Should I go to Cambridge University for an MPhil?
March 5, 2010 1:01 PM   Subscribe

I've been accepted to an MPhil course at Cambridge University. It's a great opportunity, but I'm not sure. Can you help me decide whether to go?

Sorry, this is a long one! I know a very similar question has been discussed previously on AskMe. However, as there are several differences between my situation and that of the previous poster, I'd really love some help deciding what to do.

I'm an American in my mid-twenties. I got a B.A. in 2007 and have been drifting through some interesting but low-paying jobs in museums, parks, and schools since then. I applied last fall to the one-year MPhil course in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, and after an interview over the phone with one of the world's leading scholars in my area of study, got accepted. The department's resources are a very strong fit for my academic interests as a historian, and I have no doubt that I would do very good, creative work in the course.

I also love the academic life, and thrive on it mentally and emotionally in a way that I haven't in my working life. I am confident that I would totally enjoy a year of living and studying in Cambridge. My family and friends are very excited and proud of me for getting into a prestigious program, and I'm happy for myself. But I'm not sure it's what I want to do.

For what it's worth, another Metafilter user who has attended this MPhil program, and with whom I've spoken about my academic interests, was very encouraging and thought that I would be a great fit for the program.

1. The cost: just under $36,000. I don't have any other debt, but this is a lot of money for me, about double what I've ever earned in a single year. I've got $2,500 in education awards from some AmeriCorps service I've done, but otherwise I'm flat broke and would have to cover the cost with government loans. I know everyone says don't go to grad school unless they pay you for it, but could it be worth it?

2. Career-wise, this might be a big step for me. I feel like I've been drifting for a while, not sure about what I want to do. I have worked some really unique and interesting jobs since I graduated college, but I've never made much money at them, and I've moved around so much since 2007 (Massachusetts to California to Colorado) that I haven't really put down roots or settled on a career. I feel like a Cambridge degree could really help me move forward.

Of all the things I can see myself doing as a career, teaching seems like the most natural fit. The Metafilter user I mentioned before, who has attended this program himself, has said that the MPhil helped a lot with getting jobs as a teacher and adjunct when he returned to the States. Still, it's a lot of money.

3. My last concern is a little more nebulous. I've worked in college admissions myself, and I'm aware that, as LobsterMitten said in the last post, For such programs, the master's program is a money-maker. I have serious concerns about continuing to say "yes" to the education-industrial complex, especially when I'm not sure I want to go on and get a PhD. Furthermore, as much as I love this subject and feel that Cambridge would really benefit me as a scholar and thinker, it feels indulgent. How am I serving the values I believe in (conservation, literacy, anti-consumerism) by taking on debt, to get a degree that may not help me, in a somewhat obscure field?

The question:
Even with all these doubts, though, I have to admit that the idea of moving to Cambridge and taking on this challenge is more exciting than anything I've done in several years. It feels like it might really help me move out of this mid-twenties drifting stage and into higher-level work as a teacher, museum worker, or writer. I am also very open to the possibility of going on to a PhD.

So, what do you think? Should I do it? And if not, what might I do instead?

I'd love to hear your own stories and any advice you have. Thanks for your help.
posted by cirripede to Education (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have heard this described as a "vanity degree", FWIW.
posted by grobstein at 1:07 PM on March 5, 2010

I would not agree with the "if you go, they must pay" argument. I love my grad work, or at least the end licensure, and I am 75k in debt for a friggin' social work masters! 36k is peanuts! Go for it, especially if it excites you.
posted by ShadePlant at 1:08 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: First of all, congratulations!

You sound kind of similar to me (I'm in a different field of history, but same general career goals). Just a couple of thoughts:

1. While MA programs (and especially humanities MA programs) are definitely cash cows for universities, Cambridge is Cambridge. Always has been, always will be. An MPhil from them is worth much more than an MA from most schools, and, assuming you did well in the program, it's my understanding that you'd probably have your pick of PhD programs when you're done.

2. The price is really, really prohibitive. When I was exploring possible graduate school tracks a couple of years ago, I had a professor recommend that I get a Cambridge MPhil before applying to PhD programs. Fast forward to now-- I just got into a top 10 history PhD program, fully funded, without a master's degree. If you really know what you want to do and can articulate your ideas well, it might make more sense to wait a year, pull together a PhD application, and try your luck for the 2011-2012 school year. You might end up being able to study what you want to study without taking on debt-- but of course, you'd have to put off academia for another year.

3. If you can figure out a way to pay for Cambridge, I definitely don't think it would be indulgent to go. Probably more importantly, I really doubt anyone in the academic world would look on your Cambridge MPhil with anything other than admiration. As far as I know, most British academics who go through Oxbridge get their MPhils before their PhDs (as opposed to US academics, who prefer to bypass the MA if possible).
posted by oinopaponton at 1:15 PM on March 5, 2010

There's a difference between what ShadePlant is doing and what the OP is describing. MSWs are professional degrees, like JDs, MDs, and M.Divs., and the understanding is that for professional degrees, the student basically pays for it on their own.

You're is talking about an academic degree. There, the "don't go unless someone else pays" rule holds true with no exceptions worth talking about. I too have heard these called "vanity degrees".

I do, however, have a number of HPS contacts. I interviewed for the HPS program at Notre Dame before taking my current position as an attorney, and if you're interested, I can put you in touch with a number of people who can talk about the relative merits of various programs, and the potential worth of such a degree.

MeMail me for details.
posted by valkyryn at 1:16 PM on March 5, 2010

Sorry if my comment was not relevant, but I was not aware of what Valkyryn described. I still say "go for it" if you're into it but be realistic about figuring out what loan payments will be. Do not take any private loans if you can help it.
posted by ShadePlant at 1:20 PM on March 5, 2010

One of my best friends is currently working towards her PhD at Cambridge, after receiving her MPhil there as part of the Gates Cambridge program.

I would be happy to get you in touch with her to tell you about her experiences - second-hand, I have heard many positive things.

MeMail me if you would like me to pass some specific questions on to her for you.
posted by kellygrape at 1:23 PM on March 5, 2010

Is this a taught or a research degree? MPhil can be either, in my experience. If it's research, I recommend looking at the ORSAS scheme, set up by the UK government to reduce the tuition burden on non-EU students.

The 'don't go unless they pay you' advice is more applicable to the US than the UK; over here, it's a lot more common to self-fund postgraduate work in the arts and humanities, especially at Masters level. Which isn't to say that's a good idea, necessarily, or that you shouldn't seriously consider the financial burden, but consider also that it's a lot rarer here for the institution (rather than an external funding body) to give you a stipend for that kind of degree. Domestic students are paying much - much - lower tuition fees than you would be, though.

As for personal anecdata: I signed up for a 1-year MPhil in an obscure subject, thinking that it wouldn't qualify me for anything useful but that it would a) keep me in the same town as my fiance and b) give me one last year of doing something I loved before setting out to the inevitably soul-crushing world of the graduate job market. The fiance's long since gone, I never did leave academia, and I'm now working full-time doing something I love every day.
posted by Catseye at 1:24 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Cambridge MPhil is not a vanity degree in the sense of being rewarded for no work (although you could certainly scrape by with very little in some departments). I do see where the commenters in that last AskMefi degree are coming from: the MPhil is a bit like an MA in a humanities discipline from a US university--not relevant to many jobs, not advanced enough to get you plum academic positions (although it might do for community colleges). It does do a good job of preparing you for a British PhD experience, however, and would probably help in admissions to US programs.

I think you're right to be hesitant about accepting the offer. The MPhil is a money-maker for Cambridge departments, and many programs don't seem to be very selective about who they let in. On the other hand, if you push for it and show interest/promise/energy, you might be able to develop a good relationship with scholars who are, as you say, world class (and at least one HPS faculty member is a phenomenal lecturer). I'd look into whether there are opportunities to do work at the Whipple while you're there; the Musem of Archaeology and Anthropology has also been known to take on student workers, and are deeply engaged in the history of those particular disciplines.

The cost is a huge, huge deal, although taking on that kind of debt for a one year degree is different than taking it on for six years at a stretch for a PhD. Can you defer and apply for Gates funding for next year? Rotary club? Do you have a realistic sense of your chances at getting that kind of funding?

Feel free to mefimail me if you want more thoughts. I don't know HPS particularly well, but I made a sort-of similar decision myself a few years back.
posted by col_pogo at 1:24 PM on March 5, 2010

Agree with what valkyryn is saying. While I think paying for a Master's might be worth it in certain other situations (in short, there are few--but if you, say, are planning on going on to a PhD program, don't get accepted into any, and then get accepted to a very well-regarded and competitive master's program without funding, then . . . maybe), I don't think this is one, if only for the very fact that it doesn't sound like you applied to any other comparable programs. To which I can only wonder: why didn't you apply to other master's programs? That would have given you more power and options in this situation--including the ability to compare the costs between programs. $36,000 for one year is exceptionally expensive, even for graduate school.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to quickly answer the questions about funding, I did apply for the Gates and unfortunately didn't get it. I'm still waiting to hear about any funding from the Cambridge Trusts, but from everything I've read elsewhere about this, they are quite stingy and it's not terribly likely I'll get an award. So the $36,000 figure seems unlikely to change.

These answers are very helpful; keep 'em coming!
posted by cirripede at 1:33 PM on March 5, 2010

The MPhil won't be worth it unless you are pursuing a PhD and a career in academia. If you want to do that, go for it. I would trade my left nut to study philosophy at Wittgenstein's former turf. But alas, I'm really too far in debt from my undergrad days to justify it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:46 PM on March 5, 2010

It sounds like your only uncertainty is the $$$. And that, my friend is why you should abso-freakin-lutely go for it. I am 39 and had my degree in Religious studies. Though I had many prospects for further academic instruction and research and loved the field, I took the safe route and took the job. My life is great but I imagine it is vastly different from what it might have been had I gone on to academia. I have some regrets.

If this is what you love, a student loan debt will eventually be paid off and you'll sit around and engage in mutual bitching with your colleagues in the faculty lounge and at conferences where you are presenting your research about how much money you owe and how you could have bought a blah, blah, blah..... But judging from how much you say you enjoy it and the fact that it's freakin' Cambridge, again, go for it.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:49 PM on March 5, 2010

Also, I don't have a left nut, but I would trade my left tit for the same...
posted by Sophie1 at 1:49 PM on March 5, 2010

Find out what percentage of the people doing it are international students and that will roughly tell you how credible it is vs how much of a moneymaker for the University it is. My instinctive feeling is that it isn't worth it, that you're over-estimating the esteem and value it will give you vs the cost, either academically or personally.
posted by A189Nut at 2:07 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I did my PhD at Cambridge. In my experience, many of those taking MPhil degrees as a one-year one-shot thing there are disappointed by the quality and effort of teaching. The benefits of having the MPhil were not that clear either. Those who were using it as an extra year of preparation for a PhD at Cambridge were quite happy with it. But they were almost all funded.

I feel like the university's focus is really on research and undergraduate teaching. Graduate teaching is a distant third, maybe not even that. It is a great way for the university to raise extra money which is then spent on what it really cares about. Yeah, Cambridge is great, although I think the experience depends much on your college.

they are quite stingy and it's not terribly likely I'll get an award

I knew lots of people who were funded by the trusts or otherwise for their MPhils. Not getting funding should be a reality check for you.

Don't do it unless you get funding. Although really, I would be very cautious about doing it unless you got funding and also intended to do an Cambridge PhD.
posted by grouse at 2:16 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a Canadian with a BA in Anthropology that have found myself in a similar quandary. While I won't pretend to know the specifics of your program or what kind of other opportunities may arise from attending/not attending, here's my advice:

1. Stop worrying about finances. Honestly, just stop it. Yeah, $36 000 is a lot of money, but if you're interested in the program, are looking at the opportunity to work with one of the world's leading scholars in your area, and want to experience Cambridge, just do it. Trust me, shelling out major cash for grad school isn't going to get any easier as you get older. You will only find excuses for ways in which you can spend that money more responsibly. Stop fretting over not being able to get a job to pay it back, wondering if you're merely setting yourself up for a giant debt-load and employability comparable to what you had with your BA. You'll never know until you try, and the experience of living abroad, making connections in your field, and simply having the name on your CV may be worth 36k in and of itself.

2. Don't let worrying over whether you're participating in some sort of money-making academic scheme prohibit you. Sure, Cambridge may be making money off of you, perhaps more than you feel is right ethically, but university is rarely an inexpensive (or free!) undertaking. The act of pursuing your goals, both academically and personally, does not constitute undermining your values. Don't feel bad about trying to be happy!

3. Look at the reaction of those around you. If the people that love you are exciting for you and see this as a great opportunity, I would put some merit into the idea. Your parents are not likely to get too excited about something that is both a terrible AND a costly idea.

From an outsider's perspective, I would say you really want this but just want to consider all the angles. I too suffer from crippling "what-ifs" and I'd probably be doing the same thing in your position. Not to get all basket-weavey humanities degree on you, but I really do feel you should just go for it and take command of your own happiness! Good luck!
posted by owlparliament at 2:27 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 3 years ago I applied to Cambridge for an MPhil in musicology, got in the way you did (phone interview with two experts in the exact field I wanted to study), got the Cambridge trusts fellowship (I think it's only 4000 pounds or so), and ultimately didn't go. It would have been a wonderful opportunity, I'm certain I would have enjoyed it, but in the end I couldn't justify the cost and the distance from a boyfriend for a whole year. Remember that you have to pay not only tuition but your own living expenses too.

It's true that a Cambridge degree is prestigious and may open doors; at the same time, I know these programs aren't very selective (by poking around a bit on the Cambridge postgraduate website I found that the musicology MPhil admit rate was 50%). I would say go for it only if you think you'd really regret it if you didn't. And if you're serious about pursuing a PhD (maybe give this some more thought before you accept or decline Cambridge?), you might go and consider it an investment. Once you arrive in October, you'd have to start preparing your applications to American programs immediately; that's probably not a lot of time to form relationships with professors and get strong recommendations, unfortunately.

Good luck in your decision, whatever you choose to do!
posted by ms.codex at 2:32 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: The MPhil won't be worth it unless you are pursuing a PhD and a career in academia.

Hey cirripede- I think that Lutoslawski makes makes a good point here, and I would add to it that, if you are considering a career in academia, the M.Phil will be highly valuable. The HPS department does this thing on the first day where they tell the M.Phil's that they consider it a 'professionalization degree.' In other words, you have one year of intensive research that will shape up your reading and writing skills. I know that I changed a lot as a scholar in that one year.

Also, it's been said before and I've said it to you in the past, but let me emphasize this once more- if you're thinking of doing a PhD somewhere an M.Phil from Cambridge will make a huge difference in your application, especially with the high level of competition right now. In reference to an earlier comment:

I have heard this described as a "vanity degree", FWIW.

I would like to give this some context. It might be a vanity degree insofar as it only takes one year to get it and most Cambridge M.Phil programs are not nearly as competitive as, say, stateside PhD programs. They are also vanity degrees because many people who get these degrees are quite proud of them, but there is a single good reason why there aren't a lot of people looking to get M.Phils and those who get them are proud of them: getting a graduate degree from Cambridge is hard fucking work. I'm not sure if this gets at what the commentator was going for, since s/he provides delightfully little in terms of explanation, but if you have questions about what an M.Phil is worth in your pocket I would be more than willing to chat about it in MeMail.

Best of luck with the decision process!
posted by farishta at 2:36 PM on March 5, 2010

I just have to pop back in and say that, even as someone with a master's degree in a useless field, I'm fairly stunned by the number of people telling you to nevermind the 40k investment. But that might be because I didn't pay for mine, but instead was fully funded.

If you're independently wealthy and can afford not only the tuition, but also the year's salary that you'll be losing, then no, the money doesn't matter. But otherwise? It absolutely matters. Paying back even forty thousand dollars in loans can take years. And the people most likely to benefit from this degree--the ones who are likely to go on and get further education and therefore jobs aren't going to be the ones to dig themselves in the hole for a year. Funding in the humanities and social sciences is important not just for financial reasons, but because you'll eventually be less competitive as a job candidate without fellowships or at least teaching to add to your resume. Remember that this isn't the only way to experience academia: you can apply again next year to fully funded programs, to programs in the US, even to programs in your state if they're out there and experience what American academia is really like--warts/teaching and all. No, you won't be in Cambridge. But forty thousand dollars is a very, very steep price tag for an "experience."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:37 PM on March 5, 2010

I know everyone says don't go to grad school unless they pay you for it, but could it be worth it?

No. Simple and plain, no.

It would be worth pursuing an MA (or equivalent) in the humanities or social sciences if:

(1) You are in a line of work that rewards having an MA but what it's in doesn't much matter.

(2) You want a PhD and to enter academia, but for whatever reason your grad applications will be unimpressive -- like, you did okay at some podunk school nobody's ever heard of. Then, an MA someplace reasonably reputable can be a useful gateway to a top-N PhD program.

But you didn't say you were in (1). And honestly I'm not sure that having an MPhil in HPS from Cambridge is really going to impress anybody in the professional world.

And if you are in (2), what you should be doing is looking at programs in the US that don't cost $36,000. Expending $36K towards a PhD in the humanities is Not Smart, because the job opportunities in the humanities were dismal to start with and academic jobs in general have absolutely fallen off a cliff the past year or two.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:48 PM on March 5, 2010

I would also not rely too much on the idea that you will work with world leading scholars. You might get some lectures.

You will probably find this interesting
posted by A189Nut at 2:51 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: British academic here, though not an Oxbridge one (ex-poly, yay!). A189Nut is absolutely right - there is quite a good chance that your only contact with high ranking scholars might be through (occasional) lectures, and most of your teaching might be done by junior fellows. In an MPhil programme, you will get very little contact time as you will be expected to focus on independent reading, research etc. While in itself this might be a fulfilling experience, the price tag really doesn't make it worth it, and if you do want a career in academia, getting yourself in debt is not the way to do it. Academic job market is dire (see for some sobering reading, see also - Times Higher Education - for a British take on the situation) and absolutely horrendous in humanities. The other thing is, and I hate to say it, but international students in the UK do get treated like cash cows and the attitude towards self-paying students can sometimes be well, not so great.

Should you decide to do a PhD you really do not want a huge debt hanging over your head when you should be spending your time polishing your dissertation, getting your publications and networking like mad so that you are competetive enough on the market - and having to earn money to pay back your Cambridge degree will be a drain on your resouces and your time. So I'd look it at long term; and wanted to make one suggestion - look up the website of Central European University, they have a fantastically challenging range of graduate programmes in English (did my MA there and lived to tell the tale, Mefi me if you want any more info), and most importantly, a good scholarship programme, it's accredited in the US and recognized in Europe, and academically very, very sound.
posted by coffee_monster at 3:20 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have any opinion on the HPS program at Cambridge specifically, but my general advice is exactly ROU_Xenophobe's.

Think about your own motivations for doing this -- here's a guess based on what you say, and on watching a lot of other bright people go through similar things. You were a good student and you liked school - the work was interesting and you were good at it. Having gone into the working world, and not finding a comparable experience, you're thinking of ways to return to that previous environment. Unless you really have huge financial resources, or you have a pretty clear plan that you want to get a PhD (which in turn you should only do if you want to get an academic job that requires a PhD), this will be a very enjoyable one-year return to that environment.

A year is short. You'll move, and spend a bunch of time acclimating to the new place. Then by the spring it will be time to figure out what you're doing when you come back. Either you will have applied to a PhD program for the following fall (remember: if you want to apply to PhD programs for the following year, you'll be preparing your application in the early fall -- before you really get anywhere with your master's work.), or you'll be coming back to the US with no job and a bunch of new debt. If you want to apply for academic jobs that will use your master's (I imagine some private high schools might like it? or adjunct work at a college or university, which pays $2500-$6000 per course with no benefits), those applications will happen in the spring.

So - you will return to the scholarly environment for a short time, and this time next year you'll be figuring out what to do next. It will be a great experience, but an extremely expensive one that doesn't necessarily move you closer to living a life that you'll be happy with (interesting work that you're good at). You may end up just coming back to the same kind of job you have now -- or a stressful six months trying to find another similar job -- or starting to look for a new line of work, with this extra debt.

I would recommend skipping ahead to that job search, mentally. If you got the master's, but did not go to a PhD program, what kind of jobs would you look for? Then think: do any of those jobs *require* a master's? (And if they do, what kind of master's, and could you get that degree cheaper at home?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:45 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

The MPhil at both Oxford and Cambridge has a weird Janus face. For British graduates, it's usually the slower, deeper way to expand your knowledge of a topic with an eye on the doctorate. For Americans, who have generally done much broader undergraduate degrees, it's often a way to get up to speed very rapidly. I have also seen Americans doing what might be described as 'vanity' MPhils, funded by wealthy parents as a kind of extended foreign trip; this doesn't detract from the work required of them, but colleges are very happy to accept self-funded overseas postgrads.

I would also not rely too much on the idea that you will work with world leading scholars.

I don't know about that. My two-year Oxford MPhil (fully funded, thankfully) provided good, intense contact with extremely good scholars, for perhaps an hour or so, every week or two. (And as my subsequent doctorate leaned heavily on history-of-science, I'm well aware of Simon Schaffer's brilliance.)

Still: it's an awful lot of money. I'm not sure what it qualifies you for on its own. It's also a degree that doesn't fit so easily into the American academic landscape, because it probably won't have the kind of teaching opportunities that come with a US masters course. And student debt is a big effing albatross around your neck.
posted by holgate at 6:03 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would also not rely too much on the idea that you will work with world leading scholars. You might get some lectures.

Some academics really puzzle me in their blanket discouragement of others who express interest in pursuing any stage of an academic career. It's often done with unhelpful, and specious, comments like this.

There's a reasonable point hiding in here: "Make sure you really will get to work directly with leading scholars. $36,000 is a lot of money." So why not express it in those terms, which suggest caution without the discouraging sneer? It might be the case that this programme has big numbers and distracted staff; it might not, though, and only existing and past students of this particular programme can give an accurate impression.

I did a similar one-year Master's at Oxford (coming into it from a non-Oxbridge university): like the Cambridge HPS, it was a programme that's highly regarded in the field. I got one-on-one or one-on-two tutorials (with faculty, not PhD students) in my chosen option courses, and the chance to audit other seminar classes with up to ten or twelve students. In terms of classroom time with leading scholars, this is quite a lot more than just 'some lectures'. Perhaps the Cambridge HPS programme doesn't work like this--but perhaps it does, and the OP should get concrete information about this if they're to decide whether it's worth the money or not. $36,000 is still a lot of money.

But it's not just classroom time that counts, either. When I was working out a topic for my Master's dissertation, I was able to have quite extended discussions with several of the profs. When I was applying for PhD funding (and deciding where to do it), my eventual supervisor was not the only person to give significant amounts of his time to helping me with references, feedback on the proposal, and so on. Socially, there were plenty of occasions to get to know the faculty (notably through that particular programme's time-honoured tradition of the 11am coffee break), and not just the ones working on my own subject. There were also academic events, seminar series and so on, whether organized by that programme or happening elsewhere in Oxford. At Oxford and Cambridge there is a staggering wealth of these things, which is one of the reasons you go there. And the faculty on my programme, at least, often went out of their way to make sure we humble Master's students had a chance not just to attend lectures and seminars by visiting speakers (academics, politicians, diplomats, film-makers, novelists, journalists, blahblahblah), but to meet them personally too. Does this happen on the Cambridge HPS programme? If the answer's yes, then that goes in the balance when you're weighing up whether it's worth the money. Such connections can be very useful once the MPhil is finished and it's time to decide what to do next.

Now, I was a UK citizen fortunate enough to have secured external funding. Would I have spent $36,000 on my Master's, if that hadn't been the case? Hard to say. Even today there isn't the same culture in the UK of taking on US-style debt to pay for one's own higher education (undergrad or postgrad). One thing that's important is to investigate every possible source of funding--dedicate some serious time to this. There might be some obscure grant scheme which only you can apply for. Think I'm joking? When I was investigating my PhD funding I came across a scheme offering to pay postgraduate tuition fees for students "descended from ministers of the Free Church of Scotland having served in the kirks of Harris and North Uist in the period 1876-1910". (The details here are imprecise but it was along those lines.) The funding I got was from a fairly large and well-known charitable foundation, but it did require me to have an undergraduate degree from a Scottish university. There are almost certainly funds out there that offer, say, Nebraskans the chance to study at Cambridge. Sometimes this kind of thing is associated with a particular institution, sometimes a particular subject or programme. Sometimes it will give you a few hundred quid, sometimes full fees and maintenance. The more you can pull in, the better. Writing lots of funding applications is time-consuming, but it's good practice for an academic career, too.

A couple more things to think about.

First, thinking a bit more in the long term. If you like the programme, do well, and decide to stay for the PhD, having the MPhil (and the good references of scholars who now know you) will presumably open up more funding possibilities to you. If you secure funding, you could leave Cambridge in four or five years with a PhD and a (by US standards) modest amount of debt incurred during the MPhil. As the Economist observed just last week, that's worth considering if you're an American: US humanities doctorates tend to take a lot longer. I started my Master's in October 2002 and submitted my history DPhil in September 2008, which is six years--but I took a year out to teach at another university. In real terms my doctorate took about three-and-half years (because after my funding ran out, in the fourth year, I was working part time). But that doctorate is, demonstrably, just as competitive in the US job market as an American one where the minimum time commitment would be six years. In that sort of perspective, $36,000 might look more like an investment enabling you to save a substantial amount of time--say, two or three years--later. Another thing to weigh up.

Still in the longer term, what if you get the MPhil but decide not to stay in Cambridge, or even in academia? Well--if you want to do grad school in the US, the MPhil will help, as has been pointed out. Anecdata: of the twenty-five or so Master's students in my cohort and the following year (a small and very international programme), I can think of at least six who are doing, or have done, funded PhDs in prestigious US universities--in three cases, working for one to three years before they did so. Four of them are American, two from elsewhere. Everyone who applied for a funded position in the US with that Master's degree tucked under their arm got one. Again, you can check: does this hold good for the Cambridge HPS MPhil?

A similar number stayed to do a DPhil in Oxford--more likely to be British, though not only British. We all got funding, too, though one person (Canadian citizen) had to wait a year before she tracked it down. Of the others, two returned to the jobs which had funded their Master's (as career development) and the rest all went more or less directly into jobs or further training which their Master's helped them to get: from business consulting, to human rights law, to government service, to founding an NGO.

This range of careers outside academia, from the US navy to the NGO sector, was opened to people who had taken option courses in history, politics, anthropology, IR, literature, on the same area studies programme. Which leads me to another point, in this very looong post. There's a lot of talk these days, including on MetaFilter, about worthless humanities degrees (undergrad or postgrad). People who are most bitterly expressive about this kind of thing are often those who have done one and think it has left them disadvantaged, such that they now regret their decision--whether because they can't get a job outside academia, or aren't earning as much as they'd like, or have done a PhD but there are no posts in academia.

Some of this is fair enough. Degrees in other fields often directly qualify you to make big money from the get-go. Or they're more obviously employable in various sectors of the economy. Competition for academic posts is brutal these days, especially in the humanities, and there are a lot of highly-qualified candidates (who've invested a great deal of time getting their PhDs) who are going to be disappointed in their job search. I might end up being one of them, once this postdoc finishes.

But there are other things to bear in mind. First, the obvious (and often-mentioned) one: a postgraduate degree is not only instrumental, something to get you a job, whether in academia or not. If you like the subject, being able to spend a year (or several years, or a lifetime) exploring it is genuinely fascinating and rewarding. That might be worth the investment, to some people. There were several (American) students on my Master's programme who'd come to do it because they were interested in the subject and wanted to devote a year to it before starting their 'real' careers. And there were other students who had no intention of becoming academics but thought that acquiring this knowledge (and not just this degree certificate) would be both interesting in itself, and useful in their chosen careers. Personally, I'm aware of what my choices have cost me: it's certainly taken me much longer to start earning a decent salary than it might have done. But learning all this stuff has been great, an amazing privilege--and if the life I had while doing my doctorate was frugal, it was also, frankly, a blast. I'm aware of the opportunity cost, especially in financial terms (which would be proportionately greater if I'd also taken on further debt)--but I'm aware of what other opportunities my studies have opened up to me.

Second, focusing on the certificate and what it does (or, more often, doesn't) get you is missing the point. You don't just acquire a piece of paper or familiarity with a body of knowledge. You acquire a whole range of skills--in research, speaking, writing, above all in thinking--which are highly prized in the world outside academia. If all a person can do is complain about the piece of paper (that no-one wants) or the body of knowledge (that nobody in the "real world" cares about) then they are selling themselves short, and they probably should have done something different. Your choice is emphatically not whether or not you should exchange 36,000 pieces of paper for one piece of paper.

(I'm speaking here as someone who is currently applying for academic jobs back in the UK, and yes, I am aware of how bad the odds are. If I end up having to change career, though, I won't do so thinking that the only thing I'm taking with me into the fray is a certificate in Obscure Knowledge.)

To stop this going on any longer, I won't even mention the whole range of other not purely academic, but employable, skills which the university context gives you the opportunity, formally or informally, to develop. You sound pretty smart, and can probably work that out for yourself.

There's a lot of sensible advice (both for and against) in this thread. I hope it helps with your decision. As others have said--MeMail if you'd like any more from me!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:12 PM on March 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

I would also not rely too much on the idea that you will work with world leading scholars. You might get some lectures.

Some academics really puzzle me in their blanket discouragement of others who express interest in pursuing any stage of an academic career. It's often done with unhelpful, and specious, comments like this.

Always nice to be quoted. As a 30 year academic in a UK University I applaud your optimism.
posted by A189Nut at 6:25 PM on March 5, 2010

LobsterMitten has wise advice that articulates what I might say better than I could, both in this thread and in the last. Listen to her.
posted by Kwine at 7:01 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: Be wary of advice from people who are extremely defensive about getting their degree and saying that getting that degree, going into debt, etc led to them having some kind of passionate career or purported happiness. I used to do this constantly when I was fresh out of school with an expensive master's from a prestigious British university. It's really Western rhetoric and, though lovely and appealing, I was basically (loudly) trying to assuage my anxiety about the debt by asserting how happy I was at my job and how passionate I was about what I did. Fast forward a number of years and I'm still in my field but I'm unhappy with my job (a job that was pretty much what I thought I wanted to do) and a lot of this is driven by the debt I have from some loans I took out to fund my undergrad and grad education.

If you get an MPhil aand go into debt for it, you might be forced to tell yourself it's the best thing you ever did because thinking about its consequences might actually be too depressing, and no one wants to admit that they blew that much money on a useless degree. The Western culture demands we have no regrets or admit to no regrets. You might be great for this program, but unless your parents are wealthy or you plan on having a lot of money coming to you, it's a waste of money. You're better off spending the money on a career counselor or obtaining employable skills at the local university.
posted by anniecat at 8:59 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't do this. If you really want to be an academic, focus on putting together a truly kick-ass grad school application, as well as (at the least) Javits and NSF GRFP apps.

Start right now - Javits in particular has a criminally early deadline, and you only get two shots to apply - the fall before you start and your first fall. If you get it, it's four fully funded years at $30k + tuition.

The NSF GRFP gives out many more awards, and they have a particular interest in the history and philosophy of science (codes 9099 and 9098, respectively, in the primary field section on the application). It's only three years, but the same stipend + tuition.

Having non-service funding makes the degree much faster.

Career-wise, if you want to stay in the non-profit/arts sector, learning/honing grantwriting skills would probably be a much greater boon to your career prospects than most masters degrees.
posted by clerestory at 9:42 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Be wary of advice from people who are extremely defensive about getting their degree and saying that getting that degree, going into debt, etc led to them having some kind of passionate career or purported happiness.

Hmm. Has anyone on this thread given such advice? The closest is probably ShadePlant's first comment, but it's swiftly qualified by her second, that a non-vocational course might be different. A few others, including me, have pointed out that the experience might well be positive in itself, but I don't think anyone has taken the debt lightly. (In my own response I made clear that I was fortunate enough to get funding, which makes a very big difference--OP would be well advised to locate an up-to-date copy of the Grants Register, and someone who can show them how to use it.) What a number of people have tried to do is give usable information that will allow the OP to realistically weigh up the costs and benefits, compare them with other possibilities, and make a decision one way or the other for positive rather than negative reasons.

Also--you know, some people aren't lying when they say their higher ed choices have led them, directly or indirectly, into rewarding and interesting careers. Some of us can say that without downplaying the sacrifices that were involved (since any major choice about one's life-path will involve sacrificing some possibilities for the sake of others). We also need to be wary of advice from people who are seeking to spread their own disillusionment around.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 10:21 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey, everyone, thanks so much for your generous answers. This is exactly the kind of thoughtful, wide-ranging feedback I was hoping to get. Those of you who think this is a bad idea may rest assured that I take your objections very seriously; in fact, they're what led me to ask the question in the first place.

LobsterMitten's sensitive answer rightly surmises that part of my motivation here is a wish to return to academic life, which I've definitely found more fulfilling than wage slavery. However, I do want to specify that I didn't pick this field or program on a whim. I did some fairly advanced research in history of science for my undergraduate thesis, and my undergrad professors, almost without exclusion, strongly believed that I should continue these studies at a graduate level. Cambridge HPS is probably the single best resource on earth for my precise area of study.

At the same time, when I applied for the MPhil, I'm not sure I realized how little financial support Cambridge offers many international students, or how in the UK this sort of degree is often self-funded. As much as my college advisors wanted me to find my scholarly potential at a postgraduate level, I suspect they'd be just as critical of taking on a huge debtload to do it.

I think that if I decide to do this, I need to be fairly certain (as Lutoslawski and farishta suggest) that I want to go on to a PhD. As of this moment I'm not sure I'm at that point, which is perhaps a good argument for deferring or turning it down. I am at a bit of a crossroads here, and I suspect part of why I'm asking is that I'm just not sure yet what direction I want my life to take: back to school, or something else?

I'm marking as best answers those responses that felt like they most keyed into my concerns, but I assure you all that I am grateful for every answer you've given, and that everything you've said will be taken into account as I make a decision. Thanks again.
posted by cirripede at 10:31 AM on March 6, 2010

cirripede, I'd implore you to consider making a second round of applications in another year. Include the MPhil program if you believe that it's really a great opportunity, but also ask your undergraduate professors for other program recommendations. This is the same advice I'd give to potential applicants in my field (creative writing) who, say, have only applied to a program like Columbia and have gotten in without funding. Columbia is a very well-regarded program (I've heard people say things similar to it being "the single best resource on earth for [their] precise area of study"), but loads more expensive than most; by limiting yourself to Columbia, for whatever reasons, you're only limiting your own options. Again, academia, realistically, isn't such an all-or-nothing situation. I realize that it looks that way from the outside, but you have more options--and more power--than you realize.

I genuinely believe that a lack of education among applicants in terms of available aid and the diversity of programs is part of what allows corporate academia to milk people for way more money than any education is realistically worth--particularly with the limited job opportunities that exist in professorship right now.

Best of luck to you--but really, get in touch with your old professors. Explain your situation to them; ask them for advice. They're more qualified than any of us to speak to which programs would be right for you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:07 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best of luck to you--but really, get in touch with your old professors. Explain your situation to them; ask them for advice. They're more qualified than any of us to speak to which programs would be right for you.

This is a very good idea. And there's definitely a case to be made for waiting another year, especially if you could defer entry for Cambridge. In particular, taking more time to investigate possible funding sources more fully (there are some seriously obscure ones out there), whether for Cambridge or elsewhere, wouldn't hurt. Ask your old university careers service about this, too, if you can: many professors aren't aware of the full range of possibilities.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 12:31 PM on March 6, 2010

grobstein: "I have heard this described as a "vanity degree", FWIW."

Really? When? The HPS MPhil is a serious degree in a very serious subject and the Cambridge HPS department is one of the very in its field worldwide. It would be a massive advantage for applications to PhD programmes.

If you love the academic life and want to go into teaching as a career, you should very seriously consider going to to do a PhD after the MPhil. And, frankly, if you're going into academia, money shouldn't be that big an issue. At the same time, while $36k is a lot, it's not going to keep you in debt for an outrageously long time.

As I said earlier, the Cambridge HPS department is very strong and, mostly, is a great learning environment. The Whipple library is a bit strange and, depending on your preferences, might be badly organised, but the UL is an amazing resource. The teaching staff are quite simply the global experts in their fields and I think there is going to be a high-profile addition soon.

Don't listen to those who have no idea about this actual course. I wouldn't worry about not being able to work with the academics yourself - you'll have as much time with them as you want/need.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:19 PM on March 6, 2010

As much as my college advisors wanted me to find my scholarly potential at a postgraduate level, I suspect they'd be just as critical of taking on a huge debtload to do it.

You haven't asked them?! Ask them! They would love to hear from you and help you think it over! Plus you'll want letters from them for future grad apps.

I guess my inclination would be to say, defer or skip it this year -- they will almost certainly take you in a future year -- and think about putting together an application to a PhD program. Talk with your undergrad profs about this. (Only get a humanities PhD if you want a job that requires it, and you are extremely flexible about where you live.)

You'll have six months from now to get ready to apply (write a great writing sample, maybe take a grad course at a university near you) -- and 1.5 years from now before you'd enter such a program. What can you do with that year and a half? Think about that now - can you try to get work in a museum whose work interests you? Could you see about training as an archivist or document conservator, or some other trade like that which would put you in libraries etc? Look into any options like that and see if you can work there before getting a degree (which will give you a much stronger sense of what to learn while you're getting the degree).

Don't use grad school as a way to get out of your rut. Get out of the rut by deciding what you want to do, then think rationally about what steps to take. Only go to grad school if you have a clear, informed idea of how it will help you toward a well-defined goal. (And good luck with all this! I know it's tough. The people I know who have the most interesting jobs now are people who did not go to grad school, but instead had a variety of jobs with a fair amount of dues-paying crap in their twenties. Build experience -- rather than counting on paper credentials -- and that will open doors for you as you move forward.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:15 AM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I self-funded my MPhil as an overseas student, scrabbled my way to a first class and landed full PhD funding between my MPhil results, strong recommendations by Cambridge faculty and an attractive thesis proposal. ORSAS was a great programme, but it's no longer available for students attending English universities.
posted by woodway at 9:57 AM on March 7, 2010

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