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Advice: PhD vs Masters/Profile Eval?


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Hi all, I was hoping to get some advice on what to apply for next cycle. I would obviously prefer just to get into a top PhD program in the US right off the bat but neither my GPA nor research experience are amazing. I know the general advice on here is to avoid paying for a masters program, but in addition to wanting to make up for my UG GPA, I'm from the UK where a masters is a requirement for most PhD programs so doing a masters would mean I could apply for PhDs both here and in the US.

Anyway I wanted to ask people thought it was worth doing a masters in the hopes of getting into a T10 (maybe top 15) PhD program afterwards. If I were to do a masters, I'd probably apply to LSE, Oxford, Essex and a couple other schools over here (looking for scholarships or potentially taking out a govt student loan which is decent in terms of repayment, getting written off after 30 years etc.). 

Area(s) of interest: Political Theory (in particular, democratic theory, citizenship/civic engagement, education)

GPA: I finished with an average mark of a 67 which this site tells me is roughly equivalent to a 3.7 but different ways of calculating have it as a 3.5 or 3.6 - all very confusing. Worst case scenario 3.5 which isn't great. 

Type of institution/degree: Top 5 school in the UK, Joint Honours degree in Politics and Philosophy

Awards/Publications: None, really. Recently presented my ug thesis which is on civics education and citizenship at a postgraduate conference. Very slowly working on publication with my thesis supervisor and some other professors. 

GRE: Haven't taken it yet. 

Research experience: summer research intern at a charity researching stuff like participatory systems for grant giving and community engagement so not very relevant, ug thesis (feel like this is a good demonstration of my research ability. a mark of 70 is equivalent to an A in the US and my thesis was awarded an 80), research assistant for half a year to the head of research at a non-polisci dept. Currently completing a Postgraduate Diploma in research methods (designed as a course on the route to PhD study actually), at a top London uni which will include a research placement. 

Work experience: aside from the above nothing super relevant. I've done a lot of volunteering and debate coaching, and am currently working full-time at an educational access charity (I'll be working some with our research and impact department and might get to shadow on some policy stuff but imo still not really relevant...).

LORs: One from my thesis supervisor probably very good, one not too personal but details by preparedness for grad study very well, one good but again not super personal. The way my uni is set up it's difficult to take classes with professors more than once or twice (UK unis are 3 years, in my first year I had no optional classes bc I was doing a joint hons degree, we have a relatively big dept with lots of faculty some of whom will only teach first and second years etc). I guess doing a masters would mean I'd potentially be able to get to know a thesis supervisor or someone better for more personal recs.

SOP: I've written a draft one and been told it's in decent shape / it's good by current PhD students at T10s and a professor at a good Canadian university which I wasn't considering (but was very very nice and said I should consider that school's program which was encouraging). TBH, it could be good I think, but needs a lot of refining.

 

I know this is a hard question to answer but in general, what kind of PhD programs would my application as it stands (assuming a good SOP and decent LORs) have a chance at? And is it worth doing a masters over here before applying to increase my chances at a T10? Unfortunately I don't really know anyone applying to PhDs in the US who I can chat to/compare with and my profile doesn't seem very impressive compared to a lot of the people on this forum!

Thanks in advance! 

Edited by poliscipuzzle
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My sense is that the GRE matters more for people coming from programs overseas and it's difficult to evaluate a profile like yours without this component. 165+ in each section could make your profile look strong overall and certainly good enough for many programs. Less could do it too. I guess my point is that I would focus on the GRE and try to get a great score. Write a focused SoP and a good writing sample and I think you would be in good shape. By this I mean that you would (depending on your GRE score) likely have a decent chance at program in the T30 -T50.

Like many, you only want to go to T10 programs. While I understand the ambition I honestly have a hard time understanding refusing to consider other programs. For reference, most programs accept maybe a couple of people within each subfield and by going to a T10 program you would - roughly - need to be among the strongest 15-25 theory students in the world at that point. I'm not saying that you cannot get there, but it is extremely competitive and in the end a matter of being very lucky. My advise is to adjust your expectations; look closely at every T50 program and apply to those that are a good match with you. All else equal, it is of course better going to a higher ranked program but it's far more important that you are a good fit with the department. And when you go on the job market at some point, the quality of your research is going to matter a lot more than the school you came from. So the question is not if you can get into a T10 program but if you can get into a program that can help you become a scholar and produce outstanding research.

To answer your question more directly; if you absolutely will not apply outside the best of the best programs then I would say that you probably should do the MA degree first. I think it marginally increases your chances of admission to T10 programs. But it still will be very difficult to get into the phd programs you mention - even with a strong MA degree. My advise is to approach the application process differently as I mentioned above; by all means apply to some T10 programs but I would not exclude the possibility of going to a really excellent program in the T30 - T50!

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4 hours ago, Theory007 said:

My sense is that the GRE matters more for people coming from programs overseas and it's difficult to evaluate a profile like yours without this component. 165+ in each section could make your profile look strong overall and certainly good enough for many programs. Less could do it too. I guess my point is that I would focus on the GRE and try to get a great score. Write a focused SoP and a good writing sample and I think you would be in good shape. By this I mean that you would (depending on your GRE score) likely have a decent chance at program in the T30 -T50.

Like many, you only want to go to T10 programs. While I understand the ambition I honestly have a hard time understanding refusing to consider other programs. For reference, most programs accept maybe a couple of people within each subfield and by going to a T10 program you would - roughly - need to be among the strongest 15-25 theory students in the world at that point. I'm not saying that you cannot get there, but it is extremely competitive and in the end a matter of being very lucky. My advise is to adjust your expectations; look closely at every T50 program and apply to those that are a good match with you. All else equal, it is of course better going to a higher ranked program but it's far more important that you are a good fit with the department. And when you go on the job market at some point, the quality of your research is going to matter a lot more than the school you came from. So the question is not if you can get into a T10 program but if you can get into a program that can help you become a scholar and produce outstanding research.

To answer your question more directly; if you absolutely will not apply outside the best of the best programs then I would say that you probably should do the MA degree first. I think it marginally increases your chances of admission to T10 programs. But it still will be very difficult to get into the phd programs you mention - even with a strong MA degree. My advise is to approach the application process differently as I mentioned above; by all means apply to some T10 programs but I would not exclude the possibility of going to a really excellent program in the T30 - T50!

I think this is solid advice, and I like the way you encapsulated the sheer difficulty of getting into a top 10 program (i.e. you have to be among the strongest "15-25 theory students in the world at that point"). I wonder, however, if you are pushing the argument too far. Plenty of students get into top programs not (simply) by virtue of being a good student but also by virtue of having powerful professors with connections across departments willing to bat for them. It's difficult for a strong student who might not be in an ug department known for theory to be able to get this kind of advantage. Therefore I'm not sure it has everything to do with being the "strongest student" out there; rather, like everything else in the "meritocracy," it' a combination of merit, luck, and who-you-know. 

A question I had was concerning the salutariness of applying to the T30-50. While I am sure these programs are filled with talented students and respectful professors, given the dismal state of affairs of the theory market (even CHYMPS pedigreed applicants have immense trouble finding TT lines after their nth postdoc), how sound is it to go to a program ranked fortieth in expectation of finding a job?

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5 hours ago, Theory007 said:

My sense is that the GRE matters more for people coming from programs overseas and it's difficult to evaluate a profile like yours without this component. 165+ in each section could make your profile look strong overall and certainly good enough for many programs. Less could do it too. I guess my point is that I would focus on the GRE and try to get a great score. Write a focused SoP and a good writing sample and I think you would be in good shape. By this I mean that you would (depending on your GRE score) likely have a decent chance at program in the T30 -T50.

Like many, you only want to go to T10 programs. While I understand the ambition I honestly have a hard time understanding refusing to consider other programs. For reference, most programs accept maybe a couple of people within each subfield and by going to a T10 program you would - roughly - need to be among the strongest 15-25 theory students in the world at that point. I'm not saying that you cannot get there, but it is extremely competitive and in the end a matter of being very lucky. My advise is to adjust your expectations; look closely at every T50 program and apply to those that are a good match with you. All else equal, it is of course better going to a higher ranked program but it's far more important that you are a good fit with the department. And when you go on the job market at some point, the quality of your research is going to matter a lot more than the school you came from. So the question is not if you can get into a T10 program but if you can get into a program that can help you become a scholar and produce outstanding research.

To answer your question more directly; if you absolutely will not apply outside the best of the best programs then I would say that you probably should do the MA degree first. I think it marginally increases your chances of admission to T10 programs. But it still will be very difficult to get into the phd programs you mention - even with a strong MA degree. My advise is to approach the application process differently as I mentioned above; by all means apply to some T10 programs but I would not exclude the possibility of going to a really excellent program in the T30 - T50!

Thank you for this reply - it was very useful and makes a lot of sense. For all my wordiness in my initial post I think I forgot to mention that I would be applying to/would be quite happy to attend a school outside the T10 given the right fit/funding package/research opportunities etc! Would be very happy with T20 and depending on fit also happy with lower ranked programs like you mention! 

The reason I talk about T10 schools so much is twofold - one because I'm deciding between an MA and working for another year next year so I wanted to know what impact an MA would have on my chances at 'the best' schools, and two because I am fairly confident I can get into a T10 school in the UK for a masters and probably for a PhD so wanted to know whether it was worth applying straight out for a couple PhD programs in the US alongside applying for a masters in the UK or to not worry about PhD apps til the year after a masters where I could apply to both US and UK unis (particularly because I know application fees will end up being very expensive).

TBH whilst like I said I could be happy with lower ranked programs in the states, I also am pretty confident about being able to get into a pretty good school here (particularly as I have a lot more research experience than most undergrads do in the UK, plus pretty good academic connections) so I'd be hesitant about choosing a lower ranked program in the states if I got into a highly ranked program with good fit and good research opps here. Ultimately fit, funding and research opps are the most important to me BUT echoing the post above, I know that the market is pretty dismal and unfortunate as it is, going to a big name school and making connections there can be a very big factor in job hunting so that also does play a big part in things particularly as I'd like to be able to do academia but also help my family out. Anyway, def not as inflexible about it as my initial post made it seem!

(Also, in no way do I mean for the claim about what schools I can get into here to sound cocky, but I know the academic requirements and landscape of UK academia much better, as do profs I have worked closely with who have told me that they think I'd have a pretty strong application for T5/T10 schools here.)

Anyway thank you again, so helpful!! 

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  • 3 weeks later...

I am no expert as I am also in the process of applying to postgrad courses related to politics/democratization/social movement but I studied for undergrad in the US and looking to Oxbridge for Masters so I feel like I can give some perspective.

In general, I agree with the poster above: getting a high GRE score is important, especially because if you are below a certain score/cut off, your application might not even be fully looked at. 

In terms of doing a masters beforehand, if you could get into Oxford or Cambridge it might help with getting further research experience/publications and maybe get connected by Oxbridge professors to potential PhD supervisors. I really do think that who you know will really help with admissions (especially if you have a prof that will really vouch for you. I had a professor at a US program basically offer me a place after I met them while doing research abroad and discussed my research with them! 

Also, in terms of going to a lower ranked school, it depends on what your aspirations are. If it's research, then it might not be a good idea. But if you would be ok with teaching at a liberal arts college in the US or less research intensive schools, it might not matter as much. Again, if you have a good supervisor that can help you with connecting with unis when you enter the job market, that could compensate with going to a lower ranked school. I am no expert so take this with a grain of salt! My experience is just talking to my professors at a well-ranked liberal arts college in the US. Best of luck!

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