Terminal master’s — should you do it?

By Kino

Should you pursue a Master’s first?

It is quite common, sometimes mandatory, for students trained in Europe or European-style programs to acquire a Master’s (usually 1 year long) before starting a PhD (usually 3 years long). North American PhD programs, however, usually require students to go through something like the master’s process whether or not students already have master’s coming in. This makes getting another MA unnecessary. Indeed, many NA programs routinely accept students straight out of undergrad.

Nevertheless, there may still be good reasons to take an extra master’s. Some common reasons are: your undergraduate degree was not in philosophy; your undergrad-based application package is not very competitive (e.g., low GPA, poor writing sample, weak letters); you come from a foreign undergrad institution; you’re not entirely sure that you want a profession in philosophy. I went to an MA program in philosophy mostly because I wasn’t sure if it’s something I’d like. It was one of the wisest things I did. I would not have applied for a PhD program (or gotten in to one, for that matter) if I didn’t do a master’s.

If you are on the fence about master’s, the right approach (I think) is to apply to both PhD and terminal master’s programs. The only disadvantage to such an approach is increased cost associated with application fees. The application package is pretty much the same (except most master’s programs don’t require GRE scores).

Timeline of a master’s

If you’re aiming for a PhD after the master’s, it is highly recommended that you go for 2-year master’s instead of 1-year ones. The reason is simple: if you enroll in a master’s this September and would like to enroll in a PhD next September, then you need to start applying for that PhD after having only spent a couple of months at your master’s. A couple of months is not enough to finish a polished writing sample from scratch and also to get to know at least two professors well enough to receive strong reference letters. There are, of course, exceptions, notably when the master’s is at the same institution as your undergrad or your intended PhD program. But if it’s not, you are essentially applying to the PhD with the same materials you used to apply for the master’s, getting little pragmatic value out of the master’s.

Most of the European research master’s are 1-year long. Most of the North American master’s are 2-year long (with some exceptions).

Keeping the future PhD in mind helps you plan out the timing for your master’s, too. Suppose you are applying in your second year, then you will have a little over one full year of master’s to show in your application. Anything you do in your second year will not quite matter for the application. Consequently, it is a good idea to plan your first year carefully. (That said, I have a few friends who spent 3 years or more in their master’s and who are in great PhD programs now and really happy with their journey. Timing is something you should always consider, but it should not be a top priority.)

Regardless of why you decided to pursue a master’s in the first place, you should spend that year accomplish the following: 1) Work closely with at least 2 professors. Make sure they have read your work, either through teaching a class you took or working with you on an independent study project. 2) Develop a new writing sample and make those 2 professors have both read it and liked it. In my experience, it takes at least 3 months to finish a decent 20-page research paper from scratch; 5-6 if you’re a slow writer or run into trouble mid-way through. Try to leave 1-2 months of revision time, too, where you send the paper to other professors and revise accordingly (it usually takes people 2-3 weeks to read and comment on a paper). Consequently, you should aim to get a good sense of what you want to write about before your first summer. 3) If you did not have an undergraduate degree in philosophy, make sure you take classes on a wide variety of topics. Many PhD programs worry about applicants who appear to have weak philosophical backgrounds. It is my impression that this is especially true of programs with more traditional focuses (e.g., epistemology, metaphysics, ethics).

Choosing a master’s program

What makes a good master’s program can be quite different from what makes a good PhD program. In particular, course offering is much more important for master’s, where fit is less important.

It’s a good idea to look at course offerings on the websites of a program. Some websites will indicate which courses they offer regularly. Glancing at course offerings in the past couple of years can give you a good sense, too. Once you are accepted and in the comparison stage, you can email the department to ask for course offering, too. Look for courses not only in your intended area of study, but also in major areas of philosophy in which you have no background. As explained above, most of the pragmatic value you will get out of your master’s happens in the first year. It is completely reasonable to choose (comparable) programs based on what courses they plan to offer in the following year.

Other than courses, you are usually required to produce some original piece of writing before you can graduate. At Simon Fraser University where I did my master’s, the most popular way is to write a “professional paper”, which is a high-quality paper that’s about 20-25 pages long. (There is also a 50-page thesis option that few people choose.) The benefit there is that the paper serves as the PhD writing sample. That said, a friend of mine from a different program wrote a substantive thesis (50 pages+). While it was a painful process to condense it down for the purpose of a writing sample, she was able to reuse a lot of it for the dissertation. Note that, if you are planning to write a long thesis, then it becomes more important to check for research fit between you and the department.

Something else to consider, which is a lot harder to assess, is how you might be treated in the program. Many academics consider master’s students closer to undergrads than they are to PhD students. Consequently, master’s students are sometimes treated like undergrads. This is not a good thing if you’re planning to enter a PhD. This can be hard to spot because, coming straight from undergrad, this is what you’re used to.

One way to find out if a prospective department treats you seriously is by looking at their website. Some departments will explicitly state that they treat MA students like colleagues. You can also read the students’ manual, often posted online, and see if it has professionalism-related instructions or requirements. You can see if achievements by master’s students are celebrated online, if statistics related to master’s students are well kept, etc.

I have heard of the thought that departments with master’s program alone treats their master’s students more seriously than departments with also a PhD program. My own experience of a master’s only department and the experience of my friends from other master’s only programs have all been very positive. That said, I also have a friend who completed a 1-year master’s at a department that also offers a PhD. He seems to have had a great time there, and ended up being admitted to the PhD program (he did have to go through a full application process and I believe he was accepted elsewhere too). It’s certainly true that there are PhD-granting departments that treat their master’s very well.

Related to the above point is departmental size. In PhD programs, students work very closely to their adviser, and maybe 1-2 other committee members. Even if the department is huge, as long as it’s well organized and your advisers get along with each other and with you, the size of the department might not affect you. If you’re a master’s student in a department with a lot of PhD students, it is easy to fall through the cracks. It’s possible that everyone will just assume you’re someone else’s student.

None of this is a big concern if you either 1) have a very good sense of how grad school works & where you are along the process, or 2) have an assertive personality and are good at advocating for yourself. Self-advocacy is one of those rarely-taught skills that makes a huge difference for success in grad school. If you are not already good at it, then a smaller, more closely-knitted program might help ease you into it.

Funding your master’s

Unlike PhD programs (in North America), where legitimate ones always fund their students, some good MA programs do not fund their students — at least not in the way that PhD does. It is common for MA programs to offer Teaching Assistant opportunities where the salary covers both tuition and living. However, not all MA programs guarantee TA-ship for 2 years and not all TA-ships pay enough to cover both rent and other expenses.

If funding is a big concern for you, here are some tips to keep in mind when you research: 1) It’s usually fairly easy to find out how much a TA-ship pays; you can dig online or email a student to ask. It’s usually not hard to find out how much tuition is, either, but it’s usually in a completely different place. Thus, while all the information is there, it does take a little digging around. Keep in mind also that student fees are often not listed under tuition fees, but in a different place still, and can add up to 5-600 a year.

2) Most grad programs do not have guaranteed summer funding. Many departments fund their PhD students over the summer through various means, but such opportunities can be harder to come by for MA students. Unfortunately, there is not a lot you can do to increase summer funding through the department, since the reason departments don’t give out summer funding is because they don’t have much funding. Consequently, I would advice thinking about summer early: keep an eye out for summer opportunities; find out if you can sub-lease and move away over the summer; think ahead about a part-time job; etc.


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