If you are thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., here are some helpful tips to contemplate. They range from discussing the preparation and application process, as well as an in-depth look into the devastating, challenging, exciting, and memorable moments that make up the academic world.
Towards the end of their undergraduate career, many people turn their sights towards higher education and consider getting an M.A. – I know, I was one of those people!
While getting a master’s degree seems like a logical step to take after graduating with a B.A., there are some major differences between graduate and undergraduate classes that all students should reflect on before making any commitments. I hadn’t really considered these differences until after I joined an M.A. English program, and was in for a big shock when I realized how different M.A. classes can be!
While each program will vary between schools, here are a few general things you can keep in mind when considering another degree:
1. M.A. classes will tend to be smaller and more discussion-based.
Many of the undergraduate classes I had often filled each classroom with English students, but most of the graduate classes I took had fewer than ten students, and it was usually considered unusual for any class to have more than that amount. Due to the size and the nature of the degree it’s expected for graduate students to talk during class, so it follows that graduate-level classes require students to be able to carry very in-depth conversations about writing and literature without a professor’s help.
Smaller class sizes can be a great thing: I ended up making friends with my classmates since we’d take the same classes, I got to know my professors better and on a more personal level, and I was forced to learn how to articulate and share my ideas in class – all good things! M.A. classes will definitely demand more participation than undergraduate classes, so be sure to consider your comfort with small groups and class discussions before entering a program.
2. M.A. classes are usually longer.
While there are exceptions to the rule, most of the classes in the program I took were about three hours long (or, to be more specific, 2 hours and 45 minutes). It doesn’t seem like a long time, but keep in mind that we discussed literature for almost three hours straight! Many of my professors did give us breaks at the half-way point, but at the end of the day the classes still demand more than twice the amount of discussion and lecture than undergraduate level classes.
Since most of these long classes are based on discussion, it’s up to you to make those three hours interesting – and again, this brings up the importance of participation in M.A. classes. Also, keep in mind that three hours of class time is a significant amount of your day, meaning that if you have a job or take other classes, you’ll have to work around those three-hour chunks (and that’s not even counting transportation time!).
If you love English and love talking about it then you’ll probably do well in an M.A. class, but be sure to consider the time commitment it can take before making any final decisions.
3. M.A. classes require more work.
It’s no surprise that getting an M.A. will be harder than getting a B.A. – it really is a step forward into even higher upper-division classes. M.A. classes often demand much longer papers (mine were anywhere from 10-20 pages) that are obviously graded at a higher standard than those in B.A. classes. In addition, M.A. professors rarely give out straightforward prompts, so students are left to discover a thesis for themselves. This method is scary, but rewarding, as it teaches you to think creatively, without the help of a prompt.
M.A. programs usually also require a final project like a thesis, which will really test your ability to analyze, research, write, and edit without the structure of a class. I found that the thesis I wrote demanded much more depth and detail than my B.A. thesis, and required much more work than I originally expected; though there was no formal thesis class I definitely spent a lot of time and effort on it that I didn’t plan for before beginning the project.
The effort you put into an M.A. thesis will definitely give you a lot of knowledge and experience, but make sure that you consider how the possible workload stacks up to what you’re comfortable with.
4. M.A. classes are intense.
Many of your classmates might not have come straight from their Bachelor’s degrees: students, for example, can come into an M.A. program with years of experience teaching, writing, and working with English in ways that B.A. students haven’t been able to know. Often I’d find myself sitting in class beside people who were much older than me, and who already had much more experience in the working world and the academic world than I did!
The difficulty of an M.A. program, however, isn’t to scare you away; it’s simply to teach you the intricacies of English in an even deeper way than a B.A. program. Though the small class sizes, rigorous discussion, high expectations, and experienced classmates might be intimidating, it may be that those aspects of M.A. programs appeal to you and are useful to your career.
Before making any final decisions, however, I’d continue to research what M.A. programs are like and what you might use them for. At the end of the day, M.A. programs are unique, fun, and can help you develop as a writer, reader, and a human being – but they’re certainly not the only option out there for ambitious English majors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tami Orendain has a B.A. in English, an M.A. English, and pretty much just really likes English. A reader from an early age, she chose English on a whim on her college applications, and discovered that what was just a quick checkmark on a list of majors soon became a lifelong passion. With an interest in helping others discover the joys of reading and writing, Tami has worked as both a teacher and a tutor, and currently heads content for the online magazine DisneyExaminer to help others realize how important English is in modern culture. Her literary interests range from 18th century British literature to modern YA lit and beyond, and when not reading or writing she can often be found serving at her local church, exploring libraries, or watching cartoons (current favorite: Avatar: The Last Airbender). Feel free to feel free to view her portfolio and contact her at emtami.wordpress.com.
People pursuing graduate degrees have varying reasons for doing so. For most, an MFA or PhD is the only track for tenured professorship. But what about those writers who are looking to create more job opportunities for themselves or just get writing training from career professionals to help them get published? Is the only way to find success by getting a grad degree?
A couple years back, I got my MA in Writing and Publishing. I met some amazing people, read a lot of great books, and produced a lot of my best creative writing to date. It’s also pretty cool to say, “I have a master’s degree,” so I have no regrets, but sometimes I wish I would have known about the credentials and alternatives available to writing students that aren't grad degree programs.
Graduate school can be time consuming (most programs take 2-4 years to complete) and expensive (though lots of schools offer limited assistantships or scholarships), but the hardest part is that having an advanced degree doesn’t guarantee a job. Over the past few years, I’ve researched several different ways that aspiring writers can gain more experience and new marketable skills outside of a grad program.
1. Reading the books on MA/PhD syllabi without attending the classes.
This probably sounds like cheating. It’s not. It’s also obviously not the full graduate class experience—you won’t have an instructor guiding you through the material, asking questions, or requiring you to respond in a thoughtful way to the information. But books on writing are the raw tools of any writing or English graduate degree and the lists are easy enough to find.
If you already have a grad school-bound friend or colleague, ask them to keep a list of books that show up on their syllabi. College book stores will also have lists of required reading for classes, and you can find what classes are being taught each semester by browsing an online course catalog. Plenty of professors are also active writers and bloggers who regularly share their class reading lists with their online audience, and at the very least, a Google search for “most taught books on writing” will definitely give you a strong start.
2. Starting or joining a writing group online or in person.
If your desire to get a graduate education is steeped in a desire to become a published author, you’re not alone. One of the best things about going to graduate school is the opportunity to write extensively and workshop your pieces, letting others weigh in on your drafts. This is a hugely important step in becoming a published writer. But luckily, grad school isn’t the only way to achieve writing and revision.
If you know other people who are looking to improve their writing game—maybe from college or from work—you can easily suggest starting a writing group. It doesn’t have to take place in a classroom; the only rules for a writing group are to write, read respectfully, and revise. You can also use online forums or sites like MeetUp to find like-minded people to start a writing group with or even join an existing one. Libraries and community centers also often offer small, volunteer-facilitated groups or spaces for patrons to start their own.
3. Taking standalone classes or workshops online.
If you’re craving the advice and instruction of a seasoned writer or veteran professor but don’t want to commit to a whole program, you can find courses online that specialize in teaching just about anything. Looking to brush up on the art of revision? Want to dive into fiction or horror writing or the short story? Want to learn about how to network with publishing or submit manuscripts? There are courses covering all of that and more at your fingertips.
For instance, LitReactor is an incredible resource for both aspiring and longtime writers. They not only write regular articles on books, writing and publishing and host a helpful podcast, they also offer very reasonably priced online writing courses. A 2-week online workshop class taught by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk was featured once and writers paid $250 for coaching and instruction; they also have classes on writing and selling YA novels, writing mysteries, and tons more.
There are also plenty of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) available to students. MOOCs are defined as “a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.” Lots of prestigious universities (like Stanford, Princeton, MIT, UCLA, etc.) as well as smaller institutions offer classes conducted in this open resource platform.
No matter what kind of class you take, however, make sure you can find information and review on the instructor or course by other students to make sure it will be a worthwhile and helpful experience.
4. Attending a certificate program.
Certificate programs are great for professional development and staying up to date on industry trends. Some of them function as condensed grad school programs—they’re the same classes that graduate students are taking, but certificate seekers take fewer of them and pay less.
Community colleges also often offer certificate programs that are designed for students who aren’t seeking a degree but are interested in updating skills or continue education in a specific field. Some English majors go on to earn Technical Writing certificates to help them get jobs in textbook or manual publishing. Whether you take the post-baccalaureate certificate route or decide to go for a continuing education certificate, certificates are a great way to add to your skill set and qualifications or help you prep for graduate studies down the line.
5. Attending professional conferences.
Writing conferences and conventions usually do two things. They connect readers and writers with publishers and books at trade shows and book fairs, and they also present on literature and discuss writing. Conferences are a prime destination for connecting with authors and agents, learning about the state of publishing, or workshopping in a genre.
There is no shortage of professional conferences for writers. For example, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs has an annual conference that features over 2,000 presenters and 500 readings, panels, and lectures. BookCon takes place annually and features tons of authors, book signings, and publisher appearances and panels. There are also plenty of smaller conferences held at libraries and community centers and genre-specific conferences!
The whole world is an educational experience waiting to happen, and you don’t have to limit your learning to the classroom. If you’re not sure about making the graduate school plunge or just want to sharpen a few skills, try some of these alternatives to grow your abilities as a writer, help you earn a promotion, or put you on the path to publishing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marianne has an MA in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University and currently works as a Content Developer. After getting her master’s degree, she decided to dedicate her life to being a huge nerd and semi-professional animal rescuer. She spends most of her time reading and watching science fiction, eating Greek food, listening to music that was popular in 2003, and thinking fondly about the time that she hugged John Barrowman. If the writing gig hadn’t worked out, she probably would have taken up race car driving or roller derby.