Which of these schools makes the most sense?
April 23, 2021 10:22 AM   Subscribe

A Chinese friend of mine was accepted to Masters programs (humanities, area studies) across the US, including Stanford, Duke, UNC, UMass Amhest (with funding), UCLA, UIUC, and University of Indiana. His eventual goal is to be a professor. He's leaning toward UIUC, because the faculty there have shown a lot of interest in him—and Duke and Stanford are very expensive. Any advice for him?
posted by matkline to Education (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
My advice is never do an unfunded master’s program and he should choose the school first by which offers him the most attractive financial package. Right now it sounds like that is UMass.

I strongly recommend not doing graduate work particularly in the humanities without it being fully funded. Put another way, don’t go into debt for your master’s degree. (Source - multiple graduate degrees, no debt)
posted by arnicae at 10:28 AM on April 23 [42 favorites]


I don't know "area studies" very well, so take this with a grain of salt, but, in the humanities, if he wants to be a professor, he should be looking into Ph.D. programs, and usually for those the M.A. is just a byproduct of the Ph.D. process. I imagine there are some professional reasons to take a terminal M.A. (e.g., if you're going into diplomacy), but not for academia. Can your friend speak candidly with a professor in his field about the credentials process?
posted by praemunire at 10:30 AM on April 23 [11 favorites]


Take the money.
posted by MiraK at 10:34 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


Does your friend want to be a professor in the US or in China?

If in the US, it will be nearly impossible to become a professor without getting a PhD from an extremely highly ranked school. So going to a school that isn't ranked as well in order to be fully funded could very well result in no job after graduation. It's very important to find out what the graduates of any program your friend considers are doing. How many were able to get jobs in academia? How many of those jobs were adjunct positions with no benefits and no job security? The US is currently packed with PhDs in the humanities who all thought they were going to be the exception and get tenure track positions and whose lives are . . . not that.
posted by FencingGal at 10:40 AM on April 23 [11 favorites]


Its a really tough balance.
You definitely don't want to end with debt. And actually working in the field (subfield) you want with informed and interested faculty is absolutely crucial in determining your future. But if you want to be faculty, regrettably the name brand (i.e. Stanford>UCLA/Duke>...) really does help. It will vary greatly who is the best per field/subfield; and that should be considered; but the big name brands do make some difference in faculty positions in the future too. If he wants to be a faculty he needs to be the most set up to capitalize on all 3, with that caveat Fencing Gal points out.

That said, that is when talking about a PhD. A terminal masters goes by a lot faster and in some fields is required but there to set you up for the PhD. Depending on the size of the masters class and the course/duration of study the faculty may not actually interact much; his goal will be to build publication record, CV points, and recommendations to get into a solid PhD.
posted by rubatan at 10:45 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Some factors to take into account:
- how prominent in the field the specific professors in each program are
- how well-regarded in the field the departments are
- whether master's students at these programs typically get to do interesting work, ideally leading to publication
- whether he's interested in the professors' areas of specialty
- whether he should wait a year and apply to Ph.D. programs right off the bat

Also, is his goal to be a professor in China or in other countries? The extent to which the school's name brand matters vs. the specific program's reputation might vary depending on what job market he's looking at.
posted by trig at 10:51 AM on April 23


Is the Master's program a 'get a foot on US soil with Visa and lay tracks for the PhD and further residency extensions' kind of thing? And how much $$$ does he / his family have?
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:03 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


Yes, don't do an unfunded master's if your goal is academia unless you've got family wealth and you plan to convert it into a well-funded PhD offer. UIUC will also entail much, much lower cost of living than Stanford or UCLA.

And rubatan is 100% right that the master's may then set him up to be a more competitive candidate to PhD programs that 1) might have more prestige and 2) might be able to fully fund more of their PhD students. I know a number of people who got their master's one place before moving to a more prestigious PhD program (in one case going from UMass Amherst to Stanford--and in a humanities-adjacent field).

It is true that name branding and alumni networks are far more important than they should be, but I would say that's less crucial for getting into a PhD program. And also, professors at a less-prestigious master's program could still be highly respected and well-known quantities as recommendation letter writers or networking contacts if your friend ends up applying to PhD programs elsewhere.

And even then, getting a PhD at a less well-known university can be a better experience if it means more engaged advisors (although not if it means you are TAing all the time and never get to work on your own research). The quality of the program and the relationship with the advisor/committee far outweigh the overall reputation of the university when it comes to actually learning.

I'd also second everything trig said above--the value of a name in one market (country, field) may not translate at all to another market. In addition to thinking about FencingGal's questions, your friend should consider skimming department websites at a wide range of universities--both prestigious and not-prestigious!-- where he could imagine ending up at as a professor. Doing a rough survey of where those faculty got their PhDs could help answer FencingGal's questions if he can't get the info directly.
posted by col_pogo at 11:28 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


He's leaning toward UIUC, because the faculty there have shown a lot of interest in him

This is really, really important to how the quality of his experience is going to be. He could transfer after the M.A. if he thinks it will be better professionally (and he'll know more after some immersion in grad school whether that's a good idea) but coming into a program where you're appreciated and wanted can make a world of difference.
If he were a U.S. national I'd say definitely go for the funding. It can be more complicated with international students.
posted by nantucket at 11:43 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


Ignoring the academic question and thinking about life style: UIUC has probably the largest Chinese community at any US university. They have the largest number of Chinese-national students, not to mention tons of people of Chinese descent.

I know lots of people go there just for that reason, it's nice to have plenty of your home food/language/culture around when studying abroad, ymmv.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:54 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


The most (only?) important way faculty express interest in grad students is by giving them money. If the faculty member has clout and wants a student, they will be able to find funding.

Knowing more about your friend’s situation would be helpful, but he should view getting a tenure-track job as getting a slot machine to pay out. If he goes to the best school with the biggest name professor and develops a reputation via publishing and conferences, maybe he can get it up to blackjack odds.
posted by momus_window at 11:56 AM on April 23 [7 favorites]


Yeah, the initial funding is nice but can be a bait-and-switch. It may not be guaranteed or be contingent in the second and further years.

Has he identified a field of interest? Is there a (or a few) faculty members at the school who work in that area? How many of the PhD students achieve funding or have successful grant applications during their training period? How many PhD graduates from the program are hired into academic positions?
posted by sudogeek at 12:25 PM on April 23


Strongly agree with arnicae. Unfunded MA's are money pits, and even if your friend is able gets into a top humanities PhD program, he is still very unlikely to get a job as a professor in the US - it's a total crapshoot right now.

If the goal is to get an MA so he has a better chance of being admitted to a PhD program with the intention of returning to China, then the MA really doesn't matter that much- or at least, all of the places you mention can easily serve him well. So yeah, take the $.
posted by coffeecat at 1:43 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Someone who hasn't got to master's stage yet doesn't likely have a good idea of what it means to be a professor. See if he can arrange a sit-down or zoom f2f with a prof, maybe a tutor?
posted by biffa at 2:11 PM on April 23


Here is the exhaustive list of All The Good Reasons To Do An Unfunded Nonprofessional MA Anywhere:

(1) You're wealthy enough that you don't care about money and it seems interesting.
(2) You're already in a career track where getting an MA in something is either a salary bump or necessary for future promotions.
(3) You're interested in a PhD but you have some real, concrete reason to believe that (a) you're not currently competitive for admission to a top phd program but (b) you would be with an MA. Really, here, you should either have applied and been rejected from top programs, or a mentor should have said you wouldn't be competitive.

Since he'd be planning to apply to PhD programs after the MA, he should talk to mentors about whether any of these departments are *clearly* better or worse than others. In the absence of that, follow the money.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:14 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


Absolutely take the money. He may have been better off applying to PhD programs at the get-go as that may have increased the funded offers.
posted by bluesky43 at 3:44 PM on April 24


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