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Is it too late?!

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I fear I have made a huge mistake.

Since high school it has been my plan to attend graduate school to get my PhD in psychology. I could not get accepted into a Clinical PhD program, so this year I applied to PhD and MA programs. Well I got accepted by one. I think I was so excited I quickly accepted without really taking into consideration what it would mean.

I already have $40,000 in student loans from undergrad, which I do not regret. But I will have to take out $40k more for my MA program and that doesn't even include living expenses. I just don't think I am willing to take out $60k more in loans, when I haven't even had experience related to the field.

My college has not asked for anything: no deposits, no signatures...nothing. I spoke with my thesis advisor over the phone today just as a quick brainstorm meeting. But that has been it. I have not seen any of the research assistant funding I was promised in my financial aid either, so that doesn't help either (not to mention it's probably only $6-8k per year).

I feel like I need time to A: figure out if I really want to rack up this much debt by exploring the field and B: save up more money to try and make this a more realistic situation if I do decide this is what I want to do.

So to conclude, here are my big questions:

1. It's almost June and I accepted my offer at the end of March (25th) is it too late to back out? I have never backed out of anything in my life, but I do not see how this will be financially possible for me to survive .

2. How does one back out of an accepted offer? Do I speak with my advisor, the head of the department, or just grad admissions? (Although I would obviously let my advisor know)

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You should figure this out ASAP, but personally I would not take on this much debt for a MA in the social sciences. To answer your questions:

1. It's not too late, but you should inform the school as soon as you can make up your mind, if you choose to withdraw. You are not funded, and you need to put your own interests first. I don't think this is "backing out" but instead it's making a financially sound decision. 

2. I would probably contact the head of the department or the DGS (whoever you've been in contact with about your admissions decision), and of course also the advisor. Explain your decision and ask them if there are any other steps you need to take in order to officially withdraw (did you sign any papers when you accepted the offer?). If they aren't sure, also contact the graduate school itself (maybe do it anyway to be safe). I think the best way to explain it is as a financial decision. Say you have spent the past several weeks trying to make this work financially, since you did not receive (adequate) funding, but you've now come to the realization that it's not feasible, given other obligations and your current circumstances. You are very sorry, but you don't see any way you can attend the program [next year] (leave a door open by asking about a deferral if there is any chance the funding decisions could be rethought next year). Apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and say you wanted to let them know as soon as you made this decision, and that you regret not being able to be there and take advantage of all the opportunities the program has to offer. Thank them for their time and for considering your application, say you appreciate everything they've done. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

It's probably not a great idea, unless that MA is one in mental health counseling and will allow you to practice as a licensed counselor after you finish. (If it's an MA in clinical psychology, it will not.)

I don't know what your background is, but clinical psychology is so competitive that qualified students routinely get turned down for 1-2 cycles before they are accepted somewhere. So sometimes the remedy is to just apply again, and apply to a wider and deeper pool of programs. But sometimes there's something you're missing to be competitive, and it's usually not an MA. Most psychology PhD students don't have a terminal MA from another program and it's not necessary to have one before starting. If your undergraduate major was in psychology, and you have a decent GPA (3.5+ for sure, probably 3.3-3.4 as well) and good recommendations from faculty members, then what's missing is probably research experience or clinical experience or both. It sounds like that's the case ("I haven't even had experience related to the field." You don't need to pay $60-80K to an MA program to get that. The best way to get research experience after college is by working as a lab manager or research associate in psychology or a related field somewhere for 2-3 years. Barring that, you can volunteer in a lab or work part-time. Most people volunteer to get the clinical experience.

Think about it this way: You already have $40K, and if your MA program is just one year and you borrow $60K ($40K tuition and $20K for living expenses - which is really a low estimate, and only sustainable in a lower cost-of-living area), you will have a total of $100K. This is before you go to a PhD program; many PhD students do rack up a little bit of student loan debt to supplement living costs for whatever reason. Anyway, psychologists earn $72,000 a year on average (BLS data). This is not the kind of salary that enables you to repay six-figure debt, and you will struggle repaying these loans.

No, it's not too late for you to back out - you can back out at any time, even after you start the program. The department probably has a departmental secretary; I would speak with them first to get an idea of how you can withdraw ("Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances I won't be able to attend your program in the fall. How can I go about withdrawing from the program?")

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