Pick a MA, any MA.
November 23, 2010 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Does the faculty matter as much for an MA program as for a PhD?

I'm considering applying to MA programs in political science and doing it if I can get funding. While there are plenty of programs that I'm interested in, there isn't usually a professor that I could see myself really using in a mentor capacity the way that I know I'll have to in a PhD program. If all I'm doing is the MA to strengthen the PhD application... does it really matter?

FWIW, my primary interest in post-capitalist political theory with lesser interests in religion and the state, feminism, identity, environmental thought and various strains of comparative politics, especially as they apply to political economy. I'm hoping a MA program will help me narrow down that list a little in preparation for a PhD. Schools that I'm considering so far are U of Oregon, U of Maryland and Johns Hopkins and I'd love to hear about others.
posted by youcancallmeal to Education (9 answers total)
Response by poster: Another thought occurs to me: could this be a good case for doing a MA program abroad? How would PhD admissions view a foreign degree, versus a domestic one?
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:16 PM on November 23, 2010

You may know this already, but funding for a terminal master's is pretty uncommon--the fellowships, TA positions, and waivers typically being reserved for PhD students--and you generally shouldn't take an extra two years of loans on top of a planned stint in a PhD program afterward if you can even conceivably avoid it.

If the problem is that you have no one in the world to recommend you to a PhD program and/or need time to read up on your interests to develop a focus, the efficient thing to do might be to enroll in just a few post-bacc classes over the next year or so, leaving you time to work and keep your finances in good shape but also giving you opportunities to cultivate recommendations and work out some ideas for your PhD pitch.

The MA itself isn't a huge deal on your PhD application. Obviously, spending two extra years studying your discipline would be likely to make you a stronger student, but that may be wasted time and money if you could have gotten in with less prep and then have to repeat core classes or do another thesis or write qualifying papers nonetheless.

A foreign MA is a point of interest primarily if the school's name is recognizable or if your research will pertain especially to the country where you studied. Otherwise, it's no different, except for the vague, uncomfortable feeling a reader sometimes gets from wondering whether their ignorance of your school equates to it not being a great school.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:26 AM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Incidentally, the faculty 'mentor' factor can matter some for a thesis MA or for getting you not just nice recommendations but phone calls from your mentor to his old grad school buddy at your future PhD program. But you're right that it's not going to matter as much as it does for the PhD.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:32 AM on November 24, 2010

I got an MA in the humanities by getting into a PhD program with funding and then not finishing the PhD.

Which is to say, I'd suggest applying to PhD programs. The only funded MA programs I've heard of are in art and writing programs that offer grants. Another option would be a humanities MA at somewhere like Chicago but these programs are notorious for basically milking the terminal MA students for cash.
posted by bardic at 12:39 AM on November 24, 2010

I'm finishing up a PhD in Political Science. I came in without an MA with a broad set of interests (American urban politics). I would encourage you to apply directly to the PhD programs you are interested in instead of the MA. MA programs tend to just be money makers for schools.

But, if you decide to - yes, faculty matters greatly. These are the people who will be writing your letters for apps for the PhD, just like they are the ones at the PhD level writing my letters for the job market.

I'm happy to chat more by memail.
posted by quodlibet at 5:51 AM on November 24, 2010

Best answer: This answer probably won't help with the question of whether a terminal MA is useful in general, but it is intending to clarify your thinking on your specific situation -- that is, considering a terminal MA in political theory.

Things you should know from the outset:

1) Most Political Science programs don't know what to do with people who are interested in a terminal Master's; they are mostly pre-professional programs for entering academia. If you mention your plans to be a terminal MA, these departments likely won't be interested. At best, they might take an flier on you, without funding. And grad. school without funding isn't a great idea.

2) If they are interested, and willing to fund, they may be looking at you as cheap labor to grade the exams for the 400 person intro to American Gov. class, but are less likely to be as interested in you as in their Ph.D. candidates. You might have a harder time getting anyone's attention. So building relationships might be difficult.

3) The PoliSci programs that do know what to do with terminal MAs usually have a strong public policy/stats focus that should be compatible with Political Theory, but in practice almost always isn't.

4) If you're interested in a Political Science Ph.D. with a concentration in Political Theory and the goal of possibly entering academia, then you need to be aware that there are very few jobs opening in Political Theory anymore. This year wasn't as bad as the last two or three, but as a sub-field in PoliSci, it's surely the most brutal. A listing of job openings in the single digits hasn't happened yet (I think), but at the same time, if it were to happen next year, I doubt if anyone would be much surprised. I wouldn't want to be starting in a Political Theory program these days.

5) Therefore, if you can find a place where you can do Comparative Politics (or International Relations) in a way that's compatible with your stated interests, then you may be better off in the long run. University of Minnesota is a possibility here, as is the University of Hawaii, but again the MA/PhD divide might matter in these schools too.

6) If you're hell-bent on a masters in Political Theory that's worth a damn, and is in a department where they will pay attention to you, you might consider Virginia Tech. I believe that their program is a terminal masters, so you wouldn't be competing for Ph.D. students for attention and resources. The faculty are interesting, with enough political theorists to be relevant to you. And Tim Luke's work might be right up your alley, maybe?

Feel free to memail me if I can be of any further assistance.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:32 AM on November 24, 2010

All the answers in this thread so far are great, and you should listen to them carefully. But just to answer your main question a bit more specifically: the faculty probably matter more for an MA program than a PhD. The later stages of a PhD are work you do on your own, meeting occasionally with one or two advisors; but in an MA program, you'll be doing coursework with a wide selection of a department's faculty, and ideally looking for some mentoring and advice from at least several of them (and perhaps also looking for them to write letters for your eventual applications to doctoral programs). Being in a department that's (at least mostly) well-rounded, supportive, and coherent actually matters a lot more at the MA/early PhD stage, when you're looking for coverage of the whole discipline and shopping for a specialty within it, than it does once you already have a dissertation/major research project of your own and just need a few people to supervise your work on it.
posted by RogerB at 8:16 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think partly we've got a semantic issue here.

If by "mentoring" you mean that sort of casual day-to-day "hey if you're interested in this let's get some coffee and by the way lemme lend you some books" stuff that you sometimes get in a really good undergrad program, than it's crucial that professors in an MA program be good mentors. Doing an academic MA where you just take classes and don't get that sort of brain-stretching camaderie and support from the faculty would be a total drag. (Real professional programs are different, and can sometimes be worthwhile just for the classes and the piece of paper at the end, but it sounds like you're not looking at those.)

If you've got something more like a technical apprenticeship in mind — if you're worried about finding a professor who actually does the precise stuff you want to do, and can be called on once in a blue moon to help you through some numbingly specific detail you're stuck on — then yeah, don't worry about it. I mean, hell, if you're really ready for that shit, then you're ready to start in on a PhD program, and will probably find the MA to be an unpleasant delay anyway.

Also, yeah, don't pay for grad school. Don't pay for grad school. Do not ever under any circumstances pay any money whatsoever for grad school. If this means skipping the MA, then you should absolutely skip the MA without even blinking. Admission to your top-choice PhD program with an extra $60,000 in loans is far, far worse than zero loans and funded admission to some other decent program. And if you discover you can't even get into a decent program without spending money out of pocket, then it's time to find yourself a new line of work — there are other careers out there for you, and this one will be nothing but a harrowing money pit, no matter how smart you are and how much you love it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:15 AM on November 24, 2010

Response by poster: Mad thanks for the answers so far. The Virgina Tech program actually looks almost ideal for me and I even like the area. And trust me, kids... I'm already $30k in debt from undergrad and the first half of a MAT program... I'm not doing this unless I get funding, which it looks like might be possible with this program, so yay!
posted by youcancallmeal at 12:26 PM on November 24, 2010

« Older What the fugg?   |   Looking for the lyrics to a song about bees Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.