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Master's leading to competitive PhD program


histrybuff
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Hi there!

I'm a junior at a small liberal arts college with a 3.8 GPA, 4.0 GPA in History, teaching experience, and research under my belt. I'm in need of a bit of guidance. After browsing the forums here and surveying the various strategies people have employed in applying for PhDs, I feel that my application to top-30 doctoral programs would still not be competitive. I've come to the conclusion that an MA is the right next-step for me for several reasons. Firstly, I've not been able to identify my exact locus of scholarship, and am in need of more coursework to do so. Secondly, I believe my application would benefit from more exposure to historiography, theory, and methodology, which an MA might afford me. Thirdly, I might be more suited to study Philosophy, Literature, or Political Economy, given my interests, but I'd like to make sure before making a commitment to History. It also may be that I'm more suited to teaching at the HS rather than at the college-level. However, I'd like to keep the PhD option open. For these reasons, and others, I'm looking for Master's programs in History or related fields which routinely place graduates in funded top-30 PhD History programs. 

So far, I've identified Chicago's MAPSS (90% placement at first-choice PhD programs, interdisciplinary), Columbia's MA in History and Literature, and Columbia's MA in International & World History as good options. My questions are as follows:

1. Does anyone have experience with these programs and how well they prepare one for life as a PhD candidate? Is it the right decision to pursue an MA before a PhD if I feel I'd benefit by doing so?

 

2. Do these programs successfully place their graduates at top-30 institutions? I've heard that getting a PhD from any school outside of the top-30 pretty much rules out TT possibilities...

 

3. My professors received degrees from some of the institutions I'm interested in attending. Will this help in my application as they can speak to my suitability for the respective programs in their recs?

 

4. What does it take to get into an MA program at a top-30 institution? Is it generally easier to matriculate into a Master's program than a PhD program?

 

5. Would taking a year off and postponing my application to MA and PhD programs until the next cycle (after, of course, having obtained my 3 LoRs while enrolled) make my applications more or less competitive?

 

6. Do you know of any other programs which might suit my interests and goals? I like the idea of a 1 year MA...

 

7. Can anyone speak to how competitive Fulbright, Gates, Rhodes and other international English-speaking fully-funded scholarships for Master's study outside of the US are? What are these programs looking for? Does anyone know of other (less) prestigious but similarly well-respected graduate scholarships which might help me along the road to my PhD in History? I was the recipient of the English Speaking Union post-secondary scholarship after HS and would not be averse to attending school in the UK...

Thanks in advance!

Edited by histrybuff
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Gates and Rhodes are both more competitive than any Ph.D program for which you'd be applying so I don't think you want to do that. Fulbright researchwise is still pretty stiff, but the English teaching Fulbrights are a lil easier to obtain especially if you've some teaching with which to begin.

I'd honestly push for the two-year MA programs (if you're going to go that route) because I think it's difficult to do much of anything concrete in a one-year program; unless you're planning on doing the full year of MA, and applying the year after you're done, you'll be trying to write your MA thesis, pick up languages and applying to PhD programs. That's not going to be a fun time for you.

I'd also seriously push for you to apply to a few PhD programs with your MAs since honestly "competitiveness" is not something that can really be judged based on prior results: at this point our interests are all so specialized that maybe your work and place is v competitive in a way that wouldn't be true for other fields. Further, it'll give you practice in applying to PhD programs: going through the motions, contacting faculty you'd like to work with, assessing the 5-7 year programs you'd be happy at and so on. Yes it'll be a few hundred dollars more, but if you're planning on a mostly non funded MA, it might be beneficial to ensure you can't just start doctoral work.

For that reason (no money) it's much easier to score MA admissions than PhDs, but keep in mind that the MA isn't going to guarantee a spot anywhere. Sure, it'll be another line on your CV, but unless you do something more with that opportunity (which is why I think a two year program would be better) you might as well take a couple years to work in "the real world" while you figure out your commitment to history on your own. I think for the first couple of years, provided you're still working on things related to your interests, your application only gets better. Those are my couple of thoughts.

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Does your college offer an honors thesis or capstone research project option? If it does, you should take it. It would give you practice with a lot of the potential weaknesses in your PhD application you identified in your first paragraph. Even if your takeaway from the thesis/project is that you never want to do history again and instead want to do a different field, or that you might like history but you never want to think about the time period/region/methodology you used in the thesis again, that's still valuable in narrowing down your interests.

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I'd honestly push for the two-year MA programs (if you're going to go that route) because I think it's difficult to do much of anything concrete in a one-year program; unless you're planning on doing the full year of MA, and applying the year after you're done, you'll be trying to write your MA thesis, pick up languages and applying to PhD programs. That's not going to be a fun time for you.

I'd also seriously push for you to apply to a few PhD programs with your MAs since honestly "competitiveness" is not something that can really be judged based on prior results: at this point our interests are all so specialized that maybe your work and place is v competitive in a way that wouldn't be true for other fields. Further, it'll give you practice in applying to PhD programs: going through the motions, contacting faculty you'd like to work with, assessing the 5-7 year programs you'd be happy at and so on. Yes it'll be a few hundred dollars more, but if you're planning on a mostly non funded MA, it might be beneficial to ensure you can't just start doctoral work.

 

 

I think this is very good advice.  Might as well throw in a few dream school apps.  I would suggest applying to an MA at your local flagship (If you are in a place where your flagship is a top 20 with no terminal MA, say UNC then you go for an MA at NC state).  Get in state tuitiont.  Any faculty at an R1 even a lower ranked R1 will be able to guide you the way you need.  Those Columbia MA are going to bankrupt you (IMO) for a career that will never pay off for at least 50-100k in debt.  It's definitely not so much better than a masters from a solid public research university where you at most pay in state tuitiion.  I turned down a fellowship for an MA at my homestate flagship, so you can get fellowships for an MA at these place too.

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It's great that you're thinking about all of these possibilities right now! However, from your diverse interests, I think your senior year will really help you winnow down this list and figure out which degree you'd like to pursue.

 

Additionally, you might want to consider joint MA/PhD programs when applying. (If you successfully complete the first year you will receive the MA in history and then move onto the PhD track.) The most important advice I was given when applying (and something other gradcafe users mention frequently) is to only go where there is funding--even for an MA! There are some obscure scholarships out there as well so searching now like you're already doing will really help. 

 

Good luck!  :)

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For what it's worth, I went to a low ranked, maybe even unranked MA program and got into a few top-30 PhD programs. It's what you do while in the MA that really helps your application. I took every opportunity to do research, bolstered my CV with teaching experience and built strong relationships with my professors.

I took a year off between my BA and MA and think it was the best thing ever. I worked multiple jobs and spent time thinking about my future. I also got some teaching experience and brushed up on my languages (I grew up speaking portuguese but get rusty if I don't speak it often).

I highly recommend a 2-year MA. I started my 2-year program part time so ended up taking 3, but I don't regret it because I did so much research and writing, was exposed to tons of historiography and lots of opportunities for fellowships, lectures and teaching that I'm sure helped my application this season. A 1-year MA is not going to be enough time in my opinion. It took me a year to get through the historiography and core colloquia before I even could start on my big research projects.

The one thing I do recommend for you is a funded MA. Don't do an unfunded MA. I did, and while I love my program, professors, cohort and know they are the reason I got into so many places this cycle, I'm in more debt than I should be. It's worth it to me because I know I want the PhD and that's not on a whim, but I wouldn't recommend anyone take that path.

Do you have languages? That's something you should also think about before you head to PhD applications. An MA is a good place to start gaining proficiency for sure.

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2. Do these programs successfully place their graduates at top-30 institutions? I've heard that getting a PhD from any school outside of the top-30 pretty much rules out TT possibilities...

 

 

 

This is not true.  Is it an uphill battle? Yes.  But we are even a little out of the top 50 and we place people (not everyone).  You have to make up a lot of ground on your CV through fellowships, articles, etc.  I have a friend from LSU who without having completed his PhD when he applied (he just defended), and got a bunch of aha interviews and a campus visit this year.  He has written six peer reviewed articles, so his cv is crazy, but you can do it.  Also major fellowships, outside readers, and good networking skills can help you overcome your school name.  Point being, you have to work your ass off, but I know my cv, and I know what friends at top tier schools have, and I am pretty confident I will get a job and am competitive.

 

As an outsider who has spent a lot of time around Ivy leagues (mostly Penn, I lived in Philly for six months last year), one of the biggest advantages you don't think about is the revolving door of stars that give talks, workshops, etc. at that school, but you can take advantage of that stuff.  I moved there just on my stipend when I went ABD and later got grants, I am going back for all of May.  Go move to one of those cities and go to their events.  When you are travelling to do research for your diss., knock on doors (not literally), send an e-mail to faculty at those places asking to buy them a cup of coffee and pick their brain, go to events, talk to people, make friends.  Ask faculty at other schools for advice.  When I am in Philly, I go to all the Penn events.  I got paid to talk at Penn this year based on the strength of networking and showing that I went to the archive every day for months.  Nobody expected the worst of me because of my school, I was at least taken as neutral, and thus able to make my own reputation. 

 

Put in your hours at conferences, the archive, writing, and you can do it from a lower ranked school, but you have to make the opportunities.  We have maybe four or five important talks in U.S. history at Tulane a year. There are that many at Penn or Princeton a month, so if you go to a lower ranked place you have to pound the pavement, and market yourself, the big names won't come to you, you have to go to them.  I am not saying people don't have to work hard and network at Ivy Leagues too. Since going and becoming a part of that community, and having some really good friends, I got over whatever Ivy League resentment I had.

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 I'm in need of a bit of guidance. 

 

IMO, more than anything else, you need to define your fields/areas/intervals of interest. It doesn't have to be as refined as, say, American naval policy during Eisenhower's second administration, but you should be able to say at least American twentieth century history.

 

You also need to figure out if you are committed or dedicated to the craft of history before you apply to graduate school. (When one sits down to a breakfast of bacon and eggs, the pig is committed while the chicken is dedicated.)

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