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Humanities MA: To pay or not to pay, that is the question.


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I've been accepted to a handful of two-year MA programs in my field in the humanities, though (unsurprisingly) without any funding at all of them. I've narrowed my two preferences down to two of the strongest, one an Ivy and one an Oxbridge. I have some debt ($20k) from undergrad and would be taking out more loans for the MA, though my parents have generously offered to contribute to my living expenses and my loan payoff, which lessens the financial burden significantly.

My goal is to get a PhD and eventually go into academia, as unadvisable as that may be. I was hesitant to apply for PhD programs this year for two reasons: firstly, many of the ones I was interested in had paused admissions for this year; secondly, I felt at the time that I should be applying to PhD programs with a finished BA thesis in-hand, which I was not even halfway done with when the deadlines hit. Now, I've completed a thesis that I'm quite proud of, but I'm still unsure of whether it's strong enough to apply directly to PhD programs; my hope would be that an MA would make me significantly more competitive than I am now.

Part of me is tempted to take a gap year and apply for a fully funded PhD program for Fall 2022, but another part of me thinks I would be a fool to let these opportunities slip away. I know these programs are infamous "cash cows," but is there ever a reason to go? Is this bird-in-hand situation? Would I be better off applying for PhD programs next year than starting an MA this fall? I've got just over a week to decide and I'm absolutely stuck!

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13 hours ago, wayside said:

I've been accepted to a handful of two-year MA programs in my field in the humanities, though (unsurprisingly) without any funding at all of them. I've narrowed my two preferences down to two of the strongest, one an Ivy and one an Oxbridge. I have some debt ($20k) from undergrad and would be taking out more loans for the MA, though my parents have generously offered to contribute to my living expenses and my loan payoff, which lessens the financial burden significantly.

My goal is to get a PhD and eventually go into academia, as unadvisable as that may be. I was hesitant to apply for PhD programs this year for two reasons: firstly, many of the ones I was interested in had paused admissions for this year; secondly, I felt at the time that I should be applying to PhD programs with a finished BA thesis in-hand, which I was not even halfway done with when the deadlines hit. Now, I've completed a thesis that I'm quite proud of, but I'm still unsure of whether it's strong enough to apply directly to PhD programs; my hope would be that an MA would make me significantly more competitive than I am now.

Part of me is tempted to take a gap year and apply for a fully funded PhD program for Fall 2022, but another part of me thinks I would be a fool to let these opportunities slip away. I know these programs are infamous "cash cows," but is there ever a reason to go? Is this bird-in-hand situation? Would I be better off applying for PhD programs next year than starting an MA this fall? I've got just over a week to decide and I'm absolutely stuck!

If you have been accepted to programs this year, you will likely be accepted next year. Clearly, you are a qualified applicant. Taking a year off won't harm you; it will only help you. In my opinion, the debt is not worth it. It's not like you're going into CS where you'll be making 6 figures after you graduate. A career in the humanities will not be fruitful in the beginning, if at all. My advice is to learn from this application cycle to create an even better dossier for the next cycle for PhD programs. It'll be easier next year anyway because you've already been through it. 

Taking a year off will also give you time to get work experience as well as extra money that can go towards your existing loans and be saved for retirement (start now). The work experience is more valuable than you might realize. As you mentioned, the PhD programs you wanted weren't accepting applications this cycle so it is better to wait to be in the right program than to be in the wrong program earlier. Grad school is not something to rush.

Yes, these programs are cash cows and what's worse is that the professors know it and will treat you as a second class citizen because your only purpose is to fund their PhD students. You want an enjoyable as possible experience in grad school. To achieve that, you want to be a prioritized student. You especially don't want to carry the burden of financial stress every day. If you're funded, you can at least sleep at night.

Finally, I wanted point out that you didn't need to hesitate on applying due to not having a thesis in your application. I'm sure it will make your applications next cycle even more competitive, but you could've been an excellent applicant without it this year for PhD programs. I applied without a special thesis and have gotten into multiple PhD programs this cycle. I only have a BA. I think you deserve to be more confident in yourself.

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I was very close to doing this myself. I would lean heavily away from this, especially for the US programs. See if you can publish some articles in journals on your own (you can use your undergrad affiliation if you need to)

I think it's different if the program categorically says there are no opportunities for partial funding, or if they at least pretend that there are. If they pretend that there are, it's maybe not as horrible

Edited by brewing
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