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I'm nearing my last semester of my two year Master's program (anthropology) and I feel like I've barely learned enough to scape by in my field, never mind apply to PhD programs. Unfortunately(/fortunately) I know I am not alone in this feeling, as two other students in my cohort feel the same way and share many of the same frustrations. My advisor is very respected and connected in my field and is available for occasional meetings, however, he offers very, very little direction or concrete guidance, and has actually said to another MA student regarding their thesis to "just get it done," strongly implying to that person not to worry too much about how good it is. This advisor is retiring soon and it is painfully obvious that he has already checked out on the MA students, while most of his PhD students are already 4-5 years into their programs and know what they are doing. I know this from talking to others in the lab and the department. I also have heard from multiple people that this advisor does not actually READ term papers and have been plainly told that it doesn't matter what we write in them because "you'll just get an A." I am happy about getting As, but I'm concerned about the almost total lack of critical feedback that I've come to learn is the department norm.

Aside from gripes about the program, my main issue right now is coming up with and executing a worthwhile thesis project with little-to-no guidance for someone who pretty plainly has stated that he just wants it done while I already feel under-confident in my abilities as a student. I really respect my advisor (and hope I've managed to maintain enough anonymity here) and I understand that he has many obligations, but I feel lost and I have pretty much given up on expecting any more guidance. I have been reading as many articles and MA theses as I can in my proposed research area and beyond and I am learning a lot, but I'm struggling with how I can apply what I learn to come up with and do a project on my own. I don't know how to gauge what scope is appropriate, what the limits and possibilities are for resources within and outside the lab, or how to design a project and a thesis proposal. While I don't currently have the confidence that I can come up with something potentially publishable, I really want to produce something that I will at least be comfortable showing my peers or possibly using down the line if I want to apply to PhD programs. I should mention that I'm beyond the point where switching focus or advisors is a possibility and I actually think my advisor is the best option in our department anyway. 

I feel dissatisfied with my MA experience as a whole and desperately want more training and education, but I also don't feel like I am at all prepared for a PhD program right now and I know my feelings of inadequacy are holding me back. Once I get past the thesis and graduating I intend to continue studying and getting practical experience outside of a formal program, but right now that seems so out of reach. I'm realizing how much I'm going to need to learn and teach myself and it feels daunting.

I appreciate any advice or accounts of similar experiences. 

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I have several thoughts and I'll do my best to present them clearly here. Feel free to ask questions if something I say doesn't make sure.

1) If you're headed into your last semester, you should have already started on your thesis or, at minimum, done a proposal. Have you done that yet? If not, get on that ASAP. If you don't have a proposal, it's hard for people to give you good feedback. If you have, then you should be getting feedback on it from your entire committee (see below). For proposals, you may want to check out the book Proposals that Work. Without knowing more about your interests, it's hard to help you figure out how to craft a proposal. It may be worth asking other students if you can see their proposals or talking to PhD students you know about the proposals they submitted for their MA work. It's up to you to figure out what resources you'll need and if they're available, which you can then use to refine the ideas in your proposal. If you really have no idea where to start, begin with review papers in your field and by reading the discussion section of articles you like so that you can get some research ideas.

2) Who else is on your thesis committee? If you haven't already, you should be talking to them about your ideas and your plans for your thesis. This is even more important if you aren't getting good feedback from your advisor. In general, you should be working with 1-2 other people on your thesis, ideally folks who you've already taken a class or two with. That way, you'll be able to get strong recommendation letters from multiple folks for your PhD applications.

3) If you're planning to do a PhD, then your advisor's attitude about just getting the MA/MS thesis done is pretty common. It's the same advice I got as a MA student because I was going on to the PhD. There isn't the time, if you only have one semester, to do the research, write everything up, and get it into publishable shape in the time that you have left, particularly if you're trying to graduate in the spring semester. The deadline to defend and file your thesis will probably be 2-3 weeks before the end of the semester so, realistically, you have about 10-12 weeks to research and write before submitting your draft for feedback, making revisions, etc. That really isn't enough time to produce something publishable on a topic, especially if you're not confident about your subject area knowledge...

4) You start off this post by saying that you've barely learned enough to scrape by in the field. Why do you think that? Are you able to pick up articles in your area of interest, understand them, and recognize the references in the lit review? When you read a review paper in your area, are you surprised by any of the findings or the information presented? Ideally, you'd be able to say yes to that first question and no to the second. If not, then it's on you to do more reading in your field. It's not your advisor's job to force you to deepen your knowledge of the field.

I'm also wondering if you ever took a course on the history or theory of your discipline. If you did, then you should've gained some good knowledge of the discipline. You may need to re-read the texts or, if you read excerpts originally, read more of the text but you should have a good starting point. If you didn't take such a course, a quick google search for syllabi should yield you some ideas of where to start with reading. Also, if you didn't take that kind of course, I would take one this semester, even though you're about to graduate. Audit it if you have to, sit in on the undergrad version if you're really unsure, or see if you can find a MOOC with relevant content. Take it upon yourself to shore up your knowledge of the discipline.

All of that said, graduate school is about going deeper into one particular topic, which necessarily means you won't have deep knowledge about all aspects of the field you're in. This is especially true in a discipline like anthropology which has four fields. You need broad (senior level undergrad) knowledge of the discipline as a whole but, if you're an archaeologist, no one is going to expect you to have deep knowledge of the key texts of linguistic anthropology, you know?

5) If I were you, I'd try to pinpoint the things you think you should know that you don't know. That way you have a targeted path for your future studies. But also because you may realize that you know more than you think.

Good luck!

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I'll just keep this short:

While having an adviser that cares, provides feedback, and generally goes to bat for you is nice...graduate school is also a time to learn how to be independent. No one is going to hold your hand anymore, you need to figure a lot of stuff out on your own - put something together that shows hard work and polish - and ask for feedback and rinse and repeat. No one - even the best advisers - are going to provide the details or nuances of academic work at this stage.

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Thank you for all the feedback and advice @rising_star and @comparativist. I really appreciate it. 

I am definitely happy to work independently and I have spent a lot of time learning things on my own before and during my program, however with the thesis in particular I've been struggling to figure out how to do that. rising star, a lot of what you said is tremendously helpful, thank you. In response to your points - 

1) I haven't started on a proposal yet since I'm still working out what my thesis will entail. I only began talking about it with my advisor at the beginning of this past semester (fall 2016). I started reading MA theses in my area of study through Proquest and talking to a couple close friends in the same field. Both have been helpful, but I do realize now from talking to people in other programs that I am well behind the typical timeline for starting thesis work. This seems to be the norm for my school, but not at all for the handful of anthropology MA students I know in other programs. 

2) I don't have a committee yet, however there is at least one other professor who I can ask. 

3) I haven't talked to my advisor about the possibility of doing a PhD at all yet because I am not planning to apply directly after I finish the MA. I would really like to graduate this May when I am done with coursework, but I am considering pushing graduating until the following semester to give myself more time to work on the thesis. This seems relatively common in my program, but I'm not sure how it's viewed in the field. In your opinion would it be looked at negatively for someone to take an additional semester solely for thesis work? 

4) I would answer yes, and no to your questions for the most part, so maybe I'm not giving myself quite enough credit and being overly negative. I actually like poring over and dissecting articles and I've always been happy to do that on my own. My program hasn't offered any sort of theory or history course of the field, though I would really like to take one and I hadn't thought of the possibility of auditing. 

5) That's a really helpful suggestion - there are at least a couple of areas that I feel lacking in that I didn't realize I could potentially teach myself (particularly some stats and qualitative methods). 

Thanks again!

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On 1/5/2017 at 6:15 PM, leftover cheese said:

I'm nearing my last semester of my two year Master's program (anthropology) and I feel like I've barely learned enough to scape by in my field, never mind apply to PhD programs. Unfortunately(/fortunately) I know I am not alone in this feeling, as two other students in my cohort feel the same way and share many of the same frustrations. My advisor is very respected and connected in my field and is available for occasional meetings, however, he offers very, very little direction or concrete guidance, and has actually said to another MA student regarding their thesis to "just get it done," strongly implying to that person not to worry too much about how good it is. This advisor is retiring soon and it is painfully obvious that he has already checked out on the MA students, while most of his PhD students are already 4-5 years into their programs and know what they are doing. I know this from talking to others in the lab and the department. I also have heard from multiple people that this advisor does not actually READ term papers and have been plainly told that it doesn't matter what we write in them because "you'll just get an A." I am happy about getting As, but I'm concerned about the almost total lack of critical feedback that I've come to learn is the department norm.

Aside from gripes about the program, my main issue right now is coming up with and executing a worthwhile thesis project with little-to-no guidance for someone who pretty plainly has stated that he just wants it done while I already feel under-confident in my abilities as a student. I really respect my advisor (and hope I've managed to maintain enough anonymity here) and I understand that he has many obligations, but I feel lost and I have pretty much given up on expecting any more guidance. I have been reading as many articles and MA theses as I can in my proposed research area and beyond and I am learning a lot, but I'm struggling with how I can apply what I learn to come up with and do a project on my own. I don't know how to gauge what scope is appropriate, what the limits and possibilities are for resources within and outside the lab, or how to design a project and a thesis proposal. While I don't currently have the confidence that I can come up with something potentially publishable, I really want to produce something that I will at least be comfortable showing my peers or possibly using down the line if I want to apply to PhD programs. I should mention that I'm beyond the point where switching focus or advisors is a possibility and I actually think my advisor is the best option in our department anyway. 

I feel dissatisfied with my MA experience as a whole and desperately want more training and education, but I also don't feel like I am at all prepared for a PhD program right now and I know my feelings of inadequacy are holding me back. Once I get past the thesis and graduating I intend to continue studying and getting practical experience outside of a formal program, but right now that seems so out of reach. I'm realizing how much I'm going to need to learn and teach myself and it feels daunting.

I appreciate any advice or accounts of similar experiences. 

I feel like I'm reading about my program - so know that you're not alone.  I've gotten little direction and am completely lost, to be honest.  Many in my cohort feel the same way, and quite honestly, I'm not sure what can be done other than course reviews.  My problem is that this advisor is also the 'manager' of our program, so it will largely fall on deaf ears.  No advice other than 'hang in there'.

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