Monday, May 31, 2010

The M.A. Decision-Making Process

Okay, here's a sing-along-with-Mitch kind of post, inspired by a sub-thread in yesterday's post: What is/should be the decision-making process when applying to M.A. programs in particular?

Of course, by the time our students apply to Ph.D. programs, we hope that they understand that they need to find a real match, whether it's geographic, thematic, or both. Yet, as many commenters pointed out, the M.A. might be different -- many of our applicants are place-bound, and so are applying to the program that's closest to them. Heck, many are applying only to get the M.A. as a teaching credential, so that's a different animal altogether.

I wasn't place bound -- in fact, I wanted out of where I was, at least temporarily -- but my M.A. program selections were not anywhere near as careful as my Ph.D. applications. Here's the short list of questions I asked when researching M.A. programs:
  • Is there a person in my geographic/chronological field of interest?
  • Do they have tenure? And if not, is there another person in the department who can supervise me if they are denied tenure or recruited away?
  • What is the very best program (as opposed to person) that might actually let me in?**
And that was it. Perhaps I should have known more. But as I've posted before, my own decision to go to grad school was made rather impulsively, and I'm just damn lucky it worked out. But given yesterday's discussion, and especially the point on geographic proximity being the main consideration for many of our M.A. applicants, I'm wondering, for those of you who did a separate M.A., what was your decision process?

**Considering my combination of big ambitions, but only a B+ G.PA., this final point weighed the most heavily in my deliberations. It's also why I giggled when my undergrad medieval professor, whose Ph.D. was from Fancypants U., kept urging me to apply to Fancypants U. myself.


Sapience said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sapience said...

(Reposted to add a bit and edit...) There's also the problem of changing your field during the MA or PhD. What you want to study when you apply and what you want to study after a year waiting to get in and a year of classes can change pretty substantially. One friend of mine came into the MA thinking she wanted to do 18th century British literature. She's now doing American biographies for children. I came into my MA wanting to do medieval literature, and left doing seventeenth-century literature. Should grad students get forced back into a thesis in an area they are no longer interested in?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This certainly does happen. But it usually happens because there's a person on the faculty whose research or teaching inspires the grad student to explore a new field (this very thing happened to my best friend in grad school). But that's not really a problem, as students in this situation are moving to a field where there is someone there to supervise them.

Amstr said...

Coming out of a SLAC, I had very little concept of what it might take to get into and succeed in a PhD program, though the PhD was my ultimate goal. I decided to take a year off and apply to MA programs at state universities to get a better idea of what I was in for. I also felt like I could accomplish the MA, and I wasn't sure I had the stamina for the PhD. And I was eager to take advantage of in-state tuition (though I still racked up the max. amount of student loans). On the fabulous advice of a fabulous undergrad professor, I applied for the MA at a Polytechnic Uni that I hadn't even been considering (because why would one get an English degree at a Poly?). My foremost consideration became the kind of community I would find. Most state schools were commuter schools and wouldn't provide as much opportunity to find a place to belong. My second concern was the quality/reputation of the program. I was grateful to find a program that had excellent professors, drew dynamic students, and supported a general curriculum (exams instead of a thesis; lit, comp, and linguistics required), since I didn't have a particular area of interest.

My advice for those applying to grad programs: find a good advisor who knows you well and can guide you through the process.

Amstr said...

Oh--another big consideration for me in an English MA was language requirements: I was only prepared to pass one foreign language exam.

Bardiac said...

I was so ignorant, even trying to get into a PhD program. The faculty at my regional comprehensive were wonderful and encouraging, but... well one called someone she knew at big flagship, and asked where a student interested in my stuff should apply. And he suggested a couple schools, and I applied there. (No one from my school got into big flagship, pretty much, so not there.) Turns out her friend was incredibly old boy conservative, and so I ended up in a program way more conservative than would have served me best. But, oh well, it was big enough and I made it through.

Dang, I was so ignorant and clueless.

Marie said...

I applied straight to PhD programs, so I never went through the straight MA process. But I am about to get MA students of my own for the first time and so am interested in the post.

The only question I asked of myself when deciding on what school to go to was: What program will give me the greatest chance of success? That was success not only to finish the PhD but to get a job afterward. For me, that meant a state school so that I didn't need as many loans, or one that would give me full stipends (fat chance). It meant a school close to my partner's school so that we could continue to live together. A good program, but not so top tier that I would get lost in the shuffle. And an advisor that wouldn't leave.

Well, I was assured that my advisor wouldn't leave, and they did (pulled away by their partner- who got pulled away by another school). My topic shifted, and is now sort of between the two remaining early americanists. However, they have been great- getting me to think about the major themes and methodology of my research. Even though they may not know my specific historiography (there are only a small handful of people in the world who do), they still make excellent advisors. I'm glad they didn't kick me out because my work and interests didn't overlap with theirs. In fact, it helped me branch out and get in touch with professors in other programs and schools to look at my work. It helped me network.

Gotten a little of track. I think my point was that each student is different, but students should think about what they want of the program, and how best to achieve that. Then apply to the relevant schools. And it will be different for all of them. It never turns out exactly as we plan, but a good student will learn to make it work.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I, too, was completely clueless about MA programs. When I started, too, I had no ambition toward a PhD. I just wanted to do something other than work as a bank teller, which is what I'd been doing for the last year after I graduated with a worthless degree in music. (Well, not worthless. It cost 60,000 dollars.)

I was the first person in my family to go on for PhD, so I didn't have any academic guidance there. My profs weren't especially helpful, either. But then again, I changed fields (music to English), and I ended up going to the regional U that had a program the would conditionally admit me. For PhD, I asked a prof where I should go of the three places I accepted, and he (like Bardiac's adviser) suggested I go to X school, which was WAY too conservative for me. I had a bad experience there, and wish I had gone to either of the other schools I'd been accepted to. Alas. Can't do it over again.

I also thought going in to the MA that I wanted to work on American 20th century fiction, but I ended up with Shakespeare. Weird how that worked out. There were four Shakespeareans in the department, though, so that worked out.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

In my second paragraph - what I mean is that my undergrad profs weren't helpful in me choosing a MA program. Sorry - that wasn't clear.

HistoriAnne-in-training said...

With my first MA, in Religious Studies, I lucked out and had a fantastic undergrad advisor who encouraged me to apply at the top schools in the field - that was the important part: IN THE FIELD. I had no idea what sub category I wanted to be in, so it wasn't a question of that. Many MA programs are geared toward getting you to figure out what your focus should be anyway. The things I hear about people changing (I did during my Master of Theological Studies too) their focus seems to fit that. I changed my focus in my second MA too, in history. I started there in the Master of Arts in Teaching - Social Studies, but around the same time I figured out that high school teaching was NOT for me, I also figured out that 19th C. US History was. The only thing was I was already at a small university in SC, there because it has a good reputation for their education dept and because it was close to where I live (and were I got my BA). Staying there (I transferred into the history MA program) proved to be a mistake now that I'm trying to get into PhD programs. Why? The school's not known for its history program.
That's one thing that I would advise students if they want to go on to PhD programs after the MA - go somewhere that you feel comfortable and perhaps has the people you want to work with, but also, go someplace that people in your field have at least heard of. It can really help at PhD application time.

Anonymous said...

ObUK: I was told that there was little or no prospect of funding for a Ph. D. for those who had not already acquired a Masters and thus demonstrated they could hack postgrad study. Almost everyone in UK humanities does a masters first for this reason. Straight-to-Ph. D. only really happens in the sciences here.

I chose the default stay-in-place option for a bunch of personal reasons, and it was a very good M. Phil. program which was certainly useful to me, but I would probably have done better to branch out. The people I worked with were among the best in the field, but I wasn't in their top flight and so I never subsequently received their primary backing. If I'd chosen more carefully I might have been someone's protégé—which I would probably have kicked against, but y'know, kicked all the way into a job...

jbran said...

I saw your blog and thought I would chime in...

I chose MA based on location first, prestige second. Which, being in a very large city was not that difficult.

I am an older student however, and have the two body problem, as well as not open to certain parts of the country.

I am also not interested in the PhD for what I want to do, it is actually too limiting career wise for the life I want. I wouldn't mind lecturing at community colleges however if that proved to be a side income, but I wouldn't want that to be my full time thing. I am more interested in writing and having a stable career, possibly in editing/publishing/NFP sector doing grant writing in a big market, i.e. NYC or Chicago