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jillcicle

Applicability/Reputation of an Oxford MSt

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Hi everyone,

As we roll toward decision day, I'm trying to compare my two MA options with the MSt at Oxford and feeling short on perspective. Oxford is Oxford, and the 9 month program is going to be a lot cheaper for me. (None of them are funded.) But here are the things I'm struggling with:

  • Academically:
    • How is a PhD program going to perceive the MSt? It has a thesis, but I'll obviously be less-developed than I would from an MA.
    • If I wait until I've finished the MSt to apply to PhDs, is that gap going to look bad? Would I need to find some sort of research work from idk where to fill between June and October?
    • Grades - I've heard UK grading looks a lot harsher. Do American PhD programs know this enough that it wouldn't slaughter my application?
    • Oxford has the shiny reputation, but it seems Columbia was actually harder to get into based on the numbers I've seen. This might not even matter but the high(ish) acceptance level at Oxford has me questioning how this degree is perceived.
  • Professionally:
    • Part of the reason I wanted the MA (other than I basically have to have it to get into decent PhD programs, due to my lack of languages and community college transfer) is because I felt like I would then have a qualification that I could use to bail out of academics and into other fields if really desired. But "MST English 650-1550" seems like it would look pretty meaningless on a resume, since it's so specific and not that recognizable of a degree name. Is this a professionally useless degree, as opposed to the English MA which might qualify me for things?

Thanks for any thoughts! I also have a phone call scheduled with my undergrad advisor, but I'm stressing.

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I'm not in English lit, and I'm on your side of deciding about a PhD, so take this with a grain of salt.

Yes, a 2-year degree has the potential to teach you more than a 1-year degree.  That said, I'm not sure that you gain much more except in academic terms.  After all, an MSt in Medieval and Renaissance literature is kind of obscure, but there isn't a huge market of people dying to hire English MAs, either.  Sorry.

Marking 'schemes' are somewhat less differentiated in the UK, or at least, more obscure.  Oxford is more or less like Cambridge, where you'll have modules with essays or exams that will generate grades, and then (I suppose) a dissertation of some kind, with its grade.  Postgrad degrees don't indicate how you did (unlike the undergrads who will get a "first", a "2:1", a "Desmond", etc. actually printed on the diploma).  But you'll have a transcript and an average, any part of which you can tell people about.

That average may be confusing for someone not used to the UK system.  Unlike here, where you start at 100 and have things chipped off, they start at zero and see what you can add.  At Cambridge, in order to pass a Master's program, you need 60.  67 is the "leave to continue" mark, which indicates that you probably have what it takes to get a PhD.  70 is the equivalent of a "first" and 75 and 80 are varying degrees of distinction.  Some programs will have a grade for the whole thing (apart from "pass"), and the rules can get tricky.  I think at my program at Cambridge, you need a 70 in all of your work to get a distinction.  Now, I'm averaging 70, but even if I get well above that on my thesis, I'm knocked out of a distinction on the whole thing because two of my essays weren't as good as the other two.  I could, of course, if I finish strongly, say that I got a distinction on my thesis (as well as the "high pass" on the coursework).

The vocabulary changes a bit, but the scale is roughly the same.  Some say the humanities have more compressed grades than the math/science areas, because it's a lot harder to be original and brilliant on a topic that has been around for a thousand years, whereas the math guys actually can get completely right answers.  But you'll be getting recommendations with your scores, if you ask nicely, so that ought to sort itself out.  In other words, unless you blow the doors off the place and get a starred distinction on your thesis, or some such, it might be harder to build a completely bulletproof CV.  But you will, I would think, be able to make yourself a stronger candidate by learning different working and learning styles and maybe getting a better clue of what you want do in later research.

About selectivity-- rates of acceptance are higher at Oxbridge, but there's also a lot of self-selection and intimidation involved.  They will say up front what the minimum GPA will be of any successful applicant, which probably weeds out a lot of the marginal cases who wouldn't hesitate to try their luck with Yale.

If you go to The Student Room board, you'll find a lot of Brits who are very fluent in this, talking about aiming for a score on one module that will pull them up into a 2:1 average, which is kind of their B+/A- territory, and is required by a lot of employers as well as further education programs.  

Again, I have no idea what US PhD committees think about all this.

Edited by Concordia

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Just stepping on, since I did an Oxford MSt last year (though a different strand.) 

I have no idea how programs in general "perceive" the degree, other than to say I did fine on my apps this year. Oxford in general is perceived as a little stuffy and traditional on this side of the pond, though that's probably a more meaningful critique in my period (contemporary) than in yours. What I will say is that trying to apply while you're doing the program is a nightmare. It is a rigorous and intense nine months, the applications I did last year were *much* worse than this year's, where I had the time to think and write, and it'll take away your attention from actually doing the coursework. So, I'd suggest waiting until after. I don't think programs care about "gaps" like that as long as you're doing something productive in the interim (like working on foreign languages or something - literally just half a sentence implying that you haven't checked out entirely.) Honestly, I think the most important thing is not to worry much about how the program "looks." I cared a lot about that last cycle, and it only made it worse when things didn't work out. The true value of a Master's program is helping you learn to think like a grad student in that discipline, to help hone your writing, to teach you additional skills, to give you a chance to produce grad-level work you can use for writing samples or article submissions, and to have a nice community to socialize with.

In the faculty, the pass grade is 60, with the possibility of a distinction, which you get with either a 70 across all assessed elements (3 coursework papers and the dissertation) or a 72 average on the 3 shorter papers and a 68 on the dissertation. Something like 20-25% of the whole group, across all strands, got a distinction last year.

If you're paying, one vs two years is not nothing, and Oxford has a lot of ways to pick up extra money here and there, or get studentships. There's a research and travel fund in the faculty that gives 400 quid over your grad career at the school, which is great if you're only there for the Master's and planning not to stay on for the DPhil; lots of colleges give more research money or even full studentships, etc. 

For me, the Oxford degree did five major things:

(1) It let me solidify my interests in my specific national literature, coming from another related discipline;

(2) It gave me venue to draft the paper I ended up using as my writing sample, as well as a decent pool of other materials I've used and will use for articles and conference presentations;

(3) It's how I met my course convener, who ended up being one of my letter writers and has been a gem of a mentor throughout the application process; 

(4) It gave me the chance to decompress from, and work through some lingering feelings from, a somewhat tumultuous and stressful experience in college; and

(5) B-course.

Oxford does postgrad socializing and pastoral care like nowhere else, via the college system - I had friends in my strand, in my secondary temporal strand, throughout the English program, and in my college, sometimes overlapping but never completely, and it made the entire experience feeling much less competitive and stressful than it might have been otherwise. The 650-1550 strand was particularly excellent - though I work on a completely different area, the Medievalists were always brilliant, friendly, and hip, all at once, and Oxford's collections are unrivaled when it comes to your period. The new rare books library is massive, beautiful, and remarkably well-organized, though with the standard bit of British fussiness you wouldn't find, like, at the Beinecke at Yale or the Houghton at Harvard. Likewise, though I don't know how much bibliography or material textual studies you've done previously, but the B-course was worth the price of admission alone - it's one of Oxford's great strengths as a department and is an incredibly helpful skillset to have going into graduate study.

tl;dr Oxford is excellent at social life, collections, and book history; the medievalists there are great; one year is cheaper than two; and most importantly, think about what you'll get out of whichever program you choose intellectually and personally far before you worry about "how it'll look," since at the level you're looking at it's basically a wash.

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redjacobin brings up an interesting point-- on the financial as well as the PR front, having a year between MSt and PhD to save more money (and stop spending it on school) while working on your apps could be a nice benefit.

Totally off topic to RJ:  for those choosing colleges, which one were you in, how was that, and did you get unexpectedly good or bad feedback about other colleges?

Edited by Concordia

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I was in one of the postgrad-only ones, which I was initially a bit upset about, but it ended up being brilliant - everyone was smart and friendly, and it meant much more minimal contact with undergrads (a plus!) Oxford makes it hard to 'choose' colleges, really, because the app only lets you preference-select your top choice, and after that you go into the pool, but all of them have pluses and minuses. I had a couple friends in Brasenose who really liked it, and the grounds were pretty / near the Bod; one friend in Jesus who got a lot of extra research money out of them; one of my course tutors was in John's so I spent a lot of time there, and they do have an absurd amount of money (their senior common room alone might have been bigger than my college) but a smaller pool of grad students so less community; and my impressions of Christ Church, derived mostly from undergrads on their boat club, is relatively negative.

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@Concordia and @redjacobin thanks so much for both of your thoughtful, in-depth answers! I am happy to say I will be accepting my offer at Oxford.

On 4/7/2016 at 8:32 AM, redjacobin said:

Likewise, though I don't know how much bibliography or material textual studies you've done previously, but the B-course was worth the price of admission alone - it's one of Oxford's great strengths as a department and is an incredibly helpful skillset to have going into graduate study.

^^This was (on top of an extensive conversation with my adviser, who did a Cambridge MPhil) the tipping point/deciding factor for me. I had forgotten it until you referenced it, but that is the thing I was most excited about when researching programs and it was really a standout against the other MAs I was looking at. 

On 4/7/2016 at 9:56 AM, Concordia said:

Totally off topic to RJ:  for those choosing colleges, which one were you in, how was that, and did you get unexpectedly good or bad feedback about other colleges?

Sort of a non-answer here, but I thought I'd chime in as well for posterity: I put no preference on my application because I was filling it out last minute and didn't feel I understood the system well enough to blindly pick one. I was accepted at Lady Margaret Hall, which is the college of one of my course convenors as well as another very strong Medievalist, so I am happy with that placement even if LMH isn't as old or highly ranked on the Norrington Table as others. For bonus charm, it suits my secondary interest in women's lit that it was the first women's college. I felt like putting myself in the hands of the system had a very satisfactory outcome, more-so than expected. Of course, my actual experience there remains to be seen. (Also, no housing available :()

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23 hours ago, jillcicle said:

@Concordia and @redjacobin thanks so much for both of your thoughtful, in-depth answers! I am happy to say I will be accepting my offer at Oxford.

^^This was (on top of an extensive conversation with my adviser, who did a Cambridge MPhil) the tipping point/deciding factor for me. I had forgotten it until you referenced it, but that is the thing I was most excited about when researching programs and it was really a standout against the other MAs I was looking at. 

Sort of a non-answer here, but I thought I'd chime in as well for posterity: I put no preference on my application because I was filling it out last minute and didn't feel I understood the system well enough to blindly pick one. I was accepted at Lady Margaret Hall, which is the college of one of my course convenors as well as another very strong Medievalist, so I am happy with that placement even if LMH isn't as old or highly ranked on the Norrington Table as others. For bonus charm, it suits my secondary interest in women's lit that it was the first women's college. I felt like putting myself in the hands of the system had a very satisfactory outcome, more-so than expected. Of course, my actual experience there remains to be seen. (Also, no housing available :()

LMH is a delightful college. Its grounds are pretty, and it's settled in a really lovely part of Oxford (up north - the greenery is much more lush, with more quiet, and many fewer tourists than in town.) The people there also seemed excellent; one of my friends on my proxy-strand had done his undergrad at LMH and only ever spoke highly of it. The Table is only for undergrad study so don't even pay attention to that, and age only ever seemed to be a proxy for pretension to me.

Given your college assignment, for housing, I'd see if you can find something in either the Jericho or Summertown area, if you're not going to try for university accommodation in Wellington Square or something. Both are great areas nearby the college site. Also, if you don't know how, learn to ride a bike. It'll make the (many) trips you'll have to take down to the Bod and the Faculty quicker, and the ride down from there (on Parks Rd.) is extremely pleasant by bike. I'm getting nostalgic just thinking about it. Have a great time!

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8 hours ago, redjacobin said:

LMH is a delightful college. Its grounds are pretty, and it's settled in a really lovely part of Oxford (up north - the greenery is much more lush, with more quiet, and many fewer tourists than in town.) The people there also seemed excellent; one of my friends on my proxy-strand had done his undergrad at LMH and only ever spoke highly of it. The Table is only for undergrad study so don't even pay attention to that, and age only ever seemed to be a proxy for pretension to me.

Given your college assignment, for housing, I'd see if you can find something in either the Jericho or Summertown area, if you're not going to try for university accommodation in Wellington Square or something. Both are great areas nearby the college site. Also, if you don't know how, learn to ride a bike. It'll make the (many) trips you'll have to take down to the Bod and the Faculty quicker, and the ride down from there (on Parks Rd.) is extremely pleasant by bike. I'm getting nostalgic just thinking about it. Have a great time!

Thanks so much! That's all very comforting and helpful information. I especially appreciate the neighborhood tips - I tried for university accommodation and was told demand has already exceeded availability. Also, I did my undergrad at UC Davis, known as the bike-iest college in the US, so that is something I should be able to handle easily :)

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