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crazy or an insider truth?

I'm new to this place and you guys seem like a really awesome resource for feedback on this kind of stuff, and I’m hoping for your help, if you’d be so kind.

It’s been a few years since I’ve graduated from college, and I’ve made the decision to go to grad school in English Literature. Now, I’ve been going back and forth between starting with an MA and if all works out well, moving onto a PhD program. I have, however, gotten conflicting advice from different sources. Some are saying go for it. Others are saying I should apply directly to a PhD program and forgo the MA option. I did see some posts in the past that referred to similar questions, and they were very helpful.

But what I want to ask about is your take on something peculiar I heard recently from someone who recommended that I forgo the MA. Most people advise forgoing the MA for pretty obvious reasons – my background might be enough and with the majority of MA programs unfunded, it may be a waste of time and money. That is pretty logical and straightforward. Now, here’s where I’m confused – there was one person who told me recently that an MA may hurt my chances at getting into a top PhD program. That sounded a bit crazy to me that it could hurt, but this person offered the following reasoning.

It’d be helpful first to briefly tell you my background, because his reasoning had to do with all this specifically: I went to an ivy league and did well as far as GPA goes, able to pull off the A’s in my classes, etc. However, I was pretty unfocused in college. I graduated an English lit major, but I really don’t see myself as being a competitive candidate at this point: I didn’t write a thesis and when I pull out my old papers, even if they have the A or A- grade, they look pretty pitiful to me on the whole, and they’re certainly not critical, researched papers that show academic promise. They're more well-done close-reading papers. I didn’t build relationships with professors and I don’t think I could get genuinely strong recs. I don’t have very good proficiency in a foreign language – just one college year in a couple romance languages and high school Spanish. Finally, I don’t have a good enough grasp of the various areas in the field to know how I could effectively focus my interests and research, which at this point are scandalously and ridiculously broad.

(If you’re wondering why college was the way it was - long story short, I got pretty disillusioned with the field in college and just gave up on the whole thing, then met a new prof my senior year who opened my eyes per se, and I graduated thinking oh crap what did I do with my college years. I wandered around the last few years, testing out the different careers/fields out there, and I’ve found alas, this really seems to be it.) Now, what I hoped an MA would do is help address all of the above places I feel insecure, and just serve a sort of final confirmation to me that I do have what it takes to do graduate work and succeed. I’m considering applying to an English MA program somewhere local. The tuition won’t be so bad, and the faculty isn’t so bad, but it’s no ivy league, and its program doesn’t have the reputation that a top institution might have. But still, my thinking is – I can grow through this program, prove myself, and be in good position to move forward.

But this one person advises me that if I do my MA there, when I apply out to PhD’s, I might get burned by people on admissions committees that may think I “took a step down,” and I did that MA because it was the best I could do. Secondly, she says that academic departments generally like their PhD students coming in “pure,” untainted, you might say, by other departments, or something of that nature.

Now, as for this person – she’s clearly an accomplished person – she’s got a BA, a law degree and an MA in philosophy all from top ivy leagues and she has an impressive career in journalism as a literary critic. But, the way I came into contact with this person was through this sort of silly Masters in liberal arts kind of program – glorified continuing ed, basically. This person, though she has another full-time job, is the “professor” for this course on Philosophy/Literature I’m taking this semester (my work is paying for it and I thought it sounded interesting – though I've been sadly wrong on that front). Also, this person is an adjunct prof in philosophy at another school around here.

We came upon all this when we got to chatting recently. At first, what she said scared me a bit, but I got to thinking that it sounds a bit fishy. This person’s not REALLY in the academic world, and even if she were, it’s philosophy, not English. She’s a literary critic for a newspaper, but academically, she’s not in the field field. Further, she’s your classic ivy league junkie – which is fine and great, but not if there’s a chance it gave her a set of blinders and false assumptions about this sort of stuff.

Sigh. What do you guys think? Is this person well-meaning but just really off? It seems unlikely since she seems fairly familiar with the academic world and does have a pretty impressive background. Or does she have a point? Can it be true? You do well in the your MA program, prove yourself totally capable, focused and intelligent and the work you propose to take up in a PhD is promising and interesting to the faculty looking at your application. Could you then really get screwed over by the kind of scenario above, where departments think you’re “tainted,” and have taken a step down, blablabla?

Or, here’s a simple question that might tackle it: are any of you out there living proof against her theory? I'm thinking so and hoping so.  I just don't think I could cut it applying to a top PhD program right now. Thank you and apologies for this blabbering email. 



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2008 01:25 pm (UTC)
You have to get the MA before the PhD either way. The "Phd" program you're talking about going to directly would be a combined MA/Phd program, which some schools offer.

An MA is usually general, and you have a year or two to find your focus and strengthen your theoretical background, etc. before you apply again or continue on to the PhD. You'll have to pass the MA exam or do a thesis. You can also spend the summers (or the semesters) adding to your language background.

Try to find a funded MA, where you have an assistantship or scholarship. Write to your old professors, don't be negative, ask if they would write you letters of rec for grad school. They might not be very personal letters, but they'll be from a good school and good names, which matters too.

Apply not to any school, but to schools that you want to go to and which have professors you want to work with. Apply to good schools, not the school down the road (unless its good); it's much better to go to a good name than a local, as it will dramatically affect the quality of your education and connections and also the very atmosphere of the school itself and your enjoyment of your stay there.

Shoot for the stars, but don't apply to the top ten schools because they're the top ten schools. If you don't get in to where you want to go one year, don't go anywhere; apply again the next year.

I could add more, but I have to run. Be back later.

Oct. 17th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC)
I actually don't have an M.A. I just have a Ph.D. In my program, you could file paperwork to get an M.A. after exams, but it was just that, paperwork. It's fairly rare, but those programs are out there. FWIW, my cohort was about half coming in with an M.A., half without, none without at least a year off from undergrad (I had one year off, and am the youngest).

Anyhow, this was me, only part of the problem was that my English lit major was haphazardly put together after spending most of my time on a Biology major:

"I graduated an English lit major, but I really don’t see myself as being a competitive candidate at this point: I didn’t write a thesis and when I pull out my old papers, even if they have the A or A- grade, they look pretty pitiful to me on the whole, and they’re certainly not critical, researched papers that show academic promise. They're more well-done close-reading papers."

I didn't know precisely what I was doing (although I did indicate an interest in a field and a subfield for specific reasons in my application), but I figured it out in graduate school rather than before getting there. I'm not sure I would be where I am otherwise; I think going through an M.A. program and having to apply again would have convinced me to do something else with my life. I'm not saying the M.A. program isn't a great option for some, just that for me, knowing that I was in a Ph.D. program gave me the incentive to keep going when I might otherwise not have.

I only applied to straight Ph.D. programs or M.A./Ph.D. programs, so I can't speak to the experience of M.A. programs directly. I have a very strong opinion, however, that what good Ph.D. programs are looking for (and should be looking for) is evidence of potential, the _ability_ to do innovative readings, rather than the evidence of having done a lot of research. That's what graduate school trains you how to do; yes, you must demonstrate an awareness of ongoing critical conversations and what it means to participate in them, but you don't have to have a thesis brimming with a 3-page bibliography of meticulously researched sources. This, of course, can't hurt you, but if the reading that anchors all that research isn't rigorous and original, then you won't stand out anyway.

I don't believe the "you took a step down" perspective; I think that comment came out of the insecurities of the particular person you were talking to. This person, as you point out, is not really in the academic world; he/she does not have a Ph.D., despite the obvious success and the Ivy League degrees (which is, perhaps, the source of the insecurity). Academia is not the Ivy League, nor are all, or even most, of the best programs in English part of the Ivy League. I'll leave the rest of that rant for another day. Having an MA from the most Ivy-covered school doesn't get anyone near to the understanding of academia that writing a dissertation, participating in conferences, publishing, and going on the job market pounds into you. Without knowing this person, I'll go ahead and say that this person may have been well-meaning but that he/she does not know what he/she is talking about.

I do, however, agree with what blastulababe says about MA applicants being viewed through a sharper lens--there is an assumption there that you should be doing graduate level work already, on top of having the potential, because you've had some graduate level training. This makes sense, and I don't think that makes it "harder" to get in necessarily, because you do have the benefit of the training. I think what it does mean is more relevant to the applicants without M.A.'s -- your application is viewed from a different perspective; they know you don't have that training yet, what they're asking then is rather, will this person blossom or wilt under that training?

Edited at 2008-10-17 06:58 pm (UTC)
Oct. 17th, 2008 01:28 pm (UTC)
I would say yes and no.
I have heard (from tenured faculty in English lit)that it can be harder for an MA applicant, because the school expects your writing sample to be graduate-level good, and they'll expect you to be really focused in your interests since you'll have done graduate work on it already. Also, some programs do like to train students through their literary philosophy.
But I seriously doubt any school would reject a qualified applicant simply because they had a master's in hand. And the "you took a step down" thing just strikes me as ridiculous and elitist in the worst way.
That said, don't *not* apply to PhD programs because you think you might not get in. Revise an old seminar paper until you think it shows enough promise. You can apply to MA and PhD programs at the same time. But if you end up in this MA program (or one in a more "prestigious" place), I don't think you should worry that it hurts your chances. Just work to make your application the best it can be either way.
Good luck!
Oct. 17th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
i've heard a lot of arguments against doing an MA first, but "you took a step down" sounds plain strange.

the main reason i've heard, re: to not do a stand-alone MA, is that, if you know for certain you want a PhD, doing two years on your own dime is silly.

however, if you've been disillusioned with the field, if you're looking to improve your work & candidacy, then doing an MA first might be perfect for you. everything acciptersolis says above is pretty spot-on, but, in addition to looking for a funded MA program (because there are very, very few), look at programs in the UK and canada (way cheaper).

one last thing: i've heard, too, that it's "harder" for an applicant with an MA to get into a PhD program, but i also have friends at two top-ten programs who say they are in a really small minority of students who came in direct from undergrad. so, don't let that stand in your way, is what i am trying to say; be a great candidate, and you'll have a better chance.

good luck!
Oct. 17th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much, guys. I appreciate your thoughtful and thorough answers.

I think my plan really is to apply out to both PhD and MA programs and see what happens. The only issues is that I’m limited geographically – my husband’s in a program that won’t end until the summer of 2012, so there are just a few programs I can apply to in the time being. That’s another reason why starting with an MA was attractive – when I’m done with the MA, I would have applied out to as many PhD programs as I wanted, without being limited geographically as I am now. I guess the question down the road will be: if I end up not getting into any of the PhD programs but get into the MA program (which I still think is the likeliest result) – do I go ahead then and start with an MA. From what you guys are saying, it sounds like it really can’t hurt unless the quality of my work just doesn’t cut it given an MA training, or if there’s some odd prejudice by a program against students coming in with an MA.

And then of course, there will be further questions down the road - when do we want to have kids, how do we pay our mortgage, etc., etc., but that’s another question for another forum for another day. :) Thanks again, guys.
Oct. 18th, 2008 12:31 am (UTC)
It sounds like academic elitism on the philosophy teacher's part (she's only a lecturer if she doesn't have a PhD, by the way). She might not know a great deal about applying to PhD programs, since she didn't enter or complete one.
The fact is, your work will speak for itself. Someone told me that one of the top applicants for several ivy league PhD programs came out of a podunk state school somewhere, but his work reflected his ability and desire to succeed.
Do what YOU want to do, and focus on improving your skills over the course of your MA. The namesake of a school is not as important as most ivy leaguers think (or wish) it is.
Oct. 18th, 2008 02:35 am (UTC)
I agree.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )