Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Praise of the M.A.

Oh, fer fuck's sake.

fig. 1: possibly a metaphor?**

So, some of you may have missed the comments on the post responding to a correspondent. What was supposed to be a completely minor point in my post ended up sticking in a lot of people's craws. But what got to me was that some people seemed to think that I was disparaging the M.A., when nothing could be further from the truth. So, rather than trying to write tidy prose, I'm going to present my encomium in bullet points. Perhaps some of you can add to them?

  • For several years, I was a faculty presenter at my department's "So you want to go to grad school?" talk for undergraduates. At one of these, a colleague in another field told the students that the separate M.A. (as opposed to the one that's folded into Ph.D. programs here) was only for people not intending to go on to the Ph.D., and that if they were serious, they'd just apply to Ph.D. programs. I disagreed with him right away, but the main point is that this may vary by field. For subfields where you don't need extensive technical or linguistic preparation, jumping right into the Ph.D. might be feasible. For the rest of us, it's a ticket to almost certain failure.
  • Time to consider is important. As at least one of my commenters pointed out, a couple more years makes for a more emotionally mature grad student. It also generally means that the person in question has really given some thought as to what they want out of grad school, why they want it, and what they're going to do to get it. The M.A. might also be a way to "try on" grad school, to make sure that you really want this. One to three years is a small investment to make in this regard. And if you can take a year off before the M.A., even, all the better.
  • Ah, redemption. This was the main concern of my correspondent, and one that I can identify with. Maybe you want to get a Ph.D., but your undergraduate record isn't going to get you into the program you want. Maybe you had a degree in one discipline, but only discovered your true passion in your final year, when it was too late to change majors. Maybe, like me, you slacked off, and realized too late what you should have been doing all along. The M.A., for me, gave me the opportunity to rehabilitate my grades and reputation.***

There ya' go.


**Or possibly just the lens cover on my trusty point-and-shoot finally giving up the ghost.

***You know, I had to do the same thing just to get into a four-year college, too. Hm. Makes me wonder what hole I'm digging for myself now....

13 comments:

clio's disciple said...

Um, apparently you are still getting emails about this?

I agree that the M.A. can be valuable. In my case I enrolled in a Ph.D. program directly after undergrad, so the remarks about greater maturity make me wince a bit (not you specifically, I've seen this sentiment in a number of places).

One thing that does concern me is that, at least at my Grad U, the M.A. students had to pay tuition, whereas those of us in the Ph.D. program acquired an M.A. along the way, but were on stipends and tuition waivers. Prospective grad students should think carefully about whether it's worth paying/borrowing a lot of money to complete that degree.

My advice to prospective grad students generally is to be very very careful about the financial details.

Good Enough Woman said...

Clio's disciple makes a good point about funding. But I would suggest one other benefit of the MA would be eligibility to teach at a two-year college. Granted, luck still plays a role in getting a full-time, tenure-track gig, but it's less of a risk/investment in terms of time. True there aren't many FT jobs at CCs right now, but they'll be more in a few years.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Excellent points, both of you. And CD, sorry for any insult -- purely unintentional, I assure you.

Juliette said...

I wonder if there's some cross-continental culture clash going on here? Over here in Britain, you have a choice; do an MA (taught programme) then a PhD, four years total; do an MPhil (research/thesis) then a Phd, four years total, or do an MPhil but convert it to a PhD after year one, three years total. Going straight on to a PhD course is not an option, though if you choose MPhil you can convert so you don't have a separate qualification, whereas an MA will always be separate - but I found it was much easier to get funding for an MA than for an MPhil. So an MA is an essentisl part of the postgrad process, not an optional extra.

I'm sure you didn't mean any offence and I'm sorry that you're still dealing with stress from last week's post - I think cross-cultural/national issues like this can often cause misunderstandings that grow out of all proportion...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Juliette, Thanks for the clarification -- though now I'm even more confused! How on earth do you sort it all out over there?

Janice said...

We only offer the B.A. and the M.A. so we see many students come here for redemption (far more who apply for redemption than can be redeemed, honestly!) and others who are "trying it on." (We also get a lot of students who are combining an M.A. with a B.Ed. for better pay as a K-12 teacher.)

Because we are M.A.-focused, we also offer some funding to all our full-time students (enough to cover tuition, pretty much) which is more than some other places can say when they fund all full-time Ph.D. students for four years and only a handful of M.A. candidates!

It's very rare in my experience, (in history in the U.S. Midwest and Canada), to see people go straight into the Ph.D. Languages and learning to write a more thoughtful, in-depth research endeavour are integral parts of the M.A. curriculum for our purposes. On the other hand, my father was in engineering and went right from his bachelor's to the doctoral program. So, yes, finding out the disciplinary and local expectations is the wisest thing to do!

Juliette said...

Notorious - me too - the whole thing is thoroughly confusing! Especially when you're trying to get funding for it. I didn't even go into the situation at Oxford and Cambridge, which I have no understanding of at all - they have DPhils instead of PhDs and a whole different thing going on with master's degrees...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Juliette: I don't feel so bad now!

Good Enough Woman said...

I got my MA in the US and am now getting my PhD (part-time) in the UK. Although I, myself, am still confused about all of the differences between the two systems, I think these things are true:

In the UK, getting the MA (especially the research MPhil) can shave time off of your PhD, whereas in the U.S., if you have your M.A., you can still spend just as much time on the PhD as if you never had an MA at all. In fact, this is typical.

In the UK, you can get funding subsidies for the MA. In the US (in humanities anyway), this is rare.

In the US, the PhD tends to take 5-8 years (I know some people who have done it in four, but that seems very rare). In the UK, a full-time student PhD wraps things up much more quickly. It seems that a PhD student who has already written an MPhil dissertation (what we in the US would call a "thesis") could submit the PhD thesis (what we in the US would call a "dissertation") just two-three years from the start date. Even full-time PhD students who don't have the MPhil still would probably submit in 3-4 years from starting (with, perhaps, a max of five years).

In the U.S., the PhD requires all kinds of coursework, even if you ALREADY have an MA (along with comprhensive exams, etc.). The PhD in the UK is much more research-based because it assumes the MA has been completed (whether it's a taught MA or a research MA).

So, anyhoo, I may have muddied the issue, but, based on my observations, I do think the Master in the US the Masters in the UK are different. As a result, the timelines and implications are different.

Cheers.

Anonymous said...

There are other good reasons for an MA. My school doesn't offer Latin, and it is hard to get into a medieval program with no Latin. An MA is a good chance to learn some Latin and they apply for a Ph. D. Also for students who don't start doing well until their 3rd or 4th year, but then really show promise, an MA at the state U. with in-state tuition is a chance to show they are serious, but also not to go deeply in debt. Again, they can then apply for a Ph.D. program and hopefully get funding and live happily ever after. Or they get it out of their system and again aren't deeply in debt.

Vicki said...

Sorry to bring it up...but for interest sake, I'm guessing it was word choice and lack of tonal clues (obvious - this being the internet afterall) that lead to so many problems with your use of the word "remedial". Connotations can be key.

If I were to write a blog post describing your post and refer to it as "special" (seriously, imagine air quotes) it would likely be taken as offensive. One reader might take it to insinuate that I thought your work to be inconsequential, ridiculous, oblivious. But what if I meant it as in - fresh, provocative, thoughtful, etc. The same word can mean fantastic things to one person and yet be completely disparaging and elitist to another...but hey...what's in a word right? (irony?)

Anonymous said...

In England, those who gain B.A. degrees from Oxford or Cambridge Universities automatically qualify for M.A. degrees a few years later upon payment of a small fee. Most U.K. universities require M.A. degrees to be taken via course work and the submission of a thesis. (There are Master's degrees in other forms - e.g. Master of Studies in Local History or Master of Philosophy, the latter again requiring completion of a thesis, offered by many universities.) Oxford University alone awards D.Phil. degrees by means of a thesis (of up to 100,000 words) whilst Cambridge awards Ph.D. degrees (for theses of up to 80,000 words). Generally speaking, most Doctoral degrees in the U.K. require two to three years of full-time research and a further year of writing before submission. Part-time work on Ph.D. theses is becoming more common. Unfortunately, the economic climate and the decision by the current government to cut spending on universities has led to existing staff being laid off or facing imminent redundancy. Existing holders of doctorates in history who have not secured posts and those near to completion face the unpalatable prospect of long-term exclusion from the discipline.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thank you, Anon. -- that was quite helpful.