Tuesday, September 09, 2008

M.A. = gateway drug?

This past weekend I heard from a former student who graduated just over a year ago. She went enthusiastically off to law school, but found it a bad fit--and is now starting an M.A. program in the humanities.

My first reaction to this news was one of pleasure: she's smart, and seems to have the kind of serious, obsessional interests that would serve her well in graduate school. But as I continued to reflect on her and on several other students who have gone on to good master's programs, I realized that my satisfaction was twofold:
a) these are intellectually curious people pursuing further study in fields they enjoy


b) they are not in Ph.D. programs.

My reasons for being glad they're not in Ph.D. programs should be obvious: blah blah job market, blah blah debt, blah blah self-indulgent desire of the professoriate to see its choices validated in those of a younger generation. I think I'm supportive of those students who hope to do doctoral work, but they and their years of potential exploitation do weight on me.

M.A. programs, on the other hand, I've always regarded as benign. Sure, they're institutional money-makers and result in degrees that may or may not advantage their holders professionally, but their expenses are usually obvious and up-front. In exchange, the student gets a focused course of study that allows him or her to do advanced work in a specific field. Call it a luxury good or a pricey self-improvement project, but I assume most students recognize the trade-offs.

In practice, though, I've known very few people who have gotten an M.A., enjoyed the process, and not wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.--unless their M.A. was intended as a means to an end or life circumstances intervened.

So I'm wondering: am I allowed to feel good about my students going on to M.A. programs, even in the absence of an obvious career objective? Or am I just encouraging them to believe that the life of the mind exists only within the academy and/or with an advanced degree--and discouraging them from the discovery that engaged, intellectually rewarding lives are possible in the context of any number of other (more stable, more remunerative) careers?

Am I, in other words, part of the problem?


negativecapability said...

This doesn't answer your question, but I think if I had gone to an M.A. program I would have ended up doing something else. I didn't apply to any, figuring that I either wanted to be a professor or I didn't. I didn't really enjoy my courses as an undergrad, so I wasn't looking for a continuation of that.

The only thing that kept me in graduate school between the second and third years was the fact that I was in a program that funded me until the end, and I figured I might as well try to stick it out through exams. I also loved teaching, and because of that I had a much better time in the third year, so I stayed. Once the dissertation was started, I couldn't NOT finish it.

I finished, got a job, and am very happy now, but I wonder sometimes.

Dr. Crazy said...

I share your good feelings about students who go onto MA programs (though with the caveat that no student should get an MA in English unfunded - there are MA programs that fund TAs, and not only at places that don't have PhD programs either - nobody should pay for any grad school in English, other than with their soul :) ), in part because there's no shame in leaving when the MA is done if one doesn't go the straight PhD route. It's not "dropping out" but rather "finishing."

Also, if a student goes on to an MA program, that will take 3 years max of her/his life. Even if they want to get a PhD after that, they know what they're getting themselves into: they're not making the decision blind.

Unlike you, I know a number of great students who've gone on to MA programs and then bailed out of academia come graduation time - even students who'd entered thinking they'd do the MA and then the PhD. And those students have typically found career paths that are really interesting and rewarding for them, and that they wouldn't necessarily have discovered had they not done the MA.

All of this is a long way of saying I think that MA programs are a good thing, and that they serve students from a range of backgrounds in positive ways. Note: I got an MA before going on to my PhD program :)

Sapience said...

You have an interesting dichotomy between MA and PhD's here, as if it is always possible to choose one or the other. The PhD program I'm in doesn't accept anyone who doesn't have an MA, either from their own program or somewhere else. And getting into the PhD program as an internal applicant from the MA is by no means guaranteed to the students or expected by them--if you want to go on, great. If not, good for you, you figured out that this isn't for you. Thankfully the MA program here is funded (I too think that unfunded graduate work in English is a bad, bad idea).

Thoroughly Educated said...

I think you're allowed to feel good about this. My last place of employment offered MAs but no PhDs, and I saw many students do MAs and then go off to do other things - community college teaching, library school, writing careers of various sorts (scriptwriting, PR, radio producing - off the top of my head). And a number of our students were of nontraditional age, coming back to do things that had always interested them that they weren't able to do as undergrads. Myself, I did a terminal master's soon after college and then took several years out to pursue another career before ultimately going back into academe, and now, 15 years later, I'm very grateful that I had that chance to realize I was too burnt out after undergrad to go straight through to the PhD, and that that realization drove me out into the workforce to do some things that will be very useful now I'm ready to leave academe again. So yes, sing ho! for the terminal MA! My reservations about it have more to do with the tendency of universities to use these students programs as cash cows than in the value of the degrees to students themselves.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I've always assumed that encouraging a student who wants to do an MA is just about the same as encouraging them to get a PhD - while there probably are quite a few who stop after the MA, I associate doing an MA with heading off to academia in general. This may be because my grad program only started letting people in to the PhD program who didn't have an MA the year before I got there - the assumption prior to that had always been that you'd do the MA (if you didn't already have one), then the PhD. It wasn't difficult to transfer from the one program to the next (basically if you passed your MA and your committee didn't disown you, you could continue), and there was no distinction between MA/PhD students in classes, things like that - everyone was sort of assumed ultimately to be working to the PhD. And while I knew people who stopped after the MA, they hadn't planned only to do the MA and stop - they had planned to do a PhD but found they didn't like it so stopped after the MA.

The other thing, of course, is that an MA in history and a few dollars will get you a latte. I can't think of many situations in which a history MA is going to materially help someone's career, and tend to see it only as a stepping stone to the PhD, which one should do only if one wants to be a professor, not for personal enrichment or the like.

That said, I have very little familiarity with MA programs in history, partly because I think a lot of the big research programs are streamlining and don't require students to get an MA before the PhD and don't really have terminal MA programs, and the students I've known to go on to grad school have generally gone on to PhD programs. The exception is people doing public history - I do think an MA in public history can be helpful for someone who wants to get into archives, museums, historical societies, that kind of thing. (I tend to be uber-pessimistic about how many jobs exist in those fields, but that's probably more about being a medievalist, and my own personal job-searching quirks, than reality. That is, I tend to assume that if a job sounds really cool and fun (I mean, working for colonial Williamsburg or something?? cool!), there is no way in reality to get it. It's not a helpful attitude.)

I guess I do think that if a student gets an MA in a program that also offers the PhD, then the MA is a gateway drug. If a student goes to a program that only offers MAs, then it might be different.

Anonymous said...

in religion, almost everybody gets a master's on the way to the phd because all the top programs require a terminal master's before the phd. so I connect them really closely. In fact, I have very bad feelings about the master's stage because here you all are, PhD hopefuls all, shuttled into the master's first and there you find yourself, hating on each other, stepping on each other, shouting each other down, competing your eyeballs out to see who's going to make it into the PhD, that ultimate validation, and who is going to end up teaching religion at a catholic high school. Yeck. It was awful. But, you know, that was seminary. Not an MA in the humanities. Could be different.

Flavia said...

PRT, NK, and Anastasia:

Wow. That must be a difference with doctoral programs in English and those in other fields--I know that getting an M.A. if often helpful to students in getting into a Ph.D. program (and it's what I recommend to my own students who are talking/thinking about getting a Ph.D., both because it will increase the likelihood of their getting into a good program and because it's a way of testing the waters and seeing if they actually like/can handle graduate school), but I'm not familiar with programs that actually require the one as entrance to the other. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Dr. Crazy and T.E.: RU offers terminal M.A.s, and I've seen some very good students there who have the intention of stopping with the M.A.--but usually that's because they're going for their permanent teaching certification, or because they need a second household income, or want to start a family, or whatever. And it may simply be that I haven't been teaching long enough for my former students to get an M.A. and then go happily into other careers: all I hear is the "now I'm thinking about a Ph.D.!" stage of things, not the aftermath.

But that's what concerns me--and it's what I said in that comment on your post the other day, Crazy--the way that students who are good at reading and analyzing texts, and enjoy the environment of the classroom, have a hard time imagining that they'd be good at or happy with anything other than grad school. (Esp. those who aren't interested in teaching high school--and esp. if they come from blue- or pink-collar families, where they may not have been exposed to a wider range of possible careers.)

Now, plenty of these students will never even apply to Ph.D. programs, and others will find something else along the way and live perfectly happy lives. (And a small number will persevere, and of course I'd be terribly proud of them.) But I guess I conflate these students with friends and acquaintances I've had who have applied to Ph.D. programs, gotten rolled over into M.A.'s, maybe gotten the degree, but keep applying and/or talking about the Ph.D. wistfully WAY past the point that it's reasonable (when they're limited by a partner's job, lifestyle, location, whatever). My students and former students do what seems to me the same thing--but again, maybe I'm conflating/projecting.

Whether they're my students or my peers, though, I want to shake these people and say, "YOU ARE SMART! YOU HAVE OPTIONS! You'll meet smart people wherever you go. And entry-level jobs all suck, but you'll find something that's meaningful if you want to. You're not limited to academia, and you don't need a degree to validate your intelligence."

But what I'm sure that winds up sounding like is "I don't think you're smart enough." And usually that isn't what I mean.

Dr. Crazy said...

One thing we do in my dept. is we've got a bulletin board with former grads and what they're doing now. To this point it's been the BA students we've tracked, but I think it's really useful in showing the many and varied options of what people actually do with English degrees. Perhaps doing something similar with the MA students who graduate from your program would be useful? Sure, many will be doing the MA to get the step increase for teaching HS, but I bet many end up going on to other things, too. To me, this is infinitely more convincing than a professor talking about all the other options. If those options were so great, why didn't the professor pursue those?

Flavia said...

Oh, that's a great idea, Crazy. we have some info on that stuff, but it's not posted or (I think) widely available.

Also, in re: your earlier point about only sending students to M.A. programs that are fully funded: I agree, unless the student really wants to and can pay the big bucks. But in saying that M.A. programs are "institutional money-makers" and/or have "expenses" for students I did mean those, too--sometimes the tuition is pricey; sometimes students are teaching from Day One (or sometimes there's a more reasonable combo). In either case, the institution benefits financially and the student has to make some kind of sacrifice--but, as I said, it's a sacrifice that I think is usually totally clear to the student and ideally not onerous: they're paying tuition, or they're teaching, or they're doing a bit of both. In return, they get a degree in a year or two.

(I know this isn't a point you were quibbling with--just something I wanted to clarify.)

k8 said...

My approach was probably a bit different. I did pay for my MA courses and it did take longer than 3 years, but I was also working full-time during that period of my life. When I chose to undertake a PhD, I also chose to leave my job. It wasn't an easy choice, but I have always been thankful that I had that work experience. Unlike some of my fellow grad students, I know I can get a good job outside of academia if necessary. It doesn't worry me at all like it does so many others in my English program.

And, while it took more time for me to get that degree (plus I didn't start right after undergrad), this worked for me. I needed that time to decide if I really wanted to undertake the phd in English, to deliberate on the job market situation, - all of that stuff. It might be atypical, but it was good for me.

Susan said...

I think the disciplinary differences are huge here. There's not a huge market for history MAs, as NK suggested. In my Ph.D. program, we got the MA for finishing the first year. For those who left after the first year (a depressing majority of my cohort), the MA was a consolation prize.

But since I spent a long time teaching adults, I'm really clear that there are lots of interesting and smart people out in the world outside the academy, and you can indeed find a place for yourself there. It may take time, but as those of us in the academy know, it takes time there too!

Sisyphus said...

I have been in both an MA program that you had to apply again to go on to the PhD and an MA/PhD program, where you got the MA as part of passing your quals on the way to getting your PhD (or as a "consolation prize" mentioned above if you decide to leave). And I have both MAs now too!

I think a department with an MA and a PhD program is very different from an MA/PhD program (where you may or may not come in with an MA already and they make you do it all over again anyway). The structure and experiences are very different and they correspond to the very divergent experiences people are mentioning here.

I also think these correlate with the ranking of the programs, where a small state school out in the middle of nowhere might have an MA and a PhD program and in the MA classes you have the people just having fun or getting a credential or advancing their HS teaching all mixed in with the people who know they are in training for academia, whereas a top R1 fancy-pants school with a national reputation only takes on "future professors" and trains them all in one program accordingly.

So, in sum, different places are approaching the MA differently. Now, I only got into my PhD program because I had the MA to get my foot in the door --- I applied out to all sorts of top schools and ended up going to a crappy bottom-of-the-barrel school that I applied to on a whim, because it was the only place I was accepted. MA programs are really important then for getting students with even a slightly nontraditional profile (and hopefully the first-generation students, POC, or people from non elite backgrounds too) into PhD programs, which is important to me. OTOH, MA programs are exploitative of hopeful student's time and labor --- if that crappy MA were closed they'd need to hire about 50 tenure-track profs, which would help out our profession a lot.

And with that, I conclude the longest comment response Ever.

Anonymous said...

I chose to go overseas for postgraduate studies in history and was surprised at how different the British take is on the purpose of a MA program (and also on the humanities in general - it is more of a recreational activity here than it is in the states). It is only in the past 5 years or so that the MA really developed as a pathway to the PhD. Previously it was a way for undergraduates to delay leaving school or for mature students looking for something to do after retirement. This leads to problems for the lectures since none of them did MA's, and don't understand why most people are doing one - so they just offer a slightly more challenging version of their undergraduate courses (more reading, bigger papers).
This has changed somewhat, but most of the MA's are still mature students or terminal here and nearly all my classmates said they were just looking to have fun. Out of the 30 or so students graduating this year only 5 of us are staying on for PhD's (all with funding).

Bardiac said...

I'm sort of disagreeing here. I was out of school for about 5 years before I started back in a special program for people who weren't quite qualified to study for an MA. I basically did an undergrad major in a year, and then entered the MA program. And I paid, as did everyone else at this program.

I'd never even conceived that people such as myself could get a phd when I entered, so maybe it is a gateway drug thing that I was encouraged to go on. But it also gave me an opportunity that no phd program would have (with good reason), so I have to be grateful for the program and the opportunities, even though I recognize there's a problem with overproduction of phds. I guess I see my experience as allowing people who didn't go to ivy/SLAC type places a chance.

Most people left the program with an MA and didn't head off to phd programs, so it wasn't a feeder sort of thing.

Flavia said...


You're not disagreeing with me (or with all the commenters: K8 and Sisyphys among others seems to have had similar experiences)--my own feelings are quite mixed, as I intended this post to show. I like the nature of the M.A. program at my own institution, and I think M.A. programs are good in the ways you mention: opening up opportunities of all sorts, to students of all sorts--and I do value the way they can help students gain the experience and confidence to go on to Ph.D. programs.

I've mentioned this before, though probably not recently, and it may be relevant to mention again: I began my graduate work at INRU as a master's student--I was the only one in that year's crop of entering grad students (some years there are none, and there are never more than two), and in December I unexpectedly decided to apply to the PhD program--so when I got in in March, I just continued right through as if I'd been in the PhD program all along. . . the only difference being that I paid a fortune for my first year! Still, that first semester went a long way toward making me confident that I could do grad school and that I wanted to, and I might not have applied to Ph.D. programs otherwise--I was originally deciding between law school and M.A. programs.

So if M.A. programs ARE gateway drugs, I'm evidence of that as much as anyone, and certainly not a negative example of that process (at least insofar as I got a t-t job and am very happy with my career). My ambivalence is made up of a combination of how unhappy I was during most of the years I was actually doing my Ph.D., and my awareness that, all things considered, I got lucky: in getting into a very well-funded program; in getting through it in a reasonable amount of time; and in going from it into first a full-time and then a tenure-track job.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think a two-year program (for which the student isn't going into debt) puts students in a better overall position: better able to decide whether to get a PhD or not, better prepared for the application process.

Flavia is, of course, an admirable product of a shorter degree program, and I'm talking about general trends here. But she had to make her decision about whether or not to apply in her first semester, swiftly enough that she describes the decision as unexpected. I think a student applying in the third MA semester has a better sense of what the PhD really entails, and of whether or not s/he really wants one.

(Also, note that Flavia had already established her ability to do Instant-Name-Recognition PhD work in her first semester, which suggests that she hit the ground running and broke into a sprint shortly thereafter. It's no disrespect to the might Flav to point out that not every MA student can do that. More MA students will be able to produce a strong writing sample and a professional personal statement in their second year than in their first. I mean, did you submit one of your yet-ungraded term papers as you wrting sample, Flav?)

The funded/unfunded question is even more important. But in my experience, few universities have the gall to demand private-college tuition for a two-year MA.

Flavia said...

Just to respond to that last question, Dr. C:

Though I agree that an M.A. program gives students the opportunity to see what grad school is really about, in ways that prepare them for a Ph.D. program, I'd suggest that I'm only very barely proof of that myself; I did submit, as my writing sample, an as-yet ungraded seminar paper. . . on T. S. Eliot, The Criterion, and little magazines. My application statement involved a sustained discussion of Glenn Miller. And I never had a conversation with any professors or other mentor-type people about grad school or the application process that lasted longer than 5 minutes. (In both cases, the people in question basically said, "sure, apply--your work seems fine.")

Clearly, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. Which maybe means that I need to shut up with the drug-free America campaign over here: if I was doing much worse stuff, much less responsibly, probably The Kids Today can handle their own controlled substances.

Anonymous said...

I have always thought of MA programs as purely exploitation because, let's face it, there's not much one can do with an MA except get a PhD. (All the examples people cited of MAs going on to lucrative and fulfilling careers -- did they need an MA to get one?) In both my PhD institution and where I teach now, MAs are second-class citizens. There is an accute awareness that they are only there to make money for the U., and there is a general sense of dismissal because they're not as "serious" as the PhD students (not saying I agree, just describing the general tenor of things). For this reason, I've often discouraged my brightest and most ambitious students to go straight for the PhD (which, caveat, is what I did) so they don't just make money for the U. without getting anything substantial in return. I'm interested in many of the responses here that have a far more positive take on the use and value of the MA but have to admit my view is generally more jaundiced.