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Graduate School Dropout, No Graduation Day for You
October 18, 2011 8:50 PM   Subscribe

My Masters program isn't the academic challenge that I hoped it would be. I'm paying a lot of money and spending a lot of time to do this in addition to my full-time job. Should I keep going or cut my losses?

About six months ago I started a job that offers tuition reimbursement and I decided to take advantage of it. I applied and was accepted to a MS in Communication program at a top 20 school. The program meets one day a week, alternating Fridays and Saturdays, and my company is giving me paid time off for the Fridays. It's an ideal situation for pursuing a degree while working and one that would be difficult to find elsewhere.

Though it's a communication degree, it covers a variety of fields including management, leadership, international business, law, and technology. A communication degree is relevant to my current career and what I'd like to pursue in the future and the coursework, in theory, would be valuable in developing skills that would be useful for my career. Plus I have always loved the structured learning environment that school provides and I was looking forward to some intellectual engagement outside of my job.

The problem is that the program is not at all challenging. I'm disappointed on several levels, but the biggest one has been the quality of the other students. I don't expect everyone to love school and nerd out like I do, and I understand that no matter where I go there will be people who are just in it for the credential. However, most of the other students I've encountered seem interested in doing only the bare minimum required to graduate. Aside from their lack of motivation, they are not very intelligent, to put it bluntly. We spend a lot of time covering basic things that I think should be common knowledge for someone entering a Masters program ("What is the FCC?") and/or are things they would know if they'd done the reading and looked into anything they didn't understand ("This chapter mentions VoIP a lot. Can you explain what that is again?").

Compounding this problem, I think that our professors are teaching to the lowest common denominator. The apathy and students' low-level understanding of the material pretty much precludes any meaningful discussion during class and makes group projects grueling. I'm only five weeks into the first ten week quarter and I already want to pull my hair out after working on two group projects and having lecture derailed more times than I can count by people who just want to ask questions to hear their own voices (An excerpt from class: "So, didn't the NFL violate Hank Johnson's 5th amendment rights?")

I wanted three things from this program: the fun of an intellectual challenge, useful skills, and a credential that I can use to advance my career. It seems like the first two will not be possible. Even with the tuition reimbursement this program will end up costing me about $33,000 in student loans. If I leave now it will be mostly paid for by the reimbursement but will still cost me between $3-5,000 in loans.

What I'm hoping for is some insight into whether the degree will be worth the money. If it will advance my career, then I can tough it out and deal with my irritation and do the minimal work required to get my degree. I'm just starting out--I graduated college four years ago. I was hoping that my current position + the degree would be my springboard to something even better. But I'm having trouble sorting out the hype from reality. Is a Masters degree necessary or even desirable for career advancement? Should I stick with this or cut my losses? I'm also open to suggestions for improving my experience.
posted by anonymous to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
What is your current/desired career?
posted by Lady Li at 9:01 PM on October 18, 2011


You should make two stops this week:

1. To your boss / supervisor / mentor at work. That person will hopefully have some insight into how much value this degree will give you at your current company. $33K is a big personal investment in yourself and student loans are always scary. They say that most EMBAs get a raise after they get their degree (in the old economy, anyways) but does this degree have the same effect?

2a. To your university's faculty advisor or graduate program advisor. Pass on the information that you're finding the curriculum to be too basic, and find out if it gets harder from here.
or
2b. To a faculty member whose work you respect. Find out how to add the intellectual challenge back into the program by doing additional work, or even trying to get published so that an academic career may open to you. It does sound like you're looking for the challenge.

Good luck!
posted by wenat at 9:02 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


...and stop 3 should be to a job site/ job board at an organization that you would like to work at. Check out both the jobs that you would like to do today, and those that are attractive 5 years down the road. Read the job descriptions carefully, and see if the requirements include a MS degree (is it preferred or required?). If it's either, then it seems to me that the degree is worth doing. If it isn't, then look at the job requirements and spend your time developing those skills - though if you are able to develop them via some sort of project in your MS program, then it still might be worth staying in the program.

But if the MS degree isn't mentioned at all, and it seems to you that you can develop the required skills listed in the job description without going to grad school, then it seems like that is $3-5,000 of money and a lot of hours of time that are not being invested in the wisest way. Particularly since you don't seem to be enjoying the experience.
posted by anitanita at 9:16 PM on October 18, 2011


What I'm hoping for is some insight into whether the degree will be worth the money. If it will advance my career, then I can tough it out and deal with my irritation and do the minimal work required to get my degree.

Worth the money in terms of a direct payoff in future years' paychecks? Probably not. Though there's a ton of variation here, between what different "communication" degrees cover and what different careers want: if you're working in media or journalism and this particular degree is giving you direct training and useful contacts in the field, it may be "worth it" in this sense — for instance if you're already working in TV and this program is training you in broadcast production. The average Masters' in Communication isn't this directly career-relevant.

Considering the amount of debt you're taking on, I think you should probably bail. But if you do stay, and even while you're making up your mind, I'd urge you (as wenat said already) to seek out some of the more sympathetic faculty in the program and talk to them about the decision, and your frustrations with the program. It's quite possible they are also privately frustrated with some of the students they're teaching — Master's programs, even "top-n" ones, can sometimes be very unselective when they're serving as cash cows for the rest of the department or university, and the faculty may be scaling down their investment and expectations as a result. The way to get more intellectual mileage out of the program, whether you stay to completion of the degree or not, is to find your way to the right faculty and work with them individually to get what you want out of it. This is more or less how graduate schooling is supposed to work, but some programs provide more support for it than others; you may have to take the initiative and make sure you get the education you want to get.
posted by RogerB at 9:53 PM on October 18, 2011


Some departments run parallel programs which I will call "the real one" and "the other one."

Same university, same subject, same degree, but the real one has higher caliber instructors [*] and often a higher caliber of student.

How to tell if you're at a university that runs parallel programs:

In the course catalog, do you see that your instructors only teach courses in this alternative program - they don't do classes during regular University hours? And most of the instructors in your program are adjuncts and lecturers?

OK, right. So if you think this university is awesome, but your program isn't, changing to day mode or somehow establishing contact with the regular professors could be what you need.


[*] The instructors at the real program will be established in their field and en route to tenure. The instructions in the other program will be permanent lecturers and adjuncts with weaker connections in the field. The level of teaching may actually be better in the other one than the real one.

posted by zippy at 9:58 PM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The only thing I can think of a Masters in Communications as being valuable for is a future managerial (or maybe leadership) position in an enterprise organization. It sounds like a good university (which bureaucracies love) and it's a tertiary degree (ditto), so if this is your ultimate aim, and if you are sure your future earning power based on this degree will recoup this 30k+ investment, why not stay in?

However, I can tell you I've met many people in advertising, PR and communications who get by on drive, personality, and intellect. The principal of the small boutique marketing company I work for has an English degree, and learned everything else on the job. Maybe you're one of those people. If you really care about actually engaging your mind, why not choose a program that is more in line with your interests.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:18 PM on October 18, 2011


So you're only 5 weeks into it, and you've met 5 times. You're in an Evening-and-Weekend slacker-type program that focuses on applied (vs traditionally academic) fields such as management, business, "leadership", etc., as well as the more creative humanities-based parts of Communications, I imagine. That's the problem(s) right there .


Ok, so here's how to find a truly challenging grad school environment:
- immersion: you have to put in the Big Work to get the Big Pay-off, intellectually (and Big Work means long hours); corollary is that Few Hours = slacking built-in; this slacking is intended to as a money-making opportunity for the college, so even high-end schools may have MS/MA programs that are relatively easy to get into 'cause they attract well-funded students; consequently, a major sign of a good program is if lots of people don't get in, and the people who do get in have the Big Credentials (outside $$).
- academic focus: you have to pick a field that is more-- or at least as much-- academic as applied, and preferably a field that has seen a lot of exciting research recently, hopefully by some faculty in the university you attend; corollary is that "leadership" is like, the opposite of a rigorous academic category, and management isn't much more so, so the types of professors you'd get even in the Ivies (forget students) are likely to be simply former business-people, just more successful business-people, and further, the type of books aren't going to be "official" or difficult texts with intellectually challenging material; if you want a business-related slant on communications, make sure a good percentage of the work is in a 'grey-area' but rigorous field like computer science, economics, statistics, sociology, English literature, rhetoric & media, etc.; a good way to tell if the program will be challenging (even in the humanities) is if it somehow involves applied mathematics.
- research/thesis-driven: this is a big weed-out factor, just like math/computers, in that if the program emphasizes independent research, it will turn people off who want a piece of paper; further, it's likelier that if a program has research built-in, they may pay you rather than you paying them to study.
posted by reenka at 10:22 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not to be a snob, but are there challenging Communications programs? If you think the future payoff is worth the boredom of classtime, you might as well finish.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:53 PM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I read Habermas and Arendt in my Communications MA. And studied Paul Romer's endogenous growth theory in the context of copyright and nationalism. Waaaay oversimplified but basically to answer that yes, there are some challenging academically-based communications programs. Not very practical for those looking for PR/communications jobs, though.
posted by wenat at 11:03 PM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I would talk to your program advisors, as noted above. Also, you didn't say what your undergrad was. I gather it was in communication or something related. It's possible that your fellow students have majored in things like business, anthropology, sociology, psychology and linguistics -- all of which are very relevant to the study of communication, but which may not have included coursework in VoIP, FCC or even McLuhan, Innis and so on. Your program may spend a good long while catching people up, especially since it isn't f/t.

Also, while I didn't do my graduate work in communications, I was a bit shocked at how low level my masters was initially. But many programs that cater to working adults, especially those with kids and other life commitments, do try to pace things a little differently. I actually appreciate what they were doing a lot more now than I did then.

I'm not sure an MS in Communications is useful for more than a career in communications. You could probaby go do your IABC or APR or something. But having a masters will open doors and will be considered to be of value for certain people. I'm not sure it translates to higher salary - I doubt it - but it is one of those credentials that will help you get management roles or win out over people who don't have the degree. But work experience will also be key. You don't need specific training to have a career in communications.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:16 PM on October 18, 2011


Though it's a communication degree, it covers a variety of fields including management, leadership, international business, law, and technology.

I hate to sound like a nay-sayer, but that is a ludicrously wide array of fields, and sounds suspuciously like Jack of all trades, Master of none if you'll pardon the pun. It's difficult to find intellectual rigor in generalist classes. If you want to learn about business or management, you get an MBA. If you want to learn about law, you get a law degree. If you want to learn about technology, try a CS program. Otherwise it's going to be very difficult to get any real depth of knowledge because each of those fields really requires a lot more than a toe-dip in the shallow waters.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:16 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


You don't specify what career track you're on, so it's difficult to say what the earnings impact will be of an MS in Communications. However: this.

If you'd like one data point, I dropped out of a very competitive, highly rigorous, high-falutin' hard-core theory style Masters in Communications programme a dozen years ago because an interesting job came my way. I've made three career jumps since then--small local organization to biggish national organization to the largest national organization of its kind in the country. Right now I make (considerably) more money than my friends who were in grad school with me at the time and graduated. Plus, I probably saved myself $20ishK in additional student loan debt.

If this is one of those expensive, part-time degrees for "mid-career professionals" you are unlikely to be intellectually challenged. They want the money, the students want the credentials, no one has to work too hard, everyone is happy. If your research leads to to believe the degree will increase your earnings enough to cover the $33K in fairly short order, then it might not be a bad investment. If, however, you are yearning for intellectual fulfillment, reenka's got your formula.
posted by looli at 1:28 AM on October 19, 2011


This isn't a problem with Communication (I have a PhD in Comm). This is a problem with a midcareer professional once a week MA program.

You're a cash cow. Your fellow students are doing it for the credential.

If you want what you say you want, you need a more fulltime program.
posted by k8t at 3:53 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would leave. As the others have said, this is not about learning, this is about money. Keep yours and do something else.
posted by mleigh at 4:07 AM on October 19, 2011


MeMail me or have the mods post a throwaway email address for you.
posted by aaanastasia at 4:20 AM on October 19, 2011


Master's programs, even "top-n" ones, can sometimes be very unselective when they're serving as cash cows for the rest of the department or university, and the faculty may be scaling down their investment and expectations as a result. The way to get more intellectual mileage out of the program, whether you stay to completion of the degree or not, is to find your way to the right faculty and work with them individually to get what you want out of it. This is more or less how graduate schooling is supposed to work, but some programs provide more support for it than others; you may have to take the initiative and make sure you get the education you want to get.

I'm an M.A. graduate of a weekend cash-cow program, and I agree with what I've quoted above. It made me a jack of all trades, master of none, and worse, in a field that is a super-fast moving target. Much of the curriculum could've been learned at home with lynda.com and a bunch of "for Dummies" books. I really don't feel as though I have a "real" graduate degree.

But, the contacts and the access have been valuable. I'm in D.C., and a master's now is what a bachelor's used to be like: Everyone's got at least one. And, as an alum I can audit classes for $100 and be in graduate-level history classes!
posted by jgirl at 4:57 AM on October 19, 2011


If this is one of those expensive, part-time degrees for "mid-career professionals" you are unlikely to be intellectually challenged. They want the money, the students want the credentials, no one has to work too hard, everyone is happy.

So, so true. And the system works best only when the employer is picking up close to 100% of the cost.

Though it's a communication degree, it covers a variety of fields including management, leadership, international business, law, and technology.

You sound like you'd be better off with an MBA, and then only if it's a requirement for your career.

Some places/industries (eg, DC) are more credentialist than others, where an MA is the doorway to be taken seriously and have better career advancement. If you don't need it for the credential it provides to your future career path, cut your losses. And even if you do need a masters-level credential, you will likely be better off in another academic program.
posted by deanc at 5:02 AM on October 19, 2011


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