Sunday, May 11, 2014

 

Ask the Administrator: What About Master’s Programs?


A new correspondent writes:

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

Second, the assumption generally seems to be that one wants a Ph.D. inorder to get a tenure-track position at a university. Although I'msure they're out there, I have yet to actually encounter much of adiscussion of, "I want a Ph.D. because I want to become really expertin my field." There also seems to be little, if any, discussion aboutalternatives to post-doctoral non-academic (or non-teaching)positions. My own experience has given me some insight other folksmight not have - I've an aunt and an uncle who both have Ph.D.s in thesciences, and do research; although both are affiliated withuniversities, and my aunt also teaches, her teaching duties aresecondary, and her Ph.D. was not acquired because she wanted to teach.Ffurthermore, my mother has a Ph.D. in the humanities, and while Iknow she would have preferred teaching at the college/universitylevel, she spent her entire teaching career at the secondary level.(Again, I'm sure they're out there, but I've never encountered anotherteacher who got an advanced degree in the humanities and stayed at thesecondary level.) 

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

I'm tired of the limited discussion about the reasons one goes to gradschool, how grad school is actually defined, and the lack of examinedalternatives. Surely I wasn't the only undergrad with whom this wasnot 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.

Comments:
The non-profit world seems to be run by liberal arts MAs. Folks with MAs in literature, history, art history are running our local literacy councils, homeless shelters, food pantries, and art councils.
 
First, I hope your correspondent reads comments in BOTH of your blogs!

My basic reply to this sort of question is always the same: It only makes sense to go to graduate school if you don't have to borrow any money at all (the situation in my field when I was in grad school) or if you have multiple job pathways open to you where each offers a high probability of employing you at a wage that will pay off your debt in a few years. In both cases you need a realistic idea of what job(s) you will apply for so you can develop the relevant experience to make yourself a good candidated.

I can't say much about the MA except to note that our writing faculty tend to come in with an MA in rhet/comp, although there are some with doctoral degrees.

The employment pattern of your correspondent's relatives is no surprise to me (or, I expect, Art Math Prof) because regular tenure-track faculty jobs were few and far between in the sciences when someone in their likely age group would have graduated. In physics, there was only a short period of time when more than 30% or so of PhD grads got academic jobs. The rest are in industry and national laboratories and pure research positions at universities and high schools.

I know someone with a PhD in physics who is teaching high school. Not common, but also not unusual.

PS - I was a bit puzzled by the statement that your correspondent was teaching at a college without a graduate degree of any kind. The only jobs that fit that description at my CC are teaching developmental (7th to 9th grade level) classes. Everything else requires a MA or MS or equivalent.
 
The original correspondent already mentioned K-12 education. I believe that a masters is required (at least eventually)in my state, I don't know if it must be an education masters or if a humanities masters is OK.

I would think that there must be some applications for humanities MA students, because several depts at my university have terminal MA programs and no PhD program (within fields that have a PhD program at other schools).

For technical fields, I fully agree with CCPhysicist and with the original poster's relatives. In my engineering field, most MS and PhD graduates work in industry or national labs, not as professors. That's true at Univ of Wow What A High Ranking and it's even more true at U of Compass Point State. An MS functions as BS+more in industry, while the PhD is a different set of industrial jobs.

I've heard of some public school teachers with a PhD, though the specifics are slipping my mind at the moment.
 
The original correspondent already mentioned K-12 education. I believe that a masters is required (at least eventually)in my state, I don't know if it must be an education masters or if a humanities masters is OK.

I would think that there must be some applications for humanities MA students, because several depts at my university have terminal MA programs and no PhD program (within fields that have a PhD program at other schools).

For technical fields, I fully agree with CCPhysicist and with the original poster's relatives. In my engineering field, most MS and PhD graduates work in industry or national labs, not as professors. That's true at Univ of Wow What A High Ranking and it's even more true at U of Compass Point State. An MS functions as BS+more in industry, while the PhD is a different set of industrial jobs.

I've heard of some public school teachers with a PhD, though the specifics are slipping my mind at the moment.
 
For motivation, my students who want to go to grad school usually reference a key teacher, and want to make a difference as that teacher did. (I had one student tell me that she wanted to go to grad school so she could teach at the CC she went to before transferring.) in this way, it's taking the old route of teaching as a way into the middle class and focusing on college/university teaching instead of k-12.

Otherwise, I tell my students more or less what CCPhysicist does - don't pay.
 
I have to second what CCPhysicist says about graduate school. Graduate schools at R1 institutions have as their primary goal the training of students how to do world-class original and publishable research. The faculty at these universities tend to regard any career goal other than that of obtaining a tenure-track position at an R1 university as unworthy of serious consideration, although in STEM fields these faculty members would also deem to be worthy of consideration a job at a government lab such as Argonne National Laboratories or at a world-class industrial research facility such as Bell Laboratories or IBM. If a graduate student tells faculty members at an R1 university that they want to teach at a SLAC or at a community college, these faculty members will tend to look down their noses at them, concluding that they are not serious scholars.

When I was a graduate student at an R1 university back in the 1960s, most of the students there aspired to a PhD degree. At that time, the master’s degree was a sort of booby prize, which was reserved for students who failed the preliminary exam or who otherwise had proved themselves to be unworthy.

The early and mid 1960s were boom years for the academic world. Just about every student who graduated with a PhD during this period was able to obtain a tenure-track job at a prestigious university or they could get a job at in a world-class industrial laboratory. But when I first went on the academic job market in 1969-1970 with a new physics PhD, I found to my horror that the job market had tanked, and there was very little out there. Government funding had collapsed, research grants were tight, and most academic departments were “tenured-in”, meaning that there were too many tenured faculty already on staff and not much room for any more. In addition, industry was in an ultracautious mood and just wasn’t doing very much hiring.

I had to settle for a couple of post-docs until I was finally able to obtain a tenure-track gig. I ultimately failed to get tenure, but I was able to obtain a job at an industrial research facility. Of the students who graduated at the same time that I did, only a couple of them were able to obtain tenured faculty appointments at research universities. The rest washed out of the research-oriented academic world in one way or another.

Today, the job market in just about every academic discipline is so tight that no one should attend graduate school if they aspire to a career in academe. They especially should not go if they have to pay. Unless you can pay your way with a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship, or a scholarship or fellowship, don’t even think about it. Otherwise, you could end up saddled with a lifetime of crippling debt while moving from one part-time gig to another, in futile pursuit of that full-time academic job.

I have recently noticed that are lots of people who sign up for master’s degree programs or even for PhDs, not out any desire to do research at a prestigious university, but rather to get their tickets punched so that they can be considered for jobs that require advanced degrees in their field, or simply to get promoted in the jobs that they already hold. Here in Big City, there are lots of advanced degree programs (some of them run by proprietary schools) that are targeted at K-12 teachers so that they can get promoted into management or into administrative positions within the city school system. There recently seems to have been an overall inflation in credentialing, an advanced degree being a requirement for just about every job or for career advancement, even though the material learned in getting the degree is really of very little use in the actual job. Since the employer is generally paying the cost of the degree, so why not go for it, since it is free.

 
For those of you who might be new, my take on the era described by ArtMathProf was described in this blog post from 2008 that is Part 1 in a series on physics jobs. (Many of the links are now broken as the APS does not preserve its older "publications" on its web site.) I came along about a decade later than ArtMathProf, and I was told quite bluntly that "there are no jobs" when I started into my research program. (There were, actually, but very VERY few as a professor at an R1 university.)

IMO, it is still true that an MS from an R1 graduate program is still a booby prize, and few of them prepare their students (even ones who appear to be naturally talented teachers) to get teaching-oriented jobs. A few things might rub off on them if their department features some of the new pedagogies in physics teaching, but I only know of a few places that have an actual training program or "teaching academy" for new grad student teaching assistants with a second level for those planning to go pro. I like what Dean Dad Matt blogged today about what they are trying to start up in his neighborhood!

Toward that end, I've put a second link from this comment (click on my nom-de-blog) that will take you to Part 5 of my jobs series where I spew my thoughts on CC teaching jobs from a science/physics perspective. It was triggered by an e-mail from a poorly mentored graduate student.
 
"Graduate school is expensive, both directly and in the form of opportunity cost. . . "

I got an M.A. in 1973-1974: 30 credits @ $45 a credit, with the maximum per semester being $450 even if you took more than 10 credits. So my M.A. cost me (OK, actually my parents, with whom I was living) at most $1100. That would be a bit over $6000 today, according to the BLI's Inflation Calculator. And my classes were in the evenings so I worked part-time days.

Is it possible today to get an M.A. for $6000? I doubt it. As bad as things may have been for many people over 40 years ago, life was better for grad students. I don't remember any of my friends, most of whom had postgraduate degrees, ending up with more than trivial debt.

Of course, you can't stop progress. . .


 
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