Help with deciding on further education: undergraduate edition, part 2

In the first post in this series, we talked about current undergraduates or people who already have an undergraduate degree who were interested in going to graduate school to receive a terminal master’s degree. But people who are planning to get only a master’s degree have a slightly different set of concerns than people who are interested in getting a doctorate. So this post is addressed primarily at undergraduates (or BA-holders) looking at direct-entry MA/PhD programs. By “direct entry”, I mean that you enter a single program with a bachelor’s degree with the intent of leaving in X years with a PhD. No stops along the way. The process is slightly different for MA-holders who are seeking a PhD, and we address them in the final post of this series.

Before getting started, you should review the questions and advice in the first post, because it’s all still relevant to you! Then also ask yourself:

  • Do you have a plan for if you’re unable or unwilling to finish?

Especially important: will your program grant you an MA if you leave partway through the PhD requirements? They should. If any program doesn’t do that, it is probably not a good program for you. Accidents happen. Desires change. You want your program to understand and accommodate that.

Other aspects of this question may be more personal, since you entered with a set of goals that you may not be able (or wish) to achieve.

  • Is your program fully funded? For how many years? How many years do graduates normally take to complete their degree?

Unlike MA programs, competitive PhD programs should fund students (with tuition and a stipend) for the duration of the outlined program. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be funded for the whole time you’re there. But it does mean that if the program as outlined on their website, in curricular documents, etc. takes X years, they should fund you for X years. Usually you can find that information on the ‘funding’ section of the department’s website. You should also feel free to ask what happens after X years; many programs offer supplemental funding through teaching. It will take more of your time, but it’s good to know.

You also want to know if the program is realistic. For example, if the curriculum is designed to be completed in 6 years, but the last dozen graduates took 8-9 years, that tells you something important about how long the curriculum realistically takes to complete. In those cases, it’s even more important to ask about supplemental funding and the maximum amount of time you can hold it. You should also ask about paying tuition once you’re no longer funded. Most graduate funding covers tuition; once you’re not funded, how much will you have to pay?

My general advice is that you shouldn’t go to a PhD program that can’t offer full funding. A responsible PhD program should see you as an investment and want to give you money. It may not be a lot of money (see next paragraph), but it should be something.

A final note on funding: graduate students do not get paid very much. In many places, yearly stipends hover just above the federal poverty line. It’s possible for an individual to live on the money you get from your stipend, but it may be difficult. If you have dependents, it might not be possible. Depending on your circumstances, you may be better off trying to do at least part of your degree (often the MA) part-time, or trying to work part-time once you’ve completed your MA coursework. You’re the best judge of your circumstances.

  • Do you have the language skills already to complete a PhD program in Classics?

You’ll improve your language skills, but you need to learn French, German, and possibly Italian, Spanish, and other languages. You may not have time to start in Greek 101. If you do, you should expect to take longer to complete your degree, unless you are coming with special circumstances (for example, if you’re planning to study international relations between Bronze Age Greece and Anatolia and your undergraduate degree was in Near Eastern languages, maybe you don’t need to learn Latin).

If your language skills are weak, you may be better off applying to an MA program first. Standalone MA programs are typically a year longer (two, vs. one in a combined degree) and are aimed at helping students improve their language and research skills. You can always apply to a PhD program later if you want — there’s no stigma, and it may help you to have connections at several institutions.

If you have no language skills at all, you probably should not apply to a comprehensive program. Instead, you need a post-bac program. And yes, it is possible to do one and still go on to a PhD — but it will take longer.

  • Do you have a strong work ethic? How is your attention span?

Graduate work is much more challenging than undergraduate work. It’s often surprising. But consider the change between high school and college. The expectations were really different, right? You had all of this work you were expected to get done on your own. You met with your instructors only a few times a week. The readings were longer and more challenging. The papers were longer and more challenging. Exactly the same thing is true of undergraduate vs. graduate education. If you struggle to read several articles a week for your classes because you get distracted, you may not want to go to graduate school and read several books a week.

  • Are you friendly?

Although MA training is relatively collaborative, a PhD in humanities is usually a lonely endeavor, especially towards the end. If you’re a solitary sort of person, this could be great for you — or it could be awful. Doctoral students often report feeling isolated, lonely, and depressed. If you’re not the sort of person who thrives on being alone or who easily makes time to see people, you may not want to pursue further education — or you may need to make a plan for getting yourself through.

Somehow, we seem to be ending on the most downbeat notes. For those of you who haven’t been scared off yet, next time we’ll look a bit more closely at PhD-only programs.


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Help with deciding on further education: undergraduate edition, part 2 by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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