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I recently got into a funded MA program at a school ranked in the 60's overall and in the 70's for English. There are faculty at this school whose interests are very similar to mine, and the stipend is actually quite livable. I would like to go on to do a PhD somewhere else, but am also prepared for the very likely possibility that I won’t get into a top program, and will instead be forced to leave school with just an MA. This is fine with me. I have no desire to go through a PhD program at a lower tier school, and would prefer to leave with just an MA (and no debt, bc funded).

My reason for applying to the terminal MA out of undergrad—vs a straight-up PhD or an MA/PhD—is basically that I didn't think I would get into a top program. My GPA is low enough that I didn't really stand a chance at the places I'd like to go (UC Irvine, Duke are my inspirational targets), but high enough that I knew I would stand a chance at some terminal MA programs at good or so-so schools. I really chunked my first two semesters of undergrad and left with a low B+ average (upward trend, higher in English but not high enough to compensate for low overall), so my basic thought is that the MA will give me a chance to up my GPA, gain some teaching experience, do a few conferences, and bump my whole application up to the point where I’m competitive at somewhere like UC Irvine. I’m basically a strong applicant aside from my very low GPA, in that I have a strong writing sample, good GRE scores, and solid letters of rec, one of which is from a know scholar in my field.

Anyway, I’d basically like to know, before I decide, whether or not you all think this is a viable plan? Can I go from a middling-ish MA program to an upper level PhD given my circumstances? What should I focus on while I’m doing the MA? What’s most important? I also don't want to bash on this program. Everyone has been very nice to me and I would be very happy to attend, but am still grappling with the crude reality of the US News rankings

Thanks in advance for any replies. I am a longtime lurker. My writing sample and all of my research are in critical theory and 19th century American lit. Starbuck420 = Starbuck of Nantucket =/= Starbucks, Starbucks of Nantucket

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Rankings of MA just don't tend to matter. I try to be a rankings realist, but there are just many, many examples of people with MAs on this forum from places people haven't heard of who go on to get into utterly fantastic schools.

I took an MFA, but I benefited enormously from the lit seminars I took, and would not have been prepared at all to apply out of undergrad (props to you folks). My MFA's lit program isn't as well-known as their CW. And since there was a big gap between undergrad and MFA, I'm sure I was accepted on the basis of the MFA. 

I would say focus on all the elements of your application and cultivating a good relationship with your profs, and maybe, maybe presenting a paper at a conference or something. 

Edited by merry night wanderer
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You didn't mention the costs of moving in your post, so I'm concerned that you're overlooking that. Also, if you move to grad school, what will happen to your relationships back home? These are aspects of grad school I personally wished I thought about more.

I don't want to sound too pessimistic, but you might want to consider what would happen if your GPA isn't that stellar after this grad program. Are you willing to complete a terminal MA that you only half-like that doesn't build your resume the way you'd like it to?

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10 minutes ago, merry night wanderer said:

Rankings of MA just don't tend to matter. I try to be a rankings realist, but there are just many, many examples of people with MAs on this forum from places people haven't heard of who go on to get into utterly fantastic schools.

This is super helpful, thank you!

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22 minutes ago, Starbuck420 said:

I recently got into a funded MA program at a school ranked in the 60's overall and in the 70's for English. There are faculty at this school whose interests are very similar to mine, and the stipend is actually quite livable. I would like to go on to do a PhD somewhere else, but am also prepared for the very likely possibility that I won’t get into a top program, and will instead be forced to leave school with just an MA. This is fine with me. I have no desire to go through a PhD program at a lower tier school, and would prefer to leave with just an MA (and no debt, bc funded).

My reason for applying to the terminal MA out of undergrad—vs a straight-up PhD or an MA/PhD—is basically that I didn't think I would get into a top program. My GPA is low enough that I didn't really stand a chance at the places I'd like to go (UC Irvine, Duke are my inspirational targets), but high enough that I knew I would stand a chance at some terminal MA programs at good or so-so schools. I really chunked my first two semesters of undergrad and left with a low B+ average (upward trend, higher in English but not high enough to compensate for low overall), so my basic thought is that the MA will give me a chance to up my GPA, gain some teaching experience, do a few conferences, and bump my whole application up to the point where I’m competitive at somewhere like UC Irvine. I’m basically a strong applicant aside from my very low GPA, in that I have a strong writing sample, good GRE scores, and solid letters of rec, one of which is from a know scholar in my field.

Anyway, I’d basically like to know, before I decide, whether or not you all think this is a viable plan? Can I go from a middling-ish MA program to an upper level PhD given my circumstances? What should I focus on while I’m doing the MA? What’s most important? I also don't want to bash on this program. Everyone has been very nice to me and I would be very happy to attend, but am still grappling with the crude reality of the US News rankings

Thanks in advance for any replies. I am a longtime lurker. My writing sample and all of my research are in critical theory and 19th century American lit. Starbuck420 = Starbuck of Nantucket =/= Starbucks, Starbucks of Nantucket

This worked for me. I had a good GPA coming out of undergrad but had absolutely no idea what I wanted to study, had taken very few literature courses (despite being an English major), knew nothing about literary theory or what people were working on in the field, and had only formed one meaningful relationship with a professor. I did a terminal MA and left with a solid GPA, but more importantly, strong relationships with faculty members, a strong sense of what I want to study, a solid writing sample, and a good working knowledge of what's going on in the field. I've had a fair few rejections this round but also a couple of solid acceptances, and I do not believe there is any chance whatsoever that I would have been accepted to the programs that have accepted me if I had applied straight out of undergrad.

I do not think admissions committees care where you did your previous work (BA or MA) – only what you did with your time there. A distinguished professor at a top-15 English program (my undergrad) told me as much. (But I will counter this by saying a POI at UChicago knew 2 of my MA letter-writers and explicitly said that this influenced his decision. My understanding is that this is not common). PhD program rankings matter a lot when it comes to getting a job, but it's an entirely different system for accepting students into PhD programs.

Do try to do as well in your classes as possible, try to form strong relationships with professors (ideally associate prof. or higher) in your subfield, work on a solid writing sample, and get a strong sense of what you want to study. If you devote yourself to your work at your MA and try to make the most of resources there (faculty and otherwise), you should be in a good position for your cycle.

Edited by Indecisive Poet
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2 minutes ago, Indecisive Poet said:

This worked for me. I had a good GPA coming out of undergrad but had absolutely no idea what I wanted to study, had taken very few literature courses (despite being an English major), knew nothing about literary theory or what people were working on in the field, and had only formed one meaningful relationship with a professor. I did a terminal MA and left with a solid GPA, but more importantly, strong relationships with faculty members, a strong sense of what I want to study, a solid writing sample, and a good working knowledge of what's going on in the field. I've had a fair few rejections this round but also a couple of solid acceptances, and I do not believe there is any chance whatsoever that I would have been accepted to the programs that have accepted me if I had applied straight out of undergrad.

I do not think admissions committees care where you did your previous work (BA or MA) – only what you did with your time there. A distinguished professor at a top-15 program (my undergrad) told me as much. (But I will counter this by saying a POI at UChicago knew 2 of my MA letter-writers and explicitly said that this influenced his decision. My understanding is that this is not common).

Do try to do as well in your classes as possible, try to form strong relationships with professors (ideally associate prof. or higher) in your subfield, work on a solid writing sample, and get a strong sense of what you want to study.

this is also really helpful, thanks! we love a good success story

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5 hours ago, Indecisive Poet said:

I do not think admissions committees care where you did your previous work (BA or MA) – only what you did with your time there. A distinguished professor at a top-15 English program (my undergrad) told me as much. (But I will counter this by saying a POI at UChicago knew 2 of my MA letter-writers and explicitly said that this influenced his decision. My understanding is that this is not common).

Before I answer the original question I want to address this, knowing that (in my experience) my stance on this runs counter to general consensus. I think where you got your education is very important, (mostly) for all the wrong reasons. You'll find that though there is of course a lot of variety and people come from different backgrounds, there is less and less variety the higher up you go in the prestige list. There are more Ivy and "public Ivy" students at the top schools than there are students from smaller schools. I'm not going to get into the why of this, it's been discussed before, but I do think that where you study will have an effect. That said, and I say this as someone who came from no-name schools, it's not the only factor. And it is one of the things you have no control over so there's no point worrying about it. Give it a shot and apply anyway, you never know.

That said, I definitely think the MA first route is a good idea (not to say you shouldn't apply to PhDs out of undergrad). I did several MAs in different fields on my way to a PhD program and doing graduate work is really helpful in setting your ideas straight. In fact, it is now when I'm doing my coursework that I sort of wish I had done a straight English MA before applying because from the things I am learning and the perspectives I'm developing now (and the scholars I'm learning about) I know that my application could have been that much better and more competitive. I also think it makes sense to do an MA if you think your profile might seem weak. You can definitely "jump" from a "middling" program to a bigger program through the MA.

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I agree with @WildeThing. Prestige counts for a lot, even though it absolutely should not. The elite schools in particular like to reproduce class. The academy is a conservative place and a quick perusal of the grad students in top 20 PhD programs will show that most come from elite undergrads/MA programs. This is not to say that one doesn't stand a chance otherwise, I'm seeing some success coming from a middle-of-the-road (but wonderful) terminal MA myself. But the battle is an uphill one. On the question of the MA, a terminal program is a great idea because it allows you to develop a real project that you can pitch in your PhD applications. IMO the more one can talk, pitch, and write like a scholar, the better one's chances. A final note on prestige: how one defines it goes beyond rankings. It could be that a lower ranked school has a particularly well known faculty member in your field. Or that it's a prominent state school with lots of active faculty producing interesting, new work rather than a hallowed ivy resting on its laurels from that one famous white male professor who died ten years ago. Make your own determinations, but try to balance prestige, rigor, support, and (most importantly) funding. 

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8 hours ago, Indecisive Poet said:

I do not think admissions committees care where you did your previous work (BA or MA) – only what you did with your time there. 

This is half wrong. The prestige of the MA program generally doesn't matter all that much. In fact, a terminal MA program's prestige needn't even correlate with the prestige of the same institution's BA or PhD programs. (I'm looking at you, UChicago, Columbia, and NYU). 

But you are absolutely, 100% dead wrong to think that BA prestige doesn't matter. Don't believe me? Check out grad student CVs and departmental pages at Berkeley, Harvard, or Yale. You're not going to see a bunch of people listing Central Michigan, or Truman State, or Montevallo as their alma maters. Instead, you'll see a lot of people with degrees from Berkeley, Yale, Michigan, Oberlin, Reed, et cetera. Think that's purely a coincidence?

Of course, that's not to say that you won't see exceptions to the general rule that prestige trumps most things. But don't let the exception trick you into missing the main point: a BA from Western Michigan (my alma mater) or a comparably unprestigious program puts you at a steep disadvantage for getting into top programs. 

Edited by Ramus
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2 minutes ago, Ramus said:

But you are absolutely, 100% dead wrong to think that BA prestige doesn't matter. Don't believe me? Check out grad student CVs and departmental pages at Berkeley, Harvard, or Yale. You're not going to see a bunch of people listing Central Michigan, or Truman State, or Montevallo as their alma maters. Instead, you'll see a lot of people with degrees from Berkeley, Yale, Michigan, Oberlin, Reed, et cetera. Think that's purely a coincidence?

Of course, that's not to say that you won't see exceptions to the general rule that prestige trumps most things. But don't let the exception trick you into thinking a degree from Western Michigan (my alma mater) doesn't put you at a steep disadvantage for getting into top programs. 

FWIW, I've received offers from three top 20 programs this cycle, including Yale, with a BA from a huge public school that's not even ranked in the top 225 in the nation. I was absolutely terrified going into this process that I would be a shutout (as I decided to run the risk of only applying to T20 programs) and the professors from my undergrad institution who helped me through my applications were similarly skeptical (though supportive!) of the likelihood of my success. I'm flabbergasted at how this cycle is turning out for me, and I definitely think you are right that prestige seems to mostly carry the day, but I've learned to my surprise that it is apparently possible - if not probable - to get into top-ranked PhDs with a BA from a school no one outside of my state has ever heard of.

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26 minutes ago, The Hoosier Oxonian said:

FWIW, I've received offers from three top 20 programs this cycle, including Yale, with a BA from a huge public school that's not even ranked in the top 225 in the nation. I was absolutely terrified going into this process that I would be a shutout (as I decided to run the risk of only applying to T20 programs) and the professors from my undergrad institution who helped me through my applications were similarly skeptical (though supportive!) of the likelihood of my success. I'm flabbergasted at how this cycle is turning out for me, and I definitely think you are right that prestige seems to mostly carry the day, but I've learned to my surprise that it is apparently possible - if not probable - to get into top-ranked PhDs with a BA from a school no one outside of my state has ever heard of.

I don’t mean to detract from what you’re saying because I agree that it is possible (but definitely not probable) to get good offers from top schools coming from no-name schools but the anecdotal evidence (of which there is a lot because there are SO MANY of us from no-name schools who apply to these schools) should not outweigh the trends. BUT, you did spend a year at Oxford, which is one of the biggest names out there and that will certainly counter this no-name issue. 

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@WildeThing I'm sure you are absolutely right. I always feel a bit as if I snuck in the backdoor to get into Oxford (my undergrad institution does not have a relationship with Oxford, but we are a regional campus of a higher-ranked state school that does and I was able to apply to Oxford through the main campus), but my time there has probably made all the difference. As a student who loves and is loyal to my no-name undergrad institution, I can't help but feel it's somewhat unfair that it takes a credential like a year at Oxford to offset having gone there, but I guess if I want life to be fair I've definitely picked the wrong profession. 😂

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My vote is for taking the terminal MA with funding anytime. I was in a similar boat as yours, graduating from a small liberal arts college with a pretty average GPA (I did 2 majors, and my other major besides English was crap, while my English major GPA ended up around almost A-minus range because I had no experience studying literature in English as an international student). I also applied to both PhD and MA programs my first round and was accepted into 2 low-tier PhD programs (with pretty low stipends) and a top-20 university MA program with full funding. This was an incredible stroke of luck, by the way; somehow I was awarded a rare graduate assistantship that paid my tuition and included a living wage. My MA was a tough time as I had to balance coursework and working 20 hours a week, and I sometimes questioned if I had been wrong in choosing it over the PhD offers.

However, I was also not certain at that point that I was ready to commit 5-6 years to a PhD program, having done little independent research in undergrad. I was glad that I took the MA to figure out my own scholarship a bit more, understand more about my field, and get to know younger, more active scholars (most of my profs in undergrad were older and removed from research because the school was teaching-oriented). I think a lot of people in my cohort used the MA to understand themselves better as well - most of us came in wanting to pursue PhDs, and after the program, only a few applied, while the rest found jobs in teaching, publishing, consulting, etc. I think you could also go through your MA with an open mind towards other career options. Like you said, at the very least you'd end up with another degree and no debt!

Realistically speaking: I think you can go from a middle-ranked university for the MA to a higher-ranked PhD program. Perhaps not Duke, but UC Irvine is not too impossible. The MA is a great opportunity to get a great writing sample focused on your intended subfields, gain more research/conference experiences, speak more knowledgeably about yourself and your work, and get letters of recommendation that represent you well as a mature baby-scholar prepared for PhD work. Of course, this is all dependent upon the dynamics in your mA department and whether the faculty is approachable and personable towards you, so that you can do your best research and writing and get good letters from them. 

For what it's worth, I'm standing at 4a/1w/2r/2p this cycle. 2 of my acceptances are from Johns Hopkins and NYU, schools that I couldn't have dreamt of getting in right out of undergrad (with generous funding). After everything, I still think that my undergrad GPA is the weakest part of my application, but with a good writing sample and rec letters and good MA records, it becomes much less important. The DGSs and PoIs I've talked to seemed to focus the most on the writing sample and what it communicates about my scholarly abilities.

I hope this helps, and good luck!

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Wrote a long thing but I don't want to sign up for more discussion on this, so I will just say, OP: if you are concerned that where you did your undergraduate work will weigh negatively on your application, I suggest that you take all of this advice with a swimming pool of salt and do your own research. Look through every single graduate student profile at every program you are interested in and see where they got their previous degrees. Never count yourself out as a top applicant preemptively. You will regret punching below your weight.

Edited by Indecisive Poet
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If you would like to chat with someone with in a similar situation, DM me! I went to an unranked English program at a mid-size public university for my BA (3.0ish student) and now I am finishing up my terminal MA at a large, kind of ranked public university (4.0 student now). I wasn't prepared or good enough to go straight into a top tier PhD program so the terminal MA was a good fit for me. Feel free to DM me with questions about my experience! :) 

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