Is a great MA program worth the debt?
March 17, 2010 4:49 AM   Subscribe

I got into a top English grad program, but they defaulted me from PhD to MA. Is it worth shouldering the massive debt of a Master's degree, or should I gamble on getting into a PhD program next year?

I applied straight-to-PhD to top 15 programs and was rejected or waitlisted. Awesome. Yesterday I received word that a top 5 program had accepted me, not into their PhD program, but as a Master's applicant. No funding, no benefits, limited teaching assistant jobs. It would cost about $55K a year in total, minus some aid from FAFSA. When I called to negotiate tuition (no dice so far) the director of graduate studies advised that it was "highly unusual" to finish in three semesters. So I might be looking at $110K of debt.

An MA at this school would really increase my chances of acceptance into a PhD program at a prestigious university. However, this isn't medical school--I'd emerge from this endeavor a poor student, not a neurologist. The amount of debt is life-altering.

Other issues that give me pause: I don't want to rope my partner into a lifestyle of debt and deprivation; I am not crazy about the city in which the university is located; and I might have a better shot at a straight-to-PhD program next year. My old English professor (and DGS at my undergrad university) regaled me with horror stories of an 80% increase in applicants from last year alone, down to the point where the final five candidates were whimsically culled from an enormous pool of shoo-ins. Furthermore, I now know that many English grad students apply twice or three times before that ideal offer (say, PhD candidacy at a top 10 university) solidifies.

Then again, next year might be worse. I don't want to sell this opportunity down the river if this year's numbers double again next year. While I currently love my life and friends in New York City, I'm treading water professionally after journalism went up in flames. I'm earning enough money to have fun and be 26, but I won't be 26 forever.

What would you do?
posted by zoomorphic to Work & Money (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's no way I'd take on massive debt to end up with an M.A. in English. But that's just me. How important is school ranking in your field? (Not sure if you want to go into writing, become a lit professor, linguist, etc..). Maybe you should reapply next year to Ph.D. programs at lower-ranked institutions. For science Ph.D.s, nobody cares where you went, they only care about your publication record and ability to attract funding, which relates much more to your individual project and advisor than it does to university.
posted by emd3737 at 5:02 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't do it. If you're gonna pay for a masters, go to the UK or Australia, and pay half (or less) the price for something equally prestigious.

I was young and 26 and wanting to have fun after freelancing crushed me mercilessly. I got a corporate job, immediately ceased taking my work home with me, doubled my pay, and continued writing - and learning - in my free time, on subjects I wanted to, without having to go into debt.

110k is a *huge* deposit on a mortgage, for example, it's a whole lot of things. You will take those options away from yourself (not to mention giving yourself the great option of ending up TAing in Buttfuck University, Buttfuck County), at a six figure price.

Wait a few years, till you can do it for free, or afford to pay for it. I was very conflicted about the private sector, until I actually took a job in it. I have so much money now, so little stress. My workmates are literate and intelligent (on the whole). I really like it.
posted by smoke at 5:04 AM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I would wait and reapply next year. It's not just that $110,000 is a lot of money for a by-itself-worthless degree -- you seem so unenthusiastic about doing this particular program in this particular way. You're earning money right now? You're happy right now? Hell, if I were you, I would sit tight and apply again next year.

Caveat: I'm pretty sure that, as bad as this year was for graduate admissions across the board, next year will be worse. (That is what multiple DGSs have told me.) If you wait, are there things that you can do in New York to make yourself a better candidate this year? Can you audit a graduate seminar at a local university or learn another language or take the GREs again?

If you decide to enter this program -- can you get funding/employment from another department in the university?
posted by cabezadevaca at 5:07 AM on March 17, 2010

Don't do this. This is a bait and switch. You applied for a funded position and were "accepted" to a position for which you will have to pay handsomely. Graduating from that program will provide you with only one way to (sort of) recoup your investment, although it will not repay your debt.

Another way to think about this: would you pay 100k to sweeten your PhD application if you could do that without having to get a Masters? (It's actually more complicated than that, because you will have also incurred the opportunity cost of the time spent in school.)
posted by OmieWise at 5:12 AM on March 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

It would cost about $55K a year in total, minus some aid from FAFSA.

Nope. No way no sir nohow. Not a chance in the world.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:13 AM on March 17, 2010 [10 favorites]

$110,000 is about UK£71,000, your fees as a non-EU citizen at a UK institution for each year would be around £10,000, the remaining £41,000 is almost exactly what three years of a UK PhD stipend is currently worth and is livable within the UK, thus for the same money you could go to a prestigious UK institution for the three years it would take to get a PhD (because UK programmes are shorter). What's more, since you're coming through the door with the money it will probably be straightforward to get accepted (especially since I assume you are qualified to be applying to top level US institutions) and you will have a lot of control over who you pick as a potential supervisor(in my experience as a social science academic). You might give this some consideration.

It is however, still a truck load of money and you should think hard about whether it is a worthwhile spend.
posted by biffa at 5:20 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The amount of debt is life-altering.

Wow, you got that right. You say an MA at this school would increase your chances of getting into a prestigious school for PhD. But there is zero guarantee there. And even if you did get into that prestigious PhD program, your chances of getting a job really aren't good enough to warrant that kind of a gamble.

This recent question has some excellent related advice. This one as well.
posted by futureisunwritten at 5:21 AM on March 17, 2010

If the graduate admissions scene is grim, the academic job market in the humanities is even grimmer right now, and with declining majors across the board, there's no firm prospect of it ever recovering. Even with a best-case career scenario, you're looking at two years of a M.A., plus 5-6 of a PhD (making ~20K/yr), plus several years of lectureship, postdoc or adjuncting, maybe culminating in an assistant professor position at ~60K/yr or so.

The path you've chosen is one that already involves tens of thousands of dollars worth of virtual debt due to opportunity costs (remember, these are prime years for saving for retirement-- not much of that going on in grad school). I would absolutely not add $110K in real debt to the top of the heap, especially with such tenuous prospects of eventual return on the investment.
posted by Bardolph at 5:22 AM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Absolutely do not do this. Student loan debt is extremely toxic: there is basically nothing you can do to get rid of it, and that amount of debt is gonna lead to some very high payments down the line.

What some above said about bait and switch is absolutely true. I have even talked to people who managed PhD and masters admissions, and basically masters are used to help fund if someone applies for the PhD and doesn't make the cut, why NOT offer them the masters to see if they'll fork over a ton of cash for an inferior degree? So yeah, schools are going to think about most any unfunded graduate position in that light. You are paying for the people they really care about.
posted by wooh at 5:32 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm facing a similar choice with my husband right now; he applied to seven history PhD programs and has only garnered one acceptance so far--into an unfunded MA program. We'll probably go though, for several reasons.
  1. This is the top program in his field, and was his top choice.
  2. Hate to put it this way, but he comes from money; his mother can and will pay tuition outright for him.
  3. Even so, the cost of this program (an expensive private school) is closer to 40k for two years than well over 100k. Even if we factor in living expenses of living in a major metropolitan city, we're not looking at anything like the cost you're facing. $110k is astronomically high for a master's. Are you certain your figures are right?
That all being said, you're right about applications this year, in every discipline. Funding is way, way down and everyone wants to get out of the workforce in this economy. However, I haven't heard anything suggesting that next year will be an improvement. In fact, I've heard the opposite. Unless the economy drastically improves, next year you'll see a similar funding situation--or worse!--with an even bigger pool of applicants: all the rejected students from this year on top of an already unusually large application pool. So please, don't count on things being better next year. They probably won't.

If I were in your position, I'd be looking closely at the application deadlines at CUNY schools for non-matriculated master's students. Do something now that will improve your application later--namely, take a few cheap classes locally and show them that you can excel. And if you apply next year, consider applying to cheaper state schools that fund master's students. For example, I know University of Florida (where I got my MFA) does. Though the program itself isn't a top-ten school, you'd have a better chance at any PhD program after completing a Master's here for several reasons: you'll have proven your ability to do graduate-level work, and you'll narrow your pool of competitors.

Just some stuff to think about. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk academic English or commiserate about academia or anything like that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:46 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

(I have a MA and PhD in English.) Please don't do this - it's insane. Look into UK options (an Oxbridge MA would cost you less than half this amount, for example) or reapply next year. There is good advice above re: no guarantees for the PhD program the following year and bait & switch. Sometimes a top-5 school warrants taking on debt for further opportunities down the line, but this is not one of them.
posted by meerkatty at 5:48 AM on March 17, 2010

Furthermore, I now know that many English grad students apply twice or three times before that ideal offer (say, PhD candidacy at a top 10 university) solidifies.

Oh, and in the event that you got this information via certain online venues (*cough* gradcafe *cough*) you should know that people who participated in these message boards are usually really poor sources of information. Also, they're crazy--and, as I learned during my own MFA application season--can contribute to your feeling crazy, too, like academia is the one true path or something. Just take pretty much everything you hear from such sources with a huge grain of salt.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:51 AM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I know this is something you want, and I'm really not interested in being harsh, but I keep trying to think of analogies that would be appropriate here so that you can take your desires out of this a little bit. Because, as I read your question, left to your desire you would pursue this.

Anyway, the closest I've gotten is this:

"I wrote a book and sent it around to all the major publishers. None of them wanted to publish it, but HarperCollins wrote me back and said that their self-publishing imprint, HarperVanity, would publish the book if I would assume all production and marketing costs. This would cost about 100k. They didn't say that this would make it more likely that they'd publish my next effort, but it probably would. Should I do it?"
posted by OmieWise at 5:55 AM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oh, also, the husband just got up and he said he wouldn't ask his mother to pay if his degree were going to be that expensive. So, just another datapoint there: this is expensive enough that even people with money sitting around would think twice!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:57 AM on March 17, 2010

Have you read this article, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go? I would never take on that much debt for a masters.
posted by Durin's Bane at 6:02 AM on March 17, 2010

No, No, and NO. I'm running late, but this is so much NO that I had to make a comment. Wait. Apply again. If you got waitlisted at top programs this year, you're probably on the right track. Work with your professors to retool your application and try again. It's worth the wait.
posted by theantikitty at 6:16 AM on March 17, 2010

$110K of debt is an albatross around your neck. $110K of student debt is an albatross Dr. Moreau'd directly into your flesh. And you're not going to be a neurologist - you're going to be an M.A. with desires to be a Ph.D. in a liberal arts field who will then need to find a job in buyer's market. Don't get me wrong. I'm an (undergrad) lit. major myself. It's one of the loves of my life. But I definitely would not utterly sacrifice my entire future to it at 26.

If you love living NYC, Take a look into the CUNY Grad Center. It's no Oxbridge, but I've had a number of Ph.D.-student instructors only a bit older than us who, while harried and stressed over their job prospects (and what grad student isn't, really?) seem to be happy with the choices they've made. I can put you in touch with one if you'd like.
posted by griphus at 6:17 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're totally sure that academia is the path you want to go down, don't give up just because of this (and yes, I've read "Graduate School in the Humanities," too). This was an absolutely brutal year in every field, and the department may very well have wanted to accept you as a PhD candidate, but couldn't due to budget problems.

If I were in your shoes, and I very well could have been (baby Jesus must have smiled on me or something, because I got into exactly one of the seven PhD programs I applied to), I would get in touch with one of the professors in the department. I'm guessing you've probably spoken with at least one about your interests and how they overlap with that professor's. I'd send him/her an email saying that while you'd love nothing more than to study with them, you just can't afford to take on that much debt, and that you plan to apply to PhD programs again next year. Ask them if they have any specific advice on how you can improve your application over the next year. They'll probably at the very least give you some advice; you also might end up with the most important currency in academia: a mentor with good connections.

Good luck with everything.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:24 AM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Not just no, but hell no with strawberries on top. As has been said, it's a bait and switch, with them hoping you will help fund their phd program. There are a million things you could do with $110k that would be more valuable to you; this should not be on your list of options. (For example, in cheaper markets $110k is not a downpayment on a house -- it is a house. Or, imagine how many years you could live a happy hippy lifestyle on a southeast Asian beach for that kind of money.)

And don't even begin down this path without some serious thinking about the realities of the academic job market in the humanities. Everyone scoffs, but it is seriously brutal right now -- I know of people coming out of top programs, who have published books, who can't even get a one-year visiting position.

Then, after thinking through those realities, look at average salaries in your prospective field, and calibrate the amount of debt you are willing to take on relative to that number. Especially if you don't get that magical tenure track job straight out of grad school, you are looking at potentially quite a few years after graduating of low earning -- not the situation in which you want an extra $110k of debt to service.
posted by Forktine at 6:26 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The market for Ph.D's in English right now is ridiculously bad. To gamble 55k on the hopes of getting into a program that will leave you further in debt, only to leave it to a horrendous job market seems fiscally irresponsible.

That's not to say you shouldn't do it (if you can't live without it, you've made your choice) but your partner definitely should have a say in the hundreds of dollars per month for many years you'll be spending on this instead of, say, buying a house or retiring early. What's your Ph.D worth to you and what's it worth to your partner?
posted by Hiker at 6:27 AM on March 17, 2010

Don't do it. Reapply next year, see what happens. Coming up with an alternate plan would be a good idea, though.
posted by grouse at 6:45 AM on March 17, 2010

You're being really smart by questioning the amount of debt you're taking on for this. I would say look into the British and Australian programs if you want to do an MA/PhD.
posted by anniecat at 6:59 AM on March 17, 2010

I'm in English. This is an absolute NO. The university will happily profit off of your fees in order to fund...the doctoral candidates. Unless you're feeling extraordinarily charitable, don't do it.

(Also, be aware that, depending on departmental and university confidentiality rules, it may not be possible for anyone to answer questions about improving your graduate application.)
posted by thomas j wise at 7:08 AM on March 17, 2010

They see you as a cash cow. Don't be that cow.

As others have said, even overseas tuition rates for a taught MA/MPhil or similar would likely be reasonable by comparison.
posted by holgate at 7:31 AM on March 17, 2010

Okay, thank you for the resounding "no." Yes, I am absolutely unenthusiastic about the program and the toxic debt it would incur, but with other people getting flat-out rejected, many of whom have Ivy degrees and 4.0 GPAs and stellar essays, I actually felt briefly ungrateful for turning down the chance to pay for an MA. I never even applied to MA programs because I didn't want to be the cash cow.

I've had encouraging, personally-written responses from several DSGs of the top programs that rejected me, but when one of the universities wound up accepting 7 out 684 applicants (holy fuck) for the PhD program and 15 PhD would-be applicants for the MA program, I didn't feel I could scoff willy-nilly at the second-best offer.

(*cough* gradcafe *cough*)

Yes, gradcafe hath ruined my perspective. Those people are nuts.

Anyways, consider this my scoffing. Scoff! Scoff!
posted by zoomorphic at 8:02 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just to reinforce the decision you've already made, I clicked on this link fully expecting to say "yes! do it! it worked for me." But seeing the actual number you'd be asked to spend changed my mind. I paid for a one-year MA at a top program, and it was totally worthwhile for me. I had been out of school for a while, and dipping my toe into graduate studies helped me to clarify my focus, re-learn some of the skills that working in marketing had pounded out of me, and reinforce my conviction that yes, this is what I'm meant to do. And now, after a year in school and a year working at the school I attended, I'll be moving on to a top tier PhD program this August.

All that said, I paid a whole lot less than $110k.

Feel free to memail me if you have any questions about what that process was like for me.

(and yeah, those gradcafe folks are crazy.)
posted by dizziest at 8:30 AM on March 17, 2010

If you want to, try a taught MA in the UK - not in London though, as it is too expensive.
posted by k8t at 9:05 AM on March 17, 2010

If its any help, this page lists the top UK Institutions for teaching English in 2009. All higher ones will have PhD programmes, though possibly not all will have MA, and someone at each will be able to clue you in as to getting from one to the other. Any will be cheaper then the option on the table at the moment. If you do consider one then see the general lists or the university world rankings to give you an idea of how much prestige attaches to each institution in case you want to take an MA back home with you to get a funded PhD place.
posted by biffa at 9:42 AM on March 17, 2010

Thanks for the tips. Just to be clear, I'm not interested in pursuing an MA alone. It's a fully funded PhD from a top 10 school (otherwise I have even less chance at a real job) or bust.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:53 AM on March 17, 2010

It's a fully funded PhD from a top 10 school (otherwise I have even less chance at a real job) or bust.

Here is some totally unsolicited advice: US News & World Report (and other) rankings just don't tell you the whole story. They're a terribly insufficient way to gauge the "quality" of a school and how likely that program will be to put you in the best possible position for a job. Not all top 10 PhDs are created equal; it really depends on the field you want to study in. If you're looking to do something more mainstream, you may find a greater percentage of overlap between the top 10 and your field's top 10, but even then, I'd wager that you would be very wise to include programs that fall outside of that ranking.

Every program has particular strengths, so going to an Ivy-league program that doesn't have a really well-developed (in terms of faculty, prior record of successful graduate students, support, research materials, etc) specialization in your field may, in fact, not be preferable to a program outside the top 10 that is very well-established in your specialized field. As I'm sure you know, it really comes down to fit, to the place you can do your best work. Ivy league cache only gets you so far if you aren't able to the produce your best work.
posted by theantikitty at 8:06 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do not, under any circumstances other than an overflowing trust fund, take an unfunded MA.

Furthermore, give some serious thought to the possibility that you would be better off pursuing non-academic careers. The academic job market is currently in a terrible, terrible place -- and due to the way that most universities calculate their budgets, they will be playing economically conservative for the foreseeable future.

It might seem as though academia is the best option, or the only option, or the most noble option...but it is simply none of the above right now. Whatever your motivations for going to grad school in the humanities, you will be able to find something more enriching (in whatever sense you please) to do with the next few years of your life.

I know this is a buzzkill answer, but it's not talked about nearly enough. And it's already talked about quite a bit...
posted by voltairemodern at 7:28 PM on March 18, 2010

I think I know what program you're talking about; I've memailed you separately.
posted by ms.codex at 10:22 PM on March 18, 2010

Can I add a late, tangential, but possibly relevant anecdote as a humanities faculty person? At a recent department meeting with our Dean, we were advised that we had better start "increasing revenue" or else our existence as a department would be under threat. What does this mean in practice? Increasing the number of paying MA students. This seems to be the latest trendy administrative strategy: deal with sharply reduced income (from endowment or state appropriations or what have you) by getting more people to pay more tuition. MA students pay more than undergrads; and the institutional commitment for MAs is minimal, just a year or two instead of the long PhD slog that ties up faculty time and university resources.

There is no intention, at least on the administrators' part, for these paying MAs to become PhDs.

You can see why the spreadsheet pushers love this strategy, and departments fighting for their very existence are bound to play along. It's too bad for the students who are suckered into it, though.
posted by philokalia at 1:36 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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