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High ranked masters vs. lower ranked PhD- What would you do?


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Hey everyone,

 

I have a scenario that I was just positing and I am wondering what other's thoughts are on it. Say you got accepted to two programs, one a highly ranked masters, such as say Columbia or NYU, that would cost you tens of thousands of dollars, and one a lower ranked PhD, say New School, CUNY, or Stony Brook, with full funding as to allow you to live semi-not-uncomfortably. If given the choice, what is the best option (presuming one's goal is to become a tenured professor one day): (1) to say no to both programs, try to improve GREs and research experience, and try again next cycle; (2) accept the masters, take loans, and hope it improves your admissions chances for the next cycle; (3) accept the PhD and hope that when you finish you can find a job you don't hate in a very difficult academic job market.

 

Although I will not be applying until next cycle, I intend to apply to a range of schools in terms of ranking from Princeton to maybe CUNY. I am just curious as to what I should do if my cycle were to go that way, and it might as I have good, not great, stats, and judging by what I've seen on this forum thus far, you really never do know what will happen with PhD admissions.

 

Thanks!

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I was sort of facing a similar decision -- not exactly the same, but close -- and I eventually settled on option 2 because:

 

 a.) option 1 is really difficult. What are you going to do to improve your application besides the GREs? GREs are a realtively small piece of the application. You can try to make your SOP and letters better, but they are ultimately pretty subjective and you won't be able to quantitatively measure whether that has made your application any better. Your GPA isn't going to change between now and then so the only concretely measurable difference will be your GRE scores which, alone, probably won't be enough to swing you from second tier applicant to first tier applicant. IMHO, the best way to improve an application is to add more experience.

 

b.) option 3 is tempting. You get to start your PhD now and you get to be comfortable for a while without worrying that you're going to have to pay all this back later. But you can't take option 3 as an isolated situation. You have to compare it to the alternative which is option 2.

 

 c.) comparison. what matters most here is how strong of a resume you will need when you come out. Obviously, the stronger the better, so the "safe" option is option 2 (go to prestigious MA with the understanding that it will significantly improve your chances of prestigious PhD). If your field is small and oversaturated (like mine), you put a lot at risk by going to an average or mediocre program. On the plus side, minimal loans to pay back, on the other hand, your job prospects will be limited. You also have to investigate what your expected salary would be once you graduated. In my field I can expect between 70K and 115K as a tenured professor. For me, that is worth the exhorbitant cost of an NYU MA, especially if it gets me into the NYU, Columbia, Northwestern or UCSD PhD, since those schools will undoubtedly correspond with at least a small bump in prospects/salary.

 

This is how I looked at the decision. Hope it helps.

 

 

TLDR: Think about risk v. reward and return on investment. Try to look at least 10 years down the road for each option. Imagine best & worst case scenario.

 

 

[ETA:] Alternative way to beef up app: publishing or presenting. difficult outside of academia, but if you think you can then option 1 might be worth reconsidering.

Edited by roguesenna
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^ Agreed. If your goal is to enter academia, don't go into debt. Foolish move.

 

Actually, I would argue unless you are in a program like law or a medical doctor or engineering or something like that, incurring debt from school is extremely risky and not worthwhile.

 

I am of the opinion that a MA is pretty useless no matter which way you slice it. I can see the value of professional masters when you have some experience, but with no experience and a BA and a MA, where exactly does that get you? Nowhere that no experience + BA will really.

 

It depends on how much you think you can improve your application without doing the MA. Are your GRE scores poor? Do you think your SOP and writing sample was poor compared to others? If you feel like you can substantially improve those three things without doing more schooling then I would choose that option.

 

It also depends on just how much the MA is going to hit you. Do you have savings? Can you get external funding? Do you have the ability to get a high paying job over the summer? If your looking at more than 15-20K of debt I would throw that option out the window right away. But that's just me.

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Hey everyone,

 

I have a scenario that I was just positing and I am wondering what other's thoughts are on it. Say you got accepted to two programs, one a highly ranked masters, such as say Columbia or NYU, that would cost you tens of thousands of dollars, and one a lower ranked PhD, say New School, CUNY, or Stony Brook, with full funding as to allow you to live semi-not-uncomfortably. If given the choice, what is the best option (presuming one's goal is to become a tenured professor one day): (1) to say no to both programs, try to improve GREs and research experience, and try again next cycle; (2) accept the masters, take loans, and hope it improves your admissions chances for the next cycle; (3) accept the PhD and hope that when you finish you can find a job you don't hate in a very difficult academic job market.

 

Although I will not be applying until next cycle, I intend to apply to a range of schools in terms of ranking from Princeton to maybe CUNY. I am just curious as to what I should do if my cycle were to go that way, and it might as I have good, not great, stats, and judging by what I've seen on this forum thus far, you really never do know what will happen with PhD admissions.

 

Thanks!

 

 

Stony Brook is a great program. I would go there and I would be ecstatic about it.

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Secret option (4): go to the lower-ranked PhD program, get a master's degree from there, and apply for a new program after you've finished. Fundamentally, I agree with BigTen and HC to an extent: you should never pay to go to grad school if you can avoid it. But I do think that getting an MA can help send a signal about your ability to handle graduate-level work, and I'm almost certain that getting an MA from Columbia or NYU is not worth the money it costs compared to an MA from another, lower-ranked institution. And if you decide you like it where you go / don't think you have a great shot at moving up to a significantly better program, then you can just stick on there.

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But I do think that getting an MA can help send a signal about your ability to handle graduate-level work.

 

I do agree with this.

 

Having an MA with a 4.0 and methods classes, good letters, and possibly a published paper will significantly strengthen your application.

 

But the question becomes at what costs does it take to get that.

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Wow guys, thanks for some great responses. Yeah, I know Stony Brook is a great program, but depending on which field you go there for I assume that it can be either great or very mediocre (although that's true of a lot of programs I guess). UVaSpades, that's interesting, do you think people really do that? Also, do you guys think that doing a lot of research/getting publications in above average or really good journals can make up for going to a lower ranked PhD program? In other words, can working really hard improve your job prospects even if you don't go to a great program?

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Sure, I've known people who have gone down that route. The major risk that comes with it is the choice to transfer after the MA, in that if you don't get in anywhere else you're kinda screwed since your letter writers at the lower-ranked PhD program know that you tried to leave (i.e. you don't want to be there). Is that worse than getting an expensive MA and subsequently not getting into a really good PhD program? I personally don't think so, but you might want to ask your current advisor or letter writers what they think.

 

In terms of whether it can improve job prospects, as HC noted above the MA can be very helpful in the application process since it sends a certain kind of signal that a BA or BS simply doesn't. I feel that the application process is incredibly noisy, that it's difficult to indicate how good of a graduate student you will be. But if you do an MA, you show that you were able to take graduate-level courses, write an MA thesis, maybe get something published, whatever it may be, no matter what the pedigree of that MA is. So, yes, I think that it can help even if it's not a great program since it still acts as a costly and valuable signal of what kind of graduate student you can/will be.

 

I should also note that I've heard that the NYU MA is not ideal for going on to a PhD program. I don't have personal knowledge of this, but here's a link to a post by Penelope Higgins on her views: 

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Wow guys, thanks for some great responses. Yeah, I know Stony Brook is a great program, but depending on which field you go there for I assume that it can be either great or very mediocre (although that's true of a lot of programs I guess). UVaSpades, that's interesting, do you think people really do that? Also, do you guys think that doing a lot of research/getting publications in above average or really good journals can make up for going to a lower ranked PhD program? In other words, can working really hard improve your job prospects even if you don't go to a great program?

 

The problem is that there is nothing preventing people from better programs in doing the same thing. In fact, people in good programs have comparative advantages of publishing good articles because the quality of other graduate students in their cohort will be greater (ie, better pool of people to co-author with), and also they will be working with profs who are doing a lot of research and might have better connections. 

 

Getting placed at lower ranked universities is like being in a footrace with lead boots.

 

You may succeed, but your chances are slimmer in an already ridiculously convoluted pool of applicants.

 

It also depends just how 'picky' you are. Getting placed in a LAC isn't the end of the world, but some people think it is.  

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I've heard this discussed too HC about the stigma against being placed at an LAC. I get that the teaching load is greater and producing research is harder, but don't some people want to prioritize teaching over research maybe? Also, I've noticed that while top LACs still have assistant professors from places like UChicago, they also have many from much lower ranked schools. Is getting a job at a pretty good LAC easier than getting a job at say a mid-ranked R1? If someone's goal is to get a tenure track job at an LAC, would getting a PhD at a lower ranked school, one that perhaps gets them teaching experience (as many lower ranked PhD programs seem to from my limited knowledge), not be as big a deal?

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On average, LAC positions are less desirable. Considering that the vast majority of Ph.D. students are interested in research, positions that place more emphasis on teaching are in less demand than more research based positions, such as TT positions at research universities.

 

Whether it is 'easier' to get an LAC position is hard to quantify. Some people from even the highest ranked universities place in LACs. For example, last year two Harvard Ph.D. students placed in LACs. That being said, not all LACs are equal of course. Colleges like Swathmore, Amherst, Williams, ect. can provide a pretty nice standard of living for their professors, especially the fact that you live a much less demanding and stressful life compared to someone in an R1.

 

I have never really understood the whole pretentiousness of Ph.D. students, like somehow if you can't nail an R1 TT job you are a failure. Sometimes, some people fit in more in a less demanding environment, and some people really just like teaching. On the flip side, Ph.D. programs open up a lot of possibilities in the private and public sectors as research trained people are always in demand. For example, getting hired as a high-level policy analyst for the government would be a fantastic job and is only really possible by attaining a Ph.D. in some discipline within the social sciences. 

 

Ph.D. programs may be more geared towards training people for academia. But the world has changed, research skills are highly regarded in the marketplace and there just isn't enough TT positions to go around.

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The cost of attendance is indeed a big issue. Yet only with respect to your chance of getting into a better Ph.D. program, I'll say that a good MA program (e.g. Columbia's, NYU's, Duke's, UVa's, etc.) indeed helps, but it depends much on how well you perform once you are in. I am currently an MA student and obviously not the best in my program, but you can see what I have got in my signature. PM me if you like. 

 

Don't quite recommend the fourth suggestion if you want to stay in academia, esp. given the fact that you can hardly get positive letters of recommendation from the program you firstly commit to and then desert. 

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