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The Value of a Master's

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I know there are several articles, blog posts, and informational sites that all more or less say the same thing: Master's degrees are not all that useful for a PhD unless you need to make up for a low undergrad GPA or you need to demonstrate better competency in political science (and it can get you new recs, a more focused/informed SOP, etc.)


However, I can't help but notice that a lot of the more "successful" people got terminal master's degree, and not just that, but many of them had other careers going for a while as well.


The paths generally look like:


Bachelor's -> Master's -> 4-10 years work experience (usually policy, government, or military work) -> PhD -> Academia and possibly high-level policy work


I know that in academia, policy work is considered a totally separate issue, but I can't help but wonder if it gives people a more well-rounded perspective on things.  I met a PhD student whose research focused on [COUNTRY] and I was with him the first time he visited [COUNTRY].  To be honest, I was a little surprised at his naiveté and ideas about how the country worked.  People who didn't really have any graduate work or academic background were much better able to analyze the situation and even make good predictions.


Another example is people who study international organizations and human rights.  Even with the knowledge of how UN agencies and the like are perceived, and how they actually work on the ground, they were still surprised to hear some things about the reputation and running of these organizations that are obvious to most people with extremely limited experience.


I realize that this is a completely separate question from what academic political science as a field asks, but I can't help but wonder - isn't it better to have both?  Wouldn't it be better to have both the field/policy experience to have a grounding in how things actually work, and then go into academia?

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Legit question.  


I fall into the former category (masters to overcome deficiencies), so take my advice for what its worth.


It could be endogenous to my research interests, but the CVs of most leading academics I've seen suggest going straight from undergrad to grad is more common (which could vary over time).  This may be different in a field such as public policy.  


Few political science PhD programs (that I've seen or looked into) have said something other than "often applicants/incoming students have masters degrees but we don't expect that our incoming students have more than undergrad knowledge of poli sci (though some come from different fields)."  


Work experience can be a bit of a catch-22, it often takes a graduate degree to get the work experience, yet it is useful before undertaking graduate research.  


It partially depends on your goals.  If you think you'd prefer a TT job in an interdisciplinary area studies program, it (MA, etc) might be helpful.  If you are seeking a job with a think tank, State Dept, CIA, etc, specializing in area studies a degree in area studies might be sufficient for where you want to go.  But for a general poli sci TT job, I doubt prior MA work is hugely correlated with placement, though I could be wrong.  I suppose a way to test this would be to look at recent placements from various schools and look at the CVs: what did this candidate do before their PhD program?  Though I'm more inclined to believe it depended on other things.  


As for the one grad student you observed, n=1 is not significant.  If you don't have at least a few WTF moments while doing field research overseas for the first time, you are probably doing it wrong ;).  Also know that MA programs (in area studies) rarely include field research.  Given the time and cost, I was strongly advised against it even though I did field research as an undergrad.  


I would say talk to faculty in your research area, 1) see what they did, 2) see what they recommend given your specific background.  Applying to a number of options (PhD, MA, Fulbright, other fellowships, think tank jobs, etc.) can't hurt as long as you tailor each app specifically.  


But if you have a good enough resume to get into a PhD program now (next cycle, etc) and you know that's what you want...  Do it!  Don't waste your time/money on an MA if you don't need to.  When you are on the job market, people will care about your language skills, methods skills, area-expertise, dissertation and publications - but they will care more about whether you have it or you don't, rather than if you acquired it through an MA, work experience, or during the 5-7 years you spend at your PhD program.  There is little substitute for making good use of your time, wherever you spend it.  


My .02, take it for what its worth.  

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Close the thread, we're done here!

More seriously though, I think that eponine is spot on with his post. I personally tried my hand at a MA because 1) I wasn't sure if graduate school was for me and 2) if I wanted a PhD I knew that I had to improve on parts of my application. I was lucky enough to attend a funded, terminal MA program, so the cost wasn't too high for me personally.

I also think that eponine's last paragraph is sound advice. If you can get into a good PhD program straight away and you know that's what you want to do, go for it.

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