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Academic Guidance Academic Guidance - Academic guidance for those pursuing a college degree... what college? Grad school? PhD help?

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Old November 22nd, 2016, 06:11 AM   #1

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Unwise to do MA thesis in the 20th century if I want my PhD to be in early modern?

Hi everyone,

I was hoping to ask for some advice. I completed my bachelor in history where I concentrated on the early modern period in my last year and wrote my dissertation on the Thirty Years' War. I then moved to Germany to complete a master. I've focused mainly on late medieval/early modern but also have modules in modern due to the course requirements.
The way it works, I have to do my MA thesis somewhere between 1500-2000. Seeing as I want to go forward with a PhD in the early modern period (as this has always been my favoured period) I was always planning to focus my thesis on the 16th or 17th century.

However, I'm contemplating a master thesis in my one topic of interest outside the early modern period: organised crime in the USA (during prohibition).

Would it be unwise to write a thesis for your MA in the 20th century then still try to pursue a PhD in the early modern period? Should I stick to my original idea of 16th/17th century thesis? Or just go for a change?

Thank you in advance for the advice!
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Old November 22nd, 2016, 07:26 AM   #2
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If you already know where you want to go, and you stated you do, then I think it would be unwise, for various reasons:
1) The Master's thesis is basically your first "real" academic project. It will be the first time one really gets into the depths of sources and literature. If you already know you want to research the Early Modern period, it would be much better from a perspective of synergies to choose a topic there. You will have to do a lot more work for a PhD proposal if you can't build up on your Master's thesis.
2) Many PhD programs are rather narrow. If, say, someone applies who did everything exactly the same as you, only that she or he did a Master's thesis in the Early Modern period, they will be preferred to you. It could even be that it would turn out this way even if you are slightly better in terms of grades or extra curriculars. To maximise your chances of getting into a program, you need to know the relevant literature and sources before applying!
3) A more general theme is the (in)famous "central theme" of you education. If you can show how you have build up on your expertise on a certain topic step by step, it might help convince possible future supervisors.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying you will not have a chance if you do your MA thesis in the 20th century, or that you will necessarily experience the things I pointed to in the above. The most important thing, imho, is the research proposal and if that's really good, you might be fine anyway. But really, I do think you would reduce the amount of stress prior to your PhD application and increase your chances of being accepted at least a bit if you do your thesis in the field you want to get your PhD in, too.
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Old November 22nd, 2016, 07:36 AM   #3

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Follow your bliss. (or failing that, seek counsel from a mentor. You do have a mentor donīt you?)
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Old November 22nd, 2016, 07:41 AM   #4

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I believe you would be better off to choose a thesis topic from the Early Modern period you hope to pursue in your Doctorate.

Now if you can select a topic in your focus area that has parallels in American Organized Crime, attempt a marriage. The Italian Renaissance can at times seem to be lifted whole from The Godfather. The roles of the players and how they were organized to obtain and wield power in competition with other families, might play out in the streets of Manhattan. Was the Sicilian Mafia heir to the principles of the Medici and Sforzas? Hey, what do I know? You, on the other hand should already be partially "Master" of the field.
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Old November 22nd, 2016, 10:18 AM   #5

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Take some time to think it over and make sure that it's not just an impulse or flight of fancy - we all get hit with the grass is greener on the other side feeling sometimes. Since you want to continue with early modern studies at PhD level, I'd say stick with that for your MA thesis. It's really common to branch out into different areas once you become a professor (if that's your goal) and I don't know many professors who don't specialise in more than one area. But perhaps better just to focus on one thing first before you move on to another.

If you do really wish to go for something in the modern area, make sure you're equipped to deal with it first. Let's say you continue on with the Thirty Years War, you're already intimately familiar with it; the history, the historiography, the research methods etc. But if you swap over to something else, then you have to have a solid enough foundation to build upon, otherwise you may just get left floundering after a few months into your thesis.

It's not uncommon for people to change their BA specialisation (for want of a better word) when they do an MA, but I don't see many folks doing PhD work unrelated to their MA, unless they did a second MA first in their new area. That said, I'm still finishing my BA, so I'm not personally familiar with the process.
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Old November 23rd, 2016, 01:03 AM   #6

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Thanks very much for all you answers. It's given me a lot to think about but I do think I'll go for a topic in the early modern period and like f0ma said, I can always branch out into my other topic in the future! Now to pick from the 3 options I have...
Pedro - In Germany, there's no mentors. They just leave you to get on with it really! It's a very independent study system, but I will have a Professor to chat to when I pick my MA topic.

Thanks again
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