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Should I Apply for a MA or PhD?


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Hi everyone, I'm spending days and nights trying to decide which programs to apply to and whether I even should apply to PhD programs. My profile is below, and my burning questions follows.


Undergraduate Institution: Top 25 liberal arts college (depending on which list you look at)

Major: Policy Studies, Economics (Minor in Philosophy)

Cumulative GPA: 3.94

GRE: Shooting for around 162Q, 166V

Letters of Recommendation: My options are - my thesis advisor who I have known since my first semester (tenure track/international politics), a professor I did research with for a year (tenure track/international politics), professor whom I have a great relationship with (tenured/philosophy), professor who I TA'ed for (tenure/economics), thesis advisor whom I'm fairly close to (tenure/economics). I have good relationships with all of them and most have offered to write me LORs. I don't know how well-respected they are in their fields though.

Research Experience: Did a year's worth of research with a professor whose research interests are only loosely tied to mine. I am also writing a thesis.

Work Experience: Production assistant at a news channel for 6 months, internship in a municipal business development bureau in China, in charge of a running a book club volunteer program at the local women's prison

Teaching Experience: Was a TA for Econometrics for one semester and is a writing tutor for two years now.

Additional Skills: Fluent Mandarin, Intermediate Arabic, Python, STATA

Research Interests: Energy security and development policy in East Asia (mostly China)

Choices for MA: Cambridge, LSE, John Hopkins, Chicago, Princeton, Harvard 

Choices for PhD: UCSD, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford, Yale


Burning questions: 

1) Not a question, but please be brutally honest. I've had enough people being very nice to me about grad school applications just so my dreams don't get shot down. My dreams will get shot down by the admissions committee anyway so you'd be doing me a favor by shooting down my dreams before I pay that $100 application fee.

2) As you can tell, I'm only applying to Top 20 schools. It's a bit of pride, and a bit of practicality because those schools are the best choice for my research interests. However, do you think I will get in? Or am I shooting too high?

3) With my profile, do you think I should do a MA before I apply to PhD programs so I can strength my application and actually get into a top 20 school?

4) Everyone seems to have a publication, so do you think it is necessary to have one to get into these programs? My professors have said that it is actually better to wait until you are a grad student to publish the work you've done in undergrad because those journals are more well-regarded.

5) Lastly, if there are any other schools you think I should look at, please do suggest them! 


Thank you so much for your time and may you receive brownie points and actual brownies for helping an anxious undergrad!

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1-2) Your good GPA and research experience mean that you could be in the running. A lot will likely depend on your research statement, GRE, and what letter writers say in your letters. There's a lot of randomness in admissions so nothing is guaranteed! You could come up empty or get into 4 or 5 places. Wish I could tell you for sure.

3) FWIW I'd endorse this evergreen Blattman blog post: https://chrisblattman.com/about/contact/gradschool/  TL/DR: "If your goal is to be a professional researcher and instructor, then a PhD makes sense. If not, not. In particular, if your goal is to be influential in policy and practice, then an MA or MPA or MIA from a US or UK/European institution probably makes far more sense for you."

4) Not needed in my experience! 

5) Definitely look at Michigan (Ang, Min, Gallagher). Also consider MIT (Tsai), Duke (Manion, Malesky), Cornell (Weiss, Wallace), Brown (Steinfeld).

Please feel free to direct message me if you have more questions. I am reasonably familiar with the areas you're interested in. 

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The most common reason for doing a terminal MA before a PhD is because something from undergrad makes direct PhD admission unlikely. I don't really see anything in your profile that makes me think you couldn't reasonably be admitted to top schools. You should really look at costs, also. I didn't think Harvard had a terminal MA in government, but their regional studies degrees are very pricey (more than 120k) for a two-year degree and funding isn't all that easy to come by. 

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I second Blattman's blog, but I would add this: if you decide you want to do a PhD as the end-goal, apply to only PhD programs and apply to closer to 10-15 of them (decreases variance in outcome, and if they want you but not for the PhD, they will likely offer their MA program anyway). 

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