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MA or Gap Year?


Way Out East

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Despite meticulous planning over a year before application deadlines, time got away from me and I found myself far too close to Ph.d program deadlines to apply this time around. I had letter writers lined up and the GRE taken, but did not have time to write a good SOP and perfect my writing sample to a point where I was happy with it. I also had not contacted the faculty members I was interested in studying with and was worried I would have been throwing money away. After being furious with myself for a few weeks, I am now trying to figure out the best path forward for myself.

For some background, I am senior with a double major in History and Political Science with a minor in International Studies. My GPA is a 3.95, I am in the middle of writing a senior honors thesis. I spent last summer interning at a museum and have served as an editor for an undergraduate journal. I have presented a paper at a conference at my institution and am currently trying to get two of my recent papers published. My field is American history, with my research interests being the political and social history of the issue of immigration, of xenophobia, and of the immigrants themselves (ie their impact of politics and policy). 

The way I see it, I currently have three options. 1) An MA at my current institution (as strong suggested by one of my letter writers), 2) A Masters program elsewhere (I have been looking at applying for an Mst at Oxford or an MA program in the DC area), or 3) taking a gap year and applying to Ph.d programs next Fall.

Each of these plans have significant pros and cons, and I was hoping that some of you may have advice on what you would do in my shoes. Thank you and have a wonderful holiday season.

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Honestly?  Take a gap year or two.  You need break from school.  I often find my colleagues who have taken at least two years away from school to be more grounded and cognizant of the opportunities out in the world besides the PhD and academia.  They often bring more interesting perspectives to the classroom and dissertation projects.  You'll still have your energy!

And.... do not even worry about publishing at undergraduate level.  They will not show up on your CV by the end of your PhD.  You will grow tremendously as critical thinker and writer, much more so than you can imagine right now.

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Based on what you've listed here, experience and stats, you seem like a pretty strong candidate for a straight through PhD, so unless doing a MA would add literally zero debt to any that you have now, and you wouldn't mind perhaps having to repeat those years of coursework upon entering a PhD program, I'd say a gap year is a good thing. I took one, and honestly, it hasn't been anything but good. There have been somewhat intellectually dull moments for sure, where even though I was keeping up with reading, I really missed the discussion and pressure that comes with actually being in a program, but at the end of the day, once I adjusted to a different schedule, time off from all that has been nice. Further, you say you're still in the middle of your thesis writing--in a year's/half a year's time, once it's done and you've had time to reflect on it, it's highly likely that you'll be able to articulate thoughts about (1) that research and (2) what direction you want to take your further research much better than you will be able to currently, for the purposes both of your SoP, and for your own idea of yourself as a scholar. Or at least that was my experience--I was a much better applicant, with clearer ideas about what research I wanted to do, in terms of a broad and long term project, once I had spent time away from the tiny details of my thesis research. Further, after working in the "~real world~" for half a year, I had a much clearer idea of why I wanted to do a PhD at all, and was more confident in saying that, yes, I know I'm dedicated to research, I know this is for sure what I want to do. Even though I had already intended on going to graduate school, I took a job in a related field, telling myself that if I ended up loving it, I'd consider sticking with it instead, given the disaster that is the academic job market and the need to envision yourself as almost nothing but an academic in order to really pull it off. I'm much more sure of all that now.

I know I'm in a different field than you, but I think some of the same ideas will probably apply.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I second the advice to take a year (or two!) off.  It's good to take a step off the educational conveyer belt for a little while.  Find a regular job of some kind.  Take a break from the academic world, figure out how to survive outside of it, save money, & develop other skills & perspectives.  You'll come back refreshed and ready to go!

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