Rebecca Brazzale, Brigham Young University
As a current career and academic advisor, I have had several conversations with M.A. students about life after graduation. Most of these students, humanists through and through, came to graduate school in pursuit of a Ph.D. because they liked what they studied as undergraduates and were very successful. However, after two years of rigorous studies and major life changes such as marriage, children, and increased student debt, some have contemplated taking a break from academia and entering the workforce. During all of our conversations, the same question comes to the surface: “What can you do with an M.A. in the humanities?”
The question about what one can “do with humanities” is not new. Many publications, such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report The Heart of the Matter (2013), Daniel Pink’s 2008 proposal that “The MFA is the new MBA” (as cited in Bell, 2008), the Brigham Young University Humanities Pathways study (2013), and others continue to advocate the legitimacy of a humanities education in today’s job market. Furthermore, the conversation on helping humanities Ph.D. graduates transfer their skills outside of academia has been spotlighted by several reports including Pathways Through Graduate School and into Careers (Wendler et al., 2012), Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track (Rogers, 2013), and Reports on Rethinking Humanities Graduate Education (Rumsey, 2012-2013). All of these express not only the legitimacy of the humanities in today’s job market, but also the importance of translating humanistic studies into practical skills that can be articulated on a résumé.
Still, compared to a Ph.D., it is less clear what you can do with a master’s degree in the humanities. Besides Cassuto’s (2015) recent punishing remarks in his article “The Degree for Quitters and Failures,” most of the research in job placement for humanities graduate students is dedicated to Ph.D. candidates, whose situation is unique from that of a master’s student. For example, M.A. graduates cannot entirely relate to the Versatile Ph.D. (2015) or #Alt-Academy (2015), because as master’s students they are not as specialized nor committed to their field of study. Furthermore, the majority of the job-placement initiatives for humanities graduates in the universities are directed at Ph.D. candidates, whose prestige-potential outweighs that of a master’s candidate. When the occasional graduate student wanders into the undergraduate advising office, they may receive some career advice, but feel uncertain as to the applicability of that counsel. In essence, the M.A. student is in an academic limbo with no specific resources to call their own.
While talking to some M.A. students recently about their own educational path, two stated that while they really did love the subject matter, the master’s was seen as a postponement of the job search. One explained, “Anxiety about entering the job market was a big factor in me getting a master’s.” Another chimed in “That’s why I want to be a professor; the job market scares me.” Another student, who left “super depressed” after a Ph.D. preparation workshop, returned from his Christmas break mentioning that he may now be considering law school as a “better” professional alternative (personal communication, February 2014). In harmony with these testimonials, Rogers (2013) explains, “The data shows that many graduate students begin their studies without a clear understanding of their future employment prospects, which signals that we are failing to bring informed students into the graduate education system” (p. 11). Furthermore, her findings conclude "students report receiving little or no preparation for careers outside the professoriate during the course of their studies, even though the need for information about a variety of careers is acute” (p. 11).
Thus, professional guidance for master’s students is greatly needed. This is not to say that the Ph.D. route should not be considered nor encouraged; most M.A. candidates in the humanities love academia and are seriously considering making a career of it. Still, students should be compelled to explore several options and investigate a variety of career paths before they commit to an additional 4-6 years in the ivory tower. Furthermore, advisors should also discuss the reality that a master’s degree is not a solution for indecisiveness or fear of the job market. As Wendler et al. (2012) advocates, “career transparency” should be the new focus in college advising. This is especially true in the Liberal Arts, as the career path is exceptionally ambiguous at times. Although many enter academia with the hopes of a tenured professorship, M.A. students should also be aware of the discrepancy between the numbers of Ph.D. graduates compared to the slim number of tenured positions available (Hacker & Dreifus, 2010, p. 57; Pannapacker, 2013).
In summary, advisors and administrators should consider the plight of the master’s student alongside that of doctoral students when providing academic and career support. I also echo the argument presented by Pannapacker (2013) in his article “Just Look at the Data, if You Can Find Any” that states, “In addition to providing more-reliable information, we need to create new pathways for students in the humanities so that graduate school does not seem like the only place where they can pursue the things they ‘loved’ as undergraduates.” Further advising dialogue in the humanities should address how master’s students can continue to stay relevant in the job market as they pursue their studies, so as to empower them during their studies instead of allowing the culture of insecurity to persist throughout the doctoral program.
By developing an advising plan that advocates both academic and professional options, starting at the bachelor’s level and continuing all the way to the doctoral level, students will be able to better demonstrate how vital the humanities are to society, both artistically and professionally. Furthermore, they will be able to provide an answer to the difficult question “What can you do with an M.A. in the humanities?” that is purposeful, meaningful, and relevant. As Richard Brodhead, President of Duke University and Co-chair of the Commission on the humanities and social sciences, stated, “The issue for me is how to help [students] incorporate the humanities and social sciences into what they are doing [and] also develop a plan that leads to some sort of career. . . . It's not either-or. It's how to put the two things together” (Chicago Humanities Festival, 2014).
Career & Academic Advisor
College of Humanities
Brigham Young University
“#Alt-Academy: A media commons project.” #Alt-Academy. (n.d.). Retrieved 15 June 2015 from http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/welcome
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Pannapacker, W. (2013, June 17). Just look at the data, if you can find any. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Just-Look-at-the-Data-if-You/139795
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Rumsey, A. S. (2012–2013). Scholarly Communication Institute reports on rethinking humanities graduate education (pp. 1–22). Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, University of Virginia. Retrieved from http://libra.virginia.edu/catalog/libra-oa:3266
Versatile PhD. (2015). Retrieved from http://versatilephd.com/
Wendler, C., Bridgeman, B., Markle, R., Cline, F., Bell, N., McAllister, P., & Kent, J. (2012). Pathways through graduate school and into careers (pp. 1–47). Educational Testing Services and the Council of Graduate Schools. Retrieved from http://pathwaysreport.org/
Cite this article using APA style as: Brazzale, R. (2015, September). The M.A student in need of improved career advisement. Academic Advising Today, 38(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]