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Big Fish in a Small Sea? Good idea?


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Me: I completed my English Lit BA at UBC, and did my Master's in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) at McGill.

I am now living in Saskatchewan, and will be here for 3 years while my boyfriend completes his medical residency.

Question: should I do my MA in English Lit at the University of Saskatchewan? Is it ok to go to a "less presitgious" school? Would this put me at a disadvantage when applying to phd programs?

I would like to study Shakespeare, and am hoping that it's not where you go but what you make of it (present at conferences, publish articles, etc.) and who you're studying with.

My plan is to attend the U of S from 2013-2015, and then with the flexibility of being able to move I would go to a higher ranked school for my phd. Or not go for my phd. I just want to do an MA in English Lit.

Advice would be greatly appreciated. I'm very new to masters programs that require finding a supervisor. My MLIS application process was much less involved.

Hope you're having a nice week! :)

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it's not where you go but what you make of it (present at conferences, publish articles, etc.) and who you're studying with.

Bingo. Your experience will not be determined by how highly ranked your program is. All other things being equal, it's probably better to attend a higher ranked program than a lower ranked program. All other things are never equal, though, and you live in Saskatchewan. Especially if you must choose between either no program at all and a local program, there is no reason not to give Saskatchewan a go. You might be pleasantly surprised.

I would advise you against considering yourself a "big fish in a small pond," though, as you risk underestimating and/or disrespecting your fellow students/faculty at Saskatchewan, who may be there, like you, for reasons other than that they are small fish.

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I've considered myself to be a "big fish in a small pond" through my MA study. Whereas I wished I had aimed higher and attempted higher ranked/more prestigious universities, I can say that going to a smaller, less impressive school has allowed me to pretty much do whatever I want (directed studies, etc.), get funding whenever I need it (been to Rome twice for conferences and headed to London in a month), get great letters of recommendation because my profs know me really well because, well, there aren't that many students, and in general I feel as though I've grown more because I was able to "stick out" than I would have at a big university. Now I'm applying for PhD's this fall, and I hope that this has made my application stronger.

BUT, and it's a big BUT, going to a less-than impressive small liberal arts school in the middle-of-no-where American South could really hurt me because I may have had it "too" easy or no one knows where the hell I'm from so they don't know what level of work I can accomplish. And, it has to be stated, that I feel under prepared for upper level work. If I were by some random act of god able to get into Cornell, would I be able to handle the course work? The students? The teaching? The expectations?

Okay, so now I'm ranting about myself, and for that I'm sorry.

Long story short, I would go. It can't hurt, and you'll be able to grow independently as a scholar while there and hopefully future adcoms will see that.

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A bit of wisdom ("wisdom") that I encountered frequently when I began my neurotic online grad school advice search a couple of years ago:

Of all your possible degrees (BA, MA, PhD), prestige matters least for the MA. What does matter, as some above have noted, comes down to making connections, working with specialists in your field, going to conferences, etc.

Edited by A Proper Pun
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I think most people go to "no-name" schools. Honestly, if you are outside of our region, we have no idea what program you are attending unless it is one of the ivies or other big name schools. And lets be honest, half the time people from the south know names of schools from the midwest is because of sports. This is just an example of regions. I'm in the south so it seemed appropriate?? Anywho. I would not be deterred by the name visibility of your program. I went to a "no-name" MA program and am so glad I did. I received travel grants for every conference I went to and had really great one-on-one relationships with my professors. The program I went to for my BA (while well-known in the South, or at least in the surrounding states, but if you're not from this region you've probably never heard of it because they don't have a football team - I know I missed out) was MUCH LARGER. And try as I might, the professors really seemed to not have time for me. Not like they did in the MA program. This could possibly be attributed to the degree level I was at. ANYWAYS! The point of all this blabber is - apply!

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I agree with some of what the above posters have said, but allow me to add the following: with the overabundance of B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees these days, pedigree matters more than we'd all like to admit--at every stage of one's education. An experiment: explore the website of a strong or elite English Ph.D. program that provides background information on its current students. You'll find that most, if not all, of their students came from good to great schools. Making a jump from a no-name institution to a renowned one is possible, I suppose, but such students are a minority.

I say this as someone who is currently studying at podunk university, USA. I originally came to the university to study pre-pharmacy, something that would require me to transfer to a better university to finish, but I became disillusioned with both my ability and interest in that field. I switched to English, really enjoyed it, and questioned whether I should now transfer to a better school. I didn't. I rationalized this decision by appealing to reduced costs--I can live at home-- and the purported "big fish in a small pond" phenomenon.

We'll see if I made the wrong decision when my application results come in, I guess.

Edited by Two Espressos
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I agree with some of what the above posters have said, but allow me to add the following: with the overabundance of B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees these days, pedigree matters more than we'd all like to admit--at every stage of one's education. An experiment: explore the website of a strong or elite English Ph.D. program that provides background information on its current students. You'll find that most, if not all, of their students came from good to great schools. Making a jump from a no-name institution to a renowned one is possible, I suppose, but such students are a minority.

I say this as someone who is currently studying at podunk university, USA. I originally came to the university to study pre-pharmacy, something that would require me to transfer to a better university to finish, but I became disillusioned with both my ability and interest in that field. I switched to English, really enjoyed it, and questioned whether I should now transfer to a better school. I didn't. I rationalized this decision by appealing to reduced costs--I can live at home-- and the purported "big fish in a small pond" phenomenon.

We'll see if I made the wrong decision when my application results come in, I guess.

You are addressing some of my concerns. I would agree that is not the norm for full professors to have a degree from a "random" or lesser-known institution. I did look at a few faculty lists to see if anyone had gone somewhere smaller. It is not the norm, but it's not impossible. So, good luck to us both, I suppose!! Let me know how it goes for you :)

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I agree with some of what the above posters have said, but allow me to add the following: with the overabundance of B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees these days, pedigree matters more than we'd all like to admit--at every stage of one's education. An experiment: explore the website of a strong or elite English Ph.D. program that provides background information on its current students. You'll find that most, if not all, of their students came from good to great schools. Making a jump from a no-name institution to a renowned one is possible, I suppose, but such students are a minority.

I say this as someone who is currently studying at podunk university, USA. I originally came to the university to study pre-pharmacy, something that would require me to transfer to a better university to finish, but I became disillusioned with both my ability and interest in that field. I switched to English, really enjoyed it, and questioned whether I should now transfer to a better school. I didn't. I rationalized this decision by appealing to reduced costs--I can live at home-- and the purported "big fish in a small pond" phenomenon.

We'll see if I made the wrong decision when my application results come in, I guess.

I'm in this exact same boat. I come from a university that NO ONE has heard of. The MA program I come from isn't even ranked nor is it known anywhere. I wrote about all the advantages of sticking it out in a smaller school, but I'm very worried about my chances come this fall, and I think a lot of it has to do with the program I come from. I've only had one professor actually admit this to me -- most are very supportive and optimistic (which I appreciate), but I know they worry about my chances as well. The professor who admitted that rank is an issue made a point that adcoms at ivies and the like might see this as a disadvantage because we might not be able to handle the level of work required. Most students who are at these schools were breed for it, and have been going at it for a long time. I have not. And I worry that adcoms might worry about my ability to keep up.

All that being said, you never know till you try which is why I will try. BUT, there's that nagging voice in the back of my mind reminding me that I come from a small public liberal arts school in the middle of no where, and Cornell is going to toss me aside instantly.

HOWEVER, I've also read and had profs tell me that ivies and such schools do have to admit students from lesser-known schools due to "affirmative action." It makes them look like they take in kids who weren't "born" into the school, so they'll typically admit one every year or so. SO, by a real shot in hell, we might be that one who gets in BECAUSE we're from a smaller school. You never know -- it could work to your advantage.

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HOWEVER, I've also read and had profs tell me that ivies and such schools do have to admit students from lesser-known schools due to "affirmative action." It makes them look like they take in kids who weren't "born" into the school, so they'll typically admit one every year or so. SO, by a real shot in hell, we might be that one who gets in BECAUSE we're from a smaller school. You never know -- it could work to your advantage.

I'm skeptical that this actually occurs for Ph.D. programs.

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I'm skeptical that this actually occurs for Ph.D. programs.

Definitely -- I wouldn't bet the family farm on it by any means. I did't mean to imply that one should take this information and run with it. I had just come across the idea while doing application research.

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In looking at the academic histories of profs, it seems it might be possible to get a phd at a non-ivy league school, and then one could teach at a non-ivy league school. Is there something about that that would be a bad idea?

I'm also wondering if it would be possible to study at a smaller school, but present at the largest of conferences in order to get some larger recognition.

Thoughts?

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In looking at the academic histories of profs, it seems it might be possible to get a phd at a non-ivy league school, and then one could teach at a non-ivy league school. Is there something about that that would be a bad idea?

With placement and employment rates the way they are, most PhD students would consider themselves incredibly fortunate to be hired as tenure-track faculty at any nonprofit higher education institution, regardless of ivy status.

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In looking at the academic histories of profs, it seems it might be possible to get a phd at a non-ivy league school, and then one could teach at a non-ivy league school. Is there something about that that would be a bad idea?

I'm also wondering if it would be possible to study at a smaller school, but present at the largest of conferences in order to get some larger recognition.

Thoughts?

I was given advice from a retired professor, which was get through the Ph.D. program, take the best job you can get, and if you're not happy there, publish your way out. Sounded solid.

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With placement and employment rates the way they are, most PhD students would consider themselves incredibly fortunate to be hired as tenure-track faculty at any nonprofit higher education institution, regardless of ivy status.

Exactly. No one has room to complain about where they're placed anymore; the market is just too bad. When Ivy league-bred scholars get jobs at "meh" schools, you know times are tough. Adjunctification is to blame, alongside administrative excess and the application of the business model to academia.

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