The Master’s Question

Faculty members and administrators tend to forget that, for most undergraduates, grad school doesn’t mean a doctorate, writes J. H. Pearl.

September 7, 2016

The debate over advising students interested in a humanities Ph.D. has now raged for years, if debates in the scholarly world can actually be said to rage. After William Pannapacker’s salvo, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” professors of English and other disciplines have argued seemingly all sides of the Ph.D. question.

We tend to forget, however, that for most undergraduates, grad school doesn’t mean a doctorate. It often means a master of arts. Prospective students might be unsure about their futures, but many know already that the technical fixations of academe aren’t for them. For some, the M.A. is an opportunity to learn that firsthand. For others, it’s a chance to enjoy personally cherished intellectual pursuits. And for others still, the M.A. is part of a route to career possibilities well beyond the ken of most professors.

Some will say I have this backward. The modern M.A. was conceived as a sort of participation award for doctoral students who couldn’t or didn’t want to finish. Looked down on, openly derided, the M.A. in most humanities disciplines has long been treated as a beginner Ph.D., rather than an advanced B.A. Consequently, master’s programs, badly needing renovation, have fallen into neglect, a predicament detailed by Leonard Cassuto in “The Degree for Quitters and Failures,” now part of his excellent book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It.

M.A. programs are on the rise, however. According to a study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of degree completions has risen steadily in the last three decades. The trend dipped a little in the early 2010s, and humanities M.A.s continue to lose ground to professional and scientific degrees. But in 2014, the last year for which there is data, roughly 25,000 students graduated with a master’s in English, history, linguistics, classics, philosophy, art history, religious studies, area studies or gender studies. That’s almost five times the number graduating with doctorates in those fields: five times as many, and most professors think only of the Ph.D.

Granted, there are good reasons not to get an M.A. Where there’s a doctoral track, the master’s will always be a poorer cousin, even though M.A. programs at most institutions function as cash cows. People in elite Ph.D. programs cordon off these “lesser” degrees, never giving them the attention they deserve, and professors everywhere, out of ignorance or self-absorption, refuse to account for the needs of students whose ultimate goal is not to enter the professoriate. Perhaps most significantly, the cost can be prohibitive: two years of education and potentially a lifetime of loan payments. That Arts and Sciences study provided data on funding for doctoral students but not master’s students, yet a recent article -- aptly entitled “Graduate-School Debt Is Raising Questions About Degrees’ Worth” -- points out that three-quarters of all M.A.s, compared to two-thirds of Ph.D.s, finish school with debt. The average for master’s graduates is $40,000.

M.A. students know what they’re doing, however, and we ought to listen to them. That was the purpose of a survey we conducted at my institution, a large second-tier state university in the Southeast with a high Hispanic enrollment. Among other questions, we asked, “What was your reason for pursuing an M.A. in literature? What do you hope to do with the degree? What are your plans after graduation?”

The most common reason, sometimes given all by itself, was that reading literature -- and thinking, talking and writing about it -- is fulfilling and enriching. Over and over, students avowed a passion for the intellectual rewards of thinking through big ideas and learning from experts, of spending long hours at the library researching George Eliot, for instance, or the Harlem Renaissance. “I have a passion for literature and wanted to continue my studies,” one student explained. “I’m passionate about the intersections of literature, the environment and activism,” another said. “I’ve always had a passion for literature and writing,” said another.

Trained in the protocols of “suspicious reading,” I at first saw these declarations as uncritical, a little naïve. Then I remembered our respondents were already enrolled; they’d already taken courses; many had finished course work and were writing theses. And still the enthusiasm. I reread their answers, and it occurred to me that no one betrayed the malaise of a dissertating Ph.D. candidate, the paranoia of an assistant professor, the cynicism of a long-tenured associate professor. Our students had plenty of suggestions, even criticisms, but clearly the system hadn’t beaten them down.

And besides, isn’t passion the best reason for doing anything? What do we gain by second-guessing students’ aspirations? More important, what do students themselves gain? We assume we must debunk their illusions, telling them how long the Ph.D. takes and how tough the job market is, but maybe instead we can learn from their idealism.

About half our students voiced an interest in getting a Ph.D.; getting an M.A., they said, was a way to test the waters. Would they be able to move to another state, another part of the country? How committed were they to the professional study of literature? It’s hard for even the most ardent B.A.s to know. As one student revealed, “Although I knew I ultimately wanted a Ph.D., my gap year between undergrad and grad school left me feeling insecure about my abilities. I was questioning my goal … but my experiences as an M.A. student have helped reaffirm my commitment to pursuing a Ph.D.” Undoubtedly, many will decide otherwise, but they’ll have a versatile degree in hand and plenty of time to try out alternatives. Twenty years ago, in an M.A. program myself, I remember a friend complaining he wanted to “enjoy” literature, rather than “analyze it to death.” That peer didn’t go on, but he left academe more informed about the discipline, more mindful of his own distinct ambitions.

Of course, to no one’s surprise, many students said they aimed to get jobs or promotions at area high schools, but a significant share saw the degree as a means to other careers. Respondents hoped to use the M.A. to teach English abroad, to adjunct at a community college, to work as an academic adviser. One student, already a writer, simply wanted higher-level academic credentials: “The degree would give me more experience with theory and also a bit of legitimacy that lived experiences alone wouldn’t.” Another student planned to “become an editor and help diversify the big five publishing houses.” And another, who expressed interest in advertising, explained simply that it was difficult to find a job with only a B.A.

Insofar as reading, writing and speaking well are valuable skills, an M.A., especially in English, will always have much to offer. Moreover, to write a thesis on, say, the history of the Ming dynasty is to develop an argument about some portion of our rapidly globalizing world. My wife has an M.A. in English and now works as vice president of marketing and communications at a health care nonprofit. In graduate school, she learned how to speak in front of a crowd. She also learned about representations of gender and disease on the early modern stage. And I know of many other former master’s students who’ve migrated to professions as diverse as filmmaking, political consulting and overseas economic development.

No one can predict the future, so when students come to us, we need to tread lightly, never passing final judgment on their suitability (or unsuitability) for a particular career. Put crassly, an M.A. reduces these stakes. I’ve never counseled against getting a master’s, and if the desire is there, it’s hard to imagine circumstances under which I would. Long ago, another peer in my M.A. cohort told me that whatever happened after graduation, she’d at least spent two years thinking about great books -- a fair deal, she reasoned.

Ultimately, the master’s question, as I’m calling it, is a question less for students than for us, for the professors and administrators running graduate programs. Are we willing to rethink our course offerings and degree requirements according to actual students’ needs? Will we reach out to employers to learn what they’re looking for? How about asking recent graduates how the degree has helped them and how it might have helped them more?

At many universities, the M.A., like the Ph.D., is chained to the past. Things are done a certain way because they’ve always been done that way. When we discussed conducting a survey, the point was made that we couldn’t let students drive our priorities, couldn’t let them dictate what we teach them. But whose priorities take priority?

These traditions might seem right, and they’ve certainly become comfortable, but it’s unethical, not to mention bad teaching and bad advising, to ignore the prospects of the students who fill our classrooms, to carry on as though they’re all destined to be Ivy League Ph.D.s. At my institution, we’ve sent graduates to great programs, but that’s the exception, and we shouldn’t expect everyone to pursue such a goal -- or desire it. When the truly gifted, truly committed M.A. student walks into my office and asks about Ph.D. programs, that student usually knows quite a lot already. We need to think more about everyone else.


J. H. Pearl is an associate professor of English and the director of graduate studies at Florida International University.


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