Friday, December 15, 2006

What's an MA for anyway?

The subject line refers to a question a prospective MA student asked me yesterday, completely sincerely.

My response? "That's a very good question!"

I did have some answers for him, including:

  • public high school teachers in our state are required to get one within 5 years of being hired full-time
  • it's possible, though these days not as likely as it used to be, to get a stable job teaching in a community college with an MA (for more information see this thread on my blog, and this one over at Dean Dad's place)
  • it might increase your marketability for jobs in publishing (though it's certainly not necessary)
  • it might increase your marketability for in-house editing and writing jobs
  • it's a way to test the academic waters before committing yourself to a PhD program (and without the hassle of the intense application process)
  • those students who come from teeny, tiny schools and don't quite have the breadth or depth of study to make them competitive in PhD admissions, might do better with an MA
  • those students who are changing careers or disciplines and weren't English majors might have a chance of getting into PhD programs with an MA
Note all the "possibles" and "mights" in those phrases. Frankly, I don't know if anyone is more certain about those outcomes -- or if there's data out there -- but I'm definitely uncertain. I can say that some of our students have gotten into PhD programs and they say they wouldn't have been prepared for them had they gotten in straight out of their small BA programs. But since I've been here, there have only been a two or three who went on to the PhD. And I ran into one of our former students at *$$, where she was working as a barista, and who grumbled, "Look how far my MA got me."

So I turn the question over to you, oh wise peoples of the InterTubes. What *is* an MA for anyway? -- that is, if you're not a high school teacher, which seems to be about the only category where it's the terminal and required degreee.


Dr. Crazy said...

I'm not sure I can come up with a definitive answer - the things that you told your student sound a lot like what I tell students who are considering applying for MA programs, complete with mights and cans.

(I know, not helpful.)

But what I wanted to respond to was the "Look how far my MA got me" student. I think it's really important in English to explain that no degree - from BA to MA to PhD - is any kind of a guarantee that one will get to any particular place. In our field, the degree is very much what you make of it. I spend a lot of time talking with my students about how to translate what we do in English into marketable skill sets that interest employers, and I suspect that the same sorts of advice would apply to MA students. If you think your MA is going to be a ticket into publishing or teaching or whatever, well, it just isn't. But if you get the MA while at the same time working at a publisher, or at the same time as being a teacher, or whatever, yes, the degree can enhance one's marketability. I guess I wonder, when students talk about degrees as having "failed" them, what they expected (or were advised) that the degree would do without any help from them, you know?

Flavia said...

I'm with Dr. C. High school teaching is really the only career in which an MA serves an immediate professional goal, but that's not the only reason to get an MA.

I entered my grad program as an MA candidate for absolutely no good reason--I was thinking about going back into publishing, post paralegal hell, and I figured an MA would be useful, but I knew I didn't absolutely need it. I was also thinking about law school (to which I applied at the same time as I applied to MA programs). Basically, I felt that I hadn't exhausted my interest in literary study, and I felt that I *wanted* that MA, for my own knowledge, self-respect, whatever, whether I went on to be a lawyer or an editor or something else entirely.

And yeah, I took out $35K in loans to do it, which is an albatross I'll have with me forever. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that path to anyone, but I also don't regret it. If someone *wants* to get an MA in English, I absolutely think she should--as long as the financial costs and the uncertain career prospects are made plain.

Scrivener said...

My MA was very useful, in the sense that my diploma arrived in a very strong cardboard mailing tube that I used to prop open one of the windows in the apartment I lived in while I was working on my comp exams.

Dr. Virago said...

Ha! Scrivener, thanks for the laugh!

And Dr. C and Flavia, thanks for weighing in. And I totally agree with you both -- I almost put "for pure pleasure" or something like it on the list, but I really did want to think about the degree's potential use-value. Historically, I think it did mean more -- back when institutions like mine hired some people as research faculty and some as teaching faculty, when the latter didn't necessarily have to have PhDs. But now I think it's a bit of a relic and a student has to *make* it valuable for them and really market what they gained from it.

If I hadn't been in the midst of ordering a grande non-fat latte, I might have had this very discussion with that "look what it's done for me" student (and it was back when I was in my first year, before I had a sense of the program and before I was grad director). A lot of our students are completely clueless about how academia works, about what credentials they'll need to do the jobs they think they want to do, and about how difficult it might be to get those degrees and other credentials. In this student's case, I think she thought she'd get a lecturer position in our department with an MA because some of the older comp lecturers are MAs -- but they were hired years ago in the community college that was eventually merged with our U. All recent lecturer hires have PhDs. And some of our students think you have to get an MA first before applying to PhD programs -- something I only realized after I held an "applying to PhD programs" workshops and none of the undergrads showed up.

So. That's a long-winded way of saying there's a lot of confusion and miscommunication, and part of it might in fact come from those of us on the faculty who went through combined MA/PhD programs (the kind where you get the MA along the way) and don't have experience with stand-alone MA programs. So Scrivener and Flavia, just to know that you both started in MA programs is useful information to me!

gwinne said...

I actually spoke to a student this week, who is applying to PhD programs currently, and thought he could somehow skip straight from BA coursework to PhD coursework; never dawned on him that he'd be doing an MA-along-the-way. Wasn't happy when I explained how it really works...

Dr. Virago said...

Gwinne -- Well, he sort of can, depending on the program. Some have less courswork than others and in some -- my own program was like this -- everyone's on the PhD track and the coursework is thought of as a part of the whole. The MA is really only given so that people who leave have something to show for their work. And in Britain you can skip right over the MA into the D.Phil. But maybe your guy thought he could just skip to the dissertation in a US program?

I have to say, one of the frustrating and confusing things for our students -- undergrad and MA -- is just how many different kind of programs there are out there.

gwinne said...

Yeah, I know, that's how my program was too (the MA just being a formality for those of us in a combined MA/PhD program). But this particular student really thought he could just jump to the last stages of PhD coursework/dissertation straight out of undergrad. Clearly, yes, the whole process needs to be made more transparent. I certainly didn't know a darn thing about the process when I applied and lucked my way in. Okay, must finish grading.

Dr. Virago said...

Ah, I see. Bummer for him! :) And I was in the same boat as you -- didn't know a darn think and lucked into it all! Actually, I suppose it was a little more than luck -- but that's a bigger topic, for another post. And I have to get back to grading, too! Hope yours isn't as slow as mine!

medieval woman said...

Just a quick note on MAs - I got my MA at a totally different place than my Ph.D. - it was a large state school and you applied to the MA, got it and then re-applied to get into the Ph.D. program (pretty much everyone could continue if they wanted). The MA for me was an important stepping stone - I learned at the end of my first year that I wanted to be a medievalist.

Also, I ended up having a very broad range of medieval coursework over the MA and Ph.D. degrees - the things MA program specialized in weren't the same things that Ph.D. program was particularly strong in - that's just the way it worked out for me, but I think it's served me well to have a few extra years of coursework under my belt!

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, this is all so helpful to me! Thanks everyone! Most of my friends, colleagues and I were BA-straight-to-PhD folks, so the perspectives you're all offering are really appreciated!

Tiruncula said...

To jump on the bandwagon: I used a master's degree to switch fields/pick up a second field. I wanted to take something that wasn't offered in my undergrad college, which I thought I might want to pursue a PhD in. That degree not only helped me focus what I wanted to do for the PhD, but gave me crucial coursework and a credential that was helpful in getting a job in a traditional department down the road, after doing an interdisciplinary PhD.

Bev said...

For me, the MA was something to do while waiting for the husband to finish his grad work, and then when I went to look for jobs in journalism, the MA wasn't any help at all and may have actually been a hindrance. But then seven years later when I was ready for a career change, the MA opened doors and made decisions easier. I had no real focus when I went into the MA program, but by the time I was ready to pursue a Ph.D., the skills I had developed in the MA program provided an excellent foundation for success.

Karl Steel said...

Another bit: I used the (first) MA as a way back into schooling after 4 years out between my BA and MA. Given that I had gone to an unorthodox undergrad institution (Evergreen), it also provided me with a sense of what, er, grades were like. I was also able to develop relationships with academics--relationships that I had let slide in the 4 years after my BA. With those relationships, and with my new set of academic tools, I was able to vault myself into a good PhD program. Once I was at Columbia, having an MA already didn't exempt me from getting Columbia's MA, but it did exempt me from taking non-medieval classes to fulfill my degree requirements. My American Lit and PoMo courses at WWU were good enough, even if the degree wasn't. So, not only did I get into a good program, I also managed to take only medieval courses, which is probably as much a bane as it is a benefit. That said, I think Columbia is less happy about accepting people with MA's now than they were in 1999, so maybe none of this is of value to your questioning students.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

My MA makes me feel a little better now that I've framed the degree certificate and propped it up on the desk in my lonely library cubicle.

I know that sounds pretty flippant, and it probably is a little bit, but it honestly is sorta nice to get something to show you've made progress along the way to the Ph.D.