A warning of sorts for anyone considering a master’s degree in English…
Why did I get a master’s degree in English anyway? Good question. Wish I had a nice answer to it, but I don’t.
When I finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky in 2003, I told myself I was never going back to school again. Especially not for any further degrees in the field of English. I was sick of reading novels and writing papers about literature. I didn’t even read a single book for at least a year after I graduated. I was 23 years old and I had just completed a curriculum that simultaneously trained me to do everything and nothing.
My academic advisor was a graduate student. I remember her. She was nice. I was one of those students who really got into planning my classes. I had everything all planned out until I graduated. Each semester, I would go into my advisor’s office, tell her which classes I was taking, and she would lift my hold so I could register. At the time, I thought this was great because I was able to take some really cool classes like Haitian Culture, Military History, even Topographic Map Reading. I’m still glad I took those classes, but man it would have been nice if someone had told me to take classes that transfer to job skills or to cluster some classes around a professional concept. My curriculum was all over the board. I had a minor in American Culture, which had me taking a large variety of humanities and social science courses aimed at explaining the American Identity. I loved it. I really did. And now I’m good at Jeopardy.
I was damn close to actually choosing a career path with a clearly-defined future. Biology was the first major I declared. I wanted to be a Wildlife Biologist. That was really my first dream. To live in the wilderness and study wolves. Three semesters in and I was earning D’s in Chemistry II. It was one of those “weed-out” classes as they say, for med school, which I had no intention of attending. I was weeded out I guess. The same semester, I took an American lit class with the now-famous Dr. Matthew Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland. He taught at UK very early in his career and I was lucky enough to have him. Reading As I Lay Dying, All the King’s Men, and a Toni Morrison novel—Jazz, I think—in conjunction with my failing Chemistry grades spurred me into a career path change. I wonder what would have happened if I had stuck with biology. Sometimes I wish I had.
After Graduation: College Degree and Jobless
Anyway, so I graduated in 2003 and I had no plans. No idea what I was going to do with my life, or even what I wanted to do. The week after graduation, my friend and I took my Toyota Tacoma across the country, camping often and exploring the world. I hoped I would have an epiphany. I didn’t. When I got back to Kentucky, I had to pay bills, so my first of many non-degree-related jobs began. I did all kinds of stuff, from delivering furniture to swinging a sledgehammer on a highway crew. It was pretty much all hard labor jobs. I was too naive and inexperienced to know how to market the skills I had gained in college. None of the work I was doing even required a college degree.
I finally landed in a grocery store due to a recommendation from a friend who had gotten me an interview with the store manager. The place was called Wild Oats, which was a natural and organic food chain out of Colorado that was eventually bought by Whole Foods six or seven years ago. I was hired to work on the stock crew and my first shift started at 4 AM the next day. I worked hard and got in good with the managers. A position opened and I was promoted. Then it happened again. Before too long, I was the manager of the grocery department. I was running the crew that I had begun with a year or so earlier. I was finally making some pretty decent money. In my mid-twenties and building an actual career for myself. It certainly wasn’t anything I had ever expected to happen, but it was working for me. Life was okay and I was heading for an upper-level management position soon.
The problem was I had this tiny feeling in the back of my mind that I was not living up to my potential. That I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. Something was dragging me back, insisting I wasn’t quite happy. A decade later, I have come to the unfortunate realization that this small voice will always be with me. It still is. Sometimes I wish I would have told it to be quiet and continued down my path of retail management. I would certainly be living much more comfortably now. But, I didn’t. I gave into the voice and I started thinking about graduate school, about that master’s degree in English from which I had been running.
Deciding to Pursue the Master’s Degree in English
It had been five years since I finished my bachelor’s and I was rusty. Stocking shelves was not stretching my analytical mind much. I was scared to go back to school with kids who were much younger than me, most of whom had continued straight on from the BA. I hadn’t even taken the GRE. I quickly realized I was going to need things like letters of recommendation and transcripts. I tried to get in touch with former professors. Most had moved on or didn’t really remember me. I had no choice really but to attend a local college which wasn’t very choosy about its applicants. Incidentally, I earned a very good graduate education at this school and I worked with some great professors. But it was the easiest school around for me to get in to. Especially considering how long I had been out and how out of practice I was at literary analysis.
So, I applied. I got accepted. I started working on an MA. And, I left the security of my management position at Whole Foods. That was a tough decision. One that I still occasionally regret. I let that little voice get the better of me and convince me to return to school in order to pursue my “passion” for reading and writing.
Why did I do it? I know the answer I gave during my first class of grad school. It was one of those “why are you here?” ice breakers. “I want to teach at a community college,” I said. Now, I had no idea what that really meant. I assumed anyone with a master’s degree in English and a love for teaching could get a job at a community college. That was my plan. That mentality seems so ridiculous now. Why in the world didn’t someone tell me? I might not have listened; I don’t know. I’m sure I would have thought that I could work hard enough and get a job. After all, I was fresh from the meritocratic world of retail management where if you work your ass off and schmooze with the right people, you’re golden. But it’s so different in higher ed, as I now know. I realized this after it was already too late. One semester away from graduation and the reality of the higher education job market started to sink in. The adjunct position that sounded innocent enough was revealed to me in all its glory via some colleagues who had finished a year before me. I completed my master’s and waited for all the hard work to pay off. Still waiting…
After the Master’s Degree
And here I am again. Another degree that didn’t really set me up for anything in particular and once again, I’m looking at starting over in a new career. In my mid-thirties now and still perusing entry-level positions. I’m a good writer and researcher, I tell myself and anyone else who will listen. Communicating and the art of persuasion are my fortes. Public Relations would be right up my alley—I even wrote about brand management in my thesis, but I think employers are starting to wonder why I’m in my thirties with no solid job history. It’s a good question really. My only answer is that it’s taken me awhile to figure it out. I’m a generalist who has studied everything and specialized in nothing. I know a little about a lot. I have a master’s degree in English. Why did I do it? I honestly don’t know. I’m better off for it—I know this. Now, I just need to convince the others.