I have a feeling some people are not going to like this post. Think of it as tough love. Let me start by saying it’s not my objective to discourage everyone from going to graduate school or from pursuing a dream of earning a master’s degree in English. Not at all. All I want to do is share my experience in an effort to convince you to think before you apply. On that note, here are:
Five Bad Reasons to Earn a Master’s Degree in English
1. You Love Books and Reading
The number one reason not to get a master’s degree in English is sadly the most popular reason people choose to do it. Look, I love books and reading, too. In fact, that is one of the primary reasons I went to graduate school, which is exactly why I’m qualified to discourage you from it. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a good reason to spend years of your life broke and mentally exhausted. You do not have to pay for the privilege of studying literature. Start a book club, join Goodreads, dive into the major criticism databases like MLA and JSTOR. These are all things you can do to cultivate your love of reading. Right now. For free.
“But I won’t get to study with knowledgeable professors who can mentor me.” True. I don’t deny that, but my point is that this alone is not a good enough reason to pursue a master’s degree in English. Besides, it’s possible to engage with experts outside of academia. Many experts maintain blogs and Twitter accounts. If you are truly passionate and you possess a voracious appetite for knowledge, you can get people’s attention. Besides, a true student of literature will only get out what he or she puts in anyway, whether a physical classroom is involved or not.
2. You Want to Be a Professor
If you’ve done any research about the prospect of professor jobs, this one should be pretty obvious. If you haven’t done any research, stop reading right now and do some. You might start with the Adjunct Project, where you will find thousands of reasons why your hopes of getting a job as a college professor are grim. In my last post, I mentioned that my plan was to take my master’s degree in English and teach at a community college. Ten years ago, that might have been an option. Now, it is not.
The job market is such that community college teaching positions are now getting hundreds of applicants who hold PhD’s. A master’s degree in English will put you towards the bottom of the stack. Your best hope is an adjunct teaching position where you will have no job security from semester to semester, have no health insurance, and you will probably make somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 a year teaching full-time.
3. You Want to Be a Writer/Editor
I’ll admit this one is not so cut and dry. Will you become a better writer in an English graduate program? Absolutely. No doubt about it. The question, though, is will you become a Writer in an English graduate program? The answer is probably not. Anyone can write—especially someone with a master’s degree in English. But not many can get paid to write. That’s the distinction. The prospect of becoming a successful writer is even less likely than the prospect of becoming a college professor. Millions of people want it; only a few thousand will get it.
As for editing . . .what would you say is the most common fallback career aspiration for hopeful writers (besides teaching)? If you answered editing, pat yourself on the back. Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of editing positions out there, but they generally go to people who have trained to be editors. They’ve done internships and they know people. It’s not likely that you’ll land an editing job just because you have a master’s degree in English. If this is truly your dream job, make sure you network a lot and find a grad school that offers internship opportunities.
The best way to become a writer is to become a writer. Practice. Start a blog and hone your skills; find your voice. Here again, you can be a writer (even a successful one) without an MA.
4. The Job Market is Bad, So You Are Going To Wait It Out
News Flash: The job market for humanities degrees has never been great and probably never will be. Two or three more years isn’t going to change that. On the other end of your master’s, you will just have two less years of actual work experience, which is what actually gets you the job. You have to start somewhere, somehow. If you don’t have a clear objective in your graduate studies, you’re really just biding your time.
5. You Just Finished a Bachelor’s Degree And You Aren’t Sure What Else To Do
Really? Is this a joke? It’s amazing how many people in my master’s program gave this as a response for why they were there. Graduate school is not the best place to screw around and figure it out. Go live in another country, teach abroad, stay at home and work on a novel, whatever. But don’t spend years in a program without any direction, blowing your money and squandering your creativity just because you “don’t know what else to do.”
I’m convinced these are some of the major reasons the job market is flooded with humanities degrees right now, which has created the climate out of which rampant adjunct exploitation has grown. Too many people continued down a path because no one shook them and said: What are you thinking? What do you want? What’s your plan? Check out Karen Kelsky’s blog The Professor Is In for more on this topic.
Just to be clear, I am not one of those people who always thinks you need to have a plan. In fact, I generally hate those people. All I’m saying is a master’s degree in English (or in any humanities field) is not something you should do without a very good reason. You will probably end up two years later in the exact same boat, only this time with a bunch of debt and two less years of real work experience. In my next post, I’ll explore some of the good reasons to get a master’s degree in English (there actually are a couple). Check back soon or subscribe to my blog to make sure you don’t miss it.