Should I go to grad school next year?
April 11, 2008 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Please help me make the right decision about graduate school.

I applied to seven grad schools this year and was rejected by all of them but one (the CUNY Graduate Center, FWIW). I was admitted with no funding my first year. Contrary to what this may imply, I really feel like I had a lot going for me on my application - I have five publications, have presented at four conferences, have a good job in my field (unfortunately one which is contracted and ending in July), language skills, a decent GRE score, and a MA (where I had a 4.0 GPA). I had multiple faculty members/advisers/professional contacts read all my essays/SOP/etc and everything sounded like it was good. I have spent several years preparing for grad school and I feel like I have a good variety of experiences/accomplishments on my cv so I'm not sure what I would add in a year's time that would make much of a difference if I applied again next year. It seems like the top programs in my field - ones that offer tuition plus a fat stipend - admit two or three people a year, whereas programs with less prestige don't necessarily fund all students. So, if I apply again next year, I could easily be in the same boat.

The school I did get accepted to has THE best potential adviser for me to work with. I work in an unpopular sub-field, and she is a real expert on it, so I would have the opportunity to take courses that are specifically on my interests. Also, this school is the only one I applied to which is willing to accept some of my MA credits. They have said (tentatively) that I would enter with about 21 of the 45 credits required to complete my course work. Because of this head start, I could conceivably take fewer classes during the first year I'm paying out of state tuition. Also, even though I did not receive a fellowship, my MA qualifies me to adjunct in the CUNY system so I would receive tuition remission if I were to do that.

The downside is that I (somewhat stupidly) paid for most of my MA. I now have about $45,000 in student loan debt. It is consolidated at what I think is a decent rate (4.5%). To start work toward my PhD next year, I would have to take out a loan my first semester of about $4000 to pay for my classes. I'm pretty sure that by my second semester I could handle an adjunct job, which would pay my tuition. I am also planning on getting a part-time job/doing freelance work, which I think I can handle since I will be a part-time student my first year. I worked almost full time while I was getting my MA and it didn't kill me.

My questions are this: can I make this work? Is this additional loan a big deal? This program is a great fit for my research interests and I want to go grad school NOW, while I'm enthusiastic and ready, but I don't want to do the "wrong thing." FWIW, I'm in the humanities (art history).
posted by lxs to Education (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can do it: go for it. The standing of your advisor is important for your future job, especially if a prolific writer or consulted peer reviewer, and published in journals relevant to your field. I do not think the additional loan is that much.

Think of it this way: you have much more control on your own time without a stipend. My daughter was awarded one, and I swear she is working 80 hours per week, plus her coursework.
posted by francesca too at 1:57 PM on April 11, 2008

You have the $45,000 in debt either way. $4000 more is nothing.
posted by desjardins at 2:22 PM on April 11, 2008

I think you should do it. It sounds like you have the drive, and you're confident in your ability to handle the working-while-studying situation. Besides, your options seem to be (1) stick with the MA and the $45,000 debt or (2) get the PhD with a little ($4000) extra debt. If you're successful in finding a job, your salary will likely be much higher with a PhD than with an MA, so I think it would be a good investment to continue your education. On preview: what desjardins said.
posted by sotalia at 2:23 PM on April 11, 2008

Well, I was in a vaugely similar situation. I had a great opportunity to get a grad degree in my field in exchange for a lot of money that I didn't have. I got a job and deferred until I couldn't any more. Then kinda gave up on going back to school. I regret not going, and I still think about going back, but it's harder to go back to school once you start working.

The flipside is now I have a decent job, making decent money. And if/when I do decide to go back, I can theoretically almost pay for it.

And realistically another degree wouldn't have helped my career much. It just would have been fun and interesting.

I think what I'm trying to get at, is there's no wrong answer.
posted by meta_eli at 2:52 PM on April 11, 2008

Much more so than the $4000 loan for tuition, you need to take into consideration the money you could earn if you found a job instead of spending more time in school not earning and paying for living expenses. If the PhD will significantly increase your earning potential (and/or get you into a job you love which you otherwise wouldn't get), then it'll be worth it. But $45,000 is a lot of debt and it'll hang around you much longer if you spend a few more years in school instead of working to pay it off now. I'm not saying one way or the other is better, just something you need to consider.

FWIW, I'm in grad school, mostly happy with the decision, but I frequently think about how much money I could have made had I just taken a job.
posted by Durin's Bane at 3:15 PM on April 11, 2008

I would ask your potential advisor and also the financial aid office what the potential is for support in future years. If it is highly likely then I would definitely go for it. If it is not, then think about where you might be in 10 years, with or without the Phd and see which scenario is more satisfying. Personally I would probably still do it, but your choice will reflect your values, not mine.

Finally, it is normal to have regrets about the road not taken but if you are thoughtful about making the choice when you are at the crossroads then it will be easy to put those regrets aside and appreciate the good in your life.
posted by metahawk at 4:55 PM on April 11, 2008

ps. What is the "wrong thing" that you might be doing if you decided to go?
posted by metahawk at 4:56 PM on April 11, 2008

Your plan sounds fine if you can make it work. The question is, can you make it work?

If I were you, I'd find out everything you can about adjunct jobs at CUNY. How are adjuncts chosen? How stiff is the competition? What extra qualifications would it take to set you apart from the pack, and do you have (or can you get) any of them? Is there anything your department can do to help? If you score an adjunct job for one semester, can you count on keeping it for future semesters, or do their needs tend to fluctuate?

I'd make sure, too, that the department is okay with people studying part-time. Many places it's strongly frowned on. (In my department, for instance, part-timers are essentially cut off from funding — to qualify for a TAship or fellowship, one must be "making adequate progress towards a degree," where "adequate progress" usually means full-time coursework until you've met the requirements.) On the other hand, some places it's common — just be sure you know it's allowed before you start counting on it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:15 PM on April 11, 2008

Well, step one: realize that a phd isn't anything about fulfillment, it's a professional qualification and that's it.

So, what are your professional goals? I assume that you want to get a job as an assistant professor in 3--8 years.

So really, as best as I see it, the only relevant question is: what prospects will I have as a CUNY product? Will I stand a chance on the market, or will all of the jobs even at Bi-Directional State University: Podunk Subcampus go to people from Harvard or RISD or whoever it is that's spectacular for art history?

I would take my multiple rejections in the face of clear preparation as a sign that this is a very competitive field and that, barring admission to a top-flight department next year, I should make a different career.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:19 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised and a little dismayed at the casualness of some of the above encouragement to take on even more debt than the mountain you've already got, in pursuit of a very difficult and at best financially unrewarding career path. In my view no one should ever take on any debt to get through a Ph.D. in the humanities; as has already been pointed out, you're forgoing significant earnings just by languishing for possibly around a decade in grad school before even being eligible to apply for tenure-track work. So I'd urge that you listen carefully to ROU_Xenophobe and take a year off to work on paying down your existing debt, and to look hard for other career tracks that might be more immediately rewarding. There really might be other ways to do the kind of work in the arts that appeals to you, whether this means art education, conservation, museum work, or criticism. While you're working on this, and working to pay down your debt, there's no reason you can't also be polishing up your application materials for another round. Talk more to your recommenders and any other academics you know about how to present your best face in the application, and try again.

As far as the present offer you've been extended, it seems unsatisfactory to me. Don't count on their vague non-written promises of sometime-later adjunct employment; this may never materialize, or it may end up being a terrible situation if it does. But do contact their DGS before formally rejecting their offer of admission, and explain that you'll need some kind of funding before you can consider accepting. Maybe they can come up with a better offer.
posted by RogerB at 10:22 PM on April 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: FYI, I would be considered for funding in following years. Also, I am hoping to go into museum work - I have spent the past few years working essentially as high as I can get on that totem pole without a PhD. There's no better place for me to further than career path than NYC. Also, the whole museum thing is slightly less nightmarish than the search for tenure. So, if I could swing it, when I was done, I would not only have a PhD, but work experience at a major museum to make me a more competitive job applicant. Also, re: the program, CUNY is currently ranked 9th for art history, and my thought was that a degree from a top 10 program would be an asset in the job search.
posted by lxs at 8:00 AM on April 12, 2008

This is yet another grad school question that is field-dependent. A top 10 program in most any of the sciences would have you set, but, for example in one other field that I have some experience with, Egyptology, only the top 4 or 5 programs are not going to significantly hurt your chances to get an academic job. So you need to talk to someone in the field about this (and not your possible future adviser, who might be selfish enough to tell you that CUNY is in the club when it's not just to get a good graduate student).

Also you need to look at your future earning potential vs your student loan debt load vs your idea of your future lifestyle. Academic positions, at least at first, don't pay enough to raise a family on in addition to paying off student loans. Even though I'm managed to get a pretty high profile academic position, I really had to live like a graduate student for a couple of years to get the student loan beast off of my back, at a pretty high personal cost. You should think hard about whether that would be OK for you.
posted by overhauser at 8:24 AM on April 12, 2008

That's a lot of debt. I would recommend rejecting the offer due to funding, and if they don't come back with a better offer then I think you should apply again to all the same schools for next year. Let's face it, most PhDs especially in the humanities take so long that another year isn't going to matter.

I have a friend in your field who landed a great job at a museum after finishing. I can't speak for him, but I would imagine that he might have some good advice, so if you like feel free to shoot me a message.
posted by ob at 11:31 AM on April 12, 2008

First, decide if the school you are admitted to is the best school that you can go to - will the expertise of your potential advisor be enough to make you a competitive job applicant upon finishing your PhD?

If the answer is yes, then go, and funding will follow if you work hard enough and are persistent enough.

If the answer is no, then take another year off and apply again. In the humanities, you're right - you ARE a very good applicant. As soon as you said you have 5 publications, I immediately thought you were in the sciences, where that kind of thing is more common. But 5 publications with an MA in Art History? You rock. It sounds like you covered all of your bases, application-wise, so your rejections are due either to a bad fit with those schools/departments, or just bad luck. This happens all the time - really qualified applicants getting rejected just because they apply in the wrong year. Applying a second time is pretty common, and there's no shame in it. Totally do it again if you think you can do better than CUNY.

I'm going in to grad school in the humanities (a field near AH, and also with an MA and some associated debt) and have applied multiple times. I'm amazed, the more I talk to people about what I've gone through in this process, at how many people have applied twice or three times (and yes, it's hell!!), and even then at those people who have been really successful in the end. So if you're inclined to try your luck again, don't dismiss it because it seems like a bad option, especially if you can defer your CUNY admittance. It would be nice to go into a second round knowing you have a guaranteed 'yes' on the table.
posted by AthenaPolias at 5:38 PM on April 12, 2008

This doesn't directly answer your question, but you may find this observation helpful. You said that you work in an unpopular subfield. I suspect that this is precisely the reason why you've been rejected by all those schools. Those schools may not have people in your field, or the people in your field may have too may students already, or these people simply may not end up on admissions committees very often, or the people in more popular fields may have more clout, etc. So, if I'm right, then your chances of getting into those schools in a future year are not likely to improve (unless you get extraordinarily lucky, and, say, they have totally crappy applicants one year, or they hire new people in your field, or something). Viewed in this light, if you ever want to go to grad school, this may be the best chance you'll ever have. A corollary to what I've said is that if you do go to grad school and remain in your unpopular subfield, then you'll have a very hard time getting an academic job after getting your PhD. (I see that you're more interested in museum work, but, just saying...)
posted by epimorph at 11:45 PM on April 12, 2008

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