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.
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.