Monthly Archives: July 2011

Master’s degrees, earning power, and specialization

The Times education section has taken a break from its usual chronicle of anxious students and even more anxious parents desperately jockeying for Ivy League admissions. This week, Education Life turns to grad school, declaring that the master’s is the new bachelor’s, whatever that means. Mostly what it means is what we all knew–that it’s increasingly tough to land a solid job with the potential for advancement with only a bachelor’s degree. The article claims, though, that a master’s degree (“Once derided as the consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D. or just a way to kill time waiting out economic downturns”) can now provide a necessary leg up over the mere BAs.

Of course, not all master’s degrees are created equal, and another article lays out the return on investment for different programs. Not surprisingly, a master’s in engineering comes with a significant bump in earning power, but then, it’s not exactly difficult to find a job with a bachelor’s in engineering, either. On the other hand, a master’s in social work is necessary to get a job in the field, but it’s such a low-paying field that even with a solid job, it’s likely to take quite a while to pay off the graduate school loans.

The article makes sure to point out that while a master’s program may provide a respite from the economy and an increase in earning power, a PhD, even in engineering, requires a sacrifice of both time an earning power that is generally not borne out by increased earnings later on. But then, as if to comfort those of us who’ve made the poor decision to stick it out for the PhD (see here and here), the author reminds us that graduate programs in journalism still exist, and that people are evidently willing to pay $50,000 for a one-year master’s in journalism from Columbia. A journalism degree, by the way, boosts starting salary to $39,000, assuming you can actually find a full-time job, which only 31 percent of Columbia’s class of 2011 was able to do.

In other words, a master’s degree is not in itself a ticket to a higher salary, or even a job itself (my MA in English, for example, is not likely to get me hired anywhere but a private high school). A master’s degree can be evidence of specialization and vocational training, and, as the author of “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s” points out, the increased emphasis on the degree is a win for employers, since it essentially means that future employees train themselves at their own expense.

The call for specialization implicit in the master’s degree is at odds with what this Education Life article from 2009 claims employers are looking for from students with a bachelor’s:

“There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on ‘the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,’ 81 percent asked for better ‘critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills’ and 70 percent were looking for ‘the ability to innovate and be creative.'”

I point this out because one of the major tensions in the university right now is the degree to which an undergraduate degree should provide specialized vocational skills, versus broader and more fundamental liberal-arts skills like thinking, reading, and writing. The article presents the proliferation of master’s programs as addressing a need for specialized practical learning in specific fields. But the article also notes that the draw of the master’s may be as much about credentialing and distinction as actual skills:

“‘There is definitely some devaluing of the college degree going on,’ says Eric A. Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, and that gives the master’s extra signaling power. ‘We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,’ making a bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers.”

If the master’s is really about distinction in a job market where more and more people have bachelor’s, then we would do well to continue to place emphasis at the undergraduate level on fundamental, transferable skills, particularly writing and critical thinking–equipping students with the necessary skills to communicate effectively and learn on the job, or to do well in a master’s program if that’s what the field requires.

Slow starts and motivation

I’m making lamentably slow progress on the chapter I wanted to have drafted by the end of the summer. I haven’t given up all hope of meeting my deadline, but I have reminded myself that sometimes the early stages of the drafting process take longer than you want them to. The difficulty for me is identifying when I’m dragging my feet because I’m mentally not ready to start writing—I haven’t done enough research, I don’t have a strong enough grasp on the secondary criticism, I have no idea how I want to focus my argument or what I can add—and when I’m just procrastinating because intellectual work is hard first thing in the morning and it’s much more fun to read every diverting thing I can find on the internet. I’ve been doing a bit of both lately, but this week I’ve finally been able to see the structure of the draft start to take shape in my head. I’ve got a good sense of where it can start, and what several of the body sections should address. I still don’t know how it should end, nor what the ultimate argument will be, but I’m not going to sweat that until I’ve got several thousand words written.

It helps that I presented a very preliminary paper on the subject of this chapter at a conference in late May. Having to write the paper forced me to synthesize some of my thoughts about my research and turn what seemed like the most interesting avenue into a short, focused argument. That argument may not be all that central to the final argument of the chapter, but it gives me a place to start.

Perhaps even more helpful to this very intimidating chapter-writing process is the response my paper got when I presented it. I didn’t set the world of American literature on fire or anything, but the panel had upwards of 25 people in the audience (!), and I got several questions that indicated listeners were interested and engaged in the argument I was making. The next day, a scholar whose work I’m familiar with and admire approached me to say he’d enjoyed my talk. And last month, a very major scholar in the field contacted me about my paper—he hadn’t been able to attend the conference, but had seen the title of my paper in the program and had some questions about my research in relation to a project he’s working on.

While none of these encounters have any really tangible consequences for me professionally (although I do have my fingers crossed for a citation somewhere in the last scholar’s book), they’re all helpful affirmations that topic of this chapter is one that others find interesting. Keeping that in mind is an invaluable corrective to the frustration and pessimism that creeps in at the early stages of the writing process. When I start to think that I don’t have anything significant to say, or that nobody will want to read forty pages about what reviewers had to say about this one novel, I can remind myself that what I’m working on is of interest to people other than myself. It doesn’t make the early drafting stages any less painful, but it does make them feel a bit less futile.