Is an MA in English Literature worth it?
September 27, 2018 10:04 AM   Subscribe

My BA was not in English, and now I am thinking about taking seven English electives in order to get into University of Toronto's English MA with a focus in Creative Writing. Do you think it is worth to take all those courses--especially if you are passionate about literature? I do not mind writing essays and analyzing literature--I am currently doing a Masters in Arts Administration part-time for now, but I am quite eager to partake on the English Literature studies. Except I do not know if I am wasting my time if I can make a career out of it or do a PhD later--I am not sure (in my mid-twenties right now). People are telling me to plunge into the MFA in Creative Writing instead since I would not need to take seven full year courses in English for a few years. I have a supportive partner with an excellent job and I am currently in a part-time arts admin job right now. Any career advice would be most appreciated--critical feedback too. Would it be worth it if doing a PhD in the long term is a goal in mind? I do like the art admin work field as well, but would love to study literature academically--simply not quite sure what to do.
posted by RearWindow to Education (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What's your long term career goal?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:12 AM on September 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you do not already have a well-connected English literature (or related field) professor who is supporting you in their specific field, you have already missed your chance at an academic career in English literature. I hate to be so bleak and drastic about it, but there is virtually no career benefit from a terminal M.A. in English outside academia and it will be of only minimal value if you apply for a Ph.D. later (most people just get their M.A.s incidentally on the way to the Ph.D.), unless there are specific scholars you want to work with in the program who are in a subfield you think you might want to pursue. Humanities academia is not something you can go into with just a hope and a love of reading books--it will empty your pockets and lead you nowhere.
posted by praemunire at 10:18 AM on September 27, 2018 [17 favorites]

@PhoWanKenobi -- Honestly, I can see myself working at an art organization or at an editorial magazine. So I really am thinking maybe the MA in English Literature is a waste of time in terms of career aspects?
posted by RearWindow at 10:20 AM on September 27, 2018

i was an english major and got a master's in english & publishing. i have friends who got mfa's. don't do it, especially these days. what will you do with a phd? getting professorship of any kind will be difficult and not pay a lot. getting the degree will cost a lot of money, and unless you have that money free, you will take a lot on in debt that it will take decades to pay off. you can be a writer without an mfa. you can study literature without going to school.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:21 AM on September 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

@praemunire Actually, I only need seven full year English credits in order to pursue a MA in English at University of Toronto. I am able to take the courses online for a few years--so I didn't miss my calling at all. Just not sure if it is a waste of time.
posted by RearWindow at 10:22 AM on September 27, 2018

@misanthropicsarah - thanks for the realist perspective. I really do not want to go in debt!
posted by RearWindow at 10:23 AM on September 27, 2018

No for those jobs you don't need an MA in literature, you need a robust portfolio of published work and some very, very, very well-connected friends.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:25 AM on September 27, 2018 [11 favorites]

(That network of extremely well-connected folks in the publishing world IS something that an MFA can help you build. However, that doesn't apply to *all* MFA programs. You'd want a very high profile one -- Iowa, or Columbia, or the Canadian equivalent thereof.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:27 AM on September 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

@We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese Thanks for the tip! University of British Colombia is considered the best Creative Writing program in Canada.
posted by RearWindow at 10:29 AM on September 27, 2018

I'm not trying to be mean or dismissive here--I'm talking about what you will actually need to pursue a successful academic career in English literature. You can take all the classes you want, you can do great in them, even, but if they don't connect you to well-placed people in your field, launching an academic career will be almost impossible. I would not spend my money on such a program without a specific plan to work with specific people in a specific field where I knew they were well-placed to get people into the top handful of Ph.D. programs.
posted by praemunire at 10:29 AM on September 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

Honestly as someone who completed my PhD in English at a top-tier university in Canada, it was not worth the money. I am not teaching what I'd like to be teaching (literature) and if I could do it all again I wouldn't.

If you want to be a writer, write. A degree in English (masters or phd) is worth less than the paper on which its printed.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:59 AM on September 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

I have an MFA that I have six figures of debt for the privilege of simply being known as a person with two terminal degrees. I don't use it. I could have published without it. My English degrees are worthless except as stepping Stones to more practical ones.
posted by crunchy potato at 11:17 AM on September 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

[RearWindow, you do not need to (and shouldn't) reply to every comment. If you need to clarify something once or twice, that's fine, but otherwise just let people answer.]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 11:47 AM on September 27, 2018

It's a waste of time. You're much better off putting your energy into the degree you are currently pursuing and focusing on your own writing. Quite a few lit journals are in their reading period right now, so you could already be sending out work.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:34 PM on September 27, 2018

It's kind of interesting that there's rarely much mention of what you learn with these degrees, only in how much money you can make. I would expect that for business degrees, but it comes up again and again for the humanities. Yes, you can read literature and write without a degree. You could probably perform an appendectomy without a degree too, but nobody will tell you to do that. Learning from people who know more than you do is valuable. I don't want to make light of how hard it is to have a lot of debt and not be earning much money. It is absolutely horrible and soul crushing. But if earning money is the bottom line for you, you are in the wrong field. Go to business school or learn a trade - I'm not kidding. Learn how to fix furnaces or install plumbing (something that can't be outsourced to a third world country) and write.

I have an MA in English and finished everything but the dissertation for a PhD. My primary interest was in creative writing, but by the time I finished my BA with that concentration, I really wanted to spend some time reading and studying great literature. I learned a tremendous amount with this coursework - what I learned was extremely valuable to me - but it did not translate into much of a career. I work in publishing now, but I don't think my degrees helped much (though almost everyone in my company who is in editing has an MA). The way you get into publishing is by starting at the absolute bottom for very little pay and working your way up (and be aware that it might turn out there is no up - people stay in the very few higher level jobs forever). Unless you are in a program that helps you make contacts, that's the only way to do it.

My biggest regret is not finishing the PhD, but that's another story. Most people will tell you not to get a PhD in literature, that you will never get a job teaching literature. That is true for almost everyone, but there are some exceptions. The trouble is that most people expect to be the exception - after all, if you've gotten that far, you're used to doing really, really well. We cannot tell you if you will be one of those exceptions, so getting a PhD is a huge gamble that probably won't be worth it, but there's a very slim chance that it might be.

When I was younger, I very much underestimated the value of knowing people. It's quite sickening really. If I were doing it over, I would try very hard to get into one of the top five MFA programs in the US in order to make contacts. I don't know how helpful it is to go to the best program in Canada - I would try to find out what the graduates of those programs are doing. But remember that these programs like to parade their successful graduates. A friend of mine got an MFA at a top program in the US, and her class was told that half of the students would never publish a book.
posted by FencingGal at 12:37 PM on September 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

most people just get their M.A.s incidentally on the way to the Ph.D.

In Canada, outside of a few disciplines that customarily admit students directly to PhD programs from undergrad, it's the norm for people to enrol directly in an MA program, even if they plan to continue in their department's doctoral program. Unlike what's more common in the US, these MA programs aren't seen as terminal, and full-time students are eligible for funding. What this adds up to is that it's very common here for people to have an MA as their highest credential, and having a master's-level education in Canada has a different connotation than in the US.

Part of the problem with this is that most of your non-academic job competition in a city like Toronto will have an MA, no matter how irrelevant it is to their job - it's not a differentiator in that part of the country. However, it's difficult to be competitive for these jobs without graduate education. You're already in a master's program - finish the one you started if only because graduate education is a baseline requirement, but invest more heavily in networking and all the other elements that will make you a good candidate.
posted by blerghamot at 1:10 PM on September 27, 2018 [11 favorites]

All the things I was going to say have already been said. But regardless, my two cents:
I have an MA in English Lit, which I did not, by any means, do as a means of ensuring future employment. Totally for myself and my own enjoyment. I now have a gigantic student loan to pay off, but at least it is interest free. I cannot emphasise how much I appreciate what I learned, and because I have that base knowledge, I have continued learning on my own.

I am also a published writer. I've written since my teens and first got published in my early twenties. An MFA will not magically make you a writer. Hoary as it sounds, only writing will do that. And a lot of rejections. In that process I've built up contacts in the publishing world. Also, you need the skin of a rhino in the publishing industry.

Hope that helps. The Humanities in universities is in a pretty sad state right now. It's really disheartening.
posted by New England Cultist at 1:10 PM on September 27, 2018

If you want to go into creative writing, start writing and write relentlessly. Writing is like sales. If you do enough of it you can make a living at it.

If you want an education in English it's not hard to find out what books to read, read them, make your own critical analysis, and then compare them with other people's critical analysis and figure out why and how your understanding and opinions differ.

You can easily parlay a degree in English into a career as Prime Minister of Canada, as long as you were born to the correct family. Failing that, the only reason to pursue post secondary English is because you love it and want to spend the time and money doing it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:56 PM on September 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm an English major - don't do it! You could probably audit the classes for free if the professor is nice enough, why do you even need the grades?
posted by yueliang at 2:08 PM on September 27, 2018

I have worked in the Canadian magazine publishing industry and I don't think a MA in English Literature is going to help you that much, if at all. It's possible for a very few publications but really what you need is journalism credentials, not English Lit, at least not for mainstream publications - I can't speak to literary magazines (no money) or maybe...The Walrus.

Also clips, networking, internships, and a lot of luck.

If you want to be a more literary type writer I think a local option that might be good is the Guelph-Humber MFA. It does connect you to the Toronto literary scene as much as possible and I've heard good things about that. But if you want to try it out at an even lower cost, the Humber one-week Summer Workshop is a good place to bring your writing and talk to actual writers and editors about the industry for waaaay less of your time and money than a graduate degree. It's a slightly lower tier of networking than a MFA but enough, if you make the most of it, to get your toes wet and really see what that world is like. It won't, however, help at all in the quest for an editorial career, so there's that.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:49 PM on September 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

You question history has lots and lots of questions along the lines of "Is this academic course worth it?", about a variety of different English courses.

I think it's worth saying (or saying again, as I think lots of people have said this in answer to you previous asks, as well as above) that if you want to be a writer, you don't need a degree, you just need to write. Sometimes academic courses can be tempting because it feels like they give you a structure and a pathway rather than facing the terror of the empty page, alone, again and again. But no matter how many courses you do, the day will come when they end and you will have to sit down in front of the empty page, alone, again and again. That's why writing is so hard and why more people don't become writers. Might as well rip the band aid off and get on with it, rather than sinking thousands into a course that you're not certain about in the hope it'll help you avoid the pain of facing the empty page on your own. Cos it'll just be waiting for you again at the end.

Sorry if that's wide of the mark and you do have a concrete career plan that seems to require more degrees. I just recognise only too well from my own experience the tendency to take more courses to make yourself feel like you're progressing, rather than facing up to how hard it is to knuckle down and do the damn work on your own.
posted by penguin pie at 3:13 PM on September 27, 2018 [11 favorites]

Is an MA in English Literature worth it?

Only if you have the funding to do it, and only if you have a road map to get into academia.

Speaking as a graduate of the (excellent) UVic Writing programme, you don't need an MA/MFA to get published, although you may need that MA/MFA to get published in a small, niche market like Canada, where connections count.

MA/MFA programs are primarily a way to build a network to get a teaching job or work in publishing. I must say that the publishing / writing program world in Canada is quite toxic against women at the moment. We have had our #MeToo movement with Steven Galloway, and the community circled the wagons).

If you're just interested in learning, only do it if you don't go into debt. Also consider the opportunity cost of spending this valuable time and energy doing an MA.

Careerwise, it gets *really* hard to play catch-up the closer to thirty you get.
posted by JamesBay at 3:45 PM on September 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have a lot to say about MFAs, below, but first I'll say that it's not clear to me why you want to get one. It sounds like you're interested in studying literature, which is not the focus of most MFA programs. Creative writing programs are typically structured to be studio writing degrees, much like an MFA in painting would be, as compared to an art history degree. If you'd like to analyze literature in English, that's what you should study. If you'd like to become a better writer, study that. If you want to be a journalist or narrative nonfiction writer, you should definitely get experience in the field before applying to graduate programs -- to me, this seems even more non-negotiable than having a committed creative writing practice before applying to do, say, an MFA in poetry.

As for MFAs, they can be a fantastic choice for lots of people. It seems to be somewhat fashionable to hate on MFA programs of late, while there's simultaneously an increasing push to professionalize one's creative practice at an earlier and earlier age and career stage, and I want to caution against doing either of those. Yes, the criticism of MFAs is often well-founded, and is important to take into account. But an MFA provides mentorship and a writing community engaged in the same intellectual and creative questions you are, and in my opinion students grow and mature as writers exponentially more quickly than via self-study without a creative community. Of course not every MFA is a good fit, so there's no guarantee that one will get you exactly what you're seeking -- so you should research programs carefully and apply widely. And of course you shouldn't consider the MFA as a mercenary economic choice; imagine it exists outside the marketplace, as a literary studio program. Imagine your MFA will not get you nepotistic professional connections or an agent or book deal. Imagine it as nothing more than 2-3 funded years to immerse yourself in your craft with hopefully-likeminded peers. Is that what you're dreaming of? If so, it could be a potentially great decision. The same goes for a PhD program: the academic job market is such that you should look at a PhD as a labor of love, with no guaranteed job at the end. (But unlike a 2-3yr MFA program, a PhD is much more specialized, demanding, and can effectively silo you into a very narrow future, intellectually and in terms of your psychological economy, if that makes sense.)

Here's the key point, though: any graduate program worth its salt will pay you a (probably low) living wage to attend, often in exchange for teaching one section of comp or lit or creative writing per term, but sometimes just as a fellowship with no teaching requirements. Mine did. I do know people who went into debt for their MFAs, but I think that's a bad choice for 99% of people. (The exception would possibly be if you're older, already have one or two solid novels or literary nonfiction manuscripts in completed draft, which respected agents have shown interest in, and you just need professional connections that you're unable to make from the outside. Then, going to a top program with ties to publishing might be a good choice, potentially even if you have to take on debt. If you're a poet, this advice definitely doesn't apply because even if you make money at it -- and I say this as a rare poet who actually makes a non-trivial amount of income most years off of fellowships/grants/prizes -- it is vanishingly unlikely that money will in any way offset your MFA debt.)
posted by tapir-whorf at 4:02 PM on September 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm trying to figure out what your goal is. Considering it a "waste of time" depends on your goals and values, but you haven't made that quite clear. It sounds like you're interested in a lot of things that are related to each other but want to know the "best" route to take.

If you have the money and it is not an issue for you, taking classes that you love are never a waste of time. Unfortunately, this isn't the case for most ppl, hence needing to figure out which degrees will give you the most bang for your buck.

Do you want to be a writer and have more time and practice writing?
Do you simply want to read about, analyze and discuss literature with other ppl?
Do you want to teach literature, creative writing or composition someday?
Do you want to publish your writing?

Because your answers to these questions will be keys to figuring out which route is best for you.

If you want to write-- you really need to just sit down and write everyday and read everyday. But if you can afford it, an MFA in Creative Writing is useful to give you more time to do this and, if you're lucky, a cohort of likeminded individuals who you can form writers groups with (but this really depends on the culture at the particular school you go to).

If you just want to be in a glorified book club with grades then, sure, go for a literature master's but most ppl get their master's because they want to teach someday.

If you want to teach literature at a 4 year university, the PhD, I think, is a gatekeeper degree which you need to even qualify to teach there. If you want to teach at a community college, you need a Master's degree, but you may never get to teach literature. You will most likely be teaching basic composition and critical thinking.

If you want to teach creative writing at a university, you need to have an MFA and have published at least one book by a reputable publisher or just be a famous writer with a good publication record. If you want to teach at a CC, it's pretty much the same as lit-- you most likely won't get to teach it unless you're part of the core tenure track faculty who specialize in creative writing.

I hope this helps and good luck.
posted by jj's.mama at 4:05 PM on September 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

P.S. As others have mentioned, if you really do want to teach any of these subjects, the market is highly competitive and if you are dead set on teaching for a living (which I'm not sure you are), you will most likely start out as an adjunct instructor and may never win the lottery of the tenure track professorship. That's another conversation and you'll find lots of info on that online. Just mentioning this because most ppl who get these degrees do it because they want to become professors.
posted by jj's.mama at 4:07 PM on September 27, 2018

Is an MA in English Literature worth it? No.

Join an book club.
Write every day.

--a Literature professor
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:00 PM on September 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

While a lot of the answers have pointed out the career aspects of this choice, I'm speaking directly to your (since deleted) comment about perhaps doing the program for your own edification.

I think is worth pointing out is that in no program will you be taking classes that only pertain to your interests. I was in History, not English but one thing I really hated during my PhD program was that I was taking a LOT of classes that were outside of my area of interest or expertise, because they were either required or there simply weren't enough classes I wanted to take to meet the definition of full time (necessary to keep funding for PhD programs). Sure, I learned something but I didn't enjoy it ... and slogging through these classes definitely dulled my passion for the field.

I definitely encourage anyone who is thinking about pursuing a graduate degree for their own enjoyment to be very thoughtful about what they are paying for.
posted by sm1tten at 8:18 PM on September 27, 2018

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