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Disagreeing politically / theoretically with director of masters program?


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Without being too specific, I am deciding between two masters programs (and intend on later pursing a PhD).  Program A is a 2 year program and has offered me a nice scholarship and when combined with an RA or TA position (which are readily available even at the masters level) tuition would be basically free, and I may even possibly receive a living stipend (and living expenses in this location are very cheap, anyway).  In a 2 year program, I would have time to write a quality thesis and would have time to complete a summer practicum - things that may prepare me quite nicely for a PhD program.  Overall, I think the max I would spend is $30,000 for this two year program, assuming that I won't be receiving a stipend for living expenses (which apparently at least half the students do).   


Program B is a 1 year program and has offered me no financial aid (they say they don't for any MA students) and has no RA or TA positions available for masters students, so when combined with living expenses I can expect to pay about $55,000.  One plus of Program B is that (according to my potential advisor) acceptance to their masters program virtually guarantees admission to their PhD program (although - students in the PhD program are struggling with funding as well and barely making enough to cover living expenses). 


In terms of fit, it is clear to me that I am better suited towards Program B. In addition to working with an advisor (a Marxist) whose work (in critical social theory) I have admired for a long time, I recently read a paper written by the director of Program A which basically said critical social theory is irrelevant to the discipline and the focus (of this emerging discipline) should be entirely on economics and policy, and wherein he established himself as a firm proponent of neoliberalism.


I come from a very theoretical liberal arts background (undergrad) so - although I strongly disagree with him and find the course list at Program B much more appealing - there is still something appealing to me about developing a firm foundation in policy and economics in Program A (and saving a ton of money in the process).


So my question is.... Is it a bad idea to go to a department where I'm fairly certain I disagree politically and even on things like what problems my field should address, and how they should go about addressing them? Or could it potentially be a positive thing.... expanding my intellectual horizons? Since the director of Program A has spoken (very loudly) about his disapproval of critical social theory, theories of marginalization etc. in the discipline, do you think that will hurt my application to PhD programs later on which see critical theory a necessary component (both in terms of recommendations and program reputation)?  Am I making a big mistake by considering this option?


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Disclaimer: I am not in your field so some of what I write below may be coloured by the way things work in my field that I might not realise is idiosyncratic to my field and might not generalise well. But I hope to provide some useful discussion / things to think about!


I wouldn't worry too much about what the director of my program thinks about the field. He or she is just one person, and they will not be the director forever. In my experience, the director rarely represents the overall view of the whole department. In fact, the position is generally undesired and everyone seems to "do their duty" and serve one term at some point in their career. Also, isn't it really presumptuous for one person to dismiss an entire subfield of your discipline? In my experience, people who have opinions like this are ignored -- if he/she doesn't want to do critical social theory, then he/she could choose to not do it, but what gives them the right to voice their opinion about what their colleagues should work on??


It's healthy for a department to have professors with different points of view, as it promotes critical thought. So, this might actually be a point in favour of School A -- you might get to learn a lot more and hear interesting debates between faculty members. As long as the director is professional and that the disagreements between faculty members remain strictly scholarly, then dissenting views here could be healthy. After all, this director is NOT going to be the last person you meet that will disagree with you. It could be a good experience to learn arguments/strategies you could use to defend yourself by observing and learning from other professors in that department who would agree with you interact with the director. I'm assuming there is several people who think your work is useful/important otherwise why would you have applied there?


But I would definitely be worried about a toxic atmosphere where faculty hate each other causing an undesirable work environment. I would also be worried that the entire department isn't interested in your work at all so you would have no one to advise you on the topics you want to work on. Maybe the director's opinion is in fact representative of the entire department's views. Or perhaps this director is really pushing the department to steer away from theory and there's no one else in the department to oppose it. Were you able to visit or talk to the current faculty or grad students about this? Or, maybe you can talk to people/advisors/profs at your current school about their opinions on School A. I thoroughly discussed (aka gossiped) potential supervisors (and their former students) with my mentors/former advisors. These people probably have met people from School A at conferences or other academic events in the past, so they could tell you what they think of School A faculty! Of course, meeting them and deciding for yourself is best, but that might not be possible at this time!


In terms of getting a PhD later, School B could be a good choice if you are 100% sure you want to go to School B later for a PhD. But the higher cost is prohibitive, plus it doesn't sound like you will be able to pay back whatever loans/savings you use to pay for the masters. School A really does sound like it opens more options for you later at the PhD level and the cost is lower too! Also, do you have to get a reference letter from your director at School A when you apply to PhD programs? Most people would stick to research supervisors for their LOR writers, so you would ideally just get your thesis advisor to write the LOR. Since you are also doing a summer practicum, this is also another opportunity for a quality LOR, so that will also help with PhD applications! When I applied to PhD programs from my MSc degree, I only used my thesis advisor as my LOR writer -- the other two letters came from my undergrad research advisors!

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Thank you for this excellent response!  You have really helped me think about the issue a lot more clearly.


To respond to your question, though: "I'm assuming there is several people who think your work is useful/important otherwise why would you have applied there?"  


Actually to be honest, I applied to a mixture of both PhD programs and some masters programs as back-up options.  The PhD applications took all of my energy / program researching time so I didn't research the masters programs nearly as thoroughly.  In the end I got accepted to all the masters programs and rejected from all the PhD programs.  


The director of this program is actually the person who started the program at his school, and he has been the director for many, many years. It seems like maybe everyone in the department shares this particular professor's opinions -  but I am not 100% sure on that.  I guess I am a little worried about whether or not I will find it dispiriting if everyone in the department - and maybe even the other masters students - share these opinions about social theory being irrelevant to the field.  From the course descriptions, it does seem that the program really and truly manages to avoid theory.  


At School B, I know hands down my advisor is amazing and students have even told me they have fought to work with her, so I am really lucky.  At School A I just can't seem to get any direct feedback one way or the other about the quality of the faculty in my particular department - though I heard from a PhD student at school B who did her masters at school A (in a different department in my same field) that although on the whole it was much less engaged with theory than school B, she really appreciated her time there and the focus on policy issues from a practitioner's point of view.  


I have been out of school for about 8 years now so I am unfortunately not as close to my undergrad advisors anymore, though they all wrote me good recommendation letters, I think that is about the extent of their helping in this process. I haven't been able to visit any departments - I live far away, overseas, so it has been difficult communicating with people about these things. 


Anyway, at the end of the day, and taking money issues in consideration, and since I already have a strong background in theory from undergrad, I think I will take a risk and just hope this experience contributes to my intellectual growth.  Maybe having conflicting opinions with people in the department will inspire me to work even harder.  My undergrad experience was probably just 'too easy' in the sense that everyone agreed with everyone else and it was all perfectly harmonious. Here's hoping it works out! 


Thanks a lot for the great advice  :)

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