Monday, April 11, 2005

There's a quite agonizing

piece up at the Chronicle, by a writer called Nicholas Hengen who got an MA degree in English and comments on the nature of the MA "racket." Here's some of it:

Two years earlier, when one of my rejection letters from doctoral programs arrived with a kindly worded offer to join the master's program, it seemed like a good idea. I was weak on theory and pretty much the entire 18th century. The program would groom me, I thought, into a great candidate for any university's doctoral program.

Sitting at the bar with Jake, I don't feel groomed. I feel bruised. Since arriving on the campus, my life has been a race to keep up. In my first year, I worked 20 hours a week. I was a secretary, I tutored in the department's writing center, and I did some grading for a professor's course. I also took three classes a term and wrote a conference paper.

I read tons of theory, but much of it was gulped while making photocopies. Between collating someone's tenure packet, fielding departmental phone calls, and grading undergraduate essays about Allen Ginsberg, I would hurry through Kant and Adorno and Herbert. I would run to class feeling underprepared, get the frisson of academic engagement for an hour or two, then rush off to tutor. By the time I got home most nights it was dark. I'd kick back with Ibsen -- the lightest reading I had all year.

By May, I was embittered, exhausted, and much more qualified to discuss poststructuralism. The few hours I spent in the classroom reminded me of why I was living this life, but once I stepped outside of those doors, I was back into a rush, running to my next job, dragging my bag of library books behind me.

Although I was never paddled or forced to drink more than I should have, the parallel with hazing floated into my mind frequently. If I was willing to take on this colossal debt, run myself ragged with nonacademic work, then stay up all night to perform academically, I would be allowed to join -- after I reapplied witwith the new writing samples and the letters of recommendation I had worked so hard for.

Life would still be busy and stressful, but at least it wouldn't cost as much. I would get my Ph.D. from a good university, get a tenure-track job in a place I wanted to live, and help students understand and enjoy literature. I just had to keep working, keep reading, keep writing. Everything would be fine.

Rejection letters from graduate programs have become a reality for an increasing number of would-be scholars -- especially in the humanities. Consider my own university. This year, my English department accepted 62 students: 18 Ph.D. candidates and 44 M.A. candidates. More than half of the M.A.'s had applied to the Ph.D. program and been denied.

For those students, a terminal master's program at a prestigious university was a beacon, a way of buying entree into academe.

Seen from the outside, M.A. and Ph.D. candidates look a lot alike. But from the inside, the two are quite different. M.A.'s are departmental cash cows. Outside of federal loans, the only financial aid that most master's students get comes in the form of work-study jobs. I was granted the maximum allowance: 20 hours a week. Work-study grad students are, I soon learned, a boon to the department.

I have devoted much energy this year to making the MA program (I'm currently "director," for what it's worth) in my department as valuable as possible for the students enrolled in the MA-only option, but I fear that some of them will go away feeling rather like this guy about the whole enterprise.


  1. Why do you think that is? Is there any way (given the current academic climate) to provide a better 'experience' for MA students? I'm in a terminal MA program at the local state university and will then enter a PhD program in English at the same place. It's not my ideal program, but I can live at home (away from dreaded winter), it's cheap, and they take almost everybody... not glamorous, but practical...

  2. Oh, it's so complicated... I think a big part of the problem is expectations. Even if we are totally scrupulous at Columbia about the prospects of MA students being admitted to the PhD program (admission is not very likely), it is still very hurtful for individual students if they apply and are turned down. If you are realistic about what to expect, you are much more likely to feel satisfied with your experience. And of course intellectually it can be very good--I think the problem has more to do with practical prospects afterwards, esp. given the likelihood of substantial student loans from the MA tuition.

  3. Jenny, do you have any sense of the odds of terminal MA students of getting into PhD programs elsewhere? So many people in my incoming PhD class had MAs (and sometimes even MPhils) from other institutions; I felt totally outclassed--and, frankly, young.

    The points raised in the article and in your comment are important, though: MAs can feel discouraged by their dip into higher education, and that year (if they're lucky it's one year) is often quite expensive.