Why Did I Get a Master’s Degree in English?

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.

Master's Degree in English on the Wind

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.

See also:

Five Bad Reasons to Earn a Master’s Degree in English

Five Good Reasons to Earn a Master’s Degree in English

  • michelle

    My story down to the letter.

  • indialeine

    I really enjoyed this post! As a current university English student I find myself able to relate to this. Particularly the sections about knowing very little about an awful lot, and the feeling that I am being taught how to do things of little or no use. Nonetheless, English is a fantastic subject and it’s great that you listened to that little voice!

  • Chelsea

    I left my job at Whole Foods to finish my undergraduate degree in English and am about to start graduate school – MA in Written Communication/Teaching of Writing. I’ve been debating whether or not to take out additional loans so that I can pay rent – you know, to graduate with so much borrowed money that I’ll have to pay back, while working as an adjunct? *Sigh* I want to teach at a community college too. And I’m not totally pessimistic. But, I’m also just beginning. And I know that most of our graduates either pursue a PhD, find a non-academic job, or take an adjunct role teaching one class at our University and doing who knows what else. Is this my future?

    But at the end of the day, I really love it. And I’m not sure I can see myself doing anything else – certainly not going back to Whole Foods.

    I’m really glad you shared this. Thanks.

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      Chelsea,

      Nice to hear your story. Interesting that we had such similar paths. I feel like I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t warn you that getting a teaching job with a master’s (other than adjuncting) is almost an impossibility. Two other pieces of advice:

      1) Try your hardest not to take out any loans.
      2) While you’re in school, get a job/volunteer/intern somewhere that allows you to make connections. Knowing people is really the only way to set yourself apart in this job market that is flooded with humanities degrees. Everyone wants to be a writer, editor, teacher. It’s very competitive.

      I wish you much luck; keep in touch if you’d like. I’d be glad to help if I can.

      • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

        Josh and Chelsea, this thread leads me wonder how the Adjunct Project could reach adjuncts-in-the-making, connect with graduate student groups, especially in the humanities.

        The big one, in my opinion would be, whatever you do, to avoid debt and student loans, I noticed, particularly later in graduate, well meant pressure to take loans for presumably related to studies but not indispensable to it.

        As for how to convince others of the value of that Masters, a challenge to be sure ~ not one adequately met by the usual soppy lists of vaguely expressed qualities. Maybe Karen and #altac crown could help. Workshops? Curating resources? Jobomatic is a good start,

      • Chelsea

        I’ll definitely be in touch. I’ve been following your blog since I first heard about The Adjunct Project. I’m blogging through my senior thesis now, which is on craft and composition – so many big ideas, and yet such an unclear future. I definitely agree in the value of those connections. And yet, I’m exhausted…you know?

        • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

          I do, indeed. Stay strong.

      • Chelsea

        Just wanted to share some positive news: a friend/colleage of mine just got offered a full time spot in the University of Wisconsin system, with her MA. Happy news!

  • http://burntoutadjunct.wordpress.com/ Piss Poor Professor

    You are not alone. In fact, there are more of us than there should be…and most with the same lament: “If only someone would have given me some idea…”

    Well, plenty did. News stories, when I was in graduate school, abounded about the coming retirement of an aging professorette (sp?) where jobs all along the educational spectrum would open up. I even wrote a term paper on the job prospects of an English major my senior year–lots of hopeful stats. They were all wrong.

    Professors did not yield to that good night; universities realigned their costs structures to include graduate labor and adjuncts. And here we are.

    Options: do not go into law…they are, arguably, worse off than we. Teach on the side/sly. That is what I do. I made the jump into a “real job” (a mortgage and child will do that), but what I found was, along with plenty of Dilbert material, some peace of mind that comes with paying ones bills. I also, I travel so it makes it hard, when I can teach a course onsite, and I almost always have an online course running. Why, the reason I went to school in the first place–to teach.

    A final note: youo enjoyed your undergraduate experience because you were exploring your world…keep that up. Self-direct your learning (do not read the Norton anthology cover to cover) into weird and “illogical” or non-career orienting areas. The caveat? You will need to pursue such activities with a little more cleaverness in the timing.

    As they say about teaching: don’t quit your day job. :)

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      I’m not quite sure what your point is, but thanks for your comments.

  • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

    My own trajectory was rather different but still shaped by more happenstance than hard planning. How we got here is where to start our narratives. Most seem more the result of unfortunate exchanges or recommendations than the call to a mythic quest. Jack trading a cow for a handful of beans, real world not magical.

  • http://www.wscottcheney.com W. Scott Cheney

    Thanks for this post, Josh. As you know, I can relate. I agree with Vanessa that more needs to be done to inform prospective graduate students. And, as you say, it needs to be a warning…because we all get a little idealistic when thinking about the future. Graduate program directors are not going to offer this dose of levity during first-year orientation–they’ve already got you in the chair. So we need to find a way to help reach graduate students before they take the plunge. Posts like this are a start, and I’m game for looking for other options.

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      Thanks, Vanessa and Scott. I honestly didn’t intend for this to be anything more than just a personal narrative. It kind of turned into something more as I wrote. It is important that people considering advanced humanities degrees think it through. Is it really the best idea? I’m not sure anyone would listen; it seems to be one of those life lessons we have to learn the hard way.

      • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

        once again, you tapped into the adjunct collective unconscious… now there’s an image 8-|

  • Elisa Nuckle

    As someone getting an English major, all of this is very disheartening. I do think an English degree is worthwhile, but I’m not sure I’d ever go to grad school unless I knew it would benefit me somehow. The costs for undergrad school are breaking my wallet enough as it is (even with financial aid). Thanks for the warning.

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      Elisa,

      I think majoring in English is great and I would never discourage someone from doing it. My main point is that we can both major in English and turn it into a career if we’re smart about it. That mainly involves a directed course of study that prepares an English major for something specific and transferable like technical writing or maybe snagging a minor in advertising, marketing, or public relations. Something that takes the exciting literary study and grounds it a little in a more practical field. Doing an internship during undergrad would also be hugely beneficial.
      An English degree is excellent as long as we know how to translate it into something the rest 0f the world can understand.

      • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

        that sounds like a whole ‘nother post that I for one (surely among many) look forward to reading…

        • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

          Ha. Maybe I’ll explore that idea next then.

          • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

            solve the jobs for English majors conundrum and you could probably sell it on the internet like secrets for wrinkle cream, losing unwanted fat and making thousands a week working from home…

      • Jon Whitmer

        Excellent article about your experience with the MA in English!

        I finished mine in 2011 and had to back out of aggressively pursuing “adjuncthood” because of the inability to earn consistent income while hopping from college to college trying to get adjunct teaching gigs. And it seems the competition for English PhD programs is pretty intense–not exactly a sure-fire way to build a good-paying career. I’ve been working at the process of adding more practical skills to my “tool box”–ones that relate to technical writing and other editing/writing work. It’s a little tricky at my age (early 40s with a family), but I am considering getting a (regrettable) entry-level job at a large local manufacturer with a global presence that might allow me into the company to then work my way into jobs that make better use of my higher skills.

        I am finding a little bit of adjunct teaching to be a good way to keep a foot in the academic world, and to keep building my teaching skills. Maybe they’ll eventually enable me to work as a corporate trainer or something…

        Thanks for sharing your personal story an suggesting options.

        • josh_boldt

          Thanks for writing, Jon. I, too, have been teaching as an adjunct for the past few years. I’m right there with you. I like being able to share my interests with students and keep a foot in academia.

          I started out teaching a full course load as an adjunct, but it just wasn’t worth it to me. The salary was barely paying my bills and I was teaching so much that I didn’t even enjoy it.

          I came to the same conclusion you did. Now I teach a couple classes each semester and supplement my income in other ways.

          • Tabitha Robertson

            Well thsnk you, all of you for all this information. I am thirteen and for my college prep class I said I wanted to be an english teacher this really was a surprise to hear. I still want to be a english teacher I’l just take all your guys’ advice and try as hard as I can to get that degree. Thanl so much.

    • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

      I still think it is great too, although I have to admit history tempted me too. English, unlike other MA programs, is less likely to require specific prerequisites or as many upper division credits in the major field, which makes it easier for lateral discipline moves or coming in with a General Studies bachelors.

  • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

    Reblogged this on Tales from the Adjunctiverse and commented:
    Why did *you*? Head on over: join the discussion and add your comments. Got ideas what to do now? Share them.

  • http://twitter.com/readywriting Lee Skallerup (@readywriting)

    I fell into my MA in the opposite direction; my English degree in professional writing was all about training me for a career as a technical writer/editor. I had three semesters worth of work experience under my belt when I graduated. But, having worked as a technical writer/editor in the tech industry, I couldn’t stomach it. I hated it. When they handed me the thin “Company Standard English” dictionary and told me I could only use words approved and appearing here, I thought of 1984 and died a little inside. So I did an MA. Indulgent and naive? You bet. But my soul and my sanity wouldn’t allow me to try and make a career doing something I was miserable in.

    So now I have a PhD and I’m watching the university turn in the corporate environment I sought to escape. At least as a technical writer, they saw me as a highly skilled worker and paid me accordingly.

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      I hear you, Lee. It’s rough. Honestly, I would love a tech writing job now. Wouldn’t have thought that before, but times they are a-changin’.

  • http://johnacaseyjr.wordpress.com johnacaseyjr

    I can definitely relate to your story. Looking back at my academic career I wish that I had been more conscious in my choice of school and field of study.

    After finishing my BA at the University of Vermont, I was working part-time in a warehouse (graveyard shift) and looking for something to get me out of Vermont. I fled to Chicago and a MA program in English. When I completed that degree, I took the path of least resistance and continued on at the same school for a PhD.

    Once I was in Grad School, I kept telling myself I was doing this to become a teacher. What I didn’t realize is how hard a full time job in education at any level is to obtain. We talk a great game about education in the United States. We just don’t want to pay for it. Especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

    Although I could give you a long list of regrets, I’ve determined to take responsibility for my actions and look for solutions rather than mourn the might have beens.

    I have no idea what the future holds for this disgruntled PhD in English but I do know that it will involve moving towards something from now on rather than running away.

    My best to you Josh. You’re a rockstar.

    John Casey

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      Right on, man. I’ve come to a similar realization.

  • pravinjeya

    Your post read as an image of my life. I
    was also challlenged because I am in same position as u. I have 4 qualificationa and I am completing a 5th, without a career to match despite being in my30s.

  • pravinjeya

    Reblogged this on Not a PhD Thesis and commented:
    This is more or less my reality…

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  • Borgy

    Your story sounds almost exactly like mine. Now I tell all my students to get degrees and take classes that teach actual job skills or lead to a specific career.

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  • Allison

    I have an M.Ed., but took a smattering of English courses to stay at full time status for financial aid–and because in some small way, it made me feel like I was still a part of that field/community. I think because of the particular University in our particular area, it seemed like there was very little illusion about job prospects and treatment once you got said job in English academia. Everyone was very up front, and class was often the best place to get information about exact salary amounts. I’m going to go ahead and attribute this to a lot of jaded commuters, but between the tenured professors and the students there was a lot of transparency. The field does tend to foster the artistry of cynicism; I guess that helps?

    I’m not sure it would change many people’s minds…part of that wonderful cynicism is knowing that part of you that you can’t let go of, even if it may never sustain you financially. And some of us know we’re just not cut out for a “real world” job outside of this little bubble, bank statements be damned. Does that particular brand of black sheepery mean we (casual academics) don’t have the right to the same amount of respect and career expectations as the nine-to-fivers? I’d like to think not, but then again, I specialize in only two things: being able to submerse myself into fictional realities, and teaching others to do the same. (Literature pusher? I feel like I need a trench coat now.)

  • Amanda

    I found myself here because, I too, am discouraged about having my masters now!

    I am trying to find a job teaching art. I was the only one in my group getting a masters. Everyone else with their bachelors has been hired. Everyone in the higher ups swears that having a masters can only benefit you. I think it’s a lie! My best advice is get your education (with the exception of one class), get your job and then take that last class!!!!

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  • Karen

    I am glad that you wrote this. Now, I don’t feel so alone in my own struggles with the magical thought that an extended education would be transformative to anyone but me.

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      Thanks, Karen. It does help to know others are in the same boat.

  • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

    Truly an everlasting / never ending thread… for good reason. This piece from The Guardian Higher Education Network landed in my feed reader this morning, “Why I’m scared stiff of doing postgrad” http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/07/students-postgraduates

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      That’s hilarious, Vanessa. I’m staring at the very same piece right now. The graduate studies conundrum is popping up a lot these days.

      • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

        morphic resonance strikes again!

        ________________________________

      • http://blogueriadevanessa.wordpress.com VanessaVaile

        Luke, do you sense a change in the force?

  • Katie

    Thanks for posting this. I got my BA in English basically because I loved reading and it felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t want to teach but was thinking about pursuing editing/proofreading as a career. I did 2 years of grad school for Publishing and left because I lost interest. Publishing is a cut-throat industry and you have to be a superstar to be in it (which I am not). My husband and I just relocated out of state in July for his job and I’m currently looking for smth (anything at this point!). I know my story isn’t identical to anyone else but it’s reassuring to read the woes of people I can relate to. I wish you and everyone here the best of luck in their future endeavors!

    • http://orderofeducation.com Josh Boldt

      Thanks for writing, Katie. I know exactly how you feel. Good luck with the job search.

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  • R S

    Why not become a teacher? It’s only 1-2 more years..

    • Josh Boldt

      Well, I actually am a teacher. I teach college students. I assume you mean teaching high school. I agree that’s a good option for some people, but that career isn’t for me. Teaching K-12 is a lot different than teaching college and I’m pretty sure I would be miserable.

      I subbed for a year during grad school and I found the middle school and high school classroom to be a nightmare.

      I would never advise someone to teach who isn’t completely sold out on the idea of teaching. It’s definitely one of the hardest careers out there relative to the compensation.

  • Mario Savioni

    Hello, nice to see everyone here being practical about our apparent delusions of grandeur. As a kid in middle school, I used to listen to T. S. Eliot on a phonograph in a public library. On a bench as a very young child, I told my uncle, I wanted to be a writer. My mother said, I would spend long hours with books entertaining myself. My aunt said that I had the vocabulary of a doctor. My father was a doctor. I don’t know how many of you are like me. Professional parents, a disposition for beauty insulated from the real world.

    The rest of this comment was published as a guest post: On the Irrationality of Art.

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  • Joanne

    I am so happy to know that I am not alone in this. Thank you for sharing.
    I took a BA in English too! It was out of interest and also motivation for me to attend night classes. And i tried to convince my boss it was absolutely beneficial to my job as a producer / writer although he still thinks it’s only useful in teaching and academia circles.

    I hope you find all that you are looking for! Big love from Singapore!

    • Josh Boldt

      Thanks, Joanne.

  • F Char

    Hello Josh,

    I have been debating whether or not I want to do a masters degree post bachelors, and was doing some research online for advice when I came across this. I originally got my BSc in general science (3 year degree), then decided to go back for an additional year to upgrade it to a 4 year BSc in biology and economics (very random combo I know). Originally, I got into university thinking I want to get into something in the medical field post bachelors. But that all changed. I am now interested in doing something in the education field, and was debating going into a masters in education at a university in my area, where you have to chose two areas of concentrations for your masters. My main interest was in ESL, and my other option initially was going to be general science since it’s something I had a degree in; but the councilor advised me against it because ESL is more related to english than to general science. I am still debating whether or not to do this, and in the meantime I applied to a teaching position abroad to gain some experience.

    I thought I would post this with some advice to you, since I know how it feels like to be in your shoes. Now, you may already know this, you may not, but I will give it a shot non-the less. Have you thought about applying to a teaching position abroad? Places like Asia (China, Japan, Korea etc) have high demand for english instructors and they usually take people with BA’s in english, so you having a MA is great. Another option would be teaching in the Middle east. I applied for a position in Kuwait, I did some research and have seen positive reviews about the country and the pay! Its a great place to go to live for a few years, make some money to pay off your debt and even save some money on the side.
    Google universities in these countries, they usually require english majors to teach ESL at their universities. Also google schools such as KBS, BBS, ASK etc.. in Kuwait, or other schools in Asia and email your resume directly to them. They always need teachers. Just thought I would throw that out there.

    Good luck with your career and job search, don’t give up and keep your hopes up!

    • Josh Boldt

      Thank you. I appreciate you sharing your story and also your taking the time to offer some advice to the many people who read this post each day.

      • http://TheNewFacultyMajority.blogspot.com Vanessa Vaile

        Josh ~ if you ever do want to look into it, let me know. One of my online colleagues runs TESOL program in UAE, another teaches in Korea, others ~ more first hand than poking around online

        • Josh Boldt

          Thanks, Vanessa. It’s never really been something I’ve thought about, but who knows?

  • Donna S

    I have a BA/English from decades ago. Never got the chance to use it (marriage, bills, kids, divorce). I am toying with the idea of going back for a Masters. I’ve thought about teaching abroad, but it appears most countries have mandatory retirement at age 50. Does anyone know if that is true?

    • Josh Boldt

      Hi Donna,

      I think you might have gotten some bad information on that one. As far as I know, no country has a mandatory retirement age of 50. In fact, many Asian countries are clamoring for Americans to teach English. A quick Google search will yield hundreds of websites that will help place you in a teaching program. Many of these gigs don’t even require a master’s degree.

      If you really like the idea of teaching abroad, I say go for it.

  • Shelbylyn Allen

    Like others I feel a little discouraged by this post and so many others like it. I am a 21 year old english major and lately I’ve been researching what lies ahead for me after education, while I still have time to possibly change my mind. I keep thinking english may not be a very practical major, but then I’m still stuck with my overwhelming passion for writing and literature. What to do? I’m still working on it. I want to pursue this major but I don’t want to be working my ass off without any real rewards :(… I did enjoy reading everyone’s stories. Now to figure our my own path of self-discovery….

    • Josh Boldt

      Hi Shelbylyn,

      Thanks for commiserating with us. Despite my warnings, I would never advise someone not to go after a dream. My main point is really just that you should be aware of what you’re entering into. Use that knowledge to your advantage and make your English MA the asset that it can be. Many of us English majors get ourselves in trouble because we sometimes like to avoid reality, and thus we don’t adequately prepare for the requisite practical application of our studies that eventually awaits us.

  • Ashley

    Thanks for sharing your story. It has completely changed my mind about pursuing my graduate degree in English.
    I too began college as a science major (nursing), and switched to English when I couldn’t pass the classes meant to “weed out the weak.” I enjoyed getting my BA in English (writing, research, communication, “the art of persuasion” are exactly the skills that I list to those who ask about my future career plans), but now I find myself in a string of unrelated jobs. Currently, I am at a large law firm in the Records department (basically data entry), and going out of my mind. I have idealistically been planning to return to grad school for the MA as soon as I can scrounge up the money; career advisors warned against it, but I internally had decided to throw caution to the wind in order to pursue what I love. Until I read this warning.
    After reading your experience and analysis, I’ve decided that caution is underrated. I’m going to stick it out here at the firm while I pursue options in marketing and PR; I’ve had some work here and there as a proof-reader, event planner, blogger, and fundraiser…maybe it’s time to put some effort into making one of these a full-time endeavor.
    So thanks again for taking the time to caution us green 20-somethings. Now I’m ready to refocus my efforts to a job search instead of grad school applications. Best of luck to you in your career search.

    • Josh Boldt

      It sounds like you made a good decision, Ashley. I worry about discouraging you from doing what you really want, but then again, sometimes it’s only a matter of hearing advice that confirms our inner thoughts.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/zach.radford.3 Zach Radford

    Well said, Josh: “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.”

    I finished my MA in Lit last spring. I worked as a waiter while plodding stressfully through my degree requirements. I feel the same way; that while I know a lot, I know a lot about nothing really. And now I am really struggling. Because for a person to invest the time and effort into learning about something, he must love it to an extent, or at least be somewhat attracted to it. “Do what you love and the money will follow.” How is one to create a career from minor infatuation with so many things if one is to pursue that which he loves?

    Every other day I change my mind about what I want to do for a career. I can’t seem to decide. We have so many choices nowadays, yet we also have so few. The job market seems to be consistently dry. Today it seems that there are infinite numbers of potential career paths, but the ones that are appealing to people like us (if I may lump us all together) seem to have filled their quota. I agree, “I’m better off for it,” but I also wonder if my degree has made too much of a dreamer out of me.

    • josh_boldt

      Beautifully articulated, Zach. This could be a verbatim description of my own experience and philosophical musings on it.

      Lately I’ve been thinking more and more that people like us need to create our own careers, whatever that means. Our economy and culture loves creative production, but the system is rarely willing to support it financially.

      I think in the near future those of us who can create and who know how to market ourselves as freelance creatives will be the ones who succeed. At least that’s what I keep hoping.

      • http://www.facebook.com/zach.radford.3 Zach Radford

        I think we can create our own careers, we somehow need to tap into that talent that we “freelance creatives” have spent so much f-ing money fostering. I am not saying it will be easy – so far it certainly has not been and each passing day makes it seem less and less like a possibility. Maybe dreaming isn’t such a bad quality? Just thinking out loud (on a computer screen). How do you market this I wonder? How do you put this on a resume? How you skip the resume and create your own path? And make a living. Even just a modest living.

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  • AJ

    Eye-opening article. I am one semester from finishing my MA in English, and I’m terrified. I dropped secondary education from my degree because I decided teaching high school is not for me. Not teaching all together, but high school teaching, because there is a huge difference between high school and college teaching (personally I don’t think all of my professors could handle a high school setting). I’m terrified of what I can do next. I love my degree, and have no regrets about it, but it isn’t one that has a clear job market. Also, I transferred to my uni from community college, which gave me less time to rethink different directions really.

    I REALLY want to do my MA in English lit. In a world where I got my way I would get an MA from my current uni, and go onto a PhD program to specialize in Victorian literature. However, any extended education I get will be mine to pay for, which I’m willing to do because I don’t want to limit myself based on only what mommy and daddy will give me.

    My advisor told me an MA in lit is useless unless you’re teaching high school or something. Community college teaching makes terrible money, and to do a PhD you need a 4.0 and a really high GRE score. He also told me that an MA from my school/his employer would not excite employers and the program at my college has “no standards.”

    Then I have two professors here who have told me that the program here is quite good. One says getting an MA is a decent way to let yourself see if the PhD is right for you. And there are assistantships and loans to help pay the way. Also, that her significant other had a professional career while he earned his PhD…now he works at my uni too! Also that the english-related MA isn’t useless depending on what you want to do.

    Another said similar that an MA is good if you want to teach community college, maybe go onto a PhD, or hey, you just aren’t sure what to do with the world yet. She found all reasons valid. Advisor wasn’t amused by the fact she said that some people do it because they aren’t sure what to do with themselves yet, and it’s better to be unsure working, than in college getting “$30,000 in the hole.”

    I hear them both. I get it. I want the MA badly and I want to see if I can handle it. I could do a semester, hate it, and run away forever from academia, but I’ll never know if I can do that or beyond unless I try! And unfortunately, the harshness of my advisors reality check made me really discouraged. He’s a smart, IVY educated PhD who has been a professor for 13 years, and knows quite a bit about the ins and out. However, I don’t think the others were misinformed either. Their experiences to their PhD were different from his, and have different ideas about the process. I’ve got some thinking to do, clearly.

  • josh_boldt

    AJ,

    One thing you have going for you is you’ve clearly done some research and gotten the advice of professionals. I, on the other hand, stumbled blindly into the MA without any plans or research. I just did it because I wanted to. My lack of planning made it harder for me to put the degree to use.

    I wrote this piece over a year ago and, since then, things have begun to look up for me a little. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I finally started learning how to put my writing skills to use (like building this website). If I had planned ahead during my MA, I probably could have walked out of school into a better situation.

    If you really want the MA, I say go for it. But here are two bits of advice: 1) Don’t pay for it out of pocket. If a school wants you, they’ll give you an assistantship. If they don’t offer a package, I would look elsewhere. The MA is not worth going into debt over. 2) Try to find a grad program that offers some kind internship arrangement (editing, nonprofit, grant-writing, etc.). If you can get trained in a specific field and make some contacts, you’ll be set when you graduate–especially if you decide the PhD isn’t for you.

    Good luck!

    • AJ

      Fortunately, my university does offer assistanships (I don’t think they do internships though). My school is smaller so there aren’t a huge amount, but there also aren’t a lot of graduate students either. I have also learned from a grad student, who has one for her psych program, that she hasn’t met someone who wanted to find one that couldn’t get one. Also, to start getting myself known in the Career and Advising Center, as well in our school for Grad Studies. One thing I will be doing this fall is starting to make connections with those places.

      Unfortunately, due to personal issues, my GPA took a little bit of a dive, and now I’m nervous for even applying. I know MA’s are challenging, but I’ve also heard people often have higher GPAs in their grad studies than undergrad since they get to focus more in a topic they like…so going for a PhD might have an advantage there. I really don’t know if I believe that though.

      I know people with English MAs who have successful jobs in the professional writing field that they say they owe to their MA. So there’s that, as well as Community College that can apply the MA from what I understand. So I don’t think it’s as bleak as it seems as long as you go for places where it works to your advantage.

  • Will

    Mind-boggling article. I am currently enlisted and starting to make use of the free college to pursue what I love. Unlike many of my peers, I’ve never had any qualms about “What I want to be when I grow up” simply because I knew whatever it was, I would be reading or writing. Now I stare a grim reality dead in the face. As I read your experience, I felt as though I could picture a procjected image of my future. It ran parallel to your experience. And I find the thought to be a little alarming. Even some of the distant hopes I’ve had in the back of my mind seemed to align. I’ve never been a good planner. Nor was I one to look too far into the future. This was the one thing which seemed set in stone: to achieve at least a MA in English. To pursue a PhD one day. And finally to become a professor (with the added perk of tenure). Now I find myself uncertain, but no less determined to set forward on this path. What I am curious about was the alluded sliver of hope. ” I was too naive and inexperienced to know how to market the skills I had gained in college” I was hoping what you were implying here was that your naivety and inexperience have given way to a deeper insight. More adequetly phrased I suppose my question is, how one could better plan their future? Especially considering time is of little consequence.

    • josh_boldt

      Will,

      I’ve been meaning to write a part II for this article. Maybe your comment will prompt me to do it.

      You’re right about that line you picked out. Much of my difficulty has come from my own naivete and lack of planning. If I approached my MA with more intention, I could have been more prepared to succeed after graduation.

      First of all, I would have tried harder to get into the best school I possibly could. Instead, I just picked the closest one that was the cheapest and easiest to get into.

      Second, I would have definitely looked for a program that builds an internship into the plan of study.

      Finally, I would have been networking with companies during my education so I could have lined a job up after my degree. For example, interning for a newspaper or magazine would have been ideal for me.

      All that being said, I got a job teaching at the University of Georgia, so it’s not like I wasted my time or anything. It’s a part-time adjunct job, but it could definitely be worse. If I had planned better, though, I’m sure I could have walked into something more permanent.

      You have two things working in your favor already: 1) the GI Bill and 2) the experience and maturity you gained from your service. Both of these factors already give you a leg up in the competition. If you’re smart about your education and continually focus on your future goals, you have a much better chance of becoming one of the lucky ones who lands a full-time job that you love. Good luck.

  • sneha

    I will be doing my masters in English. my classes start next month or so. however,my admissions haven’t yet been complete. after reading this, i’m kinda in two minds. i mean i love the english language and i love literature, but im asking myself what happens two years later when the course is done. wish i could talk to you regarding this in length.

    • josh_boldt

      Use these next few weeks to develop a plan (if you haven’t already). How will you use the degree? What connections do you need to make while in graduate school? What internships or volunteer opportunities would best prepare you for the job you want?

      The key is to make sure that you don’t drift through the program aimlessly and then, all of sudden, graduate and wonder what to do next.

      Something as simple as volunteering to write articles for a local non-profit’s website could be hugely valuable. You’ll make some contacts and also gain experience that translates to a job after graduation. That volunteer work or internship will set you apart from most others, allowing you to both enjoy your studies and also to plan for the future.

      Feel free to ask more questions if you have them. I’ll do my best to advise you based on my own experiences.

  • Karlyn Schumacher

    Wow. Thank you so much for writing this.

    I’m currently in my third year of undergrad pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English as well as History – two relatively “useless” degrees, at least according to many people I’ve spoken with. I absolutely love writing/reading/anything involving books, and so for many years, I’ve dreamed of working with them in some way. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about grad school, largely because I love literature and learning. However, I’ve also realized that those are not, perhaps, the most wise reasons to pursue a graduate degree in English. I have also given a lot of thought to working in editing/publishing, but I know that they’re tough fields to get into, which is why I’ve also been looking around for internships. I’m not sure that it’s really necessary to have a master’s degree in English to work in editing/publishing, though – is it?

    The problem is that I love learning and literature…but I also don’t want to spend buckets of money on a degree that could ruin my passion for literature and that might not even be that helpful in the first place. I’ve also been thinking a lot about going to grad school for library science – I work at my college’s library now as a circulation assistant and as an archival assistant, and I’m wondering if that might not be a more practical career path that I could still enjoy.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you for writing this – it has truly helped me put things in perspective and realize what a big decision grad school is!

    • josh_boldt

      Glad it helped, Karlyn. Based on your passion for literature and writing, it does sound like you would enjoy a master’s program in English. I wouldn’t necessarily discourage you from doing it. I loved my master’s program and I wouldn’t trade the experiences and knowledge I gained for anything.

      The biggest issue for me was that I never once planned for what I would do after graduation. I just assumed I would get a decent job pretty easily. Dumb assumption on my part.

      If you do decide to continue your studies, look for a graduate program that offers internships. You’re right that you don’t need a master’s to work in editing, but it wouldn’t hurt. You do need to know someone, though, to break into that field. Just about every English major entertains the thought of becoming an editor, but there aren’t enough jobs for us all. If you can land an internship (even an unpaid one) with a magazine/newspaper/publisher, you’ll be MUCH more likely to get a job. Even volunteering somewhere would be a smart move, if no internship exists. That way you can enjoy the literary study aspect of your grad program and still feel good about the time and money you are investing.

      PS: I hate to say it, but library science is also a very tough field right now. Not too many jobs and the pay is pretty low. If you do go this route, I’d advise you to go in the direction of digital media. That’s the most promising sector of library science right now.

      Good luck!

  • Roberto Espinoza

    Please teach me how I be master English but I get not clear about English and grammar , I felt can’t read and writing . I alway failed with degree . I really want goal to future writing book about story look like from hunger game book.
    My name is Roberto Espinoza
    I’m deaf college

    • http://www.nathanthepaul.com Nathan the Paul

      Roberto, if you want to write in such a way that people can understand you, then you need to read. The best way to learn how to write well is to read good writing.

      If you like, here are a few examples of good writing that you could dive into, to get you started:

      I Am David, by Anne Holm
      Araby, by James Joyce
      The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
      Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami
      The Book of Acts (there are many translations, but the English Standard Version would probably be best in this case)
      Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor

      Maybe you’re already an avid reader. If so, I don’t mean to insult you with my advice, and I’d just urge you to keep on all the more. Best of luck.

  • Thomas J

    I hate to state the obvious but you clearly fall into the ‘not living up to my potential’ loophole because you have no potential. It is not that I do not believe you are an intelligent, well spoken, individual with valid ideas and the articulation to project them to others but I seriously doubt an MA in English was ever going to propel someone in grocery store management to some corporate think tank or six figure position in brand management.

    I am currently looking at getting my MA in creative writing WHILE WORKING MY FULL TIME JOB. Not leaving it, that was your folly and picking apart a degree or field because of your own ineptitude isn’t exactly the most adult way to approach this. Accountability for ones actions is always the first step in understanding how to go forward. “Employers are starting to wonder why I’m in my thirties with no solid job history”. People in their 20’s have the same problem, its because you did not build a solid base before pursuing an advanced degree. Everyone starts at the bottom, so start there, gripe about it in public forums, but start there.

    For what it is worth I am an executive at my company, I work 12 hours a day, weekends, travel and generally don’t give myself an inch. I climbed up here with a degree in Creative Writing, in the worst recession since the great depression.

    Your story sounds just like mine, worked a number of jobs, took chances, took pay cuts, worked 2 jobs at a time, worked construction, but with 2 exceptions:

    1. I have college loans coming out of my nose, over $100K, no one paid a cent for my education, and I don’t ever complain about that.

    2. Even with that burden I have accepted that my personal success will be my own doing, it has nothing to do with degrees or pieces of paper on the wall. The more education I have the more interesting I am to employers, period.

    Good luck to you, but with the attitude of ‘poor me, what now’ you are going to spend most of your life looking in the mirror pitying what you see. Go take that admin job at the local bank, then take a better job, then apply for a better job, and at some point, someone who recognizes the talent in you will tap your shoulder. You aren’t going to convince anyone you are worth their time with a resume. Get out there and do it, everyday.

    • josh_boldt

      I’m glad things worked out for you, Thomas J. You’ve made some assumptions about me, which is fine I guess. A lot has changed in the two years since I wrote this article. Hope things continue to go well for you.

      • Rizzzle

        Slow clap for Thomas J – many grammatical mistakes in his comment though. Definitely not “executive at my company” level writing hahahaha. Would do well to research comma splicing.

        • finuomo

          Would do well to research how not to be a prick. Seriously though, TJ, just because things worked for you, doesn’t mean they work out for everyone. And putting all the blame on the individual involved is a bit hackneyed. Some people work hard and get nowhere, and I’m willing to bet circumstances, or just plain old bad luck, play a part in that. Oh, and about your debt, maybe you should’ve moved to a country where education is free. Worked for me; I’m debt free.

    • Donny Hoeweler

      Success can be measured in many ways. I write for thousands daily yet remain broke. Don’t get an English MA for the money. That is a given. Do it because you want a shot at influencing the world. Money is not the only power, no matter how many executives tell you otherwise.

      • josh_boldt

        Good point, Donny. Well said.

    • Zahk Scott

      Congratulations on your success. I also work 12 hours a day, 80 hours a week, and all weekends, yet I struggle to pay the rent each month and barely make $20,000 a year after tax. No Master’s degree yet, but I did manage to graduate with a 3.97 GPA without the plus/minus system inflation. Not everyone with a degree who fails to make six figures has failed from lack of potential – it’s mainly lack of guidance in how to use the skills they have acquired through their education. And the canned responses from advisers or recruiters that “with a degree in English you can do anything” certainly only contribute to the problem. Maybe more helpful advice on how to actually succeed as you have would have been more appropriate than derision and personal criticism. As any executive would or should know, it’s simple economics that for one person to succeed, another must fail in any environment when they are competing for the same resources. So what specific advice can you provide besides the same tired statements so many corporate executives direct towards those they perceive as less achieved than themselves, generally that it’s our own laziness that has brought this life upon us and we just need to work harder? Anything would be more helpful than that condescension.

  • Christian

    If it may help… Following my MA, my first position was as a web writer at LookSmart. Then I worked in the communication dept at UPS in Montreal doing mostly translation (my native tongue is French). Then I went into advertising (I created a portfolio of fake ads shown off as such) and I’ve been “a copywriter” since then. I just turned 40. At first I wanted to teach, but couldn’t find a position. :-)

  • Divija Joshi

    Hi Josh. Your articles beautifully depict the reality for literature graduates. Im an undergraduate english literature student. And i have been thinking of pursuing MA and becoming a professor. But after reading your articles i feel i want to do that is probably because i have no clue what i want to do. My parents ask me what i want to do and the answer ‘im not sure’ doesn’t seem to satisfy them. Hence i had to think of something to satisfy their questions. However now im having doubts about it.how do i avoid making the same mistake?

  • Jonathan Porter

    I’m about to finish my M.A. I suppose the difference between you and I is that I only pursued jobs that related to my degree. I’ve done grant writing (a job I received after my internship), proofreading, copywriting, even some screenwriting. And now I’m a Middle School teacher (my first stable job). I would argue that English degrees, specifically those with a writing emphasis, are extremely valuable. The world is clogged with poor writing–you just need to know where to look. An internship wouldn’t hurt either.