How to make up for dodgy first degree?
April 10, 2010 1:11 PM   Subscribe

UK postgrad filter: How do I make up for a fairly mediocre first degree when applying for a postgraduate degree?


I graduated in 2009 with a fairly decent but not spectacular degree: 2.1 in English Literature and Language from Oxford. I would like to go onto postgraduate work, in a different field, and don't know how realistic my prospects are.

I would like to apply for an MA in Anthropology, particularly Cultural or Social Anthropology. I will not do so for at least another year, to give me enough time to read widely enough around the area, and to ensure that it's what I really want to do. I'm looking at one of the London unis-- Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, SOAS or LSE-- but I would consider elsewhere, including the States or Canada if I had funding.

Yet more background:

I cocked up my undergraduate degree through not working enough and being disengaged with the course-- I realised fairly soon when I got there that I was disinterested in large sections of the course and should probably drop out and apply again for a different subject, but didn't. (There were a range of reasons I didn't drop out, looming large amongst them: I was the first person in my family to go to uni and one of the very few from my local area to go to any university at all, and I didn't want to seem like a failure to them. I'm posting this anonymously because I'm embarrassed to admit this to people that know me.) After finishing my degree I was burnt out and miserable, and pretty much fled Oxford. I am about as far out of the academic loop as it is possible to be right now.

I had a range of marks during my degree-- firsts on some papers, mediocre 2.1s on others, terrible 2.2s on a few. I know I can get at least one glowing reference from a tutor I had there (who's quite famous, to boot).

The awful thing is that at least one of my tutors considered me to be one of the most intelligent people in my year, and I *know* that if I had worked harder I could've easily got a first class degree. I did very well in certain notoriously difficult areas of the course and then fucked up basic ones, through my own sheer lack of motivation. I did well on areas that would transfer over to Anthropology, particularly Critical Theory.

Extended questions:

-- Is there anything I can practically do now I have graduated in order to stand out to a postgrad admissions officer? Tips particularly suited to anthropology would be greatfully received. I have about a year or two to play with here.

-- Is it unreasonable to expect to go onto postgraduate work with a 2.1? I know that most graduate admissions sites say a 2.1 is the minimum pre-requisite, but are firsts expected now due to the recent upswing in applications?

-- Are there any MA programs that allow you to write an extended essay as part of your application, or submit a piece of undergraduate writing as part of your application?

-- Have I irrevocably fucked all chances of me getting any kind of financial scholarship? (I am poor. I work in a low-paid, low-skill admin job. Neither I nor my family have access to any kind of savings. I am in the usual student debt from my first degree-- 21k as I had top-up fees. I am pretty much resigned to doing a part-time MA and working to support myself and pay my fees, although I would rather do a full-time MA.)
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You sound like you are in the situation I was in 2-3 years ago...was overbooked and unfocused and didn't do as well as I could have done in earning a linguistics degree from UC Berkeley. I still to this day can't believe how hard I fought to get there, and how bad I screwed it up once I got there. I mean, UC BERKELEY!? Which I imagine you feel or might feel one day about OMG OXFORD. So I get the embarrassment.

But you have to just get over it and soldier on with your dreams.

And if you really want to continue on in academia, you gotta prove yourself on paper and build that portfolio. You may understand now why you 'screwed up' and what you could have done differently and all that...but if you can't demonstrate that in a track record that also shows your potential and why a postgraduate university dept. should invest in you, it won't matter.

When I was considering a PhD after UC Berkeley, I made an appt. with a professor there...somebody who I never met before, but probably would have, had I applied myself. Anyway, she told me all this pretty honestly. It stung, but she was right.

I've been meaning to email her. Although she probably won't remember me or our meeting, she gave me really helpful advice. She basically told me to get thee to a university! One offering an MA or shorter program, where I can throw myself into the experience and show promise. A place where I can build contacts, take more classes, and learn if post-graduate PhD level work is really right for me.

Two years goes by fast. By the end of summer, I will have an MA degree, and will be heading off to start a PhD program in the UK. At a really amazing school with a super strong department. I wouldn't have been able to get there without backtracking a bit and taking the extra time to earn an MA, and I wouldn't have been as sure as I am now that I want to continue on in academia.

You're probably not ready to go straight to PhD. And if you do get there, you might not be able to go as high as you could if you would take a year or two to earn an Msc, MPhil or MA in the meantime. It will boost you all around, and open up a lot of doors. Consider it. Be realistic and set yourself up for what you really want, as high as you can take it. Good luck. :)
posted by iamkimiam at 1:39 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

A 2.1 is enough to get into nearly any non-Oxbridge MA programme in the UK. And a 2.1 from an Oxbridge college is usually considered to be the equal of a first class honours from most other UK universities. It's understandable to be disappointed if you think you could have done better, but I would consider your degree to be a strong asset. This goes for funding and research as well. (Also, in my experience, admissions boards don't care about the minutiae of your grades – what you got in individual classes, etc. The overall grade is what matters except in borderline cases.)

I wouldn't worry too much about the subject change, either – you'll definitely be starting off at a lower knowledge level than most of your contemporaries, but that's nothing that a couple of months of background reading over the summer won't be able to fix. The point of the humanities degree is to help you to acquire new information, not just to load you up with a particular set of information. You should be able to catch up pretty easily.

Most MA programmes I'm familiar with ask for an academic personal statement: something that explains your specific interests in the subject, and the areas you'd like to work in. Some do ask for coursework but these are the exceptions.

Honestly, I wouldn't worry at all: most UK universities are desperate for new, bright MA students, because they're quite profitable. If in doubt, they'll let you in – if you turn out to be awful, the cost to them is very low, but the benefit (financially and, if you turn out to be wonderful, academically) is quite high. At times like this, especially, demand is down and budgets are being cut, so most universities are desperate for MA students. The process is nowhere near as rigorous or competitive as undergraduate applications, where demand is much higher.

My one piece of advice is to apply early – especially if you want to apply for funding. The AHRC, which I think is the biggest funder of this type of work in the UK, usually wants you to have an offer before you even apply, and their deadline is in February, so I would get applying before Christmas if you hope to start in 2011. I don't know much about funding but as far as I know it's quite rare for MA-level students to get it – it's more geared towards research students (MPhil and PhD).

If you have more questions, Memail me: I'm finishing an MA in history at SOAS and may be able to answer some more specific questions you might have.
posted by SamuelBowman at 1:55 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I realize now that you are interested in an MA and not a PhD. My bad for not thoroughly reading the question. I agree with Samuel in that you don't have much to worry about. I think you're probably set and you should go for it!

I would check out some books that discuss how to write a compelling personal statement for the graduate level...especially with respect to addressing things that could be viewed negatively by admissions people. You want to know how much to explain and how to frame it, so that your statement doesn't read like a big apology and so that it answers questions and focuses on your research potential.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:03 PM on April 10, 2010

My experience is as a professor of Anthropology in the US, so some of this may or may not apply across the Atlantic given the very different structure of post-graduate education. The longer you are out of school the less your grades matter. They do matter somewhat, however, as a signal to your graduate program about whether you can get the work done should they accept you. So you can help yourself by doing things over the next year that can help indicate you can get things done and do them well. You can also help yourself by working in a relevant field. Unfortunately, cultural anthropology is a little challenging in that regard as there are few jobs you can get with a 4-year degree that closely mirror what you would do with a graduate degree. Still, most with a cultural anthropology degree study X culture or work in advocacy. If you want to do the first work on learning the language and immersing yourself, etc. in a culture you might want to study. If you want to do the second get a job in a related field.
posted by Tallguy at 2:48 PM on April 10, 2010

Seconding what SamuelBowman said: it's funding your education, not getting on to postgraduate courses, that's difficult.

I'm not sure whether the AHRC would be the only research council for your discipline. It looks like the ESRC also funds postgraduates doing social anthropology (see link below). As far as I know, AHRC/ESRC Open Competition and Quota money is only available on accredited courses. This might narrow your selection of MA courses if you decide to go down the AHRC/ESRC route. There is more information on the ESRC site.

Funding from the AHRC/ESRC is relatively generous, and consequently competition is strong. However, universities often offer things like fees-only MA studentships, and quite a few people I know (including one or two with 2:1s) have been awarded funded PhD studentships (in history). These sorts of opportunities are often advertised on It's worth being circumspect about funding sources; do a lot of research:.

Is there anything I can practically do now I have graduated in order to stand out to a postgrad admissions officer?

If I recall correctly, the ESRC only funds MAs as part of MA+PhD funding, which means that when you apply you actually have to write a proposal for your PhD research. Similarly, it is likely that institutions will be keen for MA students to continue on to a PhD, for the reasons outlined by SamuelBowman. Therefore, in answer to your question: it might help to be mindful of potential PhD topics which could follow your MA work. Be prepared to discuss these in an interview.
posted by mattn at 3:27 PM on April 10, 2010

A 2:1 is a good degree, most research councils specicially state you have to have 2:1 and above to qualify for funding. This however is usually for PhDs, and I am dubious that you will be able to find many opportunities for a funded MA. It is likely you will have to pay for it yourself. As others say applying for an MA-PhD combo could get you funding. It might also help you to be aware that completing your own MA, whether paid for by you or a funding body will improve your chances of getting a funded PhD if that is the direction you wih to take afterwards.
posted by biffa at 11:41 PM on April 10, 2010

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