MA or PhD?

This question looms large at the beginning of the process, and there are pros and cons to either route. Choosing whether to pursue an MA or a PhD depends on a host of factors from the cost to the workload to your intended career trajectory.

So here are some of your options:

Terminal MA

Job or Career?: When I attended the orientation for my MA program at the University of Chicago, the head of the program assured us that, in this modern economy, while a Bachelor’s degree is necessary to find a job, the Master’s degree is necessary to find a career. That is, the MA is increasingly the standard degree for many highly-competitive industries. Now, there’s nothing magic about a degree, and finding any job has much more to do with formal and informal networks than it has to do with qualifications–educational or otherwise.

Many MA programs now offer career counseling, access to interships and/or externships, and an alumni network to facilitate moving from the MA to entry-level employment. If your goal is to get a terminal MA and enter the workforce, you have to make use of these resources. These resources are designed to either create or expand the types of formal and informal networks you need to find a job in a competitive field.

Oh, and you get training, or something… But if you think that an MA in the Humanities or Social Sciences will necessarily help your job prospects, just by virtue of the diploma you’ve earned, you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

Cost:  MA programs are a way for universities to make money. Unlike PhD programs, which are funded, MA programs put the full cost, or close to it, onto you, the student/consumer. I don’t want to belabor this point, but PhD programs pay for you to go to school. To the contrary, MA programs require that you pay for it. There is federal financial aid, of course, and institutions do offer need-based and merit-based aid. But getting through an MA program without incurring debt is rare indeed.

Both one-year and two-year MA programs function in this way. The tuition for my one-year MA program in the Social Sciences was $45k. The University of Chicago, in its magnanimity, awarded me a scholarship of 1/3 off of tuition. The loan burden I incurred for one-year of MA study at UC was in the neighborhood of $50k.

Here’s a chart:

Student Loan Debt Chart

Student loan debt, including massive student loan debt, is a reality. There isn’t any getting around it, we’re a nation of debtors, yadda yadda yadda. PhD students incur their debt burdens over longer periods of time, and often because of insufficient funding coupled with the long time toward degree. And you may or may not ever find yourself in a position where you can live comfortably with your student loan debt.

That’s a decision you have to make. Student loan debt is a way of disciplining the working and middle classes–you are put in the position of starting to repay your loans 6 months after you graduate so that you become an obedient and docile worker, afraid to cause a stir in your work environment (by, say, demanding for paid sick days) lest your lose your job and ability to keep repaying your loans. That’s just a fact of life.

On the other hand, events in grad school almost always have free alcohol, usually wine (because you’re grown-ups!). So, you know, you take the good with the bad.

One or Two Years?: One-year MA programs are little factories that pump out people with Master’s degrees. Two-year MA programs are slower little factories that pump out people with Master’s degrees. In way, all MA programs are two-year programs. While I was in my one-year program, I was actively discouraged from re-applying to PhD programs while I was in the program. In a two-year program it is expected that you apply for PhD programs in the Fall of your second year.

So the distinction is this, do you want to take two years of classes, or one year of classes followed by a gap year that may or may not assassinate any sense of identity you have left from your years in school? I will write about the pleasures and perils of the gap year in a separate post, and I’m not trying to dissuade anyone or push you in one direction or the other. My point is this: the university as an institution is not invested in your well-being. This can be put another way: you get out what you put into it.

If you put in a naive faith in the institution’s benevolence, you’ll get out an unpleasant surprise and a lot of debt. You will have to be strategic in how you interact with the institution.

You may incur a slightly smaller debt burden from a one-year program. A two-year program will give you more time to make friends in your cohort and make better connections with faculty/potential letter writers. I had the experience, in a one-year program, of discovering that everyone in the field I was working in (African American Political Theory) was on leave for most or all of my year. But that simply pushed me to make connections in the English department and to meet a really great advisor.

Once again, you have to be supple.

One final note about massive interdisciplinary one-year MA programs. If you’re planning to go on to a PhD program–that is, if you know that the academic path is the one for you–you should keep in mind that it isn’t everyone’s path in these programs. You will be taking classes with people who want nothing more than to be doing date-entry instead of arguing over the intricacies of feminist political theory. You may also find yourself in seminars where you and your cohort-mates are the only three people who aren’t advanced PhD students, struggling to keep up with the deluge of jargon and specialized knowledge.

There are Other Countries: DON’T OVERLOOK MA PROGRAMS OUTSIDE OF THE UNITED STATES. Especially if you plan to apply to PhD programs. Non-US MA programs can help you build language skills, allow you to travel, and offer a comparable education for what can be a lower cost–as some other countries haven’t yet realized that education is a consumer product instead of a right.

Getting an MA before the PhD

Are you Ready for Grad School?: An MA program can be very useful if you don’t know if the grad school grind is for you. You may find for the first time that you’re being required to complete three or more 20-page seminar papers at the end of every quarter or semester. This is not an impossible task, especially with how readily deadline extensions are given by some instructors. (I didn’t finish the last of my Fall 2011 term papers until July of 2012.) But it is a big workload, and draining. Many students are taught that their worth is tied to their ability to produce A-papers–in fact, all of us are. And PhD programs just reinforce this. You can decide in an MA program whether this is something you’re willing to live with.

Or maybe your language skills aren’t where they need to be for the field you want to enter. Or your math and quantitative research skills, if you’re a budding social scientist. A Master’s program can be a useful place to develop these skills and decide whether you want to continue in pursuit of a PhD. Two year programs can also include teaching or grading components, and you can decide then if that element of the profession is something you’re willing to put up with.

Remember this, however: If you enter an MA program unsure of whether you want to continue to a PhD program, make use of their career development and networking resources.

Here’s probably the most important reason to pursue an MA en route to the PhD: to develop a clear sense of your research project and the field(s) through which you want to pursue that project. If you’re wishy washy about what your project might be, then PhD programs won’t want to take a chance on you, MA or no. PhD programs realize, and expect, that your project will change between when you matriculate to when you graduate.

The point isn’t to have the perfect doctoral project, but to demonstrate that you’re capable of doing doctoral level work with the training you will receive in their program. An MA program can help you figure out if you want to pursue your work in english or sociology or anthropology or visual studies or gender studies. An MA program can help you sharpen your project from a vague interest in the American Southwest in the 19th century to an actual project on the presence and influence of bilingual newspapers in border communities following the Civil War.

Getting an MA through a PhD program

Plenty of PhD programs at top universities ‘don’t offer terminal MAs.’ But PhD programs also aren’t prisons, and you’re allowed to leave whenever you want. One path you might consider taking is to earn your MA through a PhD program and then hit the bricks once you’ve finished your qualifying exams and written your MA paper. You can transfer to another program in the same school or move on to a completely different school.

Here’s an exercise, look up the CVs of all your favorite authors and professors, and look at all the different paths they’ve taken. Sometimes there’s a ten-year gap between BA and MA, sometimes there’s an MFA or an MA in a completely different field than the one in which they earned their PhD. Running off with an MA from a PhD program is one of the many, many paths that are available to you.

The PhD

The question here is: Do you want to pursue a career teaching in a four-year college or university?

If you answered ‘yes’ to this question, you will have to apply to a PhD program at some point. The rub, of course, is that PhD programs are always more selective (harder to get into) than MA or MFA programs. The goal of this blog is to better prepare you for the process of applying to PhD programs. Even so, going straight to the PhD, while a desirable route in that it skips the heartaches and debt of the MA program, is not at all easy.

Worse still, PhD admissions don’t necessarily make any sense. GRE scores dance with GPAs and Letters of Rec. do battle with Statements of Purpose and none of them might matter if the professor you want to work with has too many students or if the rest of the program just doesn’t like them. Applying to MA programs alongside PhD programs is a reasonable insurance policy against the unpredictability of PhD admissions.

As always, if you have any questions or want further clarification, get in touch through the comments section.

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3 comments
  1. Nesto said:

    If you do go for the M.A. and incur massive debt, then decide you want to pursue a phD, how do those phDs pay their debt obligations throughout their phd programs?
    In other words, how is it even financially possible to pursue a phd once you have massive debt from a terminal masters?

    • Hi Nesto, thanks for this comment. I can’t speak with any certainty on private loans or student loan services outside the US, but if you have a US federal student loan there are options to defer payment while you’re enrolled school. This can be any type of full time enrollment, from taking courses at a community college to PhD training. As long as you’re enrolled in a PhD program, payments on those loans can be deferred.

      Then you’re left with paying them back once you’ve dropped out of or completed your PhD program. And, again, the entire student loan racket (like the rest of higher ed.) is far from ideal for poor students trying to earn degrees.

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