This is a good question to ask yourself before you look into programs. Some programs offer direct-entry to the PhD program; this does not mean you will not have to complete the equivalent coursework of a master’s degree, but given satisfactory completion of master’s work, you’ll be allowed to progress to the PhD level with that department.
If you have a bachelor’s degree and you are deciding whether to apply to MA programs or directly to PhD programs, here are a few important things to consider:
- Most PhD programs offer funding along with acceptance; this is not true of most MA programs.
- Acceptance is more competitive for PhD programs. It is more comparable to the competition to get a scholarship than it is to admissions for undergraduate programs.
- MA programs usually take 1-2 years to complete. PhD programs usually require 5-7 years past undergraduate (but actually completing the dissertation can take even longer than this statistic suggests).
- Just because a school offers you acceptance to their MA program does not mean that you will have an “in” to progress to the PhD. In fact, many competitive schools do not feed their PhD programs from their own terminal MA programs.
- If you are applying directly to the PhD with a BA, it is important to look carefully into each school’s directions for the application. Some will want to you choose the MA program on the application, but then indicate your intention to continue through the PhD in your personal statement. Others will have a specific option for direct-entry to the PhD.
- Some schools will still consider you for their MA programs even if you don’t get into the PhD directly. While this can be a fall back, if you are not confident that you are qualified for the PhD program, there is no guarantee that your application will get referred to the MA program unless you apply for it.
- While MA programs (in general) improve your pay scale and your qualifications for jobs, a PhD can actually over-qualify you for many jobs. Earning more money and/or improving your qualifications for any job that does not specifically require a PhD are not good reasons to apply to PhD programs.
- Unless you eventually hope to get into a top-tier PhD program with your MA, where your degree came from matters more with the PhD than is does with the MA. If you’re a high school teacher and you go back to get an Masters in Education, in the end, the degree matters more than where it came from. This is unfortunately not the case with PhD programs; it is generally not worthwhile to pursue a PhD from a program that does not have the resources available for you to do research in your specific field and has limited success in finding tenure-track jobs for its recent graduates.
More than anything, I wish someone would have stressed this point to me before I applied. I mentioned before that the competitiveness of top PhD program is akin to the competition for a scholarship. You can imagine when you are applying to a prestigious scholarship, there may be many applicants who are qualified to receive the scholarship, but the selection committee only has so much money to offer to the applicants. Once the applicant pool has been whittled down to its most competitive applicants, it is the subjective process of judging personal statements and/or samples of the students’ work that ultimately determines who gets the scholarship. Admissions to a PhD program is exactly this: there are too many qualified applicants and not enough funding to go around. Therefore, “fit” is everything when it comes to getting accepted to a PhD program – not necessarily your GPA or GRE scores.
When I first sent one of my recommenders a list of the schools I was applying to, he sent me back an email commenting on how my list didn’t have any “back up schools.” At first I was offended – if he was writing my letters of recommendation, did he really think I didn’t have a chance at getting into any of the “top” programs? However, he ended up being completely right. Admissions to those programs was far more competitive than I originally thought, and getting into an MA program helped me keep my sanity knowing I still had the option to go to graduate school if I didn’t get into any PhD programs.
While these can definitely make or break your application, most people won’t rank them high on their application to-do list because preparations for your letters of recommendation start far before you pop the question to a potential recommender. Asking for letters of recommendation is the final step in a long process of networking.
The best recommendations will come from professors who know you and who truly support you in your higher-education quest, so while you want them to know you and your interests, it is also to your advantage to get to know them. Are they willing to take the time to give you thoughtful advice? Do they share your interests? What testimony could they offer of your academic ability?
Here are 10 things to do before you ask professors for a recommendations. Incidentally, these also won’t hurt your performance in class, either!
1. Go to their office hours.
2. Stay engaged in their class and make an effort to never be absent.
3. Ask their advice on how to improve your papers even if you are confident you’ll get an A.
4. Make sure you receive feedback from them beyond a letter grade, especially if it is not an advanced class.
5. Involve them in your decision process from “I’m thinking about it” stage to the “I’m ready to apply” stage.
6. Read something written by your professors. If appropriate, ask them about it.
7. Don’t dodge the question: “Do you think graduate school is right for me?” – ask it outright and be willing to accept the answer.
8. Try to get a research position with them or work with them more closely in an independent study.
9. Seek advice on which programs to apply to – and people they know in the field who you might want to work with.
10. Here’s an obvious but important one: always put a good face forward. Complaining about a grade or constantly asking for extensions are things you want to avoid at all costs.
Some of these may seem obvious, but you would be surprised to hear some of the wacky stories people tell about asking for recommendations. I knew someone who once asked a professor who had accused her of academic dishonesty for a recommendation. Really, what? Even if you have stellar grades, that does not mean that you made strong connections with professors. In the end, GPA alone is not enough to get you into graduate school if you have lackluster recommendations.
At best, your recommenders will push for you to get into certain schools where they know the faculty (I honestly believe this helped me get in to my program).
They say hindsight is 20/20, but if we could go back and do it all again, would it really turn out perfectly?
As far as graduate school applications go, it’s perfectly normal to go through multiple rounds of applications before getting into the right school (I just made that sound like dating, but it is kind of a learn-from experience deal). Seniors in high school go into the undergraduate application season armed with their GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and not much else other than a resume of extracurriculars. For graduate school, you truly have to sell yourself on paper. Your statement of purpose could make all the difference in whether you get that acceptance letter – and that leaves a lot of room for improvement on a second go-round.
I will not be participating in the 2014 application season, but looking back I could have made some improvements on my applications. All is well that ends well, but if you are applying this year here are some things I wish I would have known in hindsight.
Things I would have done differently:
- Done more to research my own fit for a program before I went ahead and applied. I could have, in some cases, narrowed down my list and in others, broadened it.
- Contacted persons of interest from the schools I was most interested in before I applied. I didn’t even know this was an option at the time. If the only faculty member who shares your interests isn’t taking on any new students, you have your answer about whether the school would be a good fit. Best case scenario, they are excited to work with you and even push for you during application season.
- My statements of purpose(s) were in some ways too narrowly focused on a concentration within my discipline. I thought this might be an asset, but it may have closed some doors to me that may have been open to someone more versatile.
- Finally, I would have looked more into funding opportunities at schools. I’m pleased with the PhD program I will be attending in a month and feel it is an excellent fit, but I can’t help but feel I could have had leverage to ask for a better funding offer if I would have gotten even better funding from other schools.
Things I would not have done differently:
- Studied more for the Subject GRE. I didn’t crack open a single practice book or read about test strategies and my score was crap. However, less than half my schools required it and the one that gave me the best offer did require it. So go figure.
- Apply to a “back-up” MA program. Not realizing how competitive the admissions process actually is, I resisted applying to a program that 1) was not in the top 20 and 2) was not direct-entry to the PhD. I ended up applying and was really glad to have it as an option in the end cause it was a close call with the PhD programs.
- Doing whatever it took to come up with the best writing sample. In the two weeks leading up to my first application deadline I sent my writing sample to a professor for him to read it over. I was expecting a few offhand comments, but he ended up sending me back pages of written advice and working with me on multiple new drafts. It took a lot of time and stress, but his help probably got me into the program I’m currently attending.
- Make a spreadsheet to organize all my applications. Boy, did things get confusing in the end and I had multiple panic attacks that I had forgotten to send my transcripts. Referring back to my spreadsheet calmed me – and probably saved me from making some more dire mistakes.
If you are a graduate student, what would you have done differently on your applications and do you think the outcome would have been if you had the chance to improve your applications? If you are applying again, how much is “hindsight knowledge” will be an asset in a second round of applications? I’d love to hear other responses.