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Safe offer Vs. Taking the Year Off (and Applying Elsewhere)

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I am currently completing my MA in Political Science in Canada, but I have been working closely with a brilliant professor from the Sociology department from the same university for half of my program courses; our interest are quite aligned for a very specific, niche field, and I am honoured to work with him (and I would be pressed to find anyone else with his level of expertise in this relatively unique area!). When I applied for Political Science PhD programs, I applied for the Sociology program as well after I was encouraged to do so, even when the deadline was passed! 

While I didn't get to any of the handful of Political Science programs -- none of them offered anything close to what was my focus, and I was even told by one of them that my interests were too specific for the department -- I recently heard back from the Sociology department, and the admissions committee is extending me a "fast-track" master's degree admission offer, where I will be taking the exact number of courses needed to satisfy the course requirement for the PhD program! Essentially, I was told I would be technically completing the first year of the Phd program, though not officially, and that I would be officially upgraded into the PhD program as early as next summer, provided that I maintain an A- average for the five courses. The other caveat is that I will be dealing with an MA-level of funding for the most part of the first year, and I will get a Phd-level funding starting the summer (when I would start working on the first competency exam). The reason why they're making me jump through this hoop is because apparently this is apparently standard for those without any background in Sociology, and they want me have the appropriate foundation for methodology (even though I did really well in the Political Science methodology course!) and ensure that I do well in the statistics course (I suspect that my F in undergrad calculus from several years ago was flagged by them as concerning). 

Anyways, I'm not sure what to think of it. On one hand, I am really happy I got an admission offer to work with an excellent supervisor, but on the other hand, I have this fear that if I were to go ahead with this master's program that something might happen in the future and they may change their mind  and have me not proceed with the PhD program, even if I satisfy all conditions. In fact, this is what will be stipulated in my official admission offer, "We will consider you for direct entry to the PhD program after successful completion of five courses." I'm no discourse analyst, but there's nothing concrete in that language, paling in comparison to what was promised over the phone and email (though I can understand from their perspective why they want to give themselves that wiggle wiggleroom). The other issue is the matter of university prestige, it has been hammered into my head that getting into any of the top ten US schools truly makes a difference (especially if you are interested in pursuing a tenure position).

Do I stick with what really seems to be a safe, good offer here in Canada for a mid-tier university (provided their unofficial word is kept which is my main concern), or should I take the year off and apply to the other schools, namely US, UK and Australia, hoping to get into the PhD programs directly?! For my future applications, not only will I be applying to programs that are way closer to my interests -- for some strange reason my focus isn't really offered for the great majority of the programs here in Canada but they are definetely offered in the US-- but I will also broaden my focus just to be safe, making it less specific. Also, I will prepare for the GRE (the reason I didn't apply to schools beyond Canada was because I didn't take this exam!).

I'm absolutely torn choosing between the "safer" option or taking the year off and applying to arguably better schools. If I stick with the safer option, I will always have that regret of how my life would have turned out if I applied elsewhere, but if I do pursue the path of taking the year off and apply to several more schools and don't get into any, I will this other regret as well! I'm slightly gravitating towards the safer option because I don't think I will ever encounter the chance of having a prospective supervisor advocate on my behalf for the admissions committee to get me in. I would love to hear your opinion and what you would choose!

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As you know, in Canada, you always have to apply to a PhD program after a MA anyways. So if you took the "safe" offer, keep in mind that you are basically taking a second MA offer with the potential to fast-track to a PhD path. Your ability to get into their PhD program would really depend on your performance in the first year, but at the same time, if you went into any direct PhD program in the US, for example, the first 2 years would be like a Canadian Masters and you would still have to pass a qualifying exam to continue in the department.

So, I wouldn't really take the "safe offer" conditions into account because no matter where you go for your PhD, you will have to pass/reach some standard.

Instead, the real question is what you mention at the end: will a PhD from the "safe" option be enough for you to reach your career goals? Or do you need a PhD from a more prestigious place?

The following is just my opinion based on what my own priorities and goals are, so they might not necessarily fit you but I hope hearing different perspectives help you find out what you want:

My opinion is that if If I need a "better" PhD to get what I want in my career, then I would only aim for that. There's no point attending the safe school if it's not going to get me to where I want to be. That is, I'm not going to get a PhD just for the sake of getting a PhD. I would be better off in a different career path outside of academia/things that require a PhD if I could not get into a program that will advance me towards my goals.


So, I feel like it's a personal decision you have to make. One thing to keep in mind: you can start at this "safe" program and apply to other direct-PhD programs this fall. Since you are applying at the start of the new program, you don't really need letters or anything from your Sociology program. However, this is risky because you will likely get letters from your PoliSci department and professors will talk to each other. So, if you feel comfortable telling your new Sociology program that you are also applying to other PhD programs, I would go ahead and do that. I think they must understand, because they are not promising you a spot in their PhD program---officially you are only accepted to their Masters program so you have the freedom to consider other places for PhD. I feel that since they are making you compete for a PhD spot, you have the right to look elsewhere as well. Just my opinion.

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Is deferring for one year an option? If so, I'd do that so you can keep the offer and see if you could get in somewhere else next year.

If not... Do you know if the other programs will oblige you to take similar courses in your first year (because you do not have a sociology background)? If so, you might be able to transfer a lot of that coursework over if you apply to other programs and get accepted to a better school.  

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I would take TakeruK's approach. Attend the "safe option" as a master's student and do everything they want you to do to join the PhD program. At the same time, apply to your dream PhD programs in the USA. Then, once you've finished your year as master's student, you'll have options about how to proceed for your PhD.

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