy for me to say that the logical thing to do if you want to get an R1 TT job is to go into PE or IR, and do theory on the side, as like your secondary subfield. Any job in PT is hard enough to get, let alone an R1. 

I'd say take a good mix of courses at Chicago, and try hard in all of them. Let your best paper be your writing sample and just apply to whatever subfield that's in. You don't have to truly commit to a subfield yet, people change subfields all the time in grad school. 

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  • 2 months later...

As someone who made a somewhat similar trajectory, (though i figured out I wanted to do Poli Sci while still in undergrad), I think it may make sense for you to take as many courses relevant to your chosen sub fields as possible.  

If you are interested in theory, it may make sense to load up on contemporary political philosophy courses, or any other philosophy classes depending on any gaps you have.  Unless you studied intellectual or economic history, a history degree is not indicative of a background sufficient for theory. 

If you are interested in any other sub fields I suggest taking random math classes with a focus on statistics, possibly calculus, and any regression methods.  If you are interested in IR, Game theory may also make sense. 

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