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Let's be honest: I'm not applying to schools. I'm not sure if being in the midst of the app process is a prereq for this forum, but there you go.

I'm here largely because I will very soon be in the throes of application and need some feedback before biting off more than I can chew.

I'm not from a great school. It's not that I don't appreciate my departments (French, English) or the faculty (often brilliant), but--since we're being honest--Missouri State isn't exactly top-tier. Which leaves me at sort of a cross-roads. In my dreams I'd be applying to schools like Chicago (hell--if I'm dreaming I might as well apply to Yale) next year, but I'm afraid that my undergrad institution won't make me a competitive candidate for any PhD program. So I thought about instead applying to MA programs, thinking they'd be less competitive in admission (and in any case, bolster my 'creds' for more prestigious programs). But then I've also heard that already having an MA can hurt my chances for PhD programs. Dilemma.

Just want to know if anyone is in (or has been in) a similar situation, of if anyone has advice.

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Here is a question: Why is Chicago your dream school? That question seems obvious, right? But is it the fact that you hear it talked about? The professors?

1st: Do your research and know your field. Who else is working in it with good ideas? Personally, I went to my field's conference saw as many papers as possible and took notes, realizing that there are great people at schools I'd never heard of. Chicago isn't the only school for you.

2nd: I don't know about the small name school thing. I came from a much smaller nobody undergrad, got nowhere, went to a decent MA program and it has served me well. I think that in your research you should look for solid MA programs that provide funding

2nd subpoint: If you're looking for MA programs that will get you a leg up, don't fall into the trap of: well I can't get into (Great School X)'s PhD program, but if I can get into their MA program, things will be bright. There are lots of smaller schools that have great records of feeding their MA students upward (PM me if you'd like a few suggestions).

3rd: Let's return to that small name school thing. It may have nothing to do with your school and more to do with your recommenders. They might not be as well connected, thus their recommendations don't carry as much weight.

Finally: My 1st point was really the only point I had: spend all summer long researching. Find a list of decent Comp Lit programs and go through one by one, looking at their faculty. When you see a publication that mildly interests you, flag it and read it later. Pick up the major Comp Lit journals and look at the last 8 years. Who is published? What are they talking about?

Hope that helps.

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It may be less about the specific recommenders than 1) the strength/specificity of the recommendations, 2) the quality of your writing sample, 3) the case you make for yourself in your personal statement.

It also seems to me that if you figure out which Ph.D. programs you are most interested in, you can contact them and get an honest answer about whether they prefer to accept students with vs. without an MA. I already had an MA going into the application process, and many web sites plainly stated or strongly implied their preference one way or another. At least this saved me from wasting my time with schools who prefer to accept students for MA/Ph.D. directly from undergrad. If I had to apply again, I would contact every one of the programs I was interested in to ask about the MA issue, and not apply to those which prefer you not have an MA. You may also be able to discern this information by looking at their current graduate students (did they all come from other Master's programs first?).

One more note: A friend of mine with an MA was asked to complete another MA in Comp Lit at his Ph.D. institution. From my basic understanding of Comp Lit, it seems the programs may want you to do the MA/Ph.D. all at the same school--at least more often than is the case with English Ph.D.s.

Good luck!

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I did my undergrad at SUNY Brockport. Ever heard of it? Probably not. Not that I'm going to an Ivy or anything (the program I'll be entering is ranked in the 50s and I'm pleased), but don't discredit your education based on the size/name of your school. I loved my undergrad institution and still have great relationships with a few profs most likely because it's a small state college where the focus is on teaching as opposed to research. While I've gained contacts and networking connections from my MA institution (a larger research university), I'm not leaving with plans to get drinks or have dinner with any of my profs. There's a difference, and it's felt. My UGI helped me gain a level of comfort engaging with professors on a one-on-one basis, smaller classroom size, greater ease when setting up meetings, asking for extra help, etc. I'm coming out of my MA U with a higher level of professionalism, a better understanding of how an academic department works, and an ability to ask more complex and nuanced questions. I've only profited from both degrees, but they've given me different skill sets.

My point was, though, plenty of people are able to get into great grad programs coming from small schools. If your writing sample and SOP are awesome, coupled with solid letters of rec, then it really doesn't matter all that much where you're coming from. And sometimes coming from a smaller school is seen positively - you bring diversity to their program, a different POV from the students they accept out of the big research universities - this is something you could use to your advantage in your SOP.

Obviously, I did do an MA before applying to PhDs, but I'm undecided on the debate that surrounds this issue. I did an MA more for personal reasons, like, the idea of a PhD straight outta undergrad scared the crap out of me AND I tend to be indecisive, so I wanted grad experience before committing to the 5-6 year PhD. But like spritely mentioned, this could be different for comp lit programs...

But yes, do tons of research - I wish I had done more for both MA and PhD apps. Figure out what schools/programs are in line with your interests, send emails/make phone calls, and write/revise a damn good paper to use as your sample. And keep coming to the grad cafe because, seriously, I wish I had known about this place BEFORE I applied... You'll get great support and advice here.

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booksareneat: Chicago was actually an example--in truth I'm pretty obsessive about looking through school websites (though, as you all have suggested, I should probably go the extra mile and *ask* if I have a question [the MA issue]--go figure). The problem is that I don't have a very good consensus of the applicant pool--my competition. I have this feeling (perhaps misguided!) that 'brand name' schools carry more weight on an app. In addition I can't help but assume that I'm behind (which is why I can definitely get behind the advice to study study study) those from stronger programs.

Spritely: You're probably right--I'm considering taking an extra year in undergrad (even though I have my degree in order) just to spend a little more time with professors writing and reading and building a better 'case' for admission. And if English PhD's are better about accepting MA holders...well, I'm definitely not against an English degree!

spartaca: I feel you in the commitment department--I can't say the prospect of signing away five plus years of my life to research (and not changing my mind!) doesn't have me shaking in my boots. And I have to agree with what you said about your undergrad institution. It's definitely not that I'm ungrateful--these are the professors that got me interested in theory and literature in the first place. I'm just worried that I'm at a disadvantage.

I'm pretty sure I'll take the MA route first. If nothing else, I'll feel better prepared (it might just change the lineup of PhD programs I apply to--and worse things could happen!).

Thank you! How did I not know this place existed sooner?

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