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aiming straight for the PhD?


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hey all! brand new poster here -- my roommate just started her PhD in art history, and when i was pumping her for information about helpful tactics, she suggested this place as a good font of ideas.

i've been browsing the message threads recently, and it seems to me as though most of the posters have already gotten a masters in history before applying to PhD programs...is this the standard in the field? i was a history major at a very strong private university, and my topic of interest for my PhD (modern france and francophone africa) is reasonably close to my undergraduate focus. i've taken a few years off since then, dipped my toes in the job market, and now i'm even more certain that academia is the place for me. do i really need to have an MA to be considered a strong candidate, or can i apply to PhD programs at the outset?

any relevant experience or advice would be greatly appreciated!

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Short answer: no. Some programs require applicants to have an MA, but not most.

Longer answer: If you look through the 2010 thread, you'll see that a lot of people without MAs did just great, and a lot of people *with* MAs had a rough year. I do have an MA, although it is not in history (I am concentrating in history, within an interdisciplinary program, but my MA is in religion). If you have an MA when you are applying to PhD programs, schools will generally expect to see a more-focused statement of purpose, likely a more advanced writing sample, etc.

One of the major reasons for an MA is to give you extra time for language study. I'm not sure how much of a concern this is for you--obviously you know French; do you need Wolof or anything for your research? The other major bonus of an MA first, of course, is that it gives you more time to solidify your research interests, so that when you *do* apply for a PhD, you can find the right program with the right advisor. "Modern France and Francophone Africa" is pretty broad; can you get more specific yet? (I certainly couldn't right out of undergrad! Thank goodness for those 2 extra years :)).

Oh, and I <3 your screenname forever. :wub: That's awesome.

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There are so many different scenarios why a MA would be good. You should always try to apply to a mix of MA and PhD programs for your first time round, if you're really set on going to graduate school regardless of the outcome. There are funded MAs out there but you'll need to do a lot of research. You also really need to examine your application carefully and objectively and see exactly what you would actually get out of the MA. If you're just going to waltz into a MA program expectig a magic acceptance into a PhD program just because you got straight As, that ain't gonna fly. You need to be able to set specific goals that are going to be meaningful in improving your PhD application. Your professors in the MA program will certainly take note of your progress.

For example, my goals were just these:

1) Pick up a language

2) Get LOR from well-known professors

3) Explore my subfield with specialists that my undergraduate college didn't have and gain a more solid foundation of knowledge in that.

I accomplished all of those and wrote a stronger thesis to prove it all.

There is, I think, indeed a high standard placed upon applicants with MAs because they did spend 2 years with doctoral students and are most likely going to expect you to perform just as well as them. Certainly the classes that my best friend and I shared (she was doctoral), our professors didn't treat the two of us any different despite being in different fields. I didn't realize this until the last few weeks of classes together in my last semester of coursework. But the upside is that adcoms will at least see that you got your feet wet in the academia and with supportive LORs, they can take a chance on you.

I have mixed feelings but for what it's worth for my field, I'm glad that I did it. It was certainly busy two years.

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hey all! brand new poster here -- my roommate just started her PhD in art history, and when i was pumping her for information about helpful tactics, she suggested this place as a good font of ideas.

i've been browsing the message threads recently, and it seems to me as though most of the posters have already gotten a masters in history before applying to PhD programs...is this the standard in the field? i was a history major at a very strong private university, and my topic of interest for my PhD (modern france and francophone africa) is reasonably close to my undergraduate focus. i've taken a few years off since then, dipped my toes in the job market, and now i'm even more certain that academia is the place for me. do i really need to have an MA to be considered a strong candidate, or can i apply to PhD programs at the outset?

any relevant experience or advice would be greatly appreciated!

Care to share where you are planning on applying? I'm currently in grad school (funded MA student) studying, broadly stated, the same thing as you. I can recommend some scholars/programs if you aren't quite sure where you are going to apply yet.

Edited by breakfast
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N.Y.I.G., I don't really have an answer for you, but I wanted to pipe up and say I'm in pretty much the same boat. I graduate from a very strong undergraduate program that requires a two year thesis to graduate, got good grades, fulfilled the majority of my language requirements (3 years Czech, 2.5 years of Russian, 1 year intensive German for my historical interests), and want to do a PhD in a similar field as my undergraduate work. I know I'm focused, but I feel like the fact that I'm applying straight out of a BA, even a particularly work-focused one, would make PhD programs nervous or make me seem like a less competitive applicant.

However, the actual constructive part of this post is: the advice I've gotten from my undergraduate advisers is essentially to demonstrate in my application that I have thought long and hard about this despite applying right out of a different program, and to illustrate in my application that I have a concrete idea of what I want to do and how this program fits into goals I first developed as an undergrad.

So good luck! Let me know how it goes. :)

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N.Y.I.G., I don't really have an answer for you, but I wanted to pipe up and say I'm in pretty much the same boat. I graduate from a very strong undergraduate program that requires a two year thesis to graduate, got good grades, fulfilled the majority of my language requirements (3 years Czech, 2.5 years of Russian, 1 year intensive German for my historical interests), and want to do a PhD in a similar field as my undergraduate work. I know I'm focused, but I feel like the fact that I'm applying straight out of a BA, even a particularly work-focused one, would make PhD programs nervous or make me seem like a less competitive applicant.

However, the actual constructive part of this post is: the advice I've gotten from my undergraduate advisers is essentially to demonstrate in my application that I have thought long and hard about this despite applying right out of a different program, and to illustrate in my application that I have a concrete idea of what I want to do and how this program fits into goals I first developed as an undergrad.

So good luck! Let me know how it goes. :)

To elaborate on this... Many adcom members and potential advisers have told me that the major problem with most applications, especially those coming from applicants who are applying straight out of the BA, is that they translate "I have thought long and hard about this..." into "I love history and I want to make it my life's work, and I would be so fulfilled if I could be a historian..." That you are applying makes that a given. What they want to hear is that you know what's going on in the particular field you are applying to study in and that you have a pretty good idea how you will contribute to it.

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thanks for all the great advice so far, everyone!i'm actually increasingly comfortable in my decision to dive right in for the PhD program -- i spoke to a professor at my institution, who flat-out advised me that if you come from a strong program, a master's is pretty unnecessary. plus, i think that having spent two years in the "outside world" has helped me better shape what i'm specifically interested in, to the point where i've been able to really whittle down my list of applications to those programs that have the specific scholarly support i'd need.

as for more specifics: i'm really interested in world war one and the period leading up to it, especially the experiences of those africans who served in the french army on the western front. i'm interested in how their presence affected the racialized propaganda of the war, from both a french and german perspective. schoolwise, i'm thinking about columbia, stanford, OSU, nyu, michigan-dearborn, toronto and possibly also harvard.

i guess my biggest concern has been a generalized anxiety about not being considered "serious" without a master's degree -- which is more a psychological hangup on my part than anything else. besides, the adcoms of those schools will be more than happy to judge my worthiness; my responsibility is to show them why i think i make the grade. (awful puns aside, that is!)

Edited by not your indie girlfriend
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schoolwise, i'm thinking about columbia, stanford, OSU, nyu, michigan-dearborn, toronto and possibly also harvard.

You mean Ann Arbor, not Dearborn? Dearborn doesn't have a history department. Michigan (Ann Arbor) would be a great choice. Those are very competitive programs that you're looking at.

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You mean Ann Arbor, not Dearborn? Dearborn doesn't have a history department. Michigan (Ann Arbor) would be a great choice. Those are very competitive programs that you're looking at.

oh, crap - you're totally right about dearborn, which is a shame, since there's a professor i really like there.

i know it's kind of a crazy list, which is spooking me, but i'm having trouble finding less competitive schools with programs matching my specific interests. honestly, i think my credentials are very strong, besides the lack of a master's degree -- i'm not sure how much i should say without coming across as a tool. this board is definitely good for making me realistically assess my candidacy, though!

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oh, crap - you're totally right about dearborn, which is a shame, since there's a professor i really like there.

i know it's kind of a crazy list, which is spooking me, but i'm having trouble finding less competitive schools with programs matching my specific interests. honestly, i think my credentials are very strong, besides the lack of a master's degree -- i'm not sure how much i should say without coming across as a tool. this board is definitely good for making me realistically assess my candidacy, though!

You may want to e-mail that Dearborn professor and get his/her feedback. S/he may say that s/he'll be happy to work with you even if you're in Ann Arbor. You'll get a PhD from Michigan, that's just the point. Or s/he may suggest relevant faculty members at Ann Arbor and just serve as an outside mentor.

Definitely take a quick glance through 2009 and 2010 threads. One of the key mantras you may notice is that just *one* acceptance (with funding!) is all you need if you are humble and want this bad enough. People have applied to a range of schools from Yale to Brandeis to George Washington. Wherever they looked, they faced very stiff competition. GWU surprised many because no one had an idea how competitive their program was- only 7 offers out of 120 applications and this was/is a mid-ranked school! Brandeis was also very competitive as well- filling only 5 spots. It's just so important to apply as broadly as you can and making a department fit your priority at this time. Fit is their top priority as well for the departments because money is so tight and students are investments (time and money-wise). When the results do roll in, you can then be completely subjective. If you get into Columbia or Stanford then, by all means go. But you gotta get in first! :)

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You may want to e-mail that Dearborn professor and get his/her feedback. S/he may say that s/he'll be happy to work with you even if you're in Ann Arbor. You'll get a PhD from Michigan, that's just the point. Or s/he may suggest relevant faculty members at Ann Arbor and just serve as an outside mentor.

Definitely take a quick glance through 2009 and 2010 threads. One of the key mantras you may notice is that just *one* acceptance (with funding!) is all you need if you are humble and want this bad enough. People have applied to a range of schools from Yale to Brandeis to George Washington. Wherever they looked, they faced very stiff competition. GWU surprised many because no one had an idea how competitive their program was- only 7 offers out of 120 applications and this was/is a mid-ranked school! Brandeis was also very competitive as well- filling only 5 spots. It's just so important to apply as broadly as you can and making a department fit your priority at this time. Fit is their top priority as well for the departments because money is so tight and students are investments (time and money-wise). When the results do roll in, you can then be completely subjective. If you get into Columbia or Stanford then, by all means go. But you gotta get in first! :)

good idea about contacting the professor .... i'll definitely try that.

again, i really appreciate you guys taking the time to "school" (augh! more bad puns!) an application newbie like me -- i definitely see how annoying it can be to run across someone who's overly naive and has decided she's going to get in wherever she applies based on, i don't know, her sparkling wit and ambition. i view these boards as a way of maximizing my chances to reach my goal: going to school for my phd next fall. if that means i should amend my list, then that's definitely something i'm willing to do. it's just difficult to assess my own value as a candidate and know what sort of programs i have a shot at getting into.

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has decided she's going to get in wherever she applies based on, i don't know, her sparkling wit and ambition

Well, it's probably more realistic than thinking that your great grades and GRE scores will get you in everywhere! :P

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I came into my PhD program without a master's, and am very happy that I did so, because everyone who comes into this program with a master's has less time to get stuff accomplished. Less time to comps, less opportunities for summer funding, etc.

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I came into my PhD program without a master's, and am very happy that I did so, because everyone who comes into this program with a master's has less time to get stuff accomplished. Less time to comps, less opportunities for summer funding, etc.

Hmm, but presumably masters programs count as "time," right? Two years spent reading and learning things isn't exactly a waste when it comes to comps.

For what it's worth, I'm glad I turned down a PhD program to do a funded masters instead. I'm learning a ton and feel infinitely better prepared for PhD applications down the line!

To the OP: Why not apply to some PhD programs and some masters programs?

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  • 2 weeks later...

I don't think the Masters is necessary in any way (assuming you don't have undergrad issues to make for or an unsure about the field). I don't have a Masters and I got a fair few admits. Most of the people in my program with Masters pursued that route because they did not have undergrad degrees in history. I do think you should spread your applications across a wider range of programs (ranking wise), their are an infinite number of reasons (many having nothing to do with qualifications or even you, I mean departmental constraints, etc.) that can keep you out. Also some programs prefer people without masters. I know a lot of the people in my cohort with masters are having issues because their work can't carry over.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Back in the day, BA-MA-PhD used to be the standard route... but no longer. EVERY one of my professors have said not to bother with an MA. Just look on department websites and you will see that most of the admissions information is geared toward those applying with only a BA and then they include additional information such as, "Those coming in with an MA...."

I know this is not the case for everyone and I might get flamed for saying this but I think those who have areas which may need improvement or are without a defined focus are the ones that benefit the most from going the MA route first. And there's nothing wrong with that. Some, like Katzenmusik, will be in a better position to get into a better PhD program after an MA than immediately after their BA. But PhD programs nowadays are designed primarily for those coming in with only a BA.

Basically, apply widely to MA as well as PhD programs to hedge your bets and then sit back and go crazy for four months with the rest of us waiting to hear... ;)

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