Advice desperately needed - choosing the right Master's course

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andrew__
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I am a non-UK & non-EU applicant, and have been accepted to Master’s degrees at both Cambridge and Oxford. I’m having trouble deciding which to go with, and am hoping someone will be able to answer a few questions.

I see the programmes, principally, as my best hope of getting a scholarship to a top-tier PhD programme, preferable at one of the above universities (or similar). This is almost all I care about, actually.

Generally, I think that one programme is better suited to my interests than the other. However, the one that is less suitable has offered me a tiny, tiny “award” – not a scholarship, but more of a pat on the back. The other offered me nothing (and in fact, I didn’t even get my first college choice).

Although the award is financially insignificant, I often hear that scholarship committees place high value on previous awards. With this in mind:
- As my main goal is to get a PhD scholarship, would it be worth compromising a little on the course content for the benefit of having an Oxbridge award on my CV?
- On the other hand, can anyone comment on the chance of getting a PhD scholarship at Oxbridge without having been awarded a substantial scholarship previously? Or is this business about needing a scholarship to get another one all a bunch of hooey?

Those of you who have done humanities Master’s degrees at Oxbridge:
- Did you proceed to a PhD there? (Or elsewhere?) Did you find your Oxbridge degree a conspicuous asset when you applied? Or maybe you found it was of little value, ultimately?
- How many of your fellow students wanted to go on to a PhD? How many did? I've heard that it's less than you'd expect (I'd expect 100%).
- Did they get scholarships?
- Were any who obtained funding originally from abroad?
- Did they seem disadvantaged, in terms of funding?

As anyone who’s looked into these things knows, they’re prohibitively expensive, especially for overseas students, so there’s a lot at stake. Among all these high stakes, I’m feeling very lost, so any advice would be warmly appreciated.

Thanks.

- Andrew
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Klix88
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(Original post by andrew__)
I see the programmes, principally, as my best hope of getting a scholarship to a top-tier PhD programme, preferable at one of the above universities (or similar). This is almost all I care about, actually.
I'd say that a prestigious miniscule scholarship at Masters level is pretty much irrelevant to winning PhD funding. PhD projects are looking for "the right man for the job", so your Masters result and academic references will be much more important. There's a negligible amount of Masters-level funding available in the UK (it's acknowledged current failing of the Research Councils), so if that was a factor in PhD funding decisions then very few people would be benefitting from it.

Generally, I think that one programme is better suited to my interests than the other. However, the one that is less suitable has offered me a tiny, tiny “award” – not a scholarship, but more of a pat on the back. The other offered me nothing (and in fact, I didn’t even get my first college choice).
If the funding is insignificant, go with the course which better suits you. One of the first things you need to do to position yourself for PhD funding, is get as high a Masters classification as possible. Go where you're likely to get the better result - which is generally the course which suits you best.

Although the award is financially insignificant, I often hear that scholarship committees place high value on previous awards.
As above, I don't think this is the case.

- As my main goal is to get a PhD scholarship, would it be worth compromising a little on the course content for the benefit of having an Oxbridge award on my CV?
No. You're risking your final Masters result, which is by far more signficant than a "pat on the back" bit of Masters funding (even from Oxbridge).

- On the other hand, can anyone comment on the chance of getting a PhD scholarship at Oxbridge without having been awarded a substantial scholarship previously?
As above, I'm pretty sure your chances will be unaffected by the lack of a Masters scholarship. There just aren' enough of them available to make this any kind of deciding factor. The vast majority of successful PhD funding applicants, won't have had Masters funding. None of the funded people I've known, had Masters funding.

Or is this business about needing a scholarship to get another one all a bunch of hooey?
I'd vote hooey for the reasons above. Where did you hear it?

As anyone who’s looked into these things knows, they’re prohibitively expensive, especially for overseas students, so there’s a lot at stake. Among all these high stakes, I’m feeling very lost, so any advice would be warmly appreciated.
I really feel your pain. I don't suppose it helps, but Masters degrees (even with the "cheaper" Home fees) and PhDs are prohibitively expensive for many UK people who want to do them as well. I'm having to self-fund my PhD as I haven't been able to get funding, I'll run out of savings before I complete and will have to abandon it.

One of my Masters colleagues had six PhD offers - one from Oxford - but couldn't get funding either in the UK or US so had to abandon their project in order to work. Another interned for free for a year and a half at our Masters uni and eventually won a funded PhD project partly thanks to the publication record they'd built up during that time - they had a partner who paid the bills in the meantime.

I really hope it works out for you. I'm sure others will be along with more comments soon.
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ellie.rew
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I sympathise, because I was in close to the same situation last year. I agree with what Kilz said above but I'll add a little from my current experiences (in Oxford on a 1 year taught history masters, if it's any difference).
(Original post by andrew__)
I am a non-UK & non-EU applicant, and have been accepted to Master’s degrees at both Cambridge and Oxford. I’m having trouble deciding which to go with, and am hoping someone will be able to answer a few questions.

I see the programmes, principally, as my best hope of getting a scholarship to a top-tier PhD programme, preferable at one of the above universities (or similar). This is almost all I care about, actually.

Generally, I think that one programme is better suited to my interests than the other. However, the one that is less suitable has offered me a tiny, tiny “award” – not a scholarship, but more of a pat on the back. The other offered me nothing (and in fact, I didn’t even get my first college choice).
Take the award as a compliment because, in reality that's all it is. It will makes no significant difference to your application for PhD, unless you're a borderline case, in which it's a lottery anyway. My gut would say to go for the course you feel would be best for you, but there's an even more significant factor you havn't mentioned; your supervisor.

If you want to go on to PhD at Oxbridge, your master's supervisor will be your PhD supervisor and that will have a much bigger impact on your chances of getting a funded masters. If you get on well, if your supervisor is enthusiastic and excited to work on your project with you and will write (and lobby) that in your application, that will make a huge impact. Don't be afraid to get in touch with your assigned supervisors by e-mail; ask about supervision styles, frequency of meetings, etc. I cannot stress how important this stuff is. A friend was pushed to the point of dropping out because of the constant negative feedback from a supervisor and another who has hardly seen their supervisor at all in 6 months. There are lots of horror stories out there and while sometimes you can't avoid them, try to get an idea of your potential supervisor both academically and personally before you commit: because it will be (hopefully) a 4-5 year relationship.

(Original post by andrew__)
Although the award is financially insignificant, I often hear that scholarship committees place high value on previous awards. With this in mind:
- As my main goal is to get a PhD scholarship, would it be worth compromising a little on the course content for the benefit of having an Oxbridge award on my CV?
- On the other hand, can anyone comment on the chance of getting a PhD scholarship at Oxbridge without having been awarded a substantial scholarship previously? Or is this business about needing a scholarship to get another one all a bunch of hooey?
See above, but basically a sterling recommendation from your potential supervisor and top notch grades will beat a tiny award hands down.

(Original post by andrew__)
Those of you who have done humanities Master’s degrees at Oxbridge:
- Did you proceed to a PhD there? (Or elsewhere?) Did you find your Oxbridge degree a conspicuous asset when you applied? Or maybe you found it was of little value, ultimately?
- How many of your fellow students wanted to go on to a PhD? How many did? I've heard that it's less than you'd expect (I'd expect 100%).
- Did they get scholarships?
- Were any who obtained funding originally from abroad?
- Did they seem disadvantaged, in terms of funding?
-I'm still on my programme and will have to work for at least a year before I apply for PhD to write off the debt from this year. However, like you, I'm viewing it as an investment; so far it has been completely worthwhile. My degree will be of conspicuous advantage, because I'm now working with the world expert in my field and it is his reference which I feel will make the difference, either here (I'd love to come back) or somewhere else. He was the reason I chose Oxford over Cam and other places. The atmosphere is great too, I've met loads of amazing contacts and been pushed into reading/working on stuff I'd never have thought to do before - in short it's been worth it.

-It's never 100%, I'd say in October it was maybe 80%, but that does drop down even by this stage. The reality is that academia is incredibly hard, financially and psychologically, and everyone has thoughts of running away at times. I know people who have been put off enough by that to decide to leave after master's level. The other thing is that with an Oxbridge masters and a work ethic, it's pretty easy to earn triple the best doctoral scholarship in a year, in Law or consultancy etc., so many people tire of the student lifestyle and decide to grow up. And the horrible truth is that people fail to get funding, even with sterling grades, proposals and recommendations, because doctoral funding is just non-existant in places now, especially if you're non-UK. Term has only just kicked off here, and so far it's one classmate with funding and one without, who will have to move on to something else, but I havn't chatted to everyone yet. I would imagine the actually number in doctoral study next year will be c. 50%.

-If you mean for Phd, see above. For the masters, no-one on my course did, as far as I'm aware. Although, from college, it seems overseas students are more likely to get funded, although everyone I know like that is in econ/biomed/eng etc. Non-UK students (not only overseas) are definitely disadvantaged when it comes to funding, because most funding comes via the AHRC, which they aren't eligible for. However at master's level, AHRC doesn't fund, so everyone's in the same boat. It's incredibly tough.

(Original post by andrew__)
As anyone who’s looked into these things knows, they’re prohibitively expensive, especially for overseas students, so there’s a lot at stake. Among all these high stakes, I’m feeling very lost, so any advice would be warmly appreciated.

Thanks.

- Andrew
Like I said, I know exactly what you mean, you want to make the right choice. Feel free to ask anything else, and good luck wherever you end up!
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Misovlogos
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(Original post by Klix88)
I'd say that a prestigious miniscule scholarship at Masters level is pretty much irrelevant to winning PhD funding. PhD projects are looking for "the right man for the job", so your Masters result and academic references will be much more important. There's a negligible amount of Masters-level funding available in the UK (it's acknowledged current failing of the Research Councils), so if that was a factor in PhD funding decisions then very few people would be benefitting from it.

As above, I'm pretty sure your chances will be unaffected by the lack of a Masters scholarship. There just aren' enough of them available to make this any kind of deciding factor. The vast majority of successful PhD funding applicants, won't have had Masters funding. None of the funded people I've known, had Masters funding.
There's a slight ambiguity here I wouldn't mind resolved: do you mean to say that Masters-level funding is non-decisive in PhD submission because few competing applicants will hold such, or because they are just generally ascribed little weight?

(Original post by ellie.rew)
Take the award as a compliment because, in reality that's all it is. It will makes no significant difference to your application for PhD, unless you're a borderline case, in which it's a lottery anyway. My gut would say to go for the course you feel would be best for you, but there's an even more significant factor you havn't mentioned; your supervisor.
I was of the understanding that an ability to attract funding held appreciable weight in PhD admissions; do you mean to say that this isn't the case, or simply that it isn't in the case for the OP given the small financial attachment to his award?
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Misovlogos
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On topic: I would always, as suggested above, prioritise the programme which best suited my academic interests. The suitability of your prospective supervisor, faculty and resources is really - accepting financial means - of first importance; they will shape the development of your work, determine the opportunities open to you, etc.
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ellie.rew
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(Original post by Misovlogos)
There's a slight ambiguity here I wouldn't mind resolved: do you mean to say that Masters-level funding is non-decisive in PhD submission because few competing applicants will hold such, or because they are just generally ascribed little weight?
I think it's the fact that the funding awarded is such a small amount, from how OP is talking I'd say it's several hundred at the most and possibly much less. This is not a huge award and similar awards will be present on the CVs of many of the other candidates for a PhD scholarship - book prizes, essay prizes, prizes for top of exams cohort, summer travel grants etc. Since whether or not you have much of these types of awards depend not only on academic quality, but also which awards you were eligible for or which your UG uni provided, they won't be given much weight, although they will never hurt an application. If you managed to win a full fee waiver or a fully funded scholarship at masters level however (and there are probably only like 10 per university), then that is a big deal when makeing applications.


(Original post by Misovlogos)
I was of the understanding that an ability to attract funding held appreciable weight in PhD admissions; do you mean to say that this isn't the case, or simply that it isn't in the case for the OP given the small financial attachment to his award?
Attracting funding and winning funding are different things in this context, though both are rated highly (though see above on the financial amount). OP didn't attract funding but won it in an internal competition, presumably from his/her college or department. If he were to attract funding, i.e. be given a scholarship/grant from an outside body, thus increasing the amount of revenue the department has, then that is even more highly valued (because not only does the scholarship not come out of the department's pocket, but it gets to keep the fees paid by the student's sponsor). Attracting funding is not as big a deal in the humanities, where I believe OP is looking, than in the sciences however, primarily because there are far less outside organisations who will be willing to fund humanities research, so a potential PhD would never be expected to have any experience attracting outside funding.
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Misovlogos
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(Original post by ellie.rew)
I think it's the fact that the funding awarded is such a small amount, from how OP is talking I'd say it's several hundred at the most and possibly much less. This is not a huge award and similar awards will be present on the CVs of many of the other candidates for a PhD scholarship - book prizes, essay prizes, prizes for top of exams cohort, summer travel grants etc. Since whether or not you have much of these types of awards depend not only on academic quality, but also which awards you were eligible for or which your UG uni provided, they won't be given much weight, although they will never hurt an application. If you managed to win a full fee waiver or a fully funded scholarship at masters level however (and there are probably only like 10 per university), then that is a big deal when makeing applications.

Attracting funding and winning funding are different things in this context, though both are rated highly (though see above on the financial amount). OP didn't attract funding but won it in an internal competition, presumably from his/her college or department. If he were to attract funding, i.e. be given a scholarship/grant from an outside body, thus increasing the amount of revenue the department has, then that is even more highly valued (because not only does the scholarship not come out of the department's pocket, but it gets to keep the fees paid by the student's sponsor). Attracting funding is not as big a deal in the humanities, where I believe OP is looking, than in the sciences however, primarily because there are far less outside organisations who will be willing to fund humanities research, so a potential PhD would never be expected to have any experience attracting outside funding.
Thanks for this - very informative - reply. By way of full disclosure, I only ask because I'm a 2014/15 M.Phil candidate in the History faculty at Cambridge, and was awarded a CHESS scholarship for the sum £12,000 (provided jointly by the Isaac Newton Trust and my college). I'm curious as to how beneficial to my application for continuation to PhD this will be.
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Klix88
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(Original post by Misovlogos)
There's a slight ambiguity here I wouldn't mind resolved: do you mean to say that Masters-level funding is non-decisive in PhD submission because few competing applicants will hold such, or because they are just generally ascribed little weight?
I think both aspects would be a factor.

So few applicants hold Masters funding that it would be useless as an indicator of suitability for a particular PhD project, which is more going to be looking for "the right person" rather than a CV stuffed with awards and prizes. Applying for a funded PhD is a lot more like applying for a job. Most are very targeted and an applicant needs the right academic/research background, as well as a demonstrable interest in the PhD's research speciality.

For that reason, I think Masters funding is generally ascribed little weight.
EDITED: Although obviously your MPhil funding is a significant amount, at non-Oxbridge unis this type of funding would be rare.It doesn't seem to be the same situation as the OP's.

I was of the understanding that an ability to attract funding held appreciable weight in PhD admissions; do you mean to say that this isn't the case, or simply that it isn't in the case for the OP given the small financial attachment to his award?
The ability to attract funding wouldn't be an issue for a new PhD candidate. They won't be expected to have a funding track record, as there simply isn't enough Masters funding to attract. The sort of significant funding you're talking about would be tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds, generated largely by post-doc projects or large research projects managed by a uni's teaching/research staff. Certainly not a small pat-on-the-back type of Masters award, which has presumably come from the uni's coffers and not an external source - therefore not really attracting new funding to the uni. This wouldn't be an indicator of the potential to raise external money from industry or research bodies.

Once you become employed as a career academic, the ability to attract funding is key to your survival at many institutions. At my undergrad uni, staff were expected to bring in enough external funding each year to cover their employment costs. When they didn't, they swiftly found themselves on the "At Risk" register come the next round of redundancies.

However, things are a lot less cut-throat for PhD applicants (in terms of raising funding themselves, at least), who simply wouldn't be expected to have access to, or the opportunity to raise, any significant funding at that point in their academic career.
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Misovlogos
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(Original post by Klix88)
I think both aspects would be a factor.

So few applicants hold Masters funding that it would be useless as an indicator of suitability for a particular PhD project, which is more going to be looking for "the right person" rather than a CV stuffed with awards and prizes. Applying for a funded PhD is a lot more like applying for a job. Most are very targeted and an applicant needs the right academic/research background, as well as a demonstrable interest in the PhD's research speciality.

For that reason, I think Masters funding is generally ascribed little weight.
EDITED: Although obviously your MPhil funding is a significant amount, at non-Oxbridge unis this type of funding would be rare.It doesn't seem to be the same situation as the OP's.

The ability to attract funding wouldn't be an issue for a new PhD candidate. They won't be expected to have a funding track record, as there simply isn't enough Masters funding to attract.
Thanks for your substantive reply. I don't quite follow the reasoning that, given the acute scarcity of Master-level funding, such simply cannot be taken as indicative of PhD suitability (in any sense). This seems reasonable grounds not to expect candidates to have an existing funding record, but hardly reason to waive the subject from consideration for all students in - or near to - entirety. In fact, the converse seems just as plausible to me: that a scarcity of largely merit-based awards means at least some worth should be extended to the receipt of such (even if access to funding isn't equal).

You also almost speak of a PhD's as pre-given programmes with highly-specified content and structure, in which the success of prospective candidates largely turns on their complementarity to those terms. I understand that a candidates symmetry with their prospective supervisor and faculty is of first importance, and that that such pre-given, targeted programmes often hold in the sciences, but does this really extend across the humanities? This is rather revelatory to me -- not that I hold any particular knowledge of the process!
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Klix88
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(Original post by Misovlogos)
Thanks for your substantive reply. I don't quite follow the reasoning that, given the acute scarcity of Master-level funding, such simply cannot be taken as indicative of PhD suitability (in any sense). This seems reasonable grounds not to expect candidates to have an existing funding record, but hardly reason to waive the subject from consideration for all students in - or near to - entirety. In fact, the converse seems just as plausible to me: that a scarcity of largely merit-based awards means at least some worth should be extended to the receipt of such (even if access to funding isn't equal).
My perspective is that Masters and PhD funding are such different beasts, that for most PhD candidates, there may not be a direct correlation. Winning, say, a £500 Masters bursary for academic excellence, won't necessarily recommend someone for a £15,000pa PhD stipend. It's worth mentioning on an application, but I really wouldn't expect it to be a critical factor - demonstrable academic excellence is a given if you're going to be a credible PhD candidate anyway.

You also almost speak of a PhD's as pre-given programmes with highly-specified content and structure, in which the success of prospective candidates largely turns on their complementarity to those terms. I understand that a candidates symmetry with their prospective supervisor and faculty is of first importance, and that that such pre-given, targeted programmes often hold in the sciences, but does this really extend across the humanities? This is rather revelatory to me -- not that I hold any particular knowledge of the process!
Yes, that's absolutely true in the Humanities. As an example, in the nearly four years that I've been looking at funded PhDs, there has been only one for which I might have had the correct background. Sadly at that stage I didn't have a Masters (a pre-requisite for PhD in the Humanities, unlike many STEM PhDs) so I didn't meet the application criteria.

If I wanted to apply for funding for my own PhD project, the AHRC give twenty-five awards nationally each year in my specialism and they're insanely competitive. When they issued a new five year strategy document at the beginning of last year, I realised that my project didn't even meet the eligibility criteria to apply for that funding any more.

Postgrad funding is a minefield in any subject these days.
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ellie.rew
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(Original post by Misovlogos)
You also almost speak of a PhD's as pre-given programmes with highly-specified content and structure, in which the success of prospective candidates largely turns on their complementarity to those terms. I understand that a candidates symmetry with their prospective supervisor and faculty is of first importance, and that that such pre-given, targeted programmes often hold in the sciences, but does this really extend across the humanities? This is rather revelatory to me -- not that I hold any particular knowledge of the process!
Structured advertised PhD projects are rare in the humanities, but it does depend on your discipline; archaeology I know is one such exception, because fieldwork is crazy expensive, so if you want a project with a large fieldwork element you'll likely have to find a supervisor with an excavation programme underway, or in planning at least. In history they do exist, and there are a glut of them related to WWI at the moment, for obvious reasons, but on the whole doing an advertised project is the exception rather than the rule. As a result, when you progress to actual jobs, the ability to draw in external funding is less critical for historians and other library based humanities disciplines, although if you can do it it's still a big plus.
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HettyMerton
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(Original post by Misovlogos)
I don't quite follow the reasoning that, given the acute scarcity of Master-level funding, such simply cannot be taken as indicative of PhD suitability (in any sense). This seems reasonable grounds not to expect candidates to have an existing funding record, but hardly reason to waive the subject from consideration for all students in - or near to - entirety. In fact, the converse seems just as plausible to me: that a scarcity of largely merit-based awards means at least some worth should be extended to the receipt of such (even if access to funding isn't equal).
For what it's worth, I've often heard from various (humanities) academics that "funding follows funding" - in other words, candidates who are fully-funded for their Master's degrees are more likely to be funded for their PhDs. However, this isn't a case of cause and effect - they don't just get given PhD funding because the admissions board sees they've received funding before. Instead, think of it like this: because funding is so competitive for Master's degrees (especially in the humanities), candidates who successfully gain Master's funding will probably have the qualities needed to secure PhD funding - so it's not surprising that many of them get it.

Certainly having full Master's funding is obviously a strong point in one's favour when applying for PhDs - it implies that your work is of a good quality, that people are interested in it, and helps to emphasise that you are an excellent candidate. But it wouldn't be the deciding factor - if another student who had never received funding applied with a better research proposal than you, they'd probably be offered the funding instead.

To the OP: I would say absolutely go to the university with the course better suited to what you want to study. A small award will really not figure in deciding PhD funding - even full-funding isn't a deciding factor, as I've described above, so small award/prizes are even less so.
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