Unsure about path to academia
July 29, 2014 5:48 AM   Subscribe

My goal is to become a university professor but I'm torn whether to do a second master's degree or go straight for a PhD. I can get decent funding for a master's but am I treading water?

Every time I've taken the next step in my learning (primary school to secondary school to high school to undergraduate to master's) I've consistently underestimated my abilities, despite feeling generally very confident during each stage. I also love studying, reading, and writing. I find academic writing to be my most suitable creative outlet. Thankfully, I have been very fortunate in terms of funding for my studies. My current degree is fully funded, and I have guaranteed at least partial funding (full tuition but not maintenance) for a second master's. PhD funding is obviously difficult but not impossible.

My undergraduate degree was from a very good institution but my master's degree is at an art school in a related subject to the first. However, I want to do my research in the field I did my undergraduate degree in. So, should I take the offer of doing a second master's in the field my first degree was in (at a top institution), or just take the plunge and go for the PhD?

This is all UK based btw, but any responses welcome.
posted by nagoya to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Which field is the PhD in?
posted by J. Wilson at 5:51 AM on July 29, 2014

Political theory.

I might want to add - my current master's has been a major let-down: not intense and challenging enough, and certainly not particularly preparatory for PhD work. However, I've taken significant initiative in my spare time to prepare myself better (writing and reading, going to conferences etc.). That's partly why I'm seeking a 'better' master's experience; one in which I'll be adequately challenged and pushed. I had this in my undergraduate years and it really helped me develop.
posted by nagoya at 5:56 AM on July 29, 2014

Can you effectively teach in the UK without a PhD? You cannot in the US. I mean, you can string some things together, but not really a career.
posted by OmieWise at 6:01 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

What are the job and income prospects for your field?
posted by dfriedman at 6:01 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This will not fully answer your question, but before you make any decision regarding a PhD, you should know not only that Political Science/Government, as an academic field, is not immune to the rather dour trends in academic hiring, but also that Political Theory is the sub-field that is bearing the brunt of these trends most severely. If your goal is to become a tenured university professor, rather than an adjunct or a visitor changing addresses every couple years, the odds are not in your favor if you decide to take your PhD in Political Theory.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:03 AM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


No, you can't. But I'd do the PhD after the second master's.


Not particularly great, but then again that's the case across the board in the UK due to higher ed funding cuts. But I'm hoping that being at very good institutions and working hard will at least put me slightly ahead of the competition.
posted by nagoya at 6:03 AM on July 29, 2014

"... But I'm hoping that being at very good institutions and working hard will at least put me slightly ahead of the competition."

I hope you're simply being modest here, and have every intention of working at a top-5 institution, with faculty who have strong recent placement records, and have the funding to quickly turn out rather important work.

I say this because, while what you've written this is technically true, every hiring cycle the definitions of "very good institutions" and "hard working candidates" become more and more stringent as the supply of very good hard working newly minted Political Theorists continues to outpace the demand. Do not fool yourself for a second into thinking that simply a very good school name, a decent idea for a dissertation, and a willingness to work will put you at any advantage over many other extraordinary candidates who are graduating with very limited prospects in academia.

The only reason to do a Ph.D. in Political Theory right now is an overwhelming burning need to do the work -- to write up the research. Doing it with the expectation of a professorship at the end of the rainbow is a fool's errand.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:13 AM on July 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'd do the PhD after the second master's.

Unless the second master's is absolutely required in order to get into a top Ph.D. program in your subfield, skip it. Doctoral programs take years to finish and in the meantime you're falling behind your non-academic peers in terms of earning money, saving towards retirement, and building a career. There is no advantage in delaying.

That said, if you go into a Ph.D. program, make sure you go in with your eyes WIDE open to the realities of the academic job market.
posted by Orinda at 6:40 AM on July 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

Terminal masters programs in the UK are really nothing but a university cash grab. Don't do a second one. Go straight to the phd if you can get in. There is no advantage to a second masters at all (there isn't really much of an advantage for the first one).
posted by srboisvert at 6:53 AM on July 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

I have to second kobayashi's concerns. I can't speak to the specifics of UK hiring, but the data for the US show that there is somewhere between two and three times the competition for political theory positions as there is for any other field of political science.

To directly answer your question, I would apply directly to phd programs; masters degrees are irrelevant (except for fields where the MFA is the terminal degree).

If you really want to do political theory, I would apply very in the top programs, including beyond the UK, especially since academic life means that you're likely to apply for jobs outside the UK and that you'll certainly be competing with new phds from outside the UK for UK jobs. If you want to do political theory, you should have the top tier of programs in the world -- Oxford PPE, Princeton, Chicago, Toronto, etc -- competing over your PhD applications.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:20 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a PhD in social sciences and am a UK-based ex academic, working as a project manager in university sector so might be a bit biased but here's some thoughts:
Second masters will be of next to no use for academic career.
- Working in academia has little to do with reading, studying and writing - it is more about teaching (in social sciences unless you are a superstar at research intensive uni there will be loads of teaching), networking, endless admin and frantically trying to squeeze research in because of publish or perish mantra
- job market is horrendous - even if you are reAlly good are you willing to spend up to six years or more after finishing your PhD on a string of temporary contracts, moving every year or so just to have a shot at that elusive lectureship?
Talk to current/ former PhD students and feel free to memail me if it helps.
posted by coffee_monster at 7:39 AM on July 29, 2014

Maybe I missed it, but my question is really whether the PhD is in the same field as the second masters, the first, or neither.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:15 AM on July 29, 2014

Sorry J. Wilson, I misunderstood you. The PhD would be in the same field as the second master's degree. My undergraduate is in politics, my current master's is in philosophy, and my second master's would be political theory (as would the PhD).
posted by nagoya at 8:23 AM on July 29, 2014

You don't need all this school. What you need is therapy to help yourself feel more capable, and then you need to get out in the world and do things. That don't involve institutions which have everything set up for you. I say this with love as someone who just finished a PhD. Whether the goal makes sense or not is a very important question (it doesn't, it's a terrible life path to be on, and you won't be able to get ahead of the competition in any meaningful sense because everyone is smart and accomplished and there are still no jobs.... ) but it's not the main point I want to make.

When I was approaching the end of my PhD and considering life paths that did not involve academia, I noticed an incredibly powerful urge to do another degree. I think similar to what you're feeling. That's what I want to talk about. That feeling is fear: that I'm not good enough, that I'll be judged inferior, not smart, not a genius, ordinary or even worse, mediocre, all of which would be terribly threatening to my identity. The response is to try and control that fear by making myself so credentialed, so prepared, that I would be guaranteed to know everything and be perfectly prepared before going out there and taking a risk. I sniff just a bit too much of this in your question and thus I think I recognize a bit of what you're going through from my own experience.

Institutions can be cages. They are safe places to hide out and if you play by their rules you never really have to take a risk. But they will happily take your money and your youth if you are too afraid to go out and live.

Regardless of what decision you make, you have a duty to your future self to realistically assess the job market and your prospects post-PhD and think about backup plans. That voice that says 'if I work hard enough I'll be okay' is not anchored in reality. The reality is, everyone struggles, and your experience will be closer to the average than not. Everyone needs to figure out what they might do if academia doesn't work out. That is scary. There are no guarantees out there in the real world. But what's even scarier is having no other option but stringing together postdocs and adjunctships while your life slips away, and this is the sad reality for many PhDs these days -- maybe even the majority. Academia should be a choice, not the default option because you feel incapable of doing anything else, but oh man, so many of us are in that latter headspace. If this is you, my advice is no more school; take a break, go out there and do some things that don't involve institutions, and try to get in touch with yourself and figure out possible directions that your life could go with the PhD or without. Then if you do go to the PhD program, you can angle yourself towards your backup plans the whole way through.

Really this is about taking control over your life. In academia the control rests with profs, hiring committees, grant budgets; you will contort yourself to please these people but it may not be enough, there may be nothing you can do to carve a path for yourself. But you are better than you think you are, and more capable of surviving out there than you believe you are. At least consider the question. What if I was finished with school and didn't do any more? What would I do with my life?
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:21 AM on July 29, 2014 [17 favorites]

If you want to be a university professor, you need to go to the very best place for research in your sub-field. You will be competing with people who did when you look for a job.

The only good reason to do another masters is if it will make you competitive for the very best PhD programmes in your sub-field. And you can easily find that out by asking admissions tutors at the very best PhD programmes in your sub-field.

I suspect the answer is no, but I could be wrong.
posted by plonkee at 2:00 PM on July 29, 2014

It sounds like your current masters was a mistake and you'd like to get back on your original track. You have funding for both masters (at least tuition for the second) and you may turn around after (or halfway through) your PhD and not want to work in academia (a fairly common decision for many reasons!), so I would do a second masters to give yourself options.
posted by heyjude at 2:50 PM on July 29, 2014

Is there anyone you can talk to at your very good undergraduate institution, in your desired field, who will be straight with you about the job market and your plans? That will be by far the best way to get advice on this.

At least if you have funding, a short masters is not that much of an extra time commitment. If the second masters would be at a top-tier institution, whereas a direct PhD program would be at a lower-tier institution, then you should go for the better institution. It might improve your likelihood of getting into a top tier PhD program, which is generally a precondition of getting even a reasonable job. (But all this will depend on the specifics of your subfield, and of the job market where you want to teach, so talk to your undergrad advisor.)

To have a shot at becoming a professor you will need to be at the very best institutions, working with the very best people (not because they will push you to develop your mind, or for any high minded reason like that, but purely because there are SO MANY already-overqualified candidates that only people from the top places even have a shot). And you'll need to be careerist in your choices, about what to research; sub-specialties to pursue; how quickly to press toward publication vs trying to hone things perfectly; networking/making connections. You will need a very reliable work ethic and a self-confidence that can't be shaken by indifferent feedback; if you tend to underestimate yourself, please know that - far from praiseworthy modesty - it can be a truly devastating personality trait for junior academics. It is a something you will need to find a way to stop, or else find a different line of work.

I don't mean to be discouraging, but I agree with PercussivePaul that staying in school with a general plan of becoming a humanities professor is a seductive but often self-harming road for bright students who enjoyed their undergrad work and aren't sure where to go outside of academia. Talk to your undergrad advisor, but you should approach this decision with caution and honesty as to whether your judgment is being colored by trepidation about the alternatives.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:57 PM on July 29, 2014

You might apply to both poly sci and philosophy programs, with the thought that you'll do political theory in either case. If you get into a very good program in one and not in the other, consider pursuing the very good program.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:05 AM on July 30, 2014

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