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I'm a recent BA graduate. In my field (linguistics), it seems like most successful applicants to PhD programs at top schools have Master's theses, and writing samples in the field are probably the most important part of the application. My writing sample will probably be only 20 pages long at best, even though I think it's really interesting and good.

Am I at a disadvantage? Would it be better for me to get a Master's before trying again? Or do they only just care about the kind of research that you do?

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    I added "linguistics" to the title, since this is very likely to be field specific. – Nate Eldredge Aug 31 '15 at 14:13
  • You say "trying again". Do you mean you already applied to PhD programs and were rejected? If so, that may change the way you think about applying (i.e., you may want to get feedback on your application), irrespective of your MA status. – BrenBarn Aug 31 '15 at 20:21
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Ph.D. student in linguistics here.

I'd say "probably not," especially if you and your educational background are both American as well. Stand-alone MA programs in linguistics in the U.S. are difficult to find. Where they exist, they tend to be focused on applied linguistics and education. Most domestic applicants will have only undergraduate degrees. Focus on demonstrating that your research interests are well-defined, that you have a good sense of how to pursue them, and that you have a rock-solid understanding of why the University of X would be a great match for you. Don't worry too much about the writing sample; mine was just a small course paper that the professor liked.

That being said, it can't hurt to have an MA from a reputable school, and aiming for that might make sense as a backup plan. I've seen several people move to Canada or Europe to do an MA in theoretical/quantitative linguistics, then come back to the U.S. for a Ph.D. One of these ended up saying that their MA experience north of the border was something they'd wholeheartedly suggest to people having trouble getting admitted to Ph.D. programs in the U.S. I've heard that there are even a few schools up there that provide funding for international MA students in linguistics, though I'm not sure which ones they are. Worth looking into, though!

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I wouldn't say you will be at a disadvantage without an MA.

I have a PhD in linguistics. I didn't have an MA before I applied. Many people in my program didn't have an MA when they applied. When I met prospective students at other schools I applied to, many of them didn't have an MA either. (These were at well-known, tier-1 research universities.) Some people certainly have MAs, but it's by no means a requirement. My impression is that many if not most linguistics PhD programs in the US are designed as combined MA/PhD programs, where they expect you to get the MA along the way to the PhD. If you already have an MA, you may be able to skip some coursework, but it's not expected that you'll have one.

A good writing sample is definitely important, but it doesn't have to be a thesis. Many people (including me) just submitted what they thought was one of their best term papers from a class they took, maybe polished up a bit or edited for the purposes of the application.

  • I did try applying to PhD programs. I graduated as a BA in philosophy from a top 5 linguistics program (I took multiple graduate level classes in linguistics though). My writing sample was in philosophy of language. I got waitlisted from a top 10 program and top 20 program, and rejected everywhere else. I got turned down everywhere I got waitlisted, and I couldn't afford to get an MA (I contacted a bunch of MA programs after seeing that I had nowhere to go). So right now I'm working on two research papers to apply again this year, I guess that was the main problem with my application. – Nephenee Aug 31 '15 at 21:53
  • @Nephenee: Have you talked to the professors who taught those ling courses? They may be able to help you improve your app. You could also reach out to the schools you applied to and ask if they have any feedback on how you could be a stronger candidate. This doesn't always yield results but sometimes it does. – BrenBarn Sep 1 '15 at 4:59
  • Yeah, they wrote my recommendation letters. I think the only problem with my application was that I didn't have a research background in linguistics, which I guess is the main thing they care about in the first place. The other aspects of my application, my letters, transcript etc. were all great. – Nephenee Sep 1 '15 at 10:45
  • @Nephenee:Yeah, okay. I'm just saying it might be good (if you haven't done this) to explicitly ask a professor for feedback on your overall application. Even professors who wrote letters for you may not know the strengths and weaknesses of your overall app unless you show the whole thing to them. – BrenBarn Sep 1 '15 at 17:44
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I have a fair amount of experience in reading applications to linguistics grad programs. Very few students have an MA in linguistics or anything else, and nobody ever raised the lack of an MA as a relevant point (this is in the US: life is different in Europe). What does count is the writing sample, i.e. proof that you can do research (an MA thesis being obvious evidence that you could pursue a PhD). I would say that in 30 years, I saw two MA theses submitted (and yes, in one case it made a difference). A good 20 page research paper would actually be better, as long as it really was novel research and not a book report type of "research paper", since it's much easier to read a 20 page paper than it is to read an MA thesis which can stretch on for a couple hundred pages.

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