Should I get a lit degree early?
March 8, 2005 11:43 AM   Subscribe

I can graduate in a year with a BA in literature. That would make it 2.5 years start-to-finish. Should I double major and stick around longer, or can I move onto grad school with just this?

I'm considering Journalism, Medicine, Law, or a PhD in Literature towards teaching. I hadn't given it much thought because I didn't realize how close I was to graduating. If anyone has thoughts on how they decided what to do post-graduation, that would be nice, but I have some specific questions to avoid ChatFiltering.

I have two jobs and well-rounded extracurricular experience, but should I still be looking for an internship? I've heard that undergrad doesn't matter, but I'm still apprehensive about my financial future/career path. Is a humanities degree a mistake? Do you know anyone that jumped to a completely unrelated field for grad work? And how much of it is really just dependent on the person?
posted by rfordh to Education (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A grad school degree is more valuable to you than an undergrad with a double major. I would finish, and go to a grad program.

Secondly, lots of peole will tell you that a humanities degree is a mistake, but I think it depends on you, and what you want out of an education. I would say this is entirely dependent on the person.

Finally, I know lots and lots of people who have switched to an unrelated field for grad work. I know lots of people who have done so and been successfull.
posted by Quartermass at 11:54 AM on March 8, 2005

If you're on full scholarship or close to it, you should definitely stick around and take advantage of the free time, assuming you're enjoying yourself.

I went from computer science and Russian majors in undergrad to law school, worked great for me. Lots of people here were history, international affairs, literature, etc. majors and they seem to be doing well also.

Can't see how humanities would hurt you for law, journalism, or teaching, though it won't make you stick out. For medicine, I've heard they're looking for people with more of a humanities background now so as to produce human-oriented doctors as opposed to science-oriented ones. But that's a rumor - I'd talk to your local grad schools about what they like if you're worried about admissions.
posted by lorrer at 11:56 AM on March 8, 2005

Quartermass: A grad school degree is more valuable to you than an undergrad with a double major.

A grad degree is only more valuable for particular career pursuits. Otherwise it's a waste of your time, money, health, and social life.

For the love of God, please don't go to grad school until you're sure you know what to do. Professional degrees (law and medicine) aren't something you get on a whim -- you're going to have to pay a lot of money, and then pay some more. A PhD is a major mistake if you aren't absolutely committed to it, especially in a cash-poor field like Literature.

You are young. Take some time to figure out what you want to do. Whether that's in college, in Europe, in some kind of job, or something else is up to you.
posted by casu marzu at 12:15 PM on March 8, 2005

If I had one piece of advice for an undergraduate or someone about to go to undergraduate it would be that an undergraduate degree is the most overhyped and (by itself) useless thing out there. Get the paper and run. If you're going to do grad school eventually, do it immediately.
posted by norm at 12:21 PM on March 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer. The debt is oppressive if you discover later that the law bores you silly. If you're interested in that path, get an internship for a prosecutor's office or legal services organization, or get a job as a paralegal to try things out.
posted by amber_dale at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2005

If you're going to do grad school eventually, do it immediately.

I'll second this sentiment. Going to grad school gets exponentially harder, the longer you leave it.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:35 PM on March 8, 2005

Going to grad school gets exponentially harder, the longer you leave it.

Going to graduate school, only to drop out several years later or graduate with a degree in something that you no longer care about is even harder. I'm dead fucking serious. Do not even think about going to graduate school unless you know what you want to get out of it. It's fine to jump straight from undergrad to grad if you are absolutely committed to it, but it doesn't sound like you are. Do not rush into this decision.
posted by casu marzu at 12:49 PM on March 8, 2005

I'm considering Journalism, Medicine, Law, or a PhD in Literature towards teaching.

Journalism - easy to get into a Masters program; very difficult job market.

Medicine - very difficult (competive) to get into an MD program. If you haven't taken pre-Med courses (chemistry, biology, etc.), most schools won't consider you (and if you haven't taken biology courses, you probably don't have a sense of what medicine is about).

Law - easy to get into a law school (the better, the more difficult); most lawyers don't like their jobs.

PhD in Literature, for teaching position - (a) most undergrads think that getting a PhD just means taking more courses - it does NOT; (b) if you haven't been at least a teaching assistant, you probably have no clue as to whether you'd enjoy this type of job; (c) most PhDs in humanities FAIL to get a tenure track job because universities are producing too many people with these degrees.

Summary: These programs have little in common; you haven't done even minimal research (as in, reading books about these careers; talking to people who have been through these programs); you don't really have much of an idea of what you want to be when you grow up; and randomly picking some type of graduate school to attend isn't the right way to decide what type of work you want to do - you really should go at it in exactly the opposite way - what do you want out of life?

Going to grad school gets exponentially harder, the longer you leave it

Getting into grad school is easier if (a) you've worked at one or more jobs that motivates you to go to a particular type of grad school (even if it's only because you realize that you don't want to do that kind of job); and (b) you have real life experience, not just an undergraduate degree, to show to schools where you are applying. [And, yes, if you've been out of college for 5 or 10 years, it can be hard to be motivated to go back to school.]
posted by WestCoaster at 12:53 PM on March 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Get out. Have fun. There's an earlier askMe thread about grad degrees in Literature that you should read here.
If you're really certain about grad school, I'd agree, do it now. Spend as little time in school as possible. use the surplus time for fun.
posted by putzface_dickman at 12:57 PM on March 8, 2005

If you are legitimately interested in another field to warrant a double major, maybe it would be a good thing to try. It might provide an opportunity to further investigate one of the other areas you've already specified as being a domain you might want to have a career in. Many of my friends did internships and found them to be of value. I did not have an internship and did not seem to miss it. Again, it might be a good way to try something on, so to speak.

For what it's worth, I took two years off between undergrad and graduate school. While it may have had more to do with my undergrad training (which broadly speaking was a mix of the humanities and social sciences), I felt very prepared and ready for grad school when I went and did not feel as though the gap was a disadvantage (it felt like an asset). Now I think two years is such a short time anyway; I would be on the side of exercising some caution and doing more thinking about your interests and goals overall. To bring it back around, the undergrad experience can be a good place to do this.
posted by safetyfork at 12:59 PM on March 8, 2005

I have a bachelor's degree in English Lit, and I am currently working in IT.

If you're planning on joining the workforce, your major is pretty close to irrelevant, as is your GPA, and (somewhat) the university you attended -- as long as you can do the work. Prospective employers just see it as a ticket that's been punched. You were able to stick with a task long enough to get that certification, so you'll stick around the job (hopefully) long enough to not be a drain. This presumes you will be going after an entry-level position.

People I know who have their master's degrees have actually had a harder time finding work because of the perception that they are too educated or too qualified for the jobs for which they're applying. With Lit or other liberal arts degrees, any degree beyond the bachelor's is really only going to help you if you're planning on staying in academia.

An Aunt and Uncle who were both professional journalists told me that getting a degree in journalism would not help if you wanted to get into journalism. They said get a degree that would make you well-rounded and interesting, but go work for a paper. That advice needs to be taken with a "25 years ago" grain of salt, too.
posted by FYKshun at 1:03 PM on March 8, 2005

While I agree that it makes some sense to take the undergrad degree and run, I don't think it makes sense to go to grad school until you actually know what you want to do. It seems like you have no idea whatsoever; I mean, journalism, law, medicine, academics: these are all very different careers with different requirements. Before you can decide whether to leave now, you need to decide what you want to do with your degree. For instance, if you decided you wanted to go into medicine, you should spend the next year boning up on your science background (possibly to the point of earning a double major) and studying for the MCAT.

Going to grad school gets exponentially harder, the longer you leave it

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by this. It might be valid to say that leaving a well paying job for grad school is difficult, but in my experience graduate students with significant work experience prior to grad school tend to excel in their programs. They tend to be more motivated and to bring a more diverse and complete skill set with them to grad school.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:03 PM on March 8, 2005

you ask how others decided. i drifted into my phd because it was possible, in a nice place, and in a subject area that i didn't dislike (ie it didn't obviously involve quantum mechanics). i left academia after a couple of postdocs. i don't regret doing the phd or the postdocs (except maybe the last year or so), but i was funded through my doctorate (well, the first three years), so didn't end up with a large debt.

some of the others doing a phd at the same time as me were "mature students" (ie had not come straight from graduating). they seemed to manage fine and, as far as i could tell, their extra experience counted for, rather than against, them (they had got into a fairly exclusive dept with less impressive academic credentials than those of us that came straight from college, i believe, for example).

so doing a phd doesn't necessarily ruin your life, you don't have to be super-dedicated, and you can do it later.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:14 PM on March 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

I would guess that what Alex means about it being exponentially harder is the obvious. There are a lot of things about being out of school that make it difficult to go back -- long-term relationships, kids, mortgages, car payments, the growing comfort of a decent paycheck, the pleasant feeling of not having to take work home with you, and a thousand other things. It's not usually harder in the technical sense of gaining admission, although I guess that may be true in some programs (none that I know of).

However, none of this justifies committing to grad school without being sure that it furthers your career goals. A grad degree is not like taking extra-hard undergrad classes. It is not like your undergrad experience at all. It is training that is geared towards a very specific career path.

Since I've only ranted and raved here I ought to answer the actual questions posed:

I have two jobs and well-rounded extracurricular experience, but should I still be looking for an internship?

You should look for something that interests you. Don't limit yourself to internships, but don't exclude them either. You might want to consider entry-level positions or part-time work in one of the fields your considering.

I've heard that undergrad doesn't matter, but I'm still apprehensive about my financial future/career path. Is a humanities degree a mistake?

Undergrad doesn't matter, in general. Certain majors can help with some technical jobs, but they aren't an absolute necessity.

Do you know anyone that jumped to a completely unrelated field for grad work?

Many. This is rather common, I think.

And how much of it is really just dependent on the person?

All of it. Which is why you need to do some serious self-examination to figure out what you really want. You are really the only person who can answer that question. And, realize that it might take you a while to figure it out, and you might go in unexpected directions. Life is about the journey, not the destination.
posted by casu marzu at 1:25 PM on March 8, 2005

Friend of mine in college was a double Anthropology and English major, and he had the great, amazing opportunity to study abroad on what we called a Watson Scholarship (not sure if those are national or what) at the London School of Economics. For what he wanted, the double made him stand out. Determine what you want, and then determine if the double will make that easier/better for you. And do what you want. You get one chance to be in college. I'm not that far out myself, and I have a humanities degree. You won't starve. I promise (and if you do, email is in the profile).
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:31 PM on March 8, 2005

Going to grad school gets exponentially harder, the longer you leave it

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by this. It might be valid to say that leaving a well paying job for grad school is difficult, but in my experience graduate students with significant work experience prior to grad school tend to excel in their programs. They tend to be more motivated and to bring a more diverse and complete skill set with them to grad school.

Depending on the program, getting into the program may require more than job experience and a BA. You might need research experience, or recommendations from non-job sources.

Having job experience that relates to the graduate program may be a problem if you're coming from a series of temp or menial jobs, or your work has only a tangential relationship with your study focus. This will make admission harder (depending on the program and admission requirements).

Likewise, if you have a FT job and responsibilities, dropping them for a FT commitment to go after a graduate degree is a big decision. You've may have to take GREs, you'll have to rework how you pay for cost of living. It's a bigger decision as time passes.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:47 PM on March 8, 2005

I didn't intend to point specifically to my comments in that thread I linked to above, it was just an accident of how I re-found the thread. Other comments there are more worthy of your consideration.
posted by putzface_dickman at 2:26 PM on March 8, 2005

From what you've said so far, definitely not med school. Lukewarm entry into that field is a disaster waiting to happen...
posted by drpynchon at 2:37 PM on March 8, 2005

Response by poster: I'm considering Journalism, Medicine, Law, or a PhD in Literature towards teaching. I hadn't given it much thought because I didn't realize how close I was to graduating.

In writing this a little too-quickly before class, I misspoke a bit here, so perhaps I deserve some of that "haven't thought this out" flak. I hadn't given thought to the process of finding an internship, taking exams, deadlines, and applying to schools because I thought I had at least another year to get around to it. Because of advanced coursework and heavy courseloads, I find myself ahead of my peers, and now's about the time to start making serious decisions. I'm not about to rush into a career in medicine because I think I'd look good in a white coat.

Which is why I was thinking of taking the BA and working for a while, but since most of the Literature grads I know have kind of shitty jobs, there's some anxiety in choosing this route when there are a multitude of other choices well within my ability. It's less a problem of getting enthusiastic about one path than it is about settling on just one of many interests.

On preview: I remember that thread, putzface. It was quite a good read, and one of the factors in the line of thinking I'd been on lately.
posted by rfordh at 3:00 PM on March 8, 2005

Considering that its currently March, you should realize that the application deadlines for just about every grad school in the country have long since passed. Since you have a free ride, I would recommend staying on through at least next fall semester, so you are still hooked in to your advisor, the academic/career advising services at your school, and any potential recommendation writing profs. Having applied to grad school while away from campus, I can tell you it is much easier to accomplish while matriculated.

Second, the only grad program that will probably seriously balk at a Lit degree is Med school, which will require from you a decent MCAT score, which in turn will require from you either a few semesters worth of Organic Chemistry and Biology or an amazing amount of individual study.

Third, there is an important distinction made between professional degree programs like med school or law school and academic degree programs like literature and to a lesser extent journalism. Both med school and law school will cost you ungodly amounts of money, with the promise of a very good entry-level salary upon graduation. If you are seriously considering these options, taking a year or two off to save up is probably a good idea. On the outher hand, you should not be pursuing an academic post-graduate degree - such as literature or history - if you are paying for any of it. If you don't receive a full scholarship or fellowship, then it is probably not worth your time to attend, since whatever potential increase in placement or salary you recieve upon graduation will be more than offset by the debt you've incurred. In addition, the judgement of your grad school that you are unworthy of a fellowship is probably a pretty good indication that it and others would judge you unworthy of a tenure-track position.
posted by ChasFile at 3:00 PM on March 8, 2005

The fields you talk about are all over the map -- medicine or law or journalism or literature? What that suggests to me is that you don't know much about what you want. Not a slam, lots of people are there. The important thing is:

College is a great place to figure that out. It's free time away from real life, where you can work on what you want to work on and spend time where you choose to and explore things that you won't have time to explore later.

So if you want my advice: if you can afford it, stick around for the full four years. If you're done with your primary major, take a quarter or two taking different courses that seem interesting and move along from there, or take something that you didn't like in high school and see what it's like now. Take a grad class in literature and get a sense of what that's like. What do you want to learn more about? Which fields had ideas that pissed you off?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:17 PM on March 8, 2005

Well, here's my input: To me, a lot of the answers to your questions depend on where you are right now and what your prospects are in school. That is a huge factor; it's hard to answer without knowing where you're in school now, for example.

If you are at a good / great university, and if you are the type who's taking your education seriously, you should stick around and finish your undergrad degree. The whole "humanities are worthless / undergrad is worthless sentiment" simply doesn't apply, in my experience anyway, at really good schools if you are taking your studies seriously. If you have extra time to become more well-rounded in other fields that interest you, now would be a great time to do so. I went to Princeton undergrad, and I enjoyed and learned from every minute of my undergraduate experience. You will regret losing out on a good general education, especially if you go into medicine or law--extremely specialized fields that are often pretty far outside the stream of humanistic learning and the life of the mind.

Another way of putting this is that, while a humanities undergraduate degree might not help you out in the job market, it is worth getting for the same reasons people have always sought out Great Liberal Educations. Because your English degree won't get you an IT job doesn't mean it's "worthless." But this presupposes that you are really learning from the education, not drifting through it.

Conversely, if you're at a less intense school or if you are just at a point in your life where you're not getting much done, you should consider moving on, or taking time off to explore, knowing you can come back if you want to. But don't let the seemingly all-pervasive notion that humanities / undergrad education is worthless sway you against it.

As for post-graduation stuff: I'm getting a PhD in English Literature right now, and in this field your internships / extracurriculars do not matter. What matters as far as getting into a good program are a) your writing sample and b) your recommendations. I'm loving graduate school so far, though, as others have said, it's something you can only really do if you're passionate about the subject matter and willing to work a lot harder than you work in college. I don't know anyone at my current program who finished college in 2.5 years--though I do know some British folks who finished in 3, which is par for the course there. In any case, well-rounded undergraduate knowledge in history, philosophy, and even theology will help you out a lot in literature graduate school, as will, obviously, more literature courses. So if you don't know for sure that literature graduate school is for you, sticking around some more in undergrad, and maybe taking some graduate courses in the literature department and reading some classic literary criticism, would be a good way to explore. If you have questions about grad school in literature feel free to email me, and I can do my best to answer them from the perspective of a current graduate student.

Good luck!
posted by josh at 3:53 PM on March 8, 2005

There's no question in my mind: you should double major. When you go to grad school, you will be forced to specialize. Undergraduate degrees are great because you get to dabble in so many things... and having only taken 2.5 years to graduate, you haven't done enough dabbling (especially since you can't tell if you want to go into journalism, law, medicine, or literature). I'd be a career undergraduate if I could... part of the reason I'm doing a philosophy grad degree now is because I thought it would let me study the widest variety of different subjects. If you're worried about job prospects, try out some classes in computer science or law or something. I think that undergrad degrees let students get by with too little generaliztion as it is.
posted by painquale at 4:51 PM on March 8, 2005

Speaking as a fellow undergraduate sophomore:
When I think of someone graduating in 2 ½ years, I think they're missing a lot of opportunities to learn interesting stuff. Even if you don't double major, try just taking random courses in stuff that you find interesting. Personally, I can say that some of the courses I find most rewarding are those that don't apply to anything near my major, and where I don't need the credits; instead, I simply seek out classes that have good professors teaching interesting subjects, even if they're topics which I have no desire to pursue on larger scales.

My advice to you, therefore, is take a course in math, or Korean history, or astronomy, or maybe one in linguistics. Grab a bulletin of courses, and follow your whims.

Potentiall important side note: Someone I once met (who himself attended a top law school after graduating in three years) told me that many elite law schools looked somewhat askance at early graduates.
posted by kickingtheground at 5:03 PM on March 8, 2005

There's a lot of good advice here. It'll take you a while to parse it all, but take advantage of the breadth of experience reflected in the above comments.

My own experience is similar to yours: I started and finished college early and entered a PhD program immediately. I started grad school at 20, and while I don't wish that I had spent more time in college, I do realize today that my choices would have been vastly different if I'd done something different between degrees.

I went back to grad school again at 30 and have nothing but wonderful things to say about that experience. I'm also glad that I waited. Giving up a full-time job and returning to being a student isn't really as traumatic as people make it out to be.

Re: medical school, I would recommend that if you can stay at your current university for less money than a post-bac/pre-MD course would cost, you might want to think about doing that instead of leaving at the end of this year. The comfortable context may also help you to do better in those courses, and if you want to get into medical school, you will absolutely need to do well in all of those courses, without exception.
posted by yellowcandy at 6:16 PM on March 8, 2005

If you're qualified for it, strongly consider applying for the Rhodes Scholarship or the Marshall Scholarship. Both are very exclusive, but they'd pay for a graduate degree in a school in England, and they're very prestigious. The worst case is then, if you don't like the graduate field you get into, you have some fun while getting paid to live abroad for a couple of years.

Otherwise: do *not* pay for graduate school unless you are *absolutely sure* that you know what kind of job you want. Instead, take a year and live like a King/Queen in China for $20 a day, or pick a path you might like and get a job that gives you some exposure to it (ie, paralegal).
posted by gd779 at 6:52 PM on March 8, 2005

Stay stay stay. College isn't about the degree, it's about the experience. Take a bunch of classes in things that you find interesting. Expose yourself to as many things as you can. It's a unique time in your life -- don't rush through it unless you have a specific reason to do so.

Don't go to any grad school or professional school until you know what you want to do. It's a really expensive place to decide what you want to do with your life. Particularly avoid medicine -- it's a tough row to hoe even if you're really committed. Anyway, as ChasFile says, it's really too late to apply for school in the fall.

I did nothing but liberal arts in college, then decided to go to med school several years later. Your lit degree wouldn't be even a slight problem, and could be an advantage in admissions. If you think that you might go in the future, take your prereqs now as well as as many human biology courses as you possibly can. Don't believe the people who tell you that you only need the prereqs -- they are lying to you. Also keep in mind that you have to apply more than a year before you matriculate, so the people who are starting their applications and preparing for the MCAT right now (having already completed the bulk of their prereqs) are trying to get into the class of 2006. Just applying takes some real planning.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 6:59 PM on March 8, 2005

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