Surprise graduate school opportunity
June 16, 2013 12:02 PM   Subscribe

I just got a surprise grad school offer but I need to decide quickly.

I'm looking for a second opinion, especially from anyone with experience with grad schools.

I just finished my undergrad this spring and I was planning on taking a year (or possibly two) off before graduate school. I didn't apply last fall because I determinedly procrastinating on my undergrad thesis and could not justify applying to grad school when I couldn't imagine finishing this. But I figured out a ton of stuff about writing/working habits and finished it and I feel confident and happy with my decision to apply after a year.

I just found out that one of the professors I've worked with (who is now at a different university) got a big grant and she offered me a funded, two-year master's place, starting this fall if all the administrivia can be figured out. This is really, really awesome. I have a fantastic relationship with this professor and it's in an area that is closely related but a bit tangential to my major and I'd decided over the past year or so (partially as a result of working with this professor) that I wanted to pursue this area, or at least try it. A two year master's seems perfect for this and will hopefully get me some contacts for getting a Ph.D afterwards. (My field definitely requires a PhD.)

On the other hand, this is happening really fast and I haven't had a chance to research grad school a huge amount. I have a very good undergrad record so I'm pretty sure I can get into most schools and I don't want to take this because it's easy. The university I'd be at has a good reputation in the field but I don't think it's the best/most well-known (but the lab equipment is really good). I was also fairly excited about having a year off from school for the first time in my life. I don't have any confirmed plans, but I applied to a paid internship and was looking into teaching English in China or South Korea.

I really want to accept right away but I'm afraid I'm not thinking everything through. Is this a case of surprise opportunity that I should grab with both hands? What are the implications of doing a separate masters before a phd? It's fairly unusual in the US, where I am now, but talking to some grad students in my field abroad, it seems standard. What are things I need to find out about this program before I accept?
posted by raeka to Education (20 answers total)
Is the school in the US? It's unclear and as you say this would be somewhat less prestigious in the US than being accepted somewhere for a full Doctorate. Also what field it is in matters a bit. In the arts and humanities, this would be a no-brainer to accept immediately.

I'm a fan of going right to grad school after college, unless you're burnt out by studying.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:09 PM on June 16, 2013

If you can get grad school completely paid for, if you will be working with someone you admire in a field that matters... Get thee to grad school and accept this offer with my congratulations.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:26 PM on June 16, 2013 [14 favorites]

In general, going to grad school fully funded to work with someone with whom you want to work on stuff you find interesting is better than going to grad school without one of those things, and it's way better than being unemployed.

However, there are some things that could count against that, such as prestige factor of the school name or your advisor's name among folks in your discipline. None of us can really advise you on that, but it might be worth asking around your current department, if there are faculty you trust to answer fairly.

It depends on your field whether doing a master's is standard or not. There are some fields, even in the US, where everybody does a master's, either as part of the PhD or before. There are some where fewer people do--I'm in one of those, and the advantage to me of having a master's was that I had way more publications coming out of my doctoral program than I would have without one, and that I changed schools between degrees, which got me more exposure to all kinds of things. Then there are fields where hardly anyone does a master's before their PhD and there's actually some weird snobbery against it--my field (ecology) is related to a field where this is true (molecular biology).

Additional things you should try to find out are the kinds of things all grad students should try to find out:
-What are the responsibilities that come with your funding, especially in terms of hours per week, and how does that relate to your research (i.e., are you being paid to do your research, or are you paid to do some other research, or are you paid to teach)?
-What is the cost of living like in that location compared to your stipend? Are you actually fully funded at a livable amount there, or will you be taking out loans/working part-time?
-Does health insurance come with your assistantship? I think this problem has been decreased somewhat by the ACA and the ability to stay on your parents' insurance until 26 (if they have it), but being required to purchase the school's insurance frequently ate up a chunk of my stipend.
-What are your fellow grad students like? Is there a supportive community for you to join, or is it a cut-throat, competitive environment? Can you find roommates among other incoming students?
-Are there other faculty at the school who do research you're interested in? This is important from a committee-forming perspective, but also from a secondary mentoring and course-taking perspective, and the all-important Plan B if your relationship with your advisor sours.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:26 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The lab/adviser matter more than anything else at the graduate level. If it is a good lab and a good adviser that you can work with and you have funding you already have more than most graduate students will ever get.

With both hands, grab this opportunity. The only cost will be time and effort.
posted by srboisvert at 12:28 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

When an opportunity to do what you want falls into your lap, take it and screw the timing.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:54 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

A funded master's??? Do it. That's a unicorn, friend.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 1:14 PM on June 16, 2013 [8 favorites]

What does "funded" mean here? If it's tuition + fees paid plus a stipend, then yes, go forth and be fruitful. If it's only one or the other of those, don't bother.
posted by The Michael The at 1:48 PM on June 16, 2013

A funded Master's is a unicorn, a funded master's with a professor you know and respect and with whom you have an excellent working relationship is a pegasus unicorn that shits rainbows. Maybe if it were this vs something else definite, awesome, and non-postponable it would be a tricky choice, but as it is I see no reason not to take it. (Having just seen The Michael The's response -- yes, unicorn only applies if funding covers fees + living costs.)
posted by pont at 1:53 PM on June 16, 2013

Consider the alternative: you vegetate for a year or two, losing all study habits and the link to a stunning opportunity. Or you condense your goof-off time to this summer and prepare to start this amazing opportunity this fall. How often does opportunity knock?
posted by Cranberry at 1:53 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Does the school offering the funded Master's placement also offer a PhD in that field? If you decide you want/need a PhD, will you be able to transition to getting a PhD at this school, or will you be applying elsewhere? Reason I ask is, not all PhD programs will accept Master's coursework done at a different school. If your chosen programs do not, you'll have to think about whether you want to essentially redo your Master's degree on the way to the PhD.
posted by expialidocious at 2:04 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by vers at 2:22 PM on June 16, 2013

It sounds like you're in the sciences, where the conventional wisdom (rightly) is that you should never do a PhD unless you're fully funded with tuition+livable stipend. So if you want to do a phd down the line, I wouldn't be too swayed by the funding. So I think the question you should ask yourself is "do I want to get a master's in this field?" Some things you might consider are:

-How sure are you that you want to do a PhD? A master's can be a good way to test things out.

-How do people in your field look on people doing a masters? Ask a couple of professors at your undergrad institution about this if you can, just so you're getting a broad array of perspectives.

-Do programs in your field allow people coming in with a masters to skip coursework requirements? A lot of programs don't, silly as it may sound, especially if you're going "up a tier" in schools between your masters and phd. Are you ok with being in school for 2 years longer than you would be otherwise?

-How hard will it be to get accepted to a phd program after doing this masters, part II: If this new school is considered less prestigious than your current school, there's a chance that phd programs will pass over you because they're worried that there's something "wrong" with you that you ended up at a worse school. Again, this is bullshit but it's the type of bullshit that happens.

CAVEAT: grad school rankings can be very different from undergrad rankings, and if your adviser is a bigshot, it doesn't matter what the school is. (And really your adviser matters more than the school anyways, but the school can be a proxy for your adviser's influence, at least in the short term).

Despite the negativity above, I think this sounds like a great opportunity. If you're unsure about grad school this will let you test it out, and people who arrive at a phd program with a masters are often more prepared to do research and have more publications once they get on the job market. It's definitely a change of mindset from the relaxed year off you were envisioning, so I'd give yourself a bit of time to think about it and get used to the idea and then decide.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 2:29 PM on June 16, 2013

If you are planning to go to grad school at any point ever and someone is offering a funded graduate program today, you bite their hand off and weep tears of gratitude.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:44 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why don't you ask if the grad school offer can be deferred six months or a year? I think taking time off to travel or teach English or whatever could be really good for you. Maybe you can have it both ways.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:49 PM on June 16, 2013

My experience is in the humanities, and you seem to be in the sciences, so I can't speak to how it works there, but I just wanted to go against the grain, just for the sake of diversity, by saying just because you have a funded MA doesn't mean you should necessarily take it if your intentions are to continue on to a PhD.

In the humanities, there are a few considerations: (1) people go on to PhD's from undergrad, (2) prestige is incredibly important.

If your field is the same as (1), then it seems a fully funded MA will not do you any harm, as it should only make you a more attractive applicant.

However, if it's not unheard of for people to do an MA in between, you'll want to be careful. PhD adcom expectations may be higher for an MA student than a BA. Furthermore, there may be a general bias against MA students at the top programs, instead wanting to take "fresh" BA students.

I know of many people in my field who have turned down fully funded MA programs, because they thought it better to spend a year improving their application and trying again for the more prestigious programs.

Just my $.02.
posted by SollosQ at 4:21 PM on June 16, 2013

I don't know, I think people sometimes have a rosy idea of what "funded" means. I just got out of a two-year professional Master's which I feel extraordinarily lucky to have had funded through assistantships. That said, at the end of the day, post bullshit fees and all that, I made about $10,000 a year for those two years. That's kind of tough any way you cut it. Ultimately, I think I'm glad I did it, and I feel very fortunate, but it's still a decision to be made, IMO, rather than a deus ex machina as some folks above have portrayed it.
posted by threeants at 8:19 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Professor you respect and like working with + funding = a good equation. Only, find out what "funding" means in this instance. Are you given a living stipend? Does this cover any part of your insurance? Just make sure she gives you the details. Fully-funded is a lot different from partially-funded.

P.S. A separate master's from PhD is often looked upon quite favorably. Especially if you do them at different institutions.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 9:15 PM on June 16, 2013

I don't know. A graduate advisor you have a good relationship with is like gold. But if you want to get a PhD, get a PhD. Don't putter around getting a master's degree in the hopes of getting a PhD "eventually." If this Master's will lead on a straight path towards a PhD at that same institution, go for it. Otherwise, I would be skeptical.

On the other hand, it doesn't sound like you would be doing much else with that time between now and when you enter a PhD program, so you might as well make productive use of it doing research and publishing papers in an MS program.

Basically, to answer your question, you need to find out if you are going to be able to stay for a PhD if everything goes well, rather than having to go through this process all over again and starting from scratch once the MS is over. Doing a PhD elsewhere after this MS means more classes and more lost time.
posted by deanc at 10:02 PM on June 16, 2013

You don't mention your field, which could be helpful.

In bioscience, a funded M.Sc. in Canada gets a minimum of around $20k in stipend. I hear its about the same in the US. Unfortunately in Canada, schools charge quite a bit in tuition. In the US, tuition is sometimes waived. PIs or the school typically covers pretty nice medical insurance. You can also apply for external funding which can be $30k+ but even if you get the base, you might also earn a topup from the PI in rich labs.

At most schools, you can enter Ph.D. candidacy before finishing your M.Sc. if you decide you like the field and the lab. Some people do both, either in different labs (or even fields) or in the same lab (building a Ph.D. project out of findings done during M.Sc.).

Make sure the topic is something you can get excited about. There's going to be a lot of repetition and drudgery and stress, but there's also a lot of freedom and flexibility.

If you can, go visit the lab! Ask the PI if you can visit and talk to the current grad students and post-docs, preferably outside of the lab (offer to buy them a coffee or something). But if you request a visit, the PI will typically set up a schedule for you to meet everyone and tour the lab.

Also ask about the culture in the program that you're likely to enter and the culture of the research center. Do people collaborate between labs, or compete? Do the grad students get along and do stuff together like Friday pub or retreats that people actually want to go to? Are the postdocs happy to work with the grad students or are they miserable and moaning about no jobs?

Ask about the lab; who published the lab's last paper? Which journal? Is that a good journal? How many papers did the lab publish last year? Does everyone have their own pretty distinct project or is there going to be a fight over first-authorship once something works out? What is the work schedule of people, generally, in reality? Some places have a more relaxed culture, other places expect you to spend at least more than half of an entire (24 hour) day there. But I've heard of PIs regularly buying (good!) takeout for anyone staying late at the lab.

Again, if biosci, don't worry too much about a job afterwards for now. A M.Sc. will do you better than a B.Sc. There are ok jobs for good bioscience M.Sc. If you have the opportunity, pick up advanced statistical analysis skills and maybe learn to program. Concrete example; there's a race to produce a "$1000 genome" because there is a demand for whole genome sequencing. That's actually going to get solved pretty soon, on the basis of collecting the raw data of 3x (or whatever) coverage of a genome. That part is easy, the hard part is interpreting what it means. Stats and programming are good skills for doing this or figuring out better ways of getting computers to do this.
posted by porpoise at 10:11 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

What is your field? The answer is very different for history or engineering, for example.
posted by LarryC at 11:10 PM on June 16, 2013

« Older Travel advice in SF and area with toddler   |   I can't find this cool toy I saw at the park... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.