Oh the Humanity!
September 2, 2010 1:43 PM   Subscribe

What is the general opinion of a Masters degree in the humanities?
posted by gypseefire to Education (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Whose opinion? Scholars? Employers? Jill public?
posted by dersins at 1:46 PM on September 2, 2010

This site? Seems to be: Don't get one unless someone else is paying for it.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:48 PM on September 2, 2010 [11 favorites]

The word "expensive" comes to mind, but what else do you want to know?
posted by sk932 at 1:49 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

With the general public? People who hold non-humanities advanced degrees? Humanities PhDs? Employers?

Personally, I'm a bit confused by holders of M.A.s in the humanities where the M.A. is not a terminal degree, unless they're independently wealthy or getting that Master's is something they're doing while working.
posted by griphus at 1:49 PM on September 2, 2010

The only point (in my humanities field) is to springboard your way to a Ph.D. program. If you are smart but did your BA in some other field.

Do not pay for it unless you are independently wealthy.
posted by kestrel251 at 1:51 PM on September 2, 2010

posted by k8t at 1:53 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

What is your goal?

Unless you have a surplus of both money and time, you should never get a degree just because you feel like it. If your goal is to get a job that requires an MA in your field, then yes, get a masters. (Whether that goal makes sense in terms of financial gain and availability is another conversation)

If you're doing it for a lack of anything else to do, you need to sit down and reevaluate what you're doing with your life.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:55 PM on September 2, 2010

As someone who is tangentially involved in hiring (business/law), I can tell you humanities masters are a dime a dozen and the degree is given no weight whatsoever in the hiring process. Your mileage may vary as you get more aligned to your subject area (i.e., an MA in literature if you're going into publishing), but don't expect it to open doors for you. Pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake is, sadly, not something the market values highly.

As a person (and a person who decided to forgo a masters in favor of relatively lucrative soul-selling opportunities), I'd advise that anyone considering a masters 1) do it only for their own love of the subject and without any expectation of getting a job in that field and 2) approach paying for it like they would purchasing a $50,000 (or whatever your all in tuition would be) vacation on a credit card. Wonderful memories, and loan payments, for the rest of your natural life. Is it worth it? That's for you to decide.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:55 PM on September 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

I think that a criteria to consider before seeking any degree is this: are there particular jobs that I want that I cannot get without this degree? The credential by itself is worthless otherwise, and there are plenty of cheaper ways to delve into a subject matter that interests you (though the experience of studying with other students and professors is a pretty amazing luxury). Sometimes, you just have to be able to show that Masters degree on your resume to even get an interview. For some positions you can get a salary bump for having an advanced degree.
posted by cubby at 1:55 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was going to say just what k8t said.
posted by MsMolly at 1:55 PM on September 2, 2010

Schools love MA-only programs these days because they rake in grad school tuition fees with little to no overhead required as compared to PhD students.

My former grad department offers a one-year non-thesis MA degree and a much more rigorous PhD degree with funding included (no funding was given for the MA). It now takes in MA students by the boatload like its printing money...PhD spots are naturally unchanged.

My point is that this is the way many struggling humanities departments are thinking these days, so be careful if you send out inquiries (obviously they won't explain things they way I just did).
posted by hiteleven at 2:00 PM on September 2, 2010

people in humanities MAs -- i think they like learning for learning's sake, which i happen to think is pretty awesome.
posted by crawfo at 2:06 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Learning for learning's sake is wonderful. That's why we have public libraries.
posted by theodolite at 2:06 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I remember reading the results of a salary survey for graduates in sociology. Those who'd earned Ph.Ds earned the most, followed closely by those who'd stopped after the BA. The MAs were a distant third.

The best reason to take a terminal MA in the humanities or social sciences is to cut your losses on deciding that you don't want to be a professor after all.
posted by gum at 2:20 PM on September 2, 2010

Way way back in time, had a friend, a former teacher, who suggested I return to school--I was unahppy with my various jobs--and get an M.A. in lit. I did. Then asked him what I could do with it. he said you can teach at a community college and nothing else, or go on for PhD. I went on. Now community colleges can hire all the PhDs they want as the market gets worse and worse.
think of a M.A. as better than B.A. and not nearly as good (or useful) as PhD.
As others note: time, money, debt, jobs--all to think about.
posted by Postroad at 2:28 PM on September 2, 2010

Useless, unless you specifically need it for some specific purpose.
posted by ErikaB at 2:33 PM on September 2, 2010

I think it's kinda like a really time consuming yet interesting book discussion club that you pay a lot of money to be a member of for a year or two.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:52 PM on September 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's like having a nice hat.

Mine helped me get a job I love that I wouldn't have had the background to get without -- but it's a job that's sort of out of left field. I wouldn't say the job is in any way related to my degree, though it doesn't hurt. I think it made me seem a more serious candidate and made up for my total lack of experience considering the visibility of the position.

But generally it's pretty much like having a nice hat unless you want to teach and/or do research into whatnot.

How much do you like hats?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:55 PM on September 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Here is an interesting article about the value of various degrees... bottom line? Liberal Arts and Social Sciences masters are worth less than $0 in terms of earning power.
posted by alaijmw at 3:03 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Humanities master's degrees can be useful if you think you want to go into academia (teaching at a college) - they can either enhance your undergrad experience (raising GPA or subject area preparation), or give you a chance to check it out before deciding you want to go on to the PhD. They can also be useful if you have a job in mind that you know requires one (be absolutely certain of this) or if you have a job like public school teacher where earning extra credentials will raise your pay on a set schedule.

So - if you are in one of those situations, it's worth considering. It is the very, very rare case where it would be worth paying for it unless you know for sure it's a requirement for a job you want or for a pay raise.

They are not a general purpose door-opener. If you want general purpose door-opening, your time is better spent working, volunteering, making contacts and gaining experience and skills in the real world of whatever job you think you might want.

They are not good for just pursuing the general love of a subject area, unless you are taking the degree for free or have a lot of spare cash. (Find a way to pursue your general love without paying for it - libraries, book groups, like-minded friends, internet message boards, free online videos of courses from places like Yale, MIT, Stanford are available on youtube, etc)

They are not good if you will mainly be doing it to fulfill your self-concept as a "person who loves subject x", unless again you're doing the degree for free.

When people say "only do it if you really love the subject", I think that remark is very easy to misinterpret as "it's heroic to spend money and time on this, even if in your case there are no concrete benefits other than intellectual growth". That is not what it means. What it means is, think hard about what it means for there to be no benefits other than intellectual growth, think hard about what resources (money, time, mental energy) you'll be putting toward this rather than some other project, and think about whether you can get the intellectual growth another way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:07 PM on September 2, 2010

I have a Master's in Humanities and intended to get my Ph.D. but didn't continue coursework because the cost was prohibitive.

I've found that my MA has helped me trump other candidates in a few editing jobs (new graduates with BAs, etc.) and get a significantly higher rate as a freelancer, but maybe I'm a special snowflake.

It also helped me get $10,000 more per year in the job I have now upon being hired (there's a 30 grand leeway window in my job requirements and salary each way; I started in the middle pay bracket instead of the bottom).

That said, I got my MA over a decade ago and am not sure I'd do it again now. At the time, whenever I mentioned to people I was getting a graduate degree by going to night school I inevitably heard: "You should've gotten an MBA!" with "Wait, you're not going to teach English? WTF?" coming in at a close second.

Also, the research and debate skills and networking I did while getting my Master's have since served me quite well, both in my career and in my personal life.

(I really, really enjoyed being part of an academic environment and don't regret it at all.)
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:30 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if it looks as though I'm confusing two degrees: my undergrad degree was a double-major, English Literature and Journalism, and my specialization in the Humanities was English (other options for Humanities included film theory, visual art, sociology, art history and literary criticism.)
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:32 PM on September 2, 2010

I loved doing my first master's degree! Most educational fun I've had, of all four programs I've taken. It also helped me qualify for my current job, which informally requires a professional degree and a master's degree. My experience doing that program has hugely shaped who I am both professionally and personally.

I kinda want to do another for fun.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:22 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

i have an MA in the humanities. i thought it would be super useful and help me get a better job, even while i was in the midst of it. now, i did make a couple of friends and some good networking contacts, but that's it. otherwise, it was a waste of time and money. it didn't get me a better salary. it didn't get me a better job. it was exactly like a book club you pay to be a part of, except somehow the book club members are really stupid. (somehow i was in classes filled with haus-fraus getting a degree for something fun to do and they were fucking morons.) save your money.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:30 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't have been able to get into a great PhD program at a fantastic school if I hadn't gotten my MA in Humanities (Linguistics). My college friend, however, she's trying to get a job in the same field (same school, all things equal, etc.) and her degree is useless to them. She's going to apply to PhD programs now.

My personal opinion? I wish I had applied myself better in my undergrad and I wouldn't have had to purchase the most expensive stepping stone in all of academia. And it wasn't even shiny!

I don't know about fields other than linguistics, but I have rarely heard of the MA being funded (especially not fully funded, never heard of it). A PhD on the other hand, you absolutely need funding for that puppy and I wouldn't go there without some.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:54 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Useful for public school teachers, where it will usually bump you you higher pay grade for the rest of your career. OTOH, you wouldn't want to get into much debt for it.
posted by smackfu at 5:10 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just want to chime in here with a non-US perspective.

MAs in other countries like Australia and the UK, whilst still expensive - are much, much cheaper than in the US. (e.g the cost here in Australia is typically somewhere between 10 and 25 thousand AU, about 8-20k US)

If you pick the right subject and the right school, you can learn a tremendous amount - an amount that is NOT comparable to going to the library or fatuous nonsense like that.

There are a few sectors where an MA will definitely make you a more preferable candidate compared to other grads/or straight BAs. These are typically very competitive and popular fields, NGOs and some govt departments (eg. Department of Foreign Affairs) and the like, where you will likely be taking a significant paycut just to work in the sector. And you'll be working at graduate pay, not post-graduate.

If you like - because of the lucrative nature of MAs to unis - there are zillions of mickey mouse MAs in made up subjects that are relatively cheap, and that a semi-intelligent chimp could pass comfortably. This especially applies to most MBAs and commerce-related MAs in Australia. Those degrees might help you argue for your next raise in your corporate job - or your corporate job may actually pay for the degree - but forget about actually learning anything, they are largely a joke.

Only a few MAs for a few people will actually lead directly to specific jobs, or on to Phds etc. But it's up to you.

I don't know, I find all the talk about "it won't get you a job!" slightly strange; it perturbs me that anyone would think that. Fuck, my BA Hons in Political Science and Film Studies (honours thesis on pictorial depictions of Beauty and the Beast! Practical!) certainly never landed me a job in anything, let alone the Communications/PR sector I now work in. However, I did learn an awful lot, and those skills serve me every day, both in and out of work.

I knew that, outside of my degree, though, I had to do things that would make me an attractive candidate compared the zillion other BA graduates that year. A Masters is no different in this respect. I think there are very few degrees going these days that function as an automatic ticket to a job, and that goes for under or post grad.
posted by smoke at 5:46 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't do it unless somebody else is paying for it, you really, really love what you're doing (and are willing to sacrifice a year or two of your life to get it while your friends are going about making money and buying houses and traveling and living), and you understand that it will do absolutely nothing for you on the job market and may in fact hurt you if you apply for a job where people think having an MA in the humanities will make you overqualified.
posted by synecdoche at 6:12 PM on September 2, 2010

Do an MA if you really, really love your subject and want to learn more, and preferably if someone else is paying for all or most of it. But for the love of all that is good and holy, do NOT do a PhD in the humanities. Just NO.
posted by pised at 6:15 PM on September 2, 2010

This is an incredibly difficult question to answer without more context, but I'll give a more hopeful answer than some of those above. The real answer is that it depends immensely on what you want to do, and on where you're getting the MA.

If you do want to get a PhD in the humanities (which is certainly something to consider very carefully, but not necessarily something to be warned against with quite the fervor I see in some replies to this thread), doing a MA beforehand can help you get into a better program, which matters immensely in the long run. I would never have gotten into the school where I am now if I hadn't done a year-long MA program first.

Depending on your field, it can also help make you more qualified for other jobs, and does qualify you to teach in a community college, if that's something that interests you. It can also make you overqualified for plenty of jobs, or it might have little effect on your employability, depending on the kind of thing you might want to do.
posted by dizziest at 8:08 PM on September 2, 2010

I think LobsterMitten is correct, as are many of the others above, but here's my opinion: any graduate degree should be pursued because you have an interest in studying the subject and would like to do so in a university setting. Yes, you can learn a lot from reading, and public libraries are great, but if you're at a point in life where you'd like to do an M.A. and are able to do so, and that's an environment in which you will best learn, then the value of the degree is that: two years of intense work in a field you love. A lot of people will talk about lost wages, the shitty academic job market (especially so in the humanities), and say things (with no explanation) like "for the love of all that is good and holy do NOT do a PhD in the humanities" (I'm guessing pised is referring to the state of the academic job market) but you should do what you want to do. You only get one life. Obviously be aware of the state of things in academia and the real value of an M.A. might not be much in terms of money, but if you will regret not having done it, then do it. I say this as somebody who left a six figure salary to do a PhD in the humanities. I realize that I'm in the unique situation of being able to return to my career after I've finished, but having my salary cut by 1/10 and having years of intense study, doing exactly what I want to do is something I don't regret. I've learned more in the four years of my PhD than I ever could have on my own, and given my program's placement record (even in the shitty market) I have a good chance of being able to keep doing what I'm doing. So, that's a long winded way of saying - if you want to do it, and can't see yourself being happy doing anything else with those two years, then do it. If you're doing it for the credential or because you think it might help you out financially, then I'd think twice, but I'd say the same thing to somebody considering business or law school.
posted by drobot at 8:19 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

My MA did give me a slight advantage in some job searches, but to be quite honest, it was complete unnecessary and unrelated to what I do for a living now. I really enjoyed the program and hardly consider it to have been a waste of my time but I suspect I might feel a whole lot differently had I borrowed money to pay for it.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:12 AM on September 3, 2010

I had fun getting mine, and it impresses people who are impressed by that sort of thing (none of whom control the purse strings). Otherwise, what k8t said: Useless.
posted by bryon at 6:22 AM on September 3, 2010

I think the general opinion of the degree is that it matters most to the person who gets it. Depending on their situation (are they now employed? massively in debt? debt free? in an unrelated field? did they get it as a way to get out of a PhD they realized they didn't want?) they may find the degree personally valuable or useless. In other words - it's up to you and your situation as to what it means.

But since you asked here's my perspective. Unless you need it for your job to get a pay raise (public school teacher, sometimes MBA in the corporate world, etc.) it's a notch above soking weed and doing crossword puzzles everyday for 1 or 2 years. Just go out and get some field experience (unpaid, maybe but free!) instead.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:56 AM on September 3, 2010

posted by WeekendJen at 7:57 AM on September 3, 2010

I have a MA in Humanities, with a specialization in Literature, as well. Most people who teach get useless, quick MAs just to get a bump in pay. I teach, but didn't do this. I am part of the liking learning for learning's sake group. There were things I wanted to spend more time with as I got older, so I did. Useless to some maybe, but it enriched my life nonetheless.
posted by bookshelves at 5:25 PM on September 5, 2010

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