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Unfunded English MA or random-ass job? Where do I go from here?


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Hey guys.


This will be a bit long, but I really need some advice! I am a senior at a college ranked in the top ten. English/East Asian Studies double major, 3.9 major GPA. I applied to a bunch of really top English PhD programs, and unfortunately didn't get in anywhere (I haven't heard from NYU, Harvard, or Berkeley yet, but I'm assuming that if I haven't heard from them at this point, it's going to be a no...)


I did get offered a spot in the unfunded MA program at UVA though (my specialization is contemporary studies/Asian-American culture, so UVA is actually a pretty good fit from what I understand). Is it worth paying for an MA? I could also take a gap year and work some random job, but I'm worried that doing so won't increase my chances of getting into PhD programs the year after.


My worries hinge mainly on recommendation letters. Two out of my three rec letters are from my third year, so by the time I re-apply for PhD programs, these two letters will be two years old. And since my college doesn't have a strong focus in Asian-American studies in the English department (or anywhere), my current recommendations don't really speak to that specific subfield, and are from random classes on Psychoanalysis and Henry James...whereas if I got the MA, I'd be working with professors who actually do what I want to do.

Money is the main issue here (obviously). My parents are willing to cover some of the cost, but most of it would be loans.

What do you think I should do?

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I was in a similar position a few years ago. There are many facts to consider but here are just a few:


If you go right into an MA and assuming your parents pay all of your rent and living expenses, you will likely come out with about $40-50k in debt from tuition alone (unless you are a Virgina resident, in which case it may be closer to $20-30k.)  Assuming you're not from VA, if you come out with $40k in debt, go right into a PhD program, and come out with an excellent placement making at a major university, you'll be looking at a $70k salary (which is VERY generous in the humanities).  You'll net about $3,500/mo after taxes, which means you will need to pay at least $800/mo to clear your debt in under 5 years.  I say 5 years because assuming you're 22ish now + 2 year MA + 4 year PhD = 28.  You'll be 33 when you're finished paying off your loans and can start saving.


If that sounds worth it to you, then make it happen.  True dreams are worth the debt, sweat, and tears.  Plus 33 isn't that old.  And $40k is much less than the $120k most law students are racking up these days.


However, if you're skill hesitating, here are some other facts to consider: if you are coming out of undergrad, you are (likely) young and (likely) have little work experience.  Even if your goal is to do research and teach at an R1, you will still need other skills than going straight into a PhD can't afford you.  For example, grant writing, deeper pedagogical skills, public speaking, project management, etc.  If your goal is to take your study of contemporary study and go to work for a think tank, NEH, or other non-university track, then your lack of professional skills once you get on the job will only be exaggerated.


Working at a job that gives you real world skills (not waiting tables but doing research or teaching or consulting... something that is semi-tied to getting a PhD), will give you immeasurable skills for the future.  It will allow you to bank a few bucks for when you do go get that PhD ($25k/yr stipends are hard to live on) and get you out from relying on your parents.  Plus real world experience looks great on a PhD application.  You may also consider looking at UVA's job board; some schools offer tuition remission for full time employees.


The absolute LAST thing you should be worried about is your recommendation letters.  If you decide to work, tell the profs who wrote the recs.  Say that you really appreciate their speaking up for you and you may be back in a few years for a second recommendation when you do decide to go back to school.


Do what you think is right.  But I sit here with a 172 LSAT score having opted to work for a year and apply to Tier 1 law schools later.  After a year in the work force, I realized that law wasn't what I wanted to do.  So I worked for 4 more years, got an MA while working, and was just accepted to my top choice PhD, fully funded.  And 2 degrees with no debt was worth the extra 5 years.

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