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Staying at undergrad university for a master's before moving for a PhD

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I have recently switched to English from Computer Science. I am finishing the second semester of my junior year of undergrad and my second semester in the English program at my university. I am currently in the process of researching grad programs and have been talking with my department head about my options.

Here was his suggestion:

He says he thinks I should stay at my current university for a master's then move on to a PhD program from there. His reasoning: Because I have only been in the department for a short time, he thinks I won't be able to get great letters of recommendation or a solid writing sample out for a higher ranked program. He thinks I should stay here and work with professors I already know and am comfortable with so I can work on writing samples and developing the skills I will need to succeed in a PhD environment. I have proposed this to a few other professors, and they say they second his opinion.

Here's the rub:

My university is a small liberal arts state satellite school. I know I won't have any problem getting accepted to the program, but I worry that going here will not prepare me for a more rigorous university or that having a master's from this school will hold me back from getting into a larger school. Also, there are only a couple of GA spots available in the department and the TA spots only pay about $8000 a year without full tuition reimbursement. This school is in the southeastern US so things are a bit cheaper, but that salary is not at all competitive with the other schools I have been considering.

Here's the rub's rub: 

I like my university's city and the faculty (though they aren't by any means a world renowned staff). A professor I really admire is starting a literary publication at the school, and I could very likely get the graduate assistanceship for that and help her grow the publication which is something I would very much like to do. Also, there's a strong chance I could get my school's writing center graduate assistanceship. Both of these GA positions pay more but require about 30 hours a week of work, and I wouldn't have time to get teaching experience.

So now my question:

Should I attend the master's program at my current university and sacrifice name recognition and a higher salary for comfort with professor's I already know and a good graduate assistanceship? Or should I disregard this advice and seek out a stronger master's program? 

Also, because I am a bit self conscious and suspicious of authority:

Could he be recommending this school because he doesn't think I have what it takes to succeed in a larger school? Or is there any possibility that he just wants to fill his own underfunded program with strong students to make his department look better?

Edited by Cotton Joe
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A friend of mine went to her (unranked) undergrad institution for a master's and got into a PhD program on her first try. It wasn't Harvard, but she'll get a PhD out of it. It's not the kiss of death. She also switched majors in the middle of her undergrad and felt like she wanted more experience with the English department's faculty.

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My experience is a little different, though I did go back to my undergrad alma matter for my MA and have gotten into a great PhD program.  However, my MA program was ranked, and an R1, though I really don't think that the ranking will hurt you as long as you have a strong application.

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I guess the question is that it depends on what you want out of your graduate experience, and if you possibly want to pursue a PhD afterwards. I also don't necessarily agree with your department head—that feels to me like a ploy to keep you there, which, it's fine if you want to do that, but I don't think you should be coerced into it out of fear that you won't get good recommendation letters from the professors. That seems kind of ridiculous to me. I was only at my undergrad university for two years, and I got fine letters of recommendation.

I went to an unranked, zero-prestige state school for my undergrad. I had a good experience there, but I frankly just felt like it wasn't going to open any doors for me, for both geographical and institutional reasons (the flipside I guess was that it was cheap and didn't cost me much compared to what some of my friends were paying at private universities).

By some stroke of luck, I managed to get into Fordham's master's program, which was fantastic, but also bittersweet because the majority of their master's students are unfunded. I had started out going to school at a community college and paid my through that, transferred, and took out a very minimal amount of student loans to complete my undergrad, so I bit the bullet and went with Fordham with my eyes wide open, knowing I was going to be paying for it, but I had less reservations about it because I wasn't steeped in debt from my undergrad like many of my peers were. I was lucky enough to get a teaching assistantship at Fordham's business school, which is just enough for me to live on and then some—so basically the debt I am accruing is just tuition costs (which ain't cheap, I won't lie, but having an assistantship has definitely helped). I've actually had enough extra money to make payments on some of my loans while in school as well, which has been great.

In any case, your question really depends on what YOU want. Do you want to stay on there? Do you want to move onto somewhere bigger? I think your longterm goals are a factor in this as well. If you think your degree at your current university could get you into a better-ranked MA program, then apply to some in addition to your current school. I considered staying on at my undergrad institution, but the truth is that an MA from there vs an MA from somewhere like Fordham doesn't even compare, and my undergrad institution didn't offer any assistantships whatsoever. The way I looked at it, by going to Fordham, I was not only refining my skills and preparing for PhD work, but also investing in making sure I could get into a prestigious PhD program—so I took the plunge. Maybe I'm crazy (most likely), but I don't regret that decision as of yet, as I am getting a great education there, making connections, and having opportunities that my undergrad university couldn't even dream of offering me. 

We'll see in the next year or so if the story has changed and I'm destitute and regretting my entire life, but I'm not someone who tends to take risks, and right now I feel glad that I did.

Edited by drownsoda
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Most students will not have more than 2 years' worth of coursework in the major, which seems like the amount you're going to have at the end of this, so I don't fully understand why your Chair thinks you won't be able to get good LORs. The quality of your LORs, anyhow, is determined by the quality of your work and your relationship with the relevant professors rather than by how many classes you took with them. It's pretty clear that he thinks your work is too weak for a high-ranked PhD - which is not surprising given you're a Junior. The suggestion to stay on for the MA is not a bad suggestion (especially since you believe you have prospects here), and it is not surprising that he and other professors are for it. I don't have firsthand knowledge of your conversation so I can't have an opinion on whether he's trying to coerce you or otherwise has ulterior motives (but for you this isn't a productive opinion to hold anyway). Really, they're telling you that they would like to continue working with you at the graduate level. Take it as a compliment. But you know you can apply to however many schools you want to, right? So do that. See what acceptances you get and what funding packages they come with, and make an informed decision. Right now you're counting your chickens before they've hatched. Also, stop going to your department chair if you don't trust him. You need a mentor, that is a faculty member who is in your speciality, whom you've worked with extensively, and whom you trust to give you advice, not least because theirs will be the LOR that can speak with fanfare and influence to your work. As far as LORs go, that's the gamechanger.

The one thing I'd ask you to consider is why you're so eager to go to grad school at all. Even if you've secretly wanted to be a professor of literature since you were a wee sprite, you've just switched into this major from something completely unrelated. It's pretty clear from your professor's words that you've done no significant research and are pretty new to this world in other ways. Why the rush to get a PhD? It's not an enjoyable path, and there's plenty you can do with the degree that doesn't involve you living on ramen for the entirety of your best working years. An MA in English won't affect your employability vs the BA (except technically making you qualified to teach community college, but try to find one that isn't inundated by applications from PhDs right now). At worst, it'll burden you with unnecessary debt. It's good that you're asking these questions now, but as far as decisions go, I'd honestly give it way more time.

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@Cotton Joe I wanted to reply because I had a very similar experience to yours. I did my BA and MA at the same CSU in California. And I really think that staying at the same program for my MA was integral to the success of my application materials. 

Prior to starting my MA, I didn't even know two of advisers who went on to become my LOR writers and Thesis readers. Had I applied for a Ph.D. straight out of undergrad, I probably just would have selected three LOR writers who I had consistently produced A-level work with... but I know in hindsight that 2/3 of these instructors simply did not know me as well as the instructors who worked with me during my MA. Since you just recently became an English major, continuing to work with some of the same professors might really help you in the long run. Also, I honestly had no idea how the application process worked before working on my MA, but this is something that you definitely still have time to prepare for should you apply out of undergrad. :) 

Looking back at my level of writing as a fourth year undergrad versus a second year Master's student, I am so blown away by how much I improved. By staying for my Master's, I was able to diversify and specialize myself. I thought I wanted to pursue queer studies in 19th century American Literature at the Ph.D. level but by writing a Thesis on this subject, I was able to realize that the field was NOT for me. So I was able to spin the experience as my "pitch" for pursuing a Ph.D. in queer/sexuality studies and 20th/21st-century American Lit., I was able to envision which allowed me to pitch myself as a highly desirable candidate. Looking back at the statement of purpose I wrote to get accepted into the Master's program, I really don't think I had what it takes to enter into a Ph.D. program. 

I've had very good luck this application season and have been accepted/waitlisted at some really competitive programs, including my top 2 choices! Which I never would have expected before applying. 

That said, I did decide to take a year off between my Master's and Ph.D. Between writing my Thesis and teaching a Literature course, I was (personally) way too exhausted to apply for a Ph.D. before I had my degree in hand so I decided against it. I know that several people have had good luck starting a Ph.D. directly after the MA, but I was too nervous to attempt it myself.

But in the end, you are going to know your strengths better than anyone. So just remember that and take the time to explore different opportunities/options!

Edited by Little Earthquakes
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