A few days ago I mentioned that I felt a bit misled and tricked about the graduate program that I did and I wanted to expand on that. I’ve had this conversation a few times with various friends who were in the program and most of us feel pretty much the same way: we’re ultimately glad we did it (or at least not actively unhappy), but we wish we knew then what we know now.
Starting out, I applied to the PhD program and was re-directed by the English department to the MA program. I did not apply to, nor did I even know about the program that I ended up enrolling in. Now that I know what graduate school is really like, I think it is a good thing that I did not end up in a 7+ year PhD program but the MA wasn’t exactly the golden ticket that it was touted as by the people who wanted me to enroll and pay them lots of money. When I visited the campus to learn more about the MA program, they billed it as a way get some graduate classes under your belt so you’d have a better chance at getting into a PhD program once you were finished with the MA. You’d have grades in grad classes, a theory background, and a thesis from which to build your dissertation. You’d be set. They (the program director, professors, etc) also said that if you decided not to get a PhD, you would be able to go much farther in your career with an MA from a prestigious school. It could only help your employment prospects to have more education.
When I did decide to move to Chicago and do the program, it was not without some serious thought about the amount of debt that I was going to have to take out in order to finance this little adventure. At this point in my life, I was still hell-bent on a PhD, which meant that it would be many years of school and living on a stipend before I had a decent salary with which to pay down the debt. As I’ve mentioned before, I was incredibly lucky to have no student loans from my undergraduate degree. I actually had no debt, period. My car was paid in full and I had no credit card debt. I didn’t owe anybody anything, and it was going to be hard to leave that kind of financial freedom behind. I also did not have to take out nearly as much money as a lot of my classmates did. Because I had been working full-time for two years, and babysitting and working a part-time gig on the side, and saving every penny, I had enough money in savings to live off of for a year if I lived very frugally. This meant a serious depletion of my savings, but it also meant that I didn’t have to take out loans (and later pay interest) for living expenses. I also got a work-study job, so I worked and could make a little bit of cash every month for fun stuff like going to out to eat every once in a while. Finally, my parents gave me money for graduation that I promptly put towards my loans. They convinced me to let them help me after graduation by taking care of my monthly payment until I got a full-time job. They also give me a loan payment as a gift for every major holiday, my birthday, etc. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have been very very lucky to have parents who are able and who want to help me out. I didn’t expect them to do it and I will be eternally grateful. I know that if I was ever in danger of not being able to make a payment, or of defaulting on my loans, that they would be financially able to step in and help me out. I also know that for many reasons, this is simply not the case with a lot of people.
So, I quit my job, said goodbye to my family and all my friends, sold my car, and moved across the country to a city I’d never lived in and where I didn’t know a single person. Man, just typing that makes me a little nervous, and I already know that it turned out just fine. I started school and promptly realized that what I had actually signed up for was pretty different from what I *thought* I had signed up for. First of all, people treated the MA’ers as inferior. And I guess, in a way, we were. We were the people that no one wanted to accept to a PhD program, so we took the next best thing in paying for an MA. In classes, I certainly felt the divide between the “real” grad students and us lowly masters students. Also, there were SO MANY of us that wanted to do English Literature that there were not enough class options. It seemed like every professor wanted to have class from 10-11:30 on Tuesday/Thursday, and no other time. There were also, like, 4 grad classes total. Coming from a giant state school where there were infinitely more classes than you could ever possibly take, this was kind of a shock. I remember pulling up the listing and thinking wait, there’s only one page of graduate English classes? What?! As a result, one had to “shop” around for the least-lame classes. The teachers were completely overwhelmed because there were so many of us, and the classes were totally full, overflowing. To the point where some of the classes that I went to in those first couple of weeks had people sitting on the ground and standing the entire time. I know this was not the case with people who did a less popular subject, but for the English classes it was pretty much mayhem. I ended up taking a lot of classes that I was not crazy about, which is pretty crappy considering how much money I paid for them. I also wasn’t able to take many classes that were going to help me with my thesis. I managed to take mostly English classes, but people were forced to get pretty creative and I know that many ended up taking classes in completely different departments like Sociology or Anthropology or History. Again, not that big a deal when you’re at a big state school for four years of undergrad. Kind of a big deal when you are in a one-year master’s program and only get to take 9 classes. 9 very expensive classes.
Now, skipping way ahead to graduation, a LOT of us had a VERY hard time finding a job. I was lucky to have prior experience that landed me gainful employment, even if it wasn’t employment that I actually enjoyed or that had anything to do with using my degree. Many of my classmates were straight out of undergrad, had never worked full-time, and had no real-world experience. I imagine that potential employers looked at these kids, who had zero full-time experience and two degrees (at least one of which was very expensive) and said no way, I can’t afford them, I won’t even give them an interview. They have no skills and I’d have to pay them for an MA when I can get someone with experience and only a BA. Granted, we were in the middle of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, but I can’t imagine that this will change much for at least the next few years. Everyone told us that we would have this great degree and all these marketable skills, but what we were really left with was a very expensive piece of paper and no working knowledge of microsoft excel or mail merge.
So, why am I glad I did this? Well, it got me out of a pretty serious rut. I loved Austin but I hated my job. I wasn’t really doing anything to improve the situation because I just figured that I would be leaving it and going to grad school soon so why bother. I had lived in central Texas my whole life. I went to college 30 minutes from my home town. I was not exactly used to stepping outside of my comfort zone. This program is what got me to get off my butt and take action to change things. Turns out Chicago is a pretty cool town to accidentally end up in. Also, I was able to be a student for a little while longer. I know that we all have different experiences but I LOVED college. Loved it. I was definitely not ready to leave when I graduated. I don’t necessarily feel “done” with school now, but I’m closer than I was in May of 2006 when I got that BA diploma. The MA year gave me another opportunity to be a student, and experience the student lifestyle and all that comes with it. It also gave me a sense of what graduate school is really like. It is NOTHING like undergrad. There are a lot of people who think that because they got really good grades in undergrad or that they loved English (or another subject) in college, they should go to grad school and become a professor. This is a terrible reason to go to grad school, and I found this out firsthand. Third, I met D while I was in school, and I don’t believe we would have run into each other otherwise. For that reason, I’m especially glad I moved to Chicago and started the program. Last but not least, I hold out hope that some day having this MA will help my career. Maybe not right now, maybe not for another ten years, but someday I hope it helps, and that it helps to pay for itself.
But ultimately I would not recommend this program to future students, because you are a cash cow for the University’s few lucky PhD students. Furthermore, if you are one of the few who do this program, get an MA, and then go on to get into a PhD program, you are only making a bad problem worse. There is no money in academia, and there are no jobs, and you are going to be 30 and overqualified for every job out there without ever having clocked a 9-5 gig. You will end up adjuncting for $3,000 a semester and you won’t have health insurance, a retirement cushion, or even enough money to live off of. Following your dreams is a nice idea, but being able to make your loan payments is the harsh reality that we all have to face.