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Ask the Administrator: What About Master’s Programs?
May 11, 2014 - 9:31pm

A new correspondent writes:

First, I'm frustrated by why "grad school" always, always seems to be defined as leading to terminal degrees (an MFA, for example, but more generally speaking, a Ph.D./D.A.).

Second, the assumption generally seems to be that one wants a Ph.D. in order to get a tenure-track position at a university. Although I'm sure they're out there, I have yet to actually encounter much of a discussion of, "I want a Ph.D. because I want to become really expert in my field." There also seems to be little, if any, discussion about alternatives to post-doctoral non-academic (or non-teaching) positions. My own experience has given me some insight other folks might not have - I've an aunt and an uncle who both have Ph.D.s in the sciences, and do research; although both are affiliated with universities, and my aunt also teaches, her teaching duties are secondary, and her Ph.D. was not acquired because she wanted to teach.

Furthermore, my mother has a Ph.D. in the humanities, and while I know she would have preferred teaching at the college/university level, she spent her entire teaching career at the secondary level. (Again, I'm sure they're out there, but I've never encountered another teacher who got an advanced degree in the humanities and stayed at the secondary level.)

I would love to see more of a discussion about master's degree programs and the reasons why folks get those degrees. I'm in grad school at the moment, but "grad school" = "getting a Master's degree," although I also teach at a community college and don't aspire to either get a Ph.D. so I can get in higher education, nor do I want to move to larger school for that reason. (To be fair, in my undergrad years, begun when I was in my late 20s, 10 years ago, I went through a teacher education program because I wanted to teach middle school. I graduated 15 minutes before the economy caved in on itself like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say, and have found it easier to get a job teaching at the college level - in two different states - without a graduate degree than at in secondary education with all the qualifications.)

I'm tired of the limited discussion about the reasons one goes to grad school, how grad school is actually defined, and the lack of examined alternatives. Surely I wasn't the only undergrad with whom this was not discussed.


I’ll start by conceding the point that much of the discussion online about whether people should go to grad school in the humanities tacitly assumes that grad school means doctoral programs.  But there’s no reason it has to.  Master’s programs are well-established, and serve purposes of their own.

(For present purposes, I’ll address the freestanding Master’s programs, as opposed to the “Master’s as consolation prize for not finishing the doctorate” Master’s degrees.  In those contexts, a Master’s has a different meaning.)

In a followup email, the correspondent noted that she’s currently adjuncting, and she would like to be able to teach full-time in a community college.  A Master’s will give eligibility for that, though the usual warnings about the ratio of candidates to openings still apply.

For me, it boils down to purpose.  What’s the intended payoff of going for a Master’s in a liberal arts field?

If it’s simply moving up in the hierarchy in a place where you already work, and where occupational grades are clearly defined, then the idea makes sense.  Jobs like that are fading fast, but some still exist. 

If the idea is simply living the life of the mind, I’d recommend finding the lowest-cost program you can.  A year or two of grad school can easily weigh you down with tens of thousands of dollars of debt if you aren’t careful.  Intellectual stimulation can be had in other, less expensive ways.

A few months ago, Tressie McMillan Cottom did a piece on the “should I go to grad school?” literature that gave me pause.  She pointed out that for many people of color, getting a graduate degree pays off in the job market entirely independently of academia.  Getting some letters after your name makes a difference, particularly if you would otherwise be under a cloud.  And even adjuncting may be a better gig than, say, flipping burgers. 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t thought of it that way.  If you’re in a social location in which getting your hand stamped will open doors that should have been open in the first place, then the payoff may well be worthwhile even if you never use the experience directly.  I hate to think of tuition as a racism tax, but if that’s what it is for you, and those letters after your name make your life markedly easier, then I’m in no position to argue.  That may be what the FDA would call an “off-label use,” but if that’s what it takes to build a decent life, then I drop my objections.  Everyone should have access to a decent life.  I’d rather live in a world in which that issue was moot, but there it is.

For folks to whom that doesn’t apply, though, I remain largely skeptical.  Graduate school is expensive, both directly and in the form of opportunity cost, and the payoff is often poor.  In non-technical fields, the demand for grads typically isn’t there.  If you get funded and your other options aren’t great, then it may make sense.  But if you have to go into significant debt, I still lean strongly against it in most cases. 

But that’s me.  Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Should most students be discouraged from pursuing Master’s degrees in liberal arts fields?  Are there other uses for Master’s degrees in, say, English, that make them better ideas than I’ve assumed?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

 

 

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