How do I know if a Masters is right for me?
August 21, 2009 7:44 PM   Subscribe

A year away from graduating my BA in history, what next? Is a Masters the right course for me?

I am starting my third and final year (UK) of my BA in history and I have no idea what I will be doing this time next year.

I have been looking into Masters degrees as the start of my search as this seems like the next logical step after my undergraduate degree, especially given the figures on graduate unemployment and the fact that I still haven't found a direction for post university life. I am really enjoying being in education and would happily stay on, but I don't know if these reasons are the right ones.

If given a choice of Masters programs I would look at doing something political or in international relations, but I don't know how much I should be considering future employment or other important serious life decisions in my choice. I would also love to study abroad if possible, the Netherlands and Canada look like they would be incredible for a curious but monolingual Brit. But again, this decision would be based on wanting to 'experience and learn the world, expand my horizons' sort of thought, not for any more serious or well thought out reasons.

I feel lost in a sea of life decisions with no idea of what direction I want to take. Is it a wise choice to study a Masters (possibly abroad) for no larger reasons than wanting stay in education, give me a few more months to grow up and think of a plan and to possibly see some of the world at the same time?

Any personal anecdotes or relating to feeling completely overwhelmed by the future is also really welcome :)
posted by tumples to Education (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My perspective's a little U.S. focused... but I'll give it a try...

If someone else will pay for it, and you're sure you'll get good grades, go do the Masters regardless while you figure out what you want to do. If you'll need to go into debt to do it or you're not sure if you can be a top academic achiever while you're doing it you may be better off figuring out what you want to do professionally first (think of it as the first job you want if it's less intimidating, rather than "FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE".)

In many fields (some Journalism jobs, for instance, or politics), you don't need the Masters right away if ever, but the money might be better spent subsidizing you during an internship or while you work a job that doesn't really pay enough to live on. Other fields, like business, at least in the U.S., it's not standard to get your MBA right away, but to work for at least 2-3 years first.

However, if say, you wanted to go into journalism and didn't have a chance to do an internship yet, you might be wise to do a Masters that gives you time to work in your field part time or do an internship so that when you graduate you don't have just a degree.
posted by Jahaza at 9:14 PM on August 21, 2009

What do you want to do for a living?

Food fo thought: academia is very tough right now, especially outside of cash-positive departments like EE, and will be tougher going forward for at least five or six years.
posted by rr at 9:50 PM on August 21, 2009

Yeah, seconding all of this. It really comes down to finances. If it's free and easy (i.e. no loans, parental help, etc...) then you can do whatever you want...if not, well...??

Full disclosure: this is an American's perspective, and obviously our countries have very different higher education systems and philosophies (i.e. I'm jealous of your country and your reasonably priced education that is generally respected...ahem...ahem...).

But, for what its worth. In America, master's degrees in humanities really don't mean shit. I work right now with a fellow who has a master's in history, is extremely educated, and yet does HR, because there aren't any jobs for people with a master's in history who aren't pursuing academia (and then jobs are tenuous at best...emphasis on best)...

If you want to be a historian, go for it. But don't do it just because you don't have other options.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:08 PM on August 21, 2009

I was in your position about a year ago - I was accepted into my first choice of master's programs (Classics MPhil; I also did a History BA), however, what my faculty told me when I applied is that getting in is the easy part, getting funding is what's hard. The AHRC is probably going to be your main source of funding, but not that many people (I think maybe about a quarter at my uni?) get full or nearly full funding from them. In my case, I didn't get any, and the small sum my college put up didn't come close to covering the costs.

So, in sum, I'm not doing an MPhil because I didn't think going into debt for a Classics postgrad degree was likely to be worth it. If you can get the AHRC/your uni/your family/etc to pay for it, then go for it. Otherwise, I'd would advise against it.
posted by iona at 5:00 AM on August 22, 2009

Is it a wise choice to study a Masters (possibly abroad) for no larger reasons than wanting stay in education, give me a few more months to grow up and think of a plan...

I don't think so. The Masters will always be there waiting for you if you want to do it, why not jump out of your comfort zone and see a little of the world, in order to help discover where your passions really lie? Why not work abroad, teaching English for example? You might find this article interesting by the way.

Good luck in your decision.
posted by Weng at 5:14 AM on August 22, 2009

I, too, was a History major and didn't know what I wanted to do with it (I'm not even 100% sure how I ended up majoring in history to begin with...). I did study abroad during my final year, the semester before I graduated, and came back with very little idea of where I'd be working or what I'd be doing. I ended up getting a decent office job for a couple of years at my school. It didn't pay much, but I could pay bills and pay down my student loans while living on the cheap. It was sort of strange seeing my friends and classmates go into careers while I (who had been considered by peers to be the "smart one") was just working at a job, but I felt like I needed that time to figure out what I really wanted to do. I did try a couple of grad-level courses in different fields (language, history, religion) at a local school and through distance-ed just to see what would grab my interest. I did well and enjoyed the courses, but nothing grabbed me strongly enough to jolt me out of the office job. I also looked into employment doing editing at some major companies in the area (including one job-shadowing experience), but I wasn't sure I was ready to make the jump into business.

However, during that time, I had some opportunities to tutor English and teach remedial-level night classes in addition to my 40 hr/week job, in part to help pay for my dabbling in other courses. But surprisingly enough to me, that's where I found a path I was passionate about. I really didn't know much about grad school or where to begin, but a mentor who had seen how well my remedial students were doing in their regular classes really kicked me in the butt and told me to apply to grad programs that would let me teach right away. I'm not sure how your system works, but I paid for grad school by deliberately choosing a program that would fund a teaching assistantship. I originally planned to do just the MA but decided that staying to complete the PhD gave me more employment options.

After many years of school, I'm starting my first tenure-track position this semester, but I'm lucky in that I was able to attend a top school for my field that has a good record of placing its graduates. I'm also willing to take on a heavy teaching load since the teaching is what brought me to English anyway. My classmates in literature, American studies, and History have had much less success finding academic employment.

All to say, be very attentive to your employment prospects in academia if you choose the MA. If academia is your long-term plan, you may need to look into PhD programs. But don't do a PhD program without really, really knowing that it's what you want to do. I could have easily gone into a History MA out of undergrad, but I'm glad I took the time to figure out what I wanted to do (even if it looked to others like I was stalled on my career/educational plans) before investing the time and money into a program that would have likely left me in the same place I was out of undergrad: with limited employment prospects and unsure about the future.
posted by BlooPen at 8:07 AM on August 22, 2009

I'm currently writing my dissertation to complete my MA in International Security at Warwick. I absolutely loved the year, though it cost a fortune (£7250 tuition compared to my £1200 a year undergraduate).

The level of discourse in seminars was so much higher than it was at undergrad, there was a much better relationship between students and staff (as they understood that we really wanted to be there) and I'm seriously considering PhD study in the near future.
posted by knapah at 10:37 AM on August 22, 2009

Don't do a masters just to have time to plan - you would be better off using that money and time to travel and explore what you are really interested in.

And I'm saying this as someone who did what you did - went to grad school (with full funding) because I didn't know what I was good at or interested in other than school. And while I don't regret going to graduate school, I deeply regret not taking time off before I went.

You won't have time to think or reflect in your Masters - graduate programs are more intense than undergraduate (especially a 1 year UK Masters), and you will be expected to be putting just about all your attention on a really narrow area of study. Those who do best seem to be those who have already taken time off and gotten that focus that you are looking for. Basically - graduate school is a terrible place to try to find oneself, because the whole thing is geared towards finding the objects of your academic study, and you can just lose yourself in the intensiveness of it.
posted by jb at 11:27 AM on August 22, 2009

Also, in a year you may just be in the same position, possibly in more debt, and much more tired.
posted by jb at 11:29 AM on August 22, 2009

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