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Advantages of Pursuing the (Funded) MA


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I thought it might be good for future users of this forum to have a designated thread that discusses the advantages of pursuing separate MA and PhD programs. Sometimes I think it is easy to take away a PhD-or-bust attitude on this site, and that is probably just a function of having more applicants to PhD programs, many already in possession of an MA, on the threads.

 

In December I definitely did not plan to pursue an MA except as a "plan B" if I didn't get in to any PhD programs. In April, though, I chose a terminal MA over a straight-to-PhD acceptance. To be fair, my terminal MA has the option to funnel non-competitively into their PhD program, though I don't know if I would chose that option or not. If I pursue a PhD at a different school after my MA, I look forward to:

 

-The opportunity to potentially have a large network of professors and grad students (essentially doubling the number of people I have worked with).

 

-Having a "generalist" degree in addition to a specialist PhD degree (I plan to take some rhet/comp and linguistics coursework during my MA).

 

-Teaching at two different universities and being exposed to different administrative styles.

 

-Adding to my ever-increasing list of sports teams to cheer for. I have now gone to a school that is great for basketball, a school that is good for football and a school that is fun mostly because we never win anything except hockey.

 

 

So, does anybody else want to talk about the benefits of pursuing the MA? Share your experience? Give advice that goes beyond the MA as a safety net?

 

 

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From what I've seen, fewer BAs have been admitted to PhD programs recently. Perhaps PhD programs are looking for quite a bit of 'professionalization' in their applicants, more than some students out of undergrad can manage. 

 

Though the Chronicle has to defend professionalization from people who say that learning how to be an academic is synonymous with learning how to be a drone, I like the concept of professionalization. During the next two years, as ToldAgain writes, I'll start growing my academic network. I will also:

 

-try to publish

-take over one of those administrative positions open to graduate students

-learn if working 75-80 hours a week is something I want to do for the next twenty years

-take advantage of my school's internship program

-become a better applicant for PhD programs/academia beyond PhD programs

 

No fully-funded MA program should be considered a safety net. If academia is a job, then my MA is training for a promotion (though that's a really cynical way to view it). I'm excited about spending two years studying things I like with people who think like me. That happens rarely enough that I'm grateful for the opportunity.

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From what I've seen, fewer BAs have been admitted to PhD programs recently. Perhaps PhD programs are looking for quite a bit of 'professionalization' in their applicants, more than some students out of undergrad can manage.

 

That makes sense. As PhD programs reduce their cohorts, an MA makes you more competitive.

 

With that in mind, I think another good point is to know where your MA typically places its graduates. There will always be outliers, but it does seem like some MA programs have a set of schools or a type of school where their graduates typically end up.

 

I agree that no fully-funded program should be considered a safety net.

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Excellent, excellent advice from you both. I fully endorse every point you both make.

 

My situation is very similar to ToldAgain's, by the sound of it. I was in PhD-or-bust mode for awhile, before realizing what a boon UMD's M.A. offer proved to be. Two months later, and I have a full GAship in the English department, some future teaching opportunities (though nothing guaranteed since I had to turn down a 1/2 TAship in favor of that full GAship), health coverage, and have already registered for a summer graduate course that looks like a hell of a lot of fun (I just got the syllabus from the professor today, and it looks like a blast, even though it's not quite in my usual wheelhouse).

 

I also have the distinct sense that candidates with M.A. degrees in hand were largely favored over B.A. candidates this season. There were many exceptions, of course, but it feels more 70/30 than 50/50.

 

I don't have much to add to what the two of you have said, but a few points regardless...

 

-Be open-minded in your first semester or two. Yes, you will need to specialize at some point, but an M.A. offer is a good opportunity to hone in on your interests that much more.

 

-Spend lots of time on campus. That's what I'm planning on doing, at least. Whether teaching, working, studying, or learning in a classroom, I aim to treat it like a full-time commitment (partially because it is, but partially because that is the mindset I think one should have...unlike in undergrad).

 

-Keep your eyes open to industry trends. These things will affect you, whether directly or indirectly.

 

-If you're at a state school, monitor state budget issues. This, too, will affect you...whether directly or indirectly.

 

-Use the extra time to retake the GREs. This is a quasi-controversial comment, as some disagree, but I think that retaking the GRE until you get very competitive scores is not a waste of time. It's a YMMV issue, as well as a money issue, but if your plan is to pursue a Ph.D. at a good institution, it's probably worth it to make sure all aspects are as good as they can be. In theory, being active and engaged in graduate study will keep those verbal neurons firing at the level they need to be to get a good score.

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Yes I would advise anyone to get an MA first. The MA lets you learn and be a part of your field before you get into high-stakes PhD stuff. You get to learn your place in (or maybe out) of the field, and whether academia is what you really want after having a substantial taste of it. Also, you will be a much more competitive applicant. From a departmental perspective, if I were on an adcom, I would push for not admitting any BA applicants to a PhD program because the risk is much higher IMO. 

Edited by Wonton Soup
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Everything everyone else said. Also, it gets you into a better PhD program, or at least mine did. If you aren't competitive enough to get into a PhD right away, which I wasn't straight out of undergrad, it gives you time to learn and then gives you the opportunity to get into a great PhD. It's a complete win-win. If I had gotten into a PhD (well I didn't apply to any) straight out of undergrad, it probably would have been an unranked/unfunded offer. 

 

(That said, I am kind of ready to be done with coursework. I feel up to the task of writing a dissertation right now) 

Edited by CarolineKS
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From what I've seen, fewer BAs have been admitted to PhD programs recently. Perhaps PhD programs are looking for quite a bit of 'professionalization' in their applicants, more than some students out of undergrad can manage. 

 

Though the Chronicle has to defend professionalization from people who say that learning how to be an academic is synonymous with learning how to be a drone, I like the concept of professionalization. During the next two years, as ToldAgain writes, I'll start growing my academic network. I will also:

 

-try to publish

-take over one of those administrative positions open to graduate students

-learn if working 75-80 hours a week is something I want to do for the next twenty years

-take advantage of my school's internship program

-become a better applicant for PhD programs/academia beyond PhD programs

 

No fully-funded MA program should be considered a safety net. If academia is a job, then my MA is training for a promotion (though that's a really cynical way to view it). I'm excited about spending two years studying things I like with people who think like me. That happens rarely enough that I'm grateful for the opportunity.

Sweet lord, 75-80 hours a week? Really? I sure has hell do not do that and I have gone to 6 conferences, have multiple publications, and have a 4.0. I would NEVER EVER EVER work that many hours in a week. My life is my life and academia cannot have all of it. The important thing, in my experience, is to prioritize. Do what you need to do and do it *well*, but the stuff that won't matter... meh. 

Edited by CarolineKS
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Sweet lord, 75-80 hours a week? Really? I sure has hell do not do that and I have gone to 6 conferences, have multiple publications, and have a 4.0. I would NEVER EVER EVER work that many hours in a week. My life is my life and academia cannot have all of it. The important thing, in my experience, is to prioritize. Do what you need to do and do it *well*, but the stuff that won't matter... meh. 

 

I'm glad to know someone else thinks that's a little high too. I rechecked that information--it's from Semenza's Graduate Study for the 21st Century, and he recommends 70 hours (p. 37). I just didn't know whether he was including time spent teaching/office hours in that estimate, so I rounded up. It's still a lot of hours, though.

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Excellent, excellent advice from you both. I fully endorse every point you both make.

 

My situation is very similar to ToldAgain's, by the sound of it. I was in PhD-or-bust mode for awhile, before realizing what a boon UMD's M.A. offer proved to be. Two months later, and I have a full GAship in the English department, some future teaching opportunities (though nothing guaranteed since I had to turn down a 1/2 TAship in favor of that full GAship), health coverage, and have already registered for a summer graduate course that looks like a hell of a lot of fun (I just got the syllabus from the professor today, and it looks like a blast, even though it's not quite in my usual wheelhouse).

 

I also have the distinct sense that candidates with M.A. degrees in hand were largely favored over B.A. candidates this season. There were many exceptions, of course, but it feels more 70/30 than 50/50.

 

I don't have much to add to what the two of you have said, but a few points regardless...

 

-Be open-minded in your first semester or two. Yes, you will need to specialize at some point, but an M.A. offer is a good opportunity to hone in on your interests that much more.

 

-Spend lots of time on campus. That's what I'm planning on doing, at least. Whether teaching, working, studying, or learning in a classroom, I aim to treat it like a full-time commitment (partially because it is, but partially because that is the mindset I think one should have...unlike in undergrad).

 

-Keep your eyes open to industry trends. These things will affect you, whether directly or indirectly.

 

-If you're at a state school, monitor state budget issues. This, too, will affect you...whether directly or indirectly.

 

-Use the extra time to retake the GREs. This is a quasi-controversial comment, as some disagree, but I think that retaking the GRE until you get very competitive scores is not a waste of time. It's a YMMV issue, as well as a money issue, but if your plan is to pursue a Ph.D. at a good institution, it's probably worth it to make sure all aspects are as good as they can be. In theory, being active and engaged in graduate study will keep those verbal neurons firing at the level they need to be to get a good score.

 

But can a higher Q score make a difference in getting a fellowship (or otherwise make a difference in getting funding)? If yes, you should also practice Q if your Q score was low out of undergrad...

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What about the thesis vs. comp exam debate? What I have heard breaks down to:

 

1.) Don't do the thesis. It will take up too much time and effort without giving you anything useful (you can't use it for a WS in PhD programs, if you don't do a PhD and enter industry it is extra useless).

 

2.) Do the thesis. It will give you practice for your dissertation.

 

3.) Do the thesis. It's fun.

 

So does anybody have experience/advice/opinions to share?

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I'm working on my thesis right now... :( it's very time-consuming, yes. Not sure what you mean by "can't use it," though! You can totally polish it up and get it published! That's pretty darn valuable.

 

In a way, though, I wish I could get practice for the comp exam since I'll definitely have to face that in the Ph.D. program.

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That's a good point. I think when I have talked about this stuff with other people, it is always in the context of, "What can an MA do for my PhD application?" rather than "What value does an MA have in itself?" which would bias the answers.

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Agreed with CarolineKS! 75-80 hours a week is not required. During normal circumstances, I work 40 hours a week. Finals that goes up to 50-60. This semester, I'd say I work about 20 hours a week, and that's mostly reading when my infant daughter is napping (on me. Most of my comps studying will be done during baby cuddle times which is kinda awesome).

The 75-80 hours a week thing? I feel like that's an expectation from the old vangaurd, the same crew that thought women academics shouldn't have kids before tenure because OMG kids will distract you from your research! That thinking still exists (academic moms are less likely to be promoted than academic dads), but at least in my experience, it's not as pervasive anymore.

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I generally support the thesis option if you're trying for a PhD. After writing one, the dissertation is not as scary to me. I think it would be if I hadn't written a thesis. I took a couple years off after my MA so I was able to shape up my thesis into a very fine writing sample. 

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Agreed with CarolineKS! 75-80 hours a week is not required. During normal circumstances, I work 40 hours a week. Finals that goes up to 50-60. This semester, I'd say I work about 20 hours a week, and that's mostly reading when my infant daughter is napping (on me. Most of my comps studying will be done during baby cuddle times which is kinda awesome).

The 75-80 hours a week thing? I feel like that's an expectation from the old vangaurd, the same crew that thought women academics shouldn't have kids before tenure because OMG kids will distract you from your research! That thinking still exists (academic moms are less likely to be promoted than academic dads), but at least in my experience, it's not as pervasive anymore.

 

That's good to know. Semenza is required reading for one of my classes this fall, but his advice is certainly a little...scary? I don't mind reading all the time, because that's what I do anyway. I do mind when research threatens my Friday night television/popcorn time. Nothing threatens Friday night television/popcorn time.

 

Though maybe that 70 hours counts toward making friends in your discipline, volunteerism, becoming a better person, etc. Someone who studies that much is probably not going to be successful as a person, and search committees hire people. Thank you both for your advice! It's good to know that Semenza isn't the ultimate authority.

 

That's a good point. I think when I have talked about this stuff with other people, it is always in the context of, "What can an MA do for my PhD application?" rather than "What value does an MA have in itself?" which would bias the answers.

 

And ToldAgain, my program requires a thesis, but I would do the thesis anyway. I never learned to pace myself when writing, and writing a thesis would help me set a daily writing/research goal.

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Incidentally, UMD has a "capstone project" option for its M.A. students, which basically allows a student to take a shorter paper and, under the guidance of an advisor / professor, expand it into an article length essay of 25 pages or so. There is also a thesis option of 75 pages, which nixes the need for six credits of coursework (so 30 credits vs. 24). I'm aiming to do the capstone option at this point...not because I don't think I can write a 75-page paper, but because I know that doing so will probably take more time than the two extra courses, and because a 25-page paper under the guidance of a professor will likely make for a great SOP for Ph.D. applications.

 

Since I know I'll be writing loooong papers when I eventually start working on my Ph.D., I'm being kinder to myself in the short run.

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I wrote a thesis for both undergrad and grad. Funnily enough, my undergrad thesis was much harder and much longer (90 pages broken into three chapters an intro and conclusion). It was helpful, but I'm glad my grad thesis was shorter. My adviser wanted something publishable, so I wrote an article-length thesis. I heartily recommend taking this route if at all possible. KU's M.A. program typically takes 2.5-3 years so I worked on my thesis during my second year so as to have a writing sample for Ph.D apps AND so I could list my thesis as "under review" at a journal on my CV. 

 

For those who have to write a full 75-page thesis for the M.A., don't get freaked. Break it into chapters, and then it's only like, three regular-sized papers. HAHA. Wait, is that comforting??!!

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My undergrad thesis turned out to be 87 pages (I could go as high as 120, IIRC) and the hardest part was connecting the two very distinct chapters in a meaningful way. As it happened, I ended up with one publishable chapter of around 35 pages; I'm happy to leave behind the rest. My MA thesis, at 60 pages, seems like a better deal to me and should provide me with a more tightly written sample.

To answer the original question, being in my MA program has been a step in the right direction. I have been able to leverage the "brand name" into some cool opportunities, to network more, and to professionalize. I have also been torn about which discipline (out of three possible) I should be part of and my time in the MA program really clarified that.

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To answer the original question, being in my MA program has been a step in the right direction. I have been able to leverage the "brand name" into some cool opportunities, to network more, and to professionalize. I have also been torn about which discipline (out of three possible) I should be part of and my time in the MA program really clarified that.

I am really hoping that my time in my MA will help me choose between two disciplines that I have almost equal interests in. I don't think I will ever give up on either, but I will probably either market myself as an X-ist who also does Y, or a Y-ist who also does X.

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I think my time spent in my MA program really helped me to focus my research interests and provided me with more direct interaction with professors than I ever had in undergrad. I also got additional teaching experience, which really helped me to sort out my distinct preference for teaching college students instead of middle schoolers (though the two groups aren't always distinguishable lol). And I started my MA before I got into Grad Cafe, and I didn't really know much about conferences or publications or anything, and my MA helped to sort all of that out. I don't really know whether I would've been accepted into a PhD program if I had applied to one, but I will say that I felt more prepared starting my PhD program with my MA than I probably would've felt without it.

 

What about the thesis vs. comp exam debate? What I have heard breaks down to:

 

1.) Don't do the thesis. It will take up too much time and effort without giving you anything useful (you can't use it for a WS in PhD programs, if you don't do a PhD and enter industry it is extra useless).

 

2.) Do the thesis. It will give you practice for your dissertation.

 

3.) Do the thesis. It's fun.

 

So does anybody have experience/advice/opinions to share?

 

My MA didn't offer an exam option, but we did have the option to choose between doing a Master's Paper (30ish pages) or a Thesis (70+ pages) or a creative project (for the MFAs). The general prevailing advice was that if you were pretty going to go on to the PhD, then you should do the thesis. 

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I would put it a little bit differently than the other people here while maintaining the spirit of what they've said: I was a dumbass before I went into my MA program. I was significantly less of a dumbass when I came out. I say that sincerely.

HAHA ME TOO!!! 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Having just finished the MA thesis I can say that this process really helped facilitate PHD admission and may have laid some groundwork for dissertation research. Though the entirety of an MA thesis can't serve as your writing sample, one thesis chapter is about the right length and can be easily adapted for a WS. In addition, doing this kind of self-directed and rigorous project gives you kickass material for a personal statement. Also, putting together a committee helps in getting letters (and gives the LORs good material). Really, I have to say, if you do an MA and plan to go on to doctoral study, doing a thesis is a logical fit for the application process.

One major drawback is that it's a tremendous amount of work. I had a heavy teaching load and some tough coursework this semester. Completing and defending the thesis has been awful. I haven't had my head above water all semester and I haven't been able to commit as much time to the thesis as I would have liked. Whatever. It's done and I passed. Still, if your MA requires you to teach or has a mandatory course load (like mine) you might want to consider an exam or directed study or something.

Also, if you plan to write a dissertation, I can see how the thesis could be seen as a kind of very time consuming high stakes "practice." Hopefully, when I start a dissertation in a few years, this writing project will provide some kind of research scaffolding for whatever I take on. I'm reluctant to say I will pursue the same topic for a dissertation but maybe I can broaden the scope and sophistication of the thesis into something more? At the defense I sorta got the feeling the committee's questions were geared towards a dissertation type defense... Maybe they were trying to get me to think dissertation..

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morristr, could you give me an example of your timeline in this case? I ask because I am looking at the schedule of my MA vs. the schedule of my PhD applications if I don't continue on at my MA institution, and it looks like I would be beginning my application season at the same time I would start to seriously think about the dissertation. That is, in the second year. I personally would want to have all of my SOPs at least mostly fleshed out in the summer before my second year. So, it seems to me that there isn't a lot of time to integrate the dissertation into the application. I may be wrong.

 

I can see how the dissertation provides some great practice for PhD work, but I can't see myself knowing enough about it to talk about it knowledgeably in an SOP or use a chapter as a writing sample. I do see the idea of putting a committee together as being helpful for letters of rec, though.

 

So, again: What was your timeline for your dissertation? When did you come up with your topic? When did you have a good writing sample created? Etc. etc.

Edited by ToldAgain
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