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Choosing whether to apply for M.A. or Ph.D. programs


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Hi everyone,

I know there is already a forum with a discussion basically the same as this one, but it hasn't had any recent posts lately and what was posted previously doesn't fully answer my question. This issue is one I'm currently facing, and I figured starting the topic over as more users begin to frequent the site, thereby resulting in more perspectives offered throughout the forums, could be as worthwhile a move for others as it hopefully will be for me.

With a very deliberate intention to pursue my Ph.D., a drive which several professors with whom I've spoken so far say negates the need for a Master's degree by itself, I am still very unsure about a few of the programs to which I'm planning on applying. Obviously, several schools only offer doctorate-level programs, and my question is answered for me in their regard. The same goes for the schools offering M.A.s during the first year or two of study to all Ph.D. candidates that don't already have theirs upon entering the programs.

Schools seem to define the common reason behind getting one's M.A. as "testing the graduate waters if one is uncertain whether he or she can handle a Ph.D. program." Are Ph.D. programs less likely to accept me than are terminal M.A. programs simply due to my lack of graduate-level experience combined with the connected task of explaining why I'm still equally as capable of Ph.D. work as applicants with their M.A.? I know I'm capable, and my LoR writers know I'm capable as well. I know that websites for many Ph.D. programs claim to admit applicants each year that have M.A.s and that don't. I have no easy way of trusting thate, and neither can I be sure that schools have any reason to believe that I'm prepared for their doctorate programs and am able to succeed in them despite not having those two (or less) years of extra M.A. experience.

Funding (or the lack thereof) isn't a major issue for me; I'd prefer not to accumulate debt from a one- or two-year Master's program when essentially all Ph.D. candidates are fully funded. However, I'd manage if I only had the option to attend a non-funded M.A. program.

Also, I'm currently most drawn to the schools that offer both degrees on the same track (for obvious reasons); any input on OSU, UT-Austin, or Temple is therefore welcomed (and/or other schools with a similar dual-degree option).

Help?

Edited by ThePoorHangedFool
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It really depends on the program. Some programs prefer (and their acceptance numbers confirm that) candidates with MAs in hand already. Some programs have, to a greater or lesser extent, some bias against MA-holders. Penn State, for example, has historically accepted only 1-3 MA-holders each year (out of...I don't know, you all, at least 30 acceptances, right?). Other programs only rarely accept those without MAs. I don't know much about the programs you mention, but I think OSU prefers MA-holders. (But my knowledge of OSU is based on what I remember from anecdotal evidence on this forum, not any personal experience. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)

If you don't have to take the extra time (not to say money!) to do a terminal MA, don't do one. If your application is strong enough already that you can be accepted to the PhD program(s) you want without an MA, there's not much point to doing it in my opinion.

P.S. I'm sure you are aware that just because some PhD programs don't require you to apply specifically MA --> PhD (as Penn State, and I think OSU, UNC, etc., do) it doesn't mean they won't award an MA along the way. At my current program, I applied directly to the PhD (they have no MA --> PhD option) and was awarded a masters after completing X satisfactory progress. Several other programs I considered would have done the same thing. In fact, I believe most do.

Edited by Phil Sparrow
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OSU's program has two tracks, one for those with M.A. degrees and one for those who don't. The latter affords B.A.-holders the opportunity to earn their M.A. by, I believe, spending around 1-2 years longer in the overall program itself. Applicants indicate which track they want and this, I'd imagine, helps OSU's adcom make more balanced decisions that accommodate both students with M.A.s and without them. (Also, I think those with only a B.A. can apply for the strictly Ph.D. program, but it would seem to me that a guaranteed transfer from an M.A. track to a Ph.D. program would be pretty advantageous.) I'm very, very interested in OSU, and am hoping to get advice from anyone with authoritative information/opinions on its app process and program(s).

UNC-Chapel Hill, which I assume is what you meant by "UNC" but correct me if I'm wrong, as of a year or two ago strictly offers a Ph.D. I don't think it awards M.A.s "along the way," so to speak, but I obviously could be mistaken about that. The website says that they simply don't offer Master's degrees, which I take to mean at all. It would be great if they offered non-terminal M.A.s, though...

Many programs that offer both M.A. and Ph.D. programs but on completely separate tracks, with strictly terminal M.A. degrees offered OR a Ph.D. that doesn't include an additional M.A. on the track, have disclaimers on their program websites that are really quite daunting. Most read something along the lines of "Earning a Master's degree at XXX University in no way ensures admittance to the Ph.D. program. The student must apply for the Ph.D. track after receiving his or her M.A. as an unenrolled hopeful in the same pool as all other applicants for the Ph.D. program." Some even tag on a weird sentence about how there is no sure way of determining whether applying with an M.A. from a school to the same school's Ph.D. program could actually be detrimental to an applicant's hopes of admittance. Le sigh.

If you don't have to take the extra time (not to say money!) to do a terminal MA, don't do one. If your application is strong enough already that you can be accepted to the PhD program(s) you want without an MA, there's not much point to doing it in my opinion.

These are my sentiments exactly; my problem now is that I really have no idea if my overall, total application reflects how prepared I am for Ph.D. programs, let alone suggests that I'm MORE prepared and/or likely to succeed at any number of programs than a large portion of the applicants against whom I'll be judged. For all I know, on paper I might appear less capable than other applicants that similarly only have a B.A.

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About UNC: UNC used to award MAs "along the way," preferring not to admit students with MAs so they could train them from the ground up. (This was their practice when I applied, BA in hand, for the 2009 app season.) As of last application season (when I applied again, MA in progress!) they announced the end of the MA>PhD route. They probably still admit some BAs, but I think that they're now weighted more-in-favor of MAs. I get the impression that funding played a part in that decision, but it's an inference made through outside observation.

About OSU: I've only applied to OSU for rhet comp —so I've no idea what it's like on the lit side—but I know that it's incredibly competitive for rhet comp. I had it on my list of "reach" schools last season. It's a great program with good support and tons of faculty. For rhet comp (and possibly also for the rest of their English programs) it's much easier to get into the PhD program if you apply to the MA out of undergrad. It's not formal "MA-along-the-way," but applicants from the MA program are at an advantage if they decide to stay on for the PhD—which a fair number of their MA students choose to do.

I don't know much about Temple, apart from the fact that Eli Goldbenblatt directs comp there (though I grew up north of Philly and can tell you about the area). UT-Austin is insanely competitive for rhet comp, but I know nothing about the lit program.

About MA vs. PhD: I faced similar uncertainties as an applicant three years ago—am I competitive enough or ready for a PhD?—and decided to both apply to PhDs that were BA-friendly and MA programs. I ended up only getting admitted to my MA program, and going to my MA program it turned out to be the best thing I could have done at the time. It helped me quell the doubts as to whether or not I truly wanted (or was ready for) a PhD, helped me find my subfield, and gave me the experience I needed to be a more competitive applicant. But in the interest of full disclosure, I was funded, so that made my decision easier.

So my advice is to try for some PhD programs, but throw a couple of terminal MAs in there, too; if nothing else, your MA schools can be your "safety" schools, where you'll have a better chance of being admitted.

EDIT/P.S.: If you play your cards right, also note that an MA need not slow down your progress to degree. Though I took two years to do my master's, the exposure I got to ideas and even some of the reading I did has given me a leg-up on my PhD and made it more likely that I'll actually finish in 4 years. Something else to chew on.

Edited by runonsentence
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I'm a little bit of an oddball as I started out applying to MFA programs, only to decide switch to the MA Lit program at my school after the first year. Perhaps it is because of my experiences, but I can't imagine going straight into a PHD program from my BA. I know that some people do a lot of research as undergrads, but I didn't, and when I showed up at grad school I had no idea what kind of work I would eventually want to do (Again, I was dead-set on writing fiction, so things do change). Getting the MA separate from the PhD allows you too avoid too much academic incest - I don't want to only learn from one group of faculty, and I'm not convinced that it would benefit anyone to do so.

You don't mention your research at all. Getting an MA is a good place to not only see if you can "handle" grad school, but also to figure out what subfield you're interested in and what exactly you want to research.

There are plenty of funded MA programs - you just have to dig. I am fully funded. Paying for an advanced degree in the humanities is a BAD idea unless you are independently wealthy.

Edited by asleepawake
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You don't mention your research at all. Getting an MA is a good place to not only see if you can "handle" grad school, but also to figure out what subfield you're interested in and what exactly you want to research.

I apologize for not mentioning this aspect of my current stance initially; I've done plenty of research to know how grueling it can often be, and have been thinking about whatever struggles or complications I faced during my undergraduate research lately and trying to magnify them several times over to imagine how intense work as a Ph.D. candidate can sometimes be, especially when things aren't working out how one might have thought or hoped they would... At any rate, I have a sufficient background in research (and am currently still pursuing theory-inclined research toward past work already completed, as far as the research segment goes, at least).

I met with my former advisor yesterday, and his advice was to apply to the Ph.D. programs at schools where that is the only option (obviously), but to apply to a significant number of terminal M.A. programs primarily--even at schools where both are offered. He added that for M.A. programs for which some type of funding is expressed as even occasionally given to admitted applicants, definitely apply to the M.A. over Ph.D. program unless there's a pretty defensible reason to do otherwise.

His opinion takes heavily into account the overall lack of funding available at English programs these days, both for M.A. and Ph.D. tracks (although since essentially every worthwhile Ph.D. program ensures funding, that track isn't as much of a concern aside from the ridiculously small numbers of admitted applicants seen at numerous schools in recent years). Since some M.A. programs make it clear that no funding is provided for its admitted students, if such a program is at a school where a Ph.D. is offered separately, go for the Ph.D. He said that paying a little bit of tuition for a one- or two-year master's program isn't the end of the world (I would be fine with this if it were to enter a respected program where I felt I'd succeed and be able to work well).

I'll be following his advice, which everyone should keep in mind was given to me with my specific situation in mind. Other applicants might feel that this approach doesn't suit their individual background, and they're likely right to some extent.

A lot of this guidance seems pretty logical; however, if anyone who's been through an application season already has any advice that refutes it (or advocates it), please share your experience!

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