Monday, October 29, 2012

Going stale

An anonymous Smoker writes to ask:

I came from an SLAC and am currently in my last year of the MA program at well-respected graduate department (it's not ranked by Leiter, but given an honorable mention).  The program here requires you to start and finish your MA before you can apply into the PhD program.  I have been having great anxiety about my prospects of getting into a strong PhD program (because of the lack of financial aid here, I will not be staying on at my current school), and then if I do get in, there are of course the well-documented terrors of the job market.

After some long and intense conversations, I decided with my partner's support that it was in our best interests for me to stop (temporarily) at the MA and spend some time gaining experience and other marketable qualities (which is not to say that the skills gained from doing philosophy are not marketable, but are probably not immediately appealing to employers outside of academia) before hopefully one day returning to complete my PhD at another institution. In the meantime, I plan to continue to read, fill in my philosophical gaps, research and write when I can and I would like to make an attempt at publishing while I'm off the academic route.

This brings me to my questions for you and all the other Smokers. Is there a danger of going stale in the eyes of admissions departments if I have a large gap since my MA, especially if my grandiose plans of reading, writing and publishing don't come to fruition (as they often don't)?

My other question has to do with publishing.  Will I not be taken seriously by journals and conferences because I only have a MA and am not currently working toward a PhD, in other words that I have no institutional affiliation?  Blind review theoretically should prevent this, but I guess the editor could reject me on that basis alone, right?  Without the benefit of professors and peers commenting on my work and helping me improve it (although there is nothing preventing them from helping a former student, their efforts and time is and should be focused on their current students), it is unlikely that my work would be at the same caliber of the philosophers who get published in the top journals.  From reading your blog and others, it seems clear that not only does it matter that you publish, but also where you publish, and publishing in un-established or generally unknown journals could hurt your more than help you. Should I not even bother trying to publish in the top journals, is it acceptable to try to publish in lower-tier journals given the circumstances?  Would that be taken into account by institutions I apply to for my PhD and, later down the line, institutions where I try to get a job?  Or should I simply not attempt to publish at all?

My guess is that  a gap after the MA would matter to admissions committees about as much as a gap after the undergraduate degree which--which, as far as I know, is not at all.

That's not to say it won't cause problems. It will. Your writing sample might suffer if there's an extended period of time during which your head's not in philosophy. And if your letter-writers have to think back to the long-ago time when you were in their classes, it'll be harder for them to write helpful letters. But I know lots of people who spent substantial amounts of time away from philosophy after college, and who still managed to produce writing samples and secure helpful letters, and were subsequently admitted to good, Leiter-ranked Ph.D. programs.

Regarding the possibility of publishing while away from academia: it seems to me that it will be very difficult to produce work of publishable quality during this time. For one thing, the benefits of being immersed in philosophy in the manner of a philosophy grad student are enormous. Doing coursework; reading a lot; writing a lot; going to talks; participating in reading groups; talking philosophy with the faculty and the other grad students. It's all very beneficial, and you don't get the benefits if you're not there.

For another thing, and I know you know this, but the fact is that it's hard to write a publishable philosophy paper, and I'm not confident that the level of training you'd have by virtue of completing an MA would be enough. For example, I did a master's degree program and I don't regard anything I wrote during that period to be remotely publishable. And I don't think I'm alone--I don't think anything any of my master's-program classmates produced was publishable, either. I'm pretty certain that none of it was ever published, anyway.

Regarding the possibility that your unaffiliated status will get in the way: It might. Although most refereeing is blind, my understanding is that a good deal of editing is not. So it's possible that your unaffiliated status will hurt you, although it's hard to say what the total effect will be. Probably more in some journals than others.

But I don't think we've reached a point where publishing is necessary for admission to Ph.D. programs. Have we? That would be awful. I think that the upshot is, you'll be fine. Concentrate on keeping your mind on philosophy, producing a good writing sample without worrying about publishing it, and stay in touch with the faculty at your MA-granting department. Let them know what your plans are, and ask them for help.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

As someone who came from an honorable mention MA program myself, Zero's advice seems pretty much on point. You should know that your chances of getting into a top-15 Leiter program are very very small, I would think, coming from such an MA program. To get in you'd need to sit in on courses that famous people teach, and get letters from them. Or you could publish something in a very good journal. But this is nearly impossible without some significant philosophical seasoning. Still, taking a year off certainly won't hurt you. But taking more time off might hurt you unless you can sit in on some courses somewhere or unless your work ethic is really good.

Anonymous said...

apply to the best programs. if you get in, then decide whether or not to take time off.

it's doubtful that your chances to get in to a top program will improve during your time off.

Anonymous said...

Publishing something that's not stellar isn't really going to help you a lot. Instead, work on a writing sample (which is a different sort of document than a potential publication), and work on trying to build up relationships such that you can get strong letters (or at least a strong letter) from someone at a top rate institution. Without these, I don't think it's realistic to hope to get admitted into a PhD program at even a top 25 institution.

Anonymous said...

1. I was at a MA and took substantial time off (6 years) and got into a very good but not absurdly great PhD program.

Here's my advice:

a. Most importantly: Get letters from your professors NOW. Don't wait -- say you are taking time off, you will apply later but that you realize they will forget about you or your awesome papers. Have them write a letter. You can get an interfolio account for $20 / year to keep them in perpetuity -- or the dept. might be willing to hang onto them for free.

b. Take advantage of that time. Write you app materials (statement of intended study, etc) and take your best 2 papers and keep polishing and redrafting them. Your stuff should be able to stand out if you have years to work on it.

c. Stay somewhat current. They recognize you have a job. But if you can afford it, present at a conference a year or so.

d. Don't publish just to publish (in a lower tier journal), but once you get a piece really really polished, it certainly couldn't hurt.

Anonymous said...

I went from an MA program to a PhD program and took quite a bit of time in MA (though remained affiliated with the department).

From what I've seen, and this goes along with other comments, the time off is not itself a mark against someone. I mean sure it might be someplaces. But, in general, it doesn't seem to be.

The problem is this: getting into high-quality PhD programs is hard. It's really hard. Maybe not getting a job hard, but not far off at this point. So, if the goal is to make this your professional, you really have very, very little wiggle room to lose quality in your work. It's possible you'll take time off and polish your sample etc etc etc, but it's unlikely your work will be as good as if you just hunker down and apply while you're still in the thick of things.

Also the publishing thing is irrelevant. Not one of my friends placed into top-10 programs has published a thing. Not to say it wouldn't be great (in a good journal), but I would not try to use that as a tool to try to get into PhD.

imprecise said...

Just a note about Interfolio -- they keep your letters on file for a period of time even if you don't pay the fee. So it would be even cheaper than $20/year.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to the chorus...

(1) I went to a top MA program, took three years off before applying to PhD programs, and got into a very good PhD program. The time away didn't hurt me one bit. In fact, it helped because I had a much better sense of what kinds of things I really wanted to study in graduate school.

(2) Don't rush to publish. Chances are very good that you just aren't ready to publish something worthwhile at this stage in your career. You will have plenty of time before you go on the job market to make sure that what you put into print is worth putting into print.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the others. It's worth adding: there's a difference between a good writing sample and a good journal paper. The role of the former is to display your "raw skills". The role of the latter is to advance understanding. It can take time, then, to make a good writing sample into a good journal paper. This is time better spent making the sample better, reading more philosophy, and having fun.

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents:

-I've never met an MA candidate who was producing publishable work. Never. Conference papers? Yes. But you are right in that the lack of critical feedback from peers and faculty will work against your continued development, in terms of the quality of your writing as well as the quality of your reasoning. If you have the chance, do attend conferences. Learn from them (rather than just showing up to read and get the line on your CV.) But don't think about publishing. From what I can tell, we are not (yet) at the point where applicants to PhD programs are expected to have published in top journals in order to be admitted. Let's hope we never get there.

-Yes, some programs will think that you have grown stale, but don't let that discourage you. Given the number of applicants to grad programs, some admission committees look for reason to cut applicants, and time out of school may be a reason. But as there's nothing you can do about the fact that some people will have an unreasonable bias, don't worry about it.

-The best way to keep from actually being stale is to stay current in your reading. You will need to make time to get to the library and devote time to staying current in your areas of interest. It will certainly be harder to keep your head in the game when you are not in coursework, teaching, or engaging with your peers regularly. So you have to extra vigilant about being self-motivated. (This skill, by the way, will come in very handy should you do go on to the PhD, and have to write your dissertation.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with what others have said, but I'd also like to say that it doesn't really matter what you do. It's not as bad as trying to get a job, but getting into a good grad school is a crapshoot.

zombie said...

If you still live near your MA dept, think about attending colloquia, if you can, to keep yourself in the game. This also gives you ongoing facetime with your profs, which can help you with the letters. Your dept really should want you to get into a good PhD dept, so they should be willing to help you out so long as you stay in their good graces.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for the great advice; I do intend to be near my MA department and will do my best to have a presence there, and will focus my efforts on my writing sample. I've opened an Interfolio account and will ask my professors to write letters of recommendations by the end of the year. Thanks again everyone!