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Decent Paid PhD vs. Awesome Unpaid Masters ? ? ?


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I got accepted to a full paid PhD program in Psychology at Ohio University.  Living expenses paid and all.  I just heard from NYU that I was accepted to their masters program in psych.  But that program is not at all subsidized.  So I have to decide between a mediocre, but fully paid PhD (which may not offer me great job prospects) or a great MA program that would cost $110,000 from two years of living expenses and tuition (after which I would be very competitive for prestigious PhD programs and eventually very attractive in the job market)     

 

It's so much debt.  But NYU so much better.  

 

OU is ranked 101 in psychology and 120something overall

NYU is 30 in psych and something like 33 overall

 

What do you think?  

 

Would love to hear your thoughts

 

 

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Your end goal is a PhD program anyway, so I think I would advise against going into so much debt to complete a masters unless money doesn't matter to you (and it sounds like it does). What do you want to do with your PhD? If you're like to go into teaching and you're really worried about the prestige of the institution at which you'll be doing your PhD, you might want to consider taking a year off and reapplying. That being said, it's certainly a huge gamble and there's no guarantee you'd be in a better position a year from now. You're in a hard spot, but I don't think the MA will be worth doing unless it's your terminal degree.

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What is your career goal? I don't think $100k+ debt is a good idea, but whether or not even accepting the OSU offer is better than reapplying next year depends on what you want to do.

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My goal is to teach with a tenure track position and do my own research. The prestige of NYU would help a lot I think.

And mathcat, it isn't OSU. If it were, there wouldn't be an issue at all. It's OU. Two different schools.

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Sorry for the mix up. I don't think $100k+ of debt is a good idea when the job prospects are so risky. But, I think going to OU will not get you the career you want. If it were me, I would probably take a year off, improve my application, and apply again next year. If you do want to do a Masters, I would consider looking at Canadian schools where you might be able to get funded.

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$100K+ in debt would scare me, especially knowing that interest would be accruing for another 5-7 years while I did a PhD program before I even had a shot of getting a job that would enable me to pay off some of that debt.

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Oh, man...

You have to ask yourself exactly why the NYU master's would be awesome/helpful.  Is it the research experience?  Exposure to profs at the top of their game?  If so, I would look for research assistant jobs (or the equivalent in your field) at top psych programs or hospitals.  Get paid while getting the publications and hobknobbing.  While this might require two years outside of academia, six-figure debt is no joke. 

 

Your story has some overlap with my own.  I had always planned on getting two grad degrees.  During my last round of apps, I applied exclusively to terminal MS programs at R1s b/c I wanted more chemistry and top facilities sans the 5-7 year PhD.  I got/am getting this degree b/c I wanted it...not because it was a strategic professional/financial move (my second degree will be for that).  

All science MSs at PhD-granting institutions are unfunded .  In spite of that, I decided that I had to have the resources of an R1.  So, I saved ~65K by attending a state school instead of a private one.  Most people would even advise against what I did.  While I'm very happy with my decision, I would NEVER suggest swallowing 100K for an academic master's degree (in the social sciences, no less)!  Even with my 23K tuition debt, I'm mindful of interest as well as the price and duration of my next degree.  100K debt is unconscionable, especially when you plan on tacking on a second degree.  Don't do it!     

 

*I also wanted to add that with additional pubs from a research job, you may do even better than #30 when you apply next time.

Edited by Chai_latte
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I don't think either option is good. The debt for the masters is huge and will be a great burden and the PhD is unlikely to lead to a tenure track job.

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I got accepted to a full paid PhD program in Psychology at Ohio University.  Living expenses paid and all.  I just heard from NYU that I was accepted to their masters program in psych.  But that program is not at all subsidized.  So I have to decide between a mediocre, but fully paid PhD (which may not offer me great job prospects) or a great MA program that would cost $110,000 from two years of living expenses and tuition (after which I would be very competitive for prestigious PhD programs and eventually very attractive in the job market)     

 

It's so much debt.  But NYU so much better.  

 

OU is ranked 101 in psychology and 120something overall

NYU is 30 in psych and something like 33 overall

 

What do you think?  

 

Would love to hear your thoughts

 

Education debt pretty much follows you to the grave so, if I were in your position, I would ask myself what I would really gain from doing the NYU program and how it would help my career. If you're really unhappy about doing the PHD at OSU, consider working on your app and reapplying in a year.

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I am in a very similar position. Except the PhD offer I got is not at all well funded. In my case, I would go into debt either way. The Master's program I was accepted into is from Columbia and I did get a scholarship but it would also be around $100k worth of debt. Seems like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

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Thanks to everyone for the input.  I really appreciate it.  

 

SeanDustin.  Let's meet up and cry over some alcohol lol.  

 

I have never wavered back and forth so much as I have with this decision. I've been over it a hundred times and every time I talk to a different person, I am left learning in a different direction than before. I'm really conflicted.  NYU could give me a second chance to get into my dream PhD program.  My mother told me I could live with her in Jersey and train in every day.  Actually It might be worth it to pay an extra 30k in living expenses each year lol.

 

It's a gamble, because who knows what the PhD application field is going to look like in two years.  What if I go through all of this and I can't get into a better program than OU anyway.  I'm back to square one but with lots of debt and two years wasted.  Then again, the debt is certainly scary but imagine the possibility of making 50k more than I would with a degree from Ohio.  It would really easy to use that salary increase to pay off the debt with little interest.  Could get it done in as little as 10 years.

 

I think I should worry less about the money and more about what educational opportunity is best for me.  There are definitely ways to reduce the debt and make this work.  Living at home (if absolutely necessary, part time job to help with costs, loans that don't accrue interest while in school, TA and GA opportunities if available).  I still really don't know what I'm going to do.  

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A TA or GA would be great if you could get one as those can come with a tuition waiver. You could ask Columbia about what sort of financial assistance is available, probably with the graduate school directly or the financial aid office before the department office. I'd check carefully into loans as I believe only subsidized loans don't accrue interest when in school and I also believe that subsidized loans are not available once you have a bachelors. But, I could be wrong about that.

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I agree with you 100% every time I talk to someone I lean one way or another. For me, it's weird because I got into Columbia without interviewing and it seems that a lot of people got into the master's program. Did you interview at NYU? 

 

Other than the ranking for Ohio, is the program a good fit? Is your adviser well connected? 

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Yea, I didn't interview either.  I applied for their PhD program and got accepted to their MA.  I have a phone call scheduled to talk to the graduate director tomorrow so I can get some information.  Ohio is a good fit and my adviser does have some good connections, but NYU would be a much better fit.

 

We'll see what happens after I speak with the director tomorrow 

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DO NOT go into debt that much for a MS. I went to my local cheap state school for my MS and did terrific this season during PhD apps. PhD programs will not care at all where you did your MS. They will only care what sort of work you did there. If you really want to get an MS then go to an in state public school. Working as a research tech for a couple years would be just as effective though. Do not make a bad decision that will effect you for the rest of your life, just so that you can attend a name brand school in the fall.

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If you are set on the Master's, I'd ask the program directly where and how students with scholarships get funded, for ideas of where you can apply for $. Some people must have funding, so I assume maybe there are some opportunities you can try for, at least in the second year...and I think NYU matches aid you pull in, if I understand it correctly.

 

You can also try reaching out to academic departments that have high undergrad enrollment but few PhD students -- they sometimes need to expand their teaching workforce and so offer TAships to master's students. But this is not an opportunity available everywhere, not sure how common it is at NYU.

 

If you think you could stay at NYU for the PhD and it's aligned with the master's, you could also try reapplying to the PhD this year (after starting the master's). In engineering disciplines at least, it's common for the first 2 years of PhD to overlap pretty heavily with the Master's coursework (+quals of course), and if the professors are the same solid letters of rec from them could really give you a strong application.

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Thanks to everyone for the input.  I really appreciate it.  

 

SeanDustin.  Let's meet up and cry over some alcohol lol.  

 

I have never wavered back and forth so much as I have with this decision. I've been over it a hundred times and every time I talk to a different person, I am left learning in a different direction than before. I'm really conflicted.  NYU could give me a second chance to get into my dream PhD program.  My mother told me I could live with her in Jersey and train in every day.  Actually It might be worth it to pay an extra 30k in living expenses each year lol.

 

It's a gamble, because who knows what the PhD application field is going to look like in two years.  What if I go through all of this and I can't get into a better program than OU anyway.  I'm back to square one but with lots of debt and two years wasted.  Then again, the debt is certainly scary but imagine the possibility of making 50k more than I would with a degree from Ohio.  It would really easy to use that salary increase to pay off the debt with little interest.  Could get it done in as little as 10 years.

 

I think I should worry less about the money and more about what educational opportunity is best for me.  There are definitely ways to reduce the debt and make this work.  Living at home (if absolutely necessary, part time job to help with costs, loans that don't accrue interest while in school, TA and GA opportunities if available).  I still really don't know what I'm going to do.  

 

I definitely understand your excitement at pursuing that goal but you really have to sit down and do some hard number calculations. I find it a huge gamble to pursue the NYU MA route (leading to a PHD program) in hopes that you will do better than starting the Ohio PHD now. There are a lot of moving parts in this equation and any of them going in a direction you do not expect could screw you royally down the line. Your line of thinking is contingent on three crucial facts: (1) you will fit in really well with the NYU program and do some excellent research there and (2) your application will improve enough that you get into a top 10 research program, and (3) there exists a job market after the PHD that will allow you to pay back your loan. Without knowing more about your situation, I can't say how successful you might be in taking this risky route. However, I can say that doing good work in a research lab (at a solid middle rank program like Ohio) and doing the necessary networking will not preclude you from getting a good job after you graduate. Let us know what you decide.

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Shouldn't your research background be a lot more important than prestige when getting an academic job? It is a profession after all. Ohio may not be amazing, but it is decent. I attended a lot of presentations by faculty applicants back in my undergraduate and no one ever seemed to care what school they came from. We had a UPenn guy come in vs. someone from Lehigh (a regional school). All the students in attendance voted from the Lehigh candidate because he had amazing research, knowledgeable, personable and just fantastic presentation. The UPenn guy just did not seem to fit the profile of someone who can teach.

 

I don't think 100K+ debt is worth it for a Master while living in NYC (average 15-18K annual expense if you are lucky, I live there).

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Keep us updated. I am interested to see which way you go. I am also speaking with a few people from the MA program. I have heard that when trying to get into academia that your adviser matters but the name of the school does too. If you look at all of the professors, 99% of them come from prestigious schools. Even if people say that it doesn't matter, it does. Unless your adviser at Ohio is that well connected to compensate. I would see where his students are now that will give you a clue. 

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My partner finished the NYU general psych Masters program with research experience, really strong letters, high grades, excellent GRE scores, a publication, and a poster presentation. He was shut out this year. There's enough randomness in PhD admissions that even if you go to NYU and take on all that debt, you might not get in anywhere. And then you'll have a lot of debt. 

If I were you, I would wait another year and reapply. Second choice would be to attend OU and plan to transfer out (although there's something somewhat ingenuous about starting a program that you already know you want to leave). 

 

 

 

I'm not 100% understanding why people are so afraid of six figure loans when PAYE and IBR are options. 

PAYE and IBR only apply to federal loans, so they're not always options for every loan. Having to repay 6 figure debt (even on reduced payment plans or with loan forgiveness after a certain time) can still substantially impact your financial future. It's harder to get more credit if you already have a lot of debt. I don't think it's unreasonable to avoid taking on large amounts of debt, even in light of IBR. 

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PAYE and IBR only apply to federal loans, so they're not always options for every loan. Having to repay 6 figure debt (even on reduced payment plans or with loan forgiveness after a certain time) can still substantially impact your financial future. It's harder to get more credit if you already have a lot of debt. I don't think it's unreasonable to avoid taking on large amounts of debt, even in light of IBR. 

 

Agreed. If this were a prestigious professional degree leading to licensure and you don't have much intention of teaching at a doctoral level, 6 figure debt might be worth it. But just getting an MA as a stepping stone should not put you in so much debt.

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I'm not 100% understanding why people are so afraid of six figure loans when PAYE and IBR are options. 

1. On just a personal impact level, the loans are figured on the basis of your salary AND the amount that you owe, and you are paying them for a LONG time. For example, let's say that you borrow $110,000 at 6.8% interest. Now let's say that you put those loan payments on PAYE, and let's say that you start off making $65,000 as a single assistant professor with no dependents. Your monthly payments are $396 a month to start out with - and nearly $400 a month is a lot of money when you only make $65,000 (which is slightly more than the average salary of an assistant professor), especially after taxes, retirement savings and health insurance.

But let's say that two years later you get married. Let's say that your spouse has no loans (whew!) but let's say that he makes $60,000. Now your total family income is $125,000 and your monthly loan payments go up to $845 a month at the low end, and are expected to increase to $1266 at the high end as your salary goes up (remember that student loan payments under IBR and PAYE increase with your income).

2. You have to pay taxes on the forigven amount. Let's say that you do borrow $110K, you start out making $65,000 a year, and your repayment period follows the projected amounts that the federal government projects (starting at $396 a month and increasing to $1,148 a month over a period of 20 years). The forgiven amount will be just under $85,000, which means that you might be hit with a tax bill of $30-40K right after you finish paying off your loans! (which will necessitate payment plan with the IRS, which means more payments...)

3. You could be investing that money somewhere else. In the above repayment scheme, you are repaying a total of $171,725, including $146,443 in interest. If you stashed that $360/month into a investment account with a 7% rate of return over 20 years - not even increasing the amount gradually, like you would with PAYE - you'd have nearly $200,000 in 20 years. That's your kid's college education. Maybe multiple. Or a new house! Or a bunch of vacations. Even hiding it under the mattress you still have $86,400 after 20 years. Even if you don't invest it, that extra $400 to $1200 over the life of the loan could mean a better house in a better location, or private school for your kids if you want it, or a better car...or whatever.

4. On a less personal, but more large-scale frame, think about the impact on our economy if thousands of people borrow money that they cannot repay. You're borrowing money from the government; if you borrow more than you can reasonably repay in 20 years, the rest is "forgiven." What "forgiven" really means is that the government takes the loss on it - so they're taking the loss on $85,000 in this case. 21 million college students enrolled in Fall 2014; let's say that 70% of them borrowed federal student loans (14.7 million) and let's say that each year 1% of those people (147,000) borrowed more than they could repay and got an average of $40,000 forgiven. That's $5,880,000,000 ($5.8 billion)! To put that in perspective, that's more than the annual budget of the WIC program. These programs are new, so we haven't seen the full impact of them yet, but what do you think is going to be the large-scale, long-term impact of many individuals borrowing more than they can repay? How long will this program last if people don't borrow responsibly and it becomes too expensive to support?

 

The PAYE and IBR programs were meant as relief for lower-income borrowers who fell on hard times and/or were negatively affected by the recession; it wasn't meant for people to deliberately borrow more than they know they can afford to repay.

 

With that said, sometimes there's a need to borrow a lot of money - some kinds of programs simply cost a lot and can't be afforded any other way, like professional master's degrees, MDs, JDs, etc. But that's not the case here.

 

IMO, the NYU MA shouldn't really be an option. Psychology MA degrees don't really have outsized importance in helping you get into graduate school. Or rather, it's not the MA itself; it's the kind of experience that you get in the MA program - working with researchers, getting experience, writing papers. You could do that by working as a lab manager or research assistant/associate for the next 2 years (which many people do, and then get into competitive PhD programs later). If you worked for a university you could even take a few graduate-level classes as part of your benefits. Even if you decide that an MA program is the best way for you to prepare for the PhD, you don't have to go to NYU or a similarly priced school. You can go to your local public flagship. If you are going to commute into the city from your mom's in NJ, you could go to one of the CUNYs - City College, Hunter College, Brooklyn College (tuition is about $11,000 a year for nonresident students).

 

So to me, the decision is whether or not to go to Ohio University, and that depends on your ultimate career goals. You say that you want to be a professor and do your own research. Doing your own research, to me, implies that you want to be at an RU/VH, RU/H, or DRU school. The question is whether Ohio U is going to get you there?

Something that might be telling is looking at where the faculty at Ohio University (which, by your own admission, is a lower-ranked program) got their own PhDs. Perusing the faculty list, I see UNC-Chapel Hill (x2), Miami (of Ohio), Michigan (x2) Minnesota, Case Western, McGill, UC-Berkeley, Kent State, Penn State, University of South Carolina, UMiami, UVa, Indiana (x2), UGA, Vanderbilt, USUHS, Michigan State (x3), Purdue, UF, UT-Knoxville, Iowa, Temple, UBuffalo, and UC-Irvine.  With few exceptions, those are top 50 psychology programs, and most of them are top 30. The exceptions are Miami U, USUHS, Case Western, UB, UGA, Kent State, South Carolina, and UT-Knoxville. That's 7 faculty out of 29, which is about 27%. So nearly three-quarters of the faculty at this 100-ish ranked psychology program went to a top 50ish program to get their PhD. (And even those 7 program are mostly ranked higher than Ohio's program.)

 

You can do this with pretty much any program. Take a look at the professors of the top 30ish programs in psychology and you'll see that they probably primarily got their PhDs from other top 20ish programs. Look at programs in the top 50ish and those professors probably got their PhDs from the top 30ish.

 

Generally, academia is a prestige-focused field - where you went and who you worked with matters in getting postdocs and in getting jobs. The general rule of thumb is that it's quite difficult to get hired someplace more prestigious than your own PhD program. There of course is always the occasional person who is able to get hired "up," so to speak - there's a guy in my old department at Columbia who got his PhD at a program not even in the top 100. But the odds are stacked against you, and you have to be really outstanding to be considered alongside the mediocre and middling students whose PhDs are from top 20 programs. (For the record, I'm not saying that I agree with this, just that this is the way I've observed it is and that trusted mentors have advised me, too.)

 

Why not ask? I'd contact your POI at Ohio U and ask them what the placement rate is like for former students and what kinds of institutions they end up at. The website says that the vast majority of graduates take "positions in academic settings, ranging from universities to two-year colleges, and in research settings, both public and industrial." I would ask for more elaboration.

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Juilletmercredi is giving solid advice. There is one area where I have heard a different scenario. The people I have met who had degrees from prestigious Master's programs were accepted into several top ranked PhD programs. These students said that they believed getting the masters from a prestigious program is what got them in. Like she said "where you went and who you worked with matters in getting postdocts and in getting jobs". I would say the same applies for getting into a PhD program, it might not be the sole factor into getting into a great program but it is certainly a noticeable factor. 

 

Another thing to consider is after you finish your MA and move onto PhD, you will have to land at a program that is very well funded so that you don't accrue any additional debt while doing your PhD. Of course, the idea is that you would have an excellent chance of landing that spot coming from a prestigious MA program. 

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