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Master's dilemma: funding with low prestige vs. loan for higher prestige?


IncomingPhD2017
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Hello everyone. I find myself in what appears to be one of the quintessential dilemmas of this entire process: do I pursue the master's program with lower prestige where I've been offered a graduate assistantship, or the master's program with higher prestige where I'll have to take out loans? Let me give some details as well as my goals in all of this...

 

I've been accepted at UNC Greensboro with a graduate assistantship. It will pay pretty well, and there is a chance for tuition reimbursement 1st year (since I'm out of state) and full tuition waiver 2nd year (after I establish residency.) While their program is appealing to me and there are several POIs, it seems to me to be a lower prestige school.

 

I've also been accepted at the University of Leeds and I await decisions from other UK schools such as Warwick, York, LSE, and Edinburgh. However, scholarships are not guaranteed in these schools so it is very likely that I'd have to take out a substantial loan. These schools seem to be of higher prestige than UNCG.

 

I intend on pursuing a PhD in a top tier school (as you can see from my rejections this application season), mainly because of the increased job prospects that come after earning a PhD at the higher prestige schools. So, in my decision between UNCG or another school in the UK, I'm wondering how much UNCG might hurt my chances at getting into these top tier PhD programs; is it worth it to take out a loan for the master's degree so that I am better set up for a prestigious PhD program? Or is it so difficult to get into the top PhD programs that it actually makes little difference where I obtain my master's degree, and therefore I should take the funding at UNCG?

 

In the end, I want to teach sociology at a university as well as write, both in academia and for the general populace. These are my main goals (at this point.)

 

There are other, smaller factors as well; I'm married, and it'd be easier for my wife to find work in the U.S. rather than the UK; the UK master's programs are only 9 months long, so there'd be an awkward year where I wouldn't be in school and I'd be waiting to hear back from PhD programs, whereas UNCG is 2 years, so the timing fits much better with PhD applications.

 

Thanks for any and all thoughts about this, feel free to PM me. If there are posts that have addressed similar things in the past, please link them.

 

Cheers.

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This may step on some toes, but it has never been clear to me why people that know they want to attend a phd program earn a terminal masters. I am at a top program and about half of our students never earned a masters.

 

Instead of attending a masters that requires relocating your family and either taking out loans or attending a less prestigious program, I'd think about how you could spend the next year strengthening your application. If you were waitlisted at Penn, your application is already competitive. If you took a year to improve your application (whether that means improving your GRE scores, maybe presenting a paper at a conference, developing a better writing sample/application essay) you might be accepted into one of your ideal programs next year. That would save you a lot of time and money.

 

I know that its easier to do something related to academia - I was in a similar situation but chose to get a "real" job and strengthen my application in my spare time. It paid off and now I am glad I didn't get a terminal masters.

 

Put another way, unless you think one of these terminal masters will make you a much better researcher (which in turn will make you more competitive in the future) I wouldn't go to either.

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This may step on some toes, but it has never been clear to me why people that know they want to attend a phd program earn a terminal masters. I am at a top program and about half of our students never earned a masters.

 

Instead of attending a masters that requires relocating your family and either taking out loans or attending a less prestigious program, I'd think about how you could spend the next year strengthening your application. If you were waitlisted at Penn, your application is already competitive. If you took a year to improve your application (whether that means improving your GRE scores, maybe presenting a paper at a conference, developing a better writing sample/application essay) you might be accepted into one of your ideal programs next year. That would save you a lot of time and money.

 

I know that its easier to do something related to academia - I was in a similar situation but chose to get a "real" job and strengthen my application in my spare time. It paid off and now I am glad I didn't get a terminal masters.

 

Put another way, unless you think one of these terminal masters will make you a much better researcher (which in turn will make you more competitive in the future) I wouldn't go to either.

 

Thanks for the response. The reason I've chosen to pursue a terminal master's is precisely what you wrote in your last statement: it offers me the chance to improve the areas that are weak in my application.

 

1. My major during undergrad was not sociology; I only have a minor in it. Because of this, I have taken 0 stats or research classes. I feel that I need the master's degree to improve my skill set and gain research experience.

2. Two out of three of my LoRs are from my major (Biblical and Religious Studies), the last was a sociology prof. So I need the master's degree to get better, more relevant LoRs.

3. I cannot improve my writing sample, as I'm using an article that I managed to get published in the year after undergrad. My GRE scores are also fine (166 verbal, 158 quant, 5.5 writing).

 

So yes, I tried to attend a top program straight from undergrad, and I hoped that my publication would carry me through; unfortunately I was rejected from most places and waitlisted at UPenn (which is still my top choice, though of course there's a slim chance I'll be accepted off the waitlist.) So I think the only way I can be a more competitive applicant is by getting the master's degree.

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This may step on some toes, but it has never been clear to me why people that know they want to attend a phd program earn a terminal masters. I am at a top program and about half of our students never earned a masters.

 

Instead of attending a masters that requires relocating your family and either taking out loans or attending a less prestigious program, I'd think about how you could spend the next year strengthening your application. If you were waitlisted at Penn, your application is already competitive. If you took a year to improve your application (whether that means improving your GRE scores, maybe presenting a paper at a conference, developing a better writing sample/application essay) you might be accepted into one of your ideal programs next year. That would save you a lot of time and money.

 

I know that its easier to do something related to academia - I was in a similar situation but chose to get a "real" job and strengthen my application in my spare time. It paid off and now I am glad I didn't get a terminal masters.

 

Put another way, unless you think one of these terminal masters will make you a much better researcher (which in turn will make you more competitive in the future) I wouldn't go to either.

UK masters are not 'terminal' in the sense of US masters. In the UK doing a masters (or an integrated masters, either integrated in undergrad or integrated in PhD) is mandatory in most fields. Therefore, many masters are very rigorous and aimed at prospective PhD-applicants. If TS wants to apply for European PhDs, a masters is pretty much the only way to go.

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Have you asked the folks at UNC-Greensboro about what students do after the program, to get a sense of their placement rate in programs for people who continue on to get a PhD? 

 

It's not uncommon for PhD applicants to have terminal MAs and it can significantly strengthen an application. But there are other ways to accumulate some of the knowledge that you're looking for. There was a post on the scatterplot blog a couple weeks back about a free Statistics MOOC that Notre Dame is offering.

 

Is your writing sample sociological? If not, it might be worth ditching the non-sociology writing sample even if it's published (the publication will be on your CV anyhow) and choosing something that demonstrates that you know what you're getting into with sociology. Be sure your statement does, too, as I see a lot of statements that fail to make clear why someone is switching fields.

 

Your selection of schools is a bit odd, although I don't know your interests. I know that applications are expensive, but you might consider applying slightly more broadly next time. You might ask the person at Penn that you're in touch with for recommendations on where you might apply next year that would be a good fit for your interests and profile (and, if you'd like, what you might do to strengthen your application).

 

To answer your initial question, if you really want to get an MA, I wouldn't recommend paying for one - especially on that requires you to expensively relocate your family and would prove difficult for your wife. Given your goal with getting an MA, it seems that that could be as well accomplished at UNCG. With the americentric focus of US Sociology programs, I don't know that Leeds's prestige would really pay off in the way you are imagining it might.  

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