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decisions, decisions: a plea for advice


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Here's my situation.

I'm in at two schools: UMass-Amherst (MA/PhD in English) and Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English (MA). UMass probably won't be offering me funding this year but probably will next year; the chair of the department is encouraging me to attend sans first-year funding. I'm afraid, however, to take on $30,000 in debt to cover living expenses, books, etc for the first year, given the gloom-and-doom job market. What if I don't get hired after graduation and I've got all this debt? Plus I'm still paying off last summer's language school tuition. My cat and I need to eat!

Middlebury is offering me about half off of my tuition this summer. However, four years in a program that only runs during the summers kind of locks me into teaching secondary edcuation during that time (what other job will give you summers off to go study literature in Vermont?) and I'm not sure that's really what I want to do. Midd also lacks courses in theory and doesn't offer much in the way of postcolonial lit, either (my specialty), though it has other academic strengths. And I'd still be going into debt, but over a longer period of time and for a Master's degree, not a PhD.

My gut tells me to go to UMass-- that I'll be able to forge connections during my first year and secure funding for the rest of my time there. My parents are telling me not to do either program; they'd like me to wait it out and reapply or defer admission for a year and try again for funding (not even an option, in my view, since I'll be in the same position next year that I am this year). Thoughts? It seems crazy to turn down an offer from a well-respected program like UMass in such a rough year for admissions, especially since I got no other PhD offers this season and it looks like cohort sizes will be slashed even further in the coming years. I just don't want to make a decision that I'm going to end up regretting in a major way twelve months or seven years from now.

Thanks in advance for any advice...

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My parents are telling me not to do either program; they'd like me to wait it out and reapply or defer admission for a year and try again for funding (not even an option, in my view, since I'll be in the same position next year that I am this year).

Surprisingly, I would agree with your parents on this one. Probably not what you wanna hear, but that's my feeling. An unfunded MA is simply not a sound financial investment, unless it's the absolutely last option and you can actually afford it without taking on monstrous debt (which does not seem to be the case here).

You say you'll be in the same position next year -- why? Unless you're planning on submitting the exact same materials and doing nothing in the meantime, this is not necessarily true. There are a number of things you could do: improve GRE scores, work on your writing sample, hound whatever local profs you have a relationship with to help you strengthen your profile, etc. etc.

Anyway, good luck.

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UMass probably won't be offering me funding this year but probably will next year; the chair of the department is encouraging me to attend sans first-year funding. I'm afraid, however, to take on $30,000 in debt to cover living expenses, books, etc for the first year, given the gloom-and-doom job market.

Your point here is well-taken, however, I wouldn't rule out attending unfunded for one year. Although my situation isn't exactly like yours - I accepted an offer in which my first year funding is significantly lower than years 2-5/6 - I really struggled with it, especially since my only other had a slightly better funding package, although guaranteed for only four years... (God, this process sucks from start to finish.) Thing is, most stipends in the humanities aren't enough to live on. Period. So I've had to suck it up and deal with the likelihood of taking out small loans as needed (as well as working my ass off over summers), which will probably end up amounting to something like your projected $30k debt, if not slightly more. And since I'm completing an unfunded MA right now (not a waste of time or money, at least for me), my total educational debt will probably be around $75k when all is said and done. Is this overwhelming? Absolutely. But if I don't get hired right away... defer, defer, defer until I can defer no longer, paying off interest as I can. On a sidenote - while it did make my life harder, I was able to significantly reduce the amount I took out in loans (ie - about $20k/year instead of $30k/year) by working 16-22 hours/week during the semester, full time over breaks. Is this something you're willing to do?

I certainly feel for you - this is a big decision & I don't know what I would do under your circumstances. But if UMass seems to think funding for later years is highly likely, I don't think I'd rule it out quite qyet. I know quite a few people who have gone this route. As for Breadloaf - I would wait and reapply over attending. It doesn't seem like a great program for your needs & wants, for multiple reasons. So I guess my advice would be either UMass or wait, work, and reapply.

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Seriously considered the unfunded year.

Few people that I have known get funded in their second year.

Very very few, like 1 versus about a dozen who did not end up getting funded for their masters despite hinted promises.

Take the year break, unless you are older, there is no rush.

And the debt just isn't worth it.

The funded positions are fairly important.

That said, I know folks who are successful who paid for their MA.

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Surprisingly, I would agree with your parents on this one. Probably not what you wanna hear, but that's my feeling. An unfunded MA is simply not a sound financial investment, unless it's the absolutely last option and you can actually afford it without taking on monstrous debt (which does not seem to be the case here).

You say you'll be in the same position next year -- why? Unless you're planning on submitting the exact same materials and doing nothing in the meantime, this is not necessarily true. There are a number of things you could do: improve GRE scores, work on your writing sample, hound whatever local profs you have a relationship with to help you strengthen your profile, etc. etc.

Anyway, good luck.

Seconded. A year can do wonders--you can change your position dramatically.

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