The Happy Academic, Part II: "Should I get a Master's degree?"

As a “happy academic,” I am sometimes asked by students about whether or not they should go to graduate school. I am asked this enough to make it worthwhile to write down an answer (I’ve been working on this one off and on for a couple of weeks), and because of some of the reaction to my first happy academic posting (and I’m thinking in particular about some of the reaction I got on Invisible Adjunct), I thought I would post it here.

First, let me point out the obvious: since I am an English professor, I am mostly familiar with the idea of graduate school as it relates to English, particularly in rhetoric and writing. If you’re thinking about doing graduate work in history, go talk to a history professor. Along these obvious lines, if you really are thinking about graduate school, you should talk to many different people and get many different opinions. Read the happy stories and rosy views (like mine), but read the sad stories and warnings, too. Graduate school is a major life decision, and it isn’t something that you should make a decision about on a whim.

Second, I think the more general question “should I go to graduate school?” needs to be divided into two more specific questions, at least when it comes to English studies: “should I get a Master’s degree?”(the subject of this posting), and “should I get a PhD?”(the subject of a happy academic post in the near future). I think that these two related degrees are actually quite different from each other, and I think the advice has to be different as well.

The short answer is this: while the answer to the question “Should I get a Master’s degree?”is “probably yes,”the answer to the question “Should I get a PhD?”is “probably no.”

So, “should I get a Master’s degree?” The first question you need to answer for yourself is “Why do you want to get a Master’s degree?” Most of my EMU grad students have one of three basic answers to this question:

Answer 1: “Because I am a junior high or high school teacher,”or “because I am an employed technical communications professional.”

Probably 60-70% of the grad students in EMU’s written communications program fall into this category, and I believe that close to half of the students in our department’s MA program in literature are also in this category. The reasons why technical communications professionals enroll in our program varies quite a bit; for some, the MA means a promotion of some sort, and for others, tuition reimbursement is a fringe benefit of the job, so they might as well take advantage of it and pursue a graduate degree. Almost all of the practicing junior high and high school teachers enroll in our program because a Master’s degree means a significant pay raise, and also because secondary school teachers in Michigan are required to earn a certain number of graduate credits or “in-service training” credits to retain their teaching certification anyway.

I think these are very good reasons for getting a Master’s degree, and I believe our MA program at EMU in written communication serves these students well. We teach almost all of our graduate courses at night and we allow students to attend school part-time, both of which are necessities for someone with a full-time job.

If this is why you want a Master’s degree, you should probably enroll. There is one important exception to this, though: if you don’t already have a full-time job that you are happy with, you should think twice about getting a Master’s because the advanced degree might make you slightly less employable. This is particularly true for teachers because most school districts prefer to hire new teachers with a Bachelor’s degree.

Now, some reading this might think it is crass and corporate of me to suggest that getting an additional credential is a good enough reason to pursue graduate work. I take it as a given that anyone interested in graduate school wants to do so because of the inherent value of education; but along with intellectual enrichment, one goes to graduate school to earn a particular credential. If a person is only interested in going to graduate school because of the abstract and philosophic benefits of it, well, I think that person’s time and money would be better spent reading, attending lectures in public places, and engaging in conversations over the Internet.

Answer #2: “Because I’m thinking about pursuing a PhD and eventually getting a job as a happy academic.”

My guess is that less than a third of our students at EMU would give this answer, though it is the one I’m most familiar with personally because this was why I wanted to go to graduate school. Well, this and a bit of answer #3, too.
If you are thinking that you might like to be a happy academic, and you are someone who has few life commitments (e.g., mortgages, significant others, children, etc.), who is willing and able to move just about anywhere in the country, and who is accustomed to living on a minimal income, this is also a good reason to go to graduate school. Of course, if you decide to go beyond the MA, you will face all of the challenges of PhD studies, and if you are someone who does have various life commitments, going on to a PhD program might ultimately not be a wise decision. But that’s something I’ll talk about in that entry.

There are several programs in English nowadays that combine the MA and PhD, and I suppose these are good options for particularly dedicated and determined students. But personally, I think there are good reasons to get your MA and your PhD from different schools. For one thing, you get the experiences of two different schools, which will automatically give you a broader experience in terms of fellow students, professors, and institutional cultures. Second, your chances of earning funding in the form of a teaching assistantship might be better at programs that offer Master’s degrees and not PhDs. And funding and assistantship work is critical– see my warnings about going into a MA program that follow “Answer 3.”

Answer #3: “Because I didn’t know what else to do and/or I’m trying to put off going into the ‘real world’ for another couple years and/or I’m trying to find myself.”

It’s hard to say how many of the grad students at EMU fall into this category, I suppose because many of our students can offer this is at least a partial explanation as to why they want to go to graduate school. Like I said, this is part of the reason why I went, and I would wager to say it is at least part of the reason why many people who are now academics themselves went to graduate school in the first place.

I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with “finding yourself,” and I think that a Master’s degree program is one good place/time in which to do this. At least it was for me; I spent two years in a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing in my early twenties, and I felt like I learned a tremendous amount about myself as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, and just as an overall person. Like most people that age, I did a lot of foolish things, but I also had a lot of “once in a lifetime” experiences I’ll always remember, experiences that I wouldn’t have had without the culture and community of graduate school.

But let me point something out that will be discussed further in my future posting regarding PhD programs: getting a doctorate is not the time one should be “finding themselves.” The stakes for the PhD are too high and the pain potentially inflicted on students is too great.

So, should you get a Master’s degree? If you liked your undergraduate studies and want to go on to the next level, especially if you find yourself in one of the three categories I outline above, sure, why not? But before you enroll, keep these two warnings in mind:

Seek funding and teaching assistantships.

Unless you are independently wealthy or a gainfully emplo
yed teacher or technical writer and you are going to graduate school to improve your employment status, getting a Master’s degree in English is not worth paying for entirely out of your own pocket (see my next warning). Explore the different funding and teaching assistantship options at the schools you are interested in, and avoid applying to Master’s programs that do not provide their students any funding.

Graduate teaching assistants at EMU do things like teach first year composition, assist professors in lecture hall sections of literature classes, and tutor students about writing. They are paid poorly unfortunately, and as a result, most of our grad students who have assistantships also have some other sort of part-time job. However, assistantships generally include tuition and they provide invaluable classroom teaching experience. I had no idea what it meant to be a “college teacher” before I had a teaching assistantship, and for me, the experience was a wonderfully rewarding one. On the other hand, some of my colleagues in my Master’s program realized after two semesters of freshman comp that being a college teacher was not for them and they went on with their lives. I think it’s better that they discovered this in a Master’s program rather than a PhD program. And if you are seriously considering going on to a PhD program and thus a career as a happy academic, experience as a teaching assistant is an essential part of the job training.

By itself, a Master’s degree will not help you be a happy academic in an English department. If your goal is a full-time academic career, you will need to go on to a PhD program.

If you are a high school teacher or any other sort of “real world” working professional, a Master’s degree is all you will probably ever need. In fact, at most of the high schools in this area, teachers “max out” in terms of pay levels with an MA; PhDs are only important for those who go into administration (and most of those folks do doctoral studies in Education). However, if you want a full-time career teaching English at a college or university, a Master’s degree is not worth much of anything. You need to have a PhD.

The only exception I can think of to this rule is in creative writing, a field where the MFA is considered by some to be a terminal degree and also a field in which many well-known professors don’t hold an advanced degree at all. But the most important thing for getting a job in creative writing is publishing well-received poems, plays, stories, novels, etc., and anyone who is capable of doing that successfully certainly has no need for my advice.

It’s still possible to get a full-time position at a community college with only a Master’s degree, but beyond the workload and problems of teaching in community colleges that make being a happy academic more challenging in those environments, I think this is a very risky strategy. For one thing, English positions at community colleges are increasingly being filled with people who have PhDs. Second, community colleges hire an amazing amount of their teachers on a part-time basis, and in my way of thinking of things, teaching college part-time rarely makes for a happy academic career. But that too is another story.

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