A newish Master’s degree recipient in English writes:
I have a B.A. in English from a reputable liberal arts university and an M.A. in English from a well-respected research university, and I'm committed to developing a career in higher education. Moreover, I've recently started on a job search for non-academic higher ed positions, although I'm far too early in my search to tell if I'll be successful or not.
I was curious if you could elaborate a bit more on academic positions and relevant degrees?
My M.A. program was committed to sending its students to Ph.D. programs and I'm considering applying to English programs in the next two years. However, having already spent a couple of years in academia, I would like to first work in a non-academic position prior to committing to a Ph.D because I may discover a good deal of enjoyment there.
At the same time, I'd like to learn more about about staying on the academic side of things and have a few questions that you might be able to answer.
I'm struggling to understand the more nuanced long-term career implications between an English Ph.D and a Ph.D in Higher Education (or a comparable field). I've looked at the educational backgrounds of Deans, Presidents, and other high-level professionals holding the kind of "dream jobs" I'd like to have one day and I'm finding a variety of fields.
Is one degree is more useful for academic administration than the other? I'll admit that I discovered that the Higher Ed. Ph.D existed by asking around, but I don't know too much about it and I'm unsure as to how the degree performs on the job market as compared to a humanities Ph.D.
Additionally, I am aware of M.A. degrees in Student Affairs (or similar areas) but I can't seem to figure out if those are a logical step toward a Higher Ed. Ph.D (as an M.A. in English is to the English Ph.D), or if they are degrees intended to transition someone into the non-academic side of things?
There’s a lot going on here. It may help to pick the issues apart first.
First, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of first working in a non-academic position if you can find one that makes sense for you. The market for full-time faculty in English is pretty unforgiving; I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody. Before jumping headfirst into a program that leads directly to an incredibly difficult market, getting a sense of whether you might like (and be good at) other things can only help.
If that non-academic position is in the general orbit of higher education, all the better; it would give you a chance to do some reconnaissance to see if those “dream jobs” look good up close. I’d guess that some will and some won’t, though your mileage may vary.
Degree requirements vary by both job title and institutional type. In the community college world, a master’s is often enough for a faculty or chair position; sometimes, it will even work for deanships (though less commonly in the humanities). Academic vice presidents and college presidents usually need doctorates of some sort. Ed.D.’s fulfill the requirement, though some faculty look down on them. Ph.D’s offer academic credibility, though (because) the process of getting them is so taxing. If the point of the doctorate for you is to move into administration, the Ed.D. is easier to earn while you’re working full-time. The Ph.D. isn’t usually built for that. Some folks do it, but it’s harder.
But that’s only one version of administration. On the student affairs side, a combination of an academic master’s degree and a higher ed administration doctorate can be very powerful.
If you have the talent for it, “development” (also called fundraising) can be an excellent area. With a master’s degree, you’re already well qualified academically. Most people shy away from development, but if you enjoy it and prove yourself good at it, you’ll be a hot commodity. The joy of it comes from seeing the ways that you’re directly supporting students and faculty by making resources available -- scholarships, travel funds -- that otherwise wouldn’t be. If you have the personality for it, it can be a great gig.
At the four-year level, especially in English, doctorates matter much more. In most places, you’ll need one just to get that first faculty job. Just be warned that the market for those jobs is awful.
What I would NOT advise doing is going straight into an English Ph.D. program if your true interest is administrative. Doctorates take years and remarkable dedication; they’re a hell of a long way to go if all you want is your hand stamped. Especially in English, if you aren’t in love with the discipline itself, you probably shouldn’t. A year or two of non-academic work may help you get some clarity. If you find yourself pining for the seminar room, then you know. If you don’t, then you’ve gained some self-awareness and made a better living at the same time.
Obviously, your heart’s desire is your call. From here, though, I’d really advise against picking the most difficult possible path unless it’s the only one that would make you happy.
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there a better option I’ve skipped?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.