Choosing between grad schools: better funding or better advisor?
March 20, 2012 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Choosing between grad schools: better funding or better advisor?

I was recently accepted into two grad schools. I have attended both schools for two separate undergrad degrees. This MA is in the social sciences.
School #1 has offered me a large funding package that would essentially pay for my entire schooling. Its program is course-based and suits my research desires less well, but I could still learn and gain a lot from it.
School #2 has an awesome advisor who has agreed to take me on as a student. This school has a thesis component and is more theory-based, which is along my research goals. I have been offered no funding as of yet, but they have said it's possible if some accepted PhD students go elsewhere and funding is subsequently freed up. It is also possible that I could apply here for my PhD and get the same advisor, but it's best not to bank on that.

Other factors: I currently live in the city of school #1. My boyfriend of two and a half years is here, although he would be able to move to the city of school #2 in one year if need be.

What would you choose? What HAVE you chosen?

Posting anonymously because I feel uncomfortable talking about all of this on a public forum prior to accepting anything solid, for some reason!
Throw away e-mail:
posted by anonymous to Education (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Hm. You have less to worry about when it comes to MA programs-- it's less psychologically taxing and your advisor has less influence over your life. Take the fully funded MA program and then reapply for the PhD program with the advisor you *really* want.

If an MA isn't required to apply to the Ph.D. program, though, I'd just choose neither and reapply to the PhD program next year with the advisor you want.
posted by deanc at 12:13 PM on March 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

Is this an MA in the social sciences that guarantees you a well paying job after finishing? (Not a rhetorical question.) If no, I'd go for the funding, without question.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:13 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Go for the funding unless you want student loan debt for the rest of your life (unless you're going into a lucrative social science field, ha ha).
posted by scratch at 12:15 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have done this and made the wrong decision. One year of no funding and then reconsideration, vs full funding, albeit no notable professors in my area of interest. I was accepted to both phd programs, though. I chose full funding. It turned out to be a mistake. You *have* to talk to grad students in both programs regarding how it is to work with the advisor in one, and if there are reasonable research opportunities in the other, and take that into consideration.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:22 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Funding. Professors change institutions all the time (as I know to my chagrin), but debt lasts until you pay it off.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:26 PM on March 20, 2012

A PhD is a long road. You should walk down it with the advisor you really want. If school #2 can guarantee that, then go for it. If you can switch from school #1 after the MA, then that's ok to. But if you'll be stuck at school #1 with lots of cash and hating every second of your life... I think I've made my point.
posted by FrereKhan at 12:27 PM on March 20, 2012

You need to find out exactly how much awesome adviser wants you as a student. "Agreed to take you on" may or may not indicate someone who will make the experience (and accompanying debt) worthwhile.

Thus, my suggestion: call (or email) the awesome adviser at school #2 and have a frank conversation with her. Tell her you'd really love to work with her, and ideally would want to continue on to do a PhD with her, but that you have a full ride at school #1 and that makes it tough to resist. See what she says. If she is super-jazzed about you, she will try to find a way to get you to school #2, either directly offering you funding, or doing something to sweeten the offer. If not, then it may not be worth your while to go there.
posted by googly at 12:34 PM on March 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm confused as to why you would enter for an MA if you ultimately want a PhD? You've discussed this plan with an advisor, correct? There are a few reasons why you normally wouldn't do this: 1) PhDs get much better funding offers and 2) not all classes would necessarily transfer if you did them at different schools, and it might take longer.

But assuming getting the MA first is an informed decision, I'd probably get the funded MA and then apply to a PhD program. Schools constantly tell students more funding "may" be available; it often seldom materializes. Having the MA under your belt, with good grades/references/etc, would likely get you other competitive offers from PhD programs in the future. Of course, if you think you'll be going into a high-paid field after graduation, it may not matter as much.

On preview, googly is offering really excellent advice too.
posted by susanvance at 12:40 PM on March 20, 2012

Funding. Googly has good advice about this, though. You may be able to get more funding from the other school by alerting them to your other offer, but you may not.

Funding is more than not going into debt, which is AWESOME. It also demonstrates your value to yourself and others (via your CV). That can go a long way in job hunts and in future education. But really, no debt is great.

Also, it's unclear to me when you say "great advisor" what you mean. If great means "famous," the advisor will likely have less time to spend advising you, although ymmv.
posted by k8lin at 12:49 PM on March 20, 2012

I'm kicking myself for not thinking of googly's answer first.
posted by deanc at 12:49 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Take the money.
posted by willpie at 12:56 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

FUNDING, hands down.

I would however be sure to follow googly's advice and have an absolutely frank conversation with the awesome adviser. No adviser who isn't a monster would be unable to respect you not wanting to go into debt to be their glorified indentured servant. They might also be able to work something out, but if they arn't willing to make the effort to fund you they arn't worth your time.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:58 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Funding. Funding, funding. Funding.
posted by thewestinggame at 1:27 PM on March 20, 2012

Here is my personal take, as someone who did a funded MA in the social sciences. Your mileage will vary because you're not me and your life isn't mine. However:

Had I paid for my MA, I would have about $25,000 more student loan debt than I currently have. Keep in mind that I went to a school in Canada with inexpensive tuition and had a very low cost of living. That would've been an extra $250 a month in loan payments a month, with about $80 of that being interest (just on that portion, not counting my undergrad debt).

It's difficult to think about your future in those terms when you're stoked about the next big step in your life, so I'll put it to you in these terms. I make a decent salary (and that job becoming available was a mix of excellent timing and luck). The extra debt would have been somewhat manageable but losing that extra cash on a monthly basis would mean that I might not have a car (and in my case, no car = no job). I would not have an emergency fund. I would not have taken two nice trips last year. I would not even have 1/4 of my loan paid off, whereas I'm now on track to have this debt taken care of by this time next year and get on to things like building up solid savings and maybe saving for a house. And so on.

Also, for what it's worth, I went into my MA program hellbent on getting a PhD after that and becoming a professor. Grad school cured me of that. I did well in the program and really enjoyed writing my thesis but I realized that academia wasn't for me and to be frank, I'm glad to be away from that. Not saying this will happen to you, just some food for thought.

But yeah, googly's advice. Absolutely talk to the professor you want to work with at the unfunded school. For a friend of mine, this made all the difference. Within a few days they got back to her to let her know that funding was available to her. Can't hurt to try, right?
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:43 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Funding. If there is funding going around for MAs and it's not being offered to you, it's a good sign that they don't value your application that highly. And if that's the case you'll spend your time being a second class citizen. But do mention school 1's offer to school 2, because it will show you if they want you. People expect students to bargain a bit, far more than they'll admit.

Good luck! And congrats on getting one good funding offer.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:01 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm nearing the end of my PhD in a physical science/engineering field. I was lucky enough to end up with a great funding package as well as an amazing advisor -- but the thing is, I didn't know he was a good fit for me until I sat down and talked with him and his students. So there's that, as others have said. The fit is really important; no prof is a great advisor for everyone. I'd estimate that maybe 20% of my advisor's students end up leaving with a master's and good jobs (not a bad outcome), 70% finish with PhDs as very independent thinkers, and 10% just flounder and fizzle and who knows what happens to them. Some in the last group might've done better with a pushier advisor.

Trying to separate out the effects of my advisor and funding package...

My groupmates without fellowships have had less freedom in choosing their research topics and haven't tended to be as enthusiastic about their work as I have, but mostly they've gotten through and haven't been too unhappy day to day (compared to peers who are unhappy with their advisors).

Having good funding has reduced my stress level during grad school and allowed me to build up enough of a reserve that I don't feel too pressured during my job search. But I think that would've been a much smaller effect if my initial financial situation had been different, e.g. if I could use my parents as an emergency fund (it's the other way around). Also, in my field it's the difference between enough funding to cover expenses and about 1.5x that -- zero funding, racking up more students loans, certainly puts you in a situation where it'd make a bigger difference.

I like googly's advice.
posted by ecsh at 2:07 PM on March 20, 2012

Also consider what the pay range is for the kinds of jobs you can get with that MA. I'm in education where lots of jobs require an MA (or say they do) but pay very little--certainly not enough to pay back the kind of debt you incur at my school. Scope out the job market before making a final decision if you haven't already.
posted by smirkette at 3:02 PM on March 20, 2012

I've done both, also in social sciences. Mileage will vary, of course. Apologies in advance for the length.

First time, MA. I chose advisor. Great advisor, one year of debt, overall good program which fit my interests really well. I ended up leaving to go into a PhD program (and since I was going to get another MA in the other program, my advisor told me not to bother to finish - two related MAs in my field don't mean much). I learned so, so much from these professors, but hated the area, the poor placement record, and the debt of the single year.

Second time, PhD program. Great funding, great reputation, great placements, but they didn't have an advisor quite in my field. No worries, they said, we're actively interviewing and we'll have someone shortly. In the meantime, here's an awesome professor or two who are kind of related to what you do. I left after my MA. It was an incredibly shitty experience because my advisor and other professors kept trying to force me to study what they were doing, not what my passion was. It was demoralizing. And no, the "promised" people never came -- in fact, I thought about switching schools or even programs because it became clear during my second year that they weren't even interviewing.

If I had a do-over, I would have chosen one of the other schools I was accepted to for my PhD. My career goals required the PhD, so staying at school A (which offered one, but it had no reputation since it was rather new) wouldn't have been an option. All of the schools gave me funding, but the best fit academically/intellectually gave me the least money... and yep, I crossed it off almost immediately. I came to regret that.

A few other things:

-In my field, terminal MAs are kind of looked down upon. It's better to go straight into a Phd program if possible. If you ultimately want a PhD, you should probably go to the school which would best support your PhD work. Grad coursework is often not easy to transfer.

-There's a big difference between "potential" and guaranteed funding, and "agreed to take you on" and excited to work with you. You really need to be absolutely clear on what School 2 is offering you and of your fit with your advisor there, especially if you're going to be paying out of pocket.

-Keep your end goals in mind. MA programs tend to be great training for other careers. PhD programs are really for people who intend to stay in academia.

Best of luck to you. It's a really tough decision. This is just my experience, but I hope it helps you in some way.
posted by sm1tten at 5:26 PM on March 20, 2012

I'd think really hard about getting the MA at all if if won't provide you with the job you want and if want you really want is a PhD. I know that in general, someone who applies to a PhD program in the social sciences after getting a MA in the same thing is generally looked at as someone who wasn't good enough to get into a PhD program initially, and thus, the MA is actually a strike against you. This may not be true in your particular field, but I've heard it a lot in the social sciences. Additionally, I know that in most of the USA, a MA in something like psychology is just a big waste of time, because it doesn't get you any jobs you couldn't get with a BA, and because employers would have to pay you a smidgen more because of your extra schooling, you are actually not a first choice to hire either (my friend had this exact problem with a MA in psychology).

In terms of PhDs, it is definitely more important to have a great advisor doing things you want and a program that suits what you want than great funding. Granted, no funding is also not good, is it really no funding, or is it funding through teaching that you are being offered at school #2?
posted by katers890 at 5:48 PM on March 20, 2012

I say go with the funding. Not only are they paying you for school, but you say that you have been living in the city of #1 and your boyfriend is there too. I think it'd be good to have that sense of familiarity and comfort when / if you actually start your studies.

By the way, if you haven't yet you might want to read up on some blogs like 100 reasons not to go to graduate school to see if grad school is a smart choice. I've considered it before myself, but that blog has turned me away from any thought of a PhD.
posted by ditto75 at 7:27 PM on March 20, 2012

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