College of Arts and Sciences

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After the M.A.: Considerations, Resources, Advice

Whether you are applying for jobs or further study, check out the Department’s Student Resource page: http://www.wiu.edu/cas/english/graduate/resources.php.

Applying for Jobs

One of the biggest misconceptions held by many graduate students is that an M.A. in English can only lead to a PhD, or at least that any other path is somehow less dignified or worthy. The reality is quite the opposite: English M.A.s are often well-qualified for work in publishing, journalism, advertising, government, social work, business communications, and other fields. Two of the best starting points for exploring such possibilities are found in the online versions of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. For instance, at http://www.chronicle.com it may be worth a regular glance at the “Job Center,” and specifically the “Organizations Other Than Colleges” section. There is also a recently-discontinued but still invaluable blog by Sabine Hikel that deals with life after the ivory tower called “Leaving Academia” available here: http://www.leavingacademia.com.

Secondary teaching is another option worth considering. While this field involves its own hurdles—certification, ongoing professionalization requirements, etc.—the need for strong readers, writers, and communicators in U.S. and international classrooms is not going to disappear anytime soon. While doing an additional education degree or certificate may not be viable for everyone, it is not always necessary, either. Private schools often hire English teachers who already hold an M.A. but lack public school certification, particularly when they have had experience as university teaching assistants and can demonstrate professionalism and strong personal communication skills. (See, for instance, the National Association for Independent Schools website at http://www.nais.org/.) Such a position can then provide opportunity for further certification that can open up public school options as well. Lastly, it should be noted that programs like Teach for America enable strongly qualified graduates—even people without M.A. degrees—to enter public school classrooms immediately and then earn the necessary certification over time.

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Applying for Further Study

For M.A. students who still believe that their vocations may lie within the academy, the most important advice we can offer is very simple: get informed, very informed. Even in those cases where an M.A. student’s work is absolutely stellar, the life circumstances are right, and PhD program acceptances are forthcoming, the student needs to understand that the chances of coming out on the other end with a completed PhD and eventually a tenure-track job are very low. The average time to earn a degree for a PhD in English is around 8.5 years nationally, and although many departments are working to significantly lessen this total, the numbers are barely any better when individuals have completed a prior M.A. Presently less than half of the nation’s PhD graduates succeed in finding a tenure-track job within two years of graduation—and the percentage is much worse in some sub-fields.

How to get informed? One of the best, most honest and direct series of recent columns on the prospects of getting a PhD in the humanities comes from the pen of William Pannapacker (pen name Thomas H. Benton). His series of articles in The Chronicle have been somewhat controversial for their seeming cynicism, but he isn’t making this stuff up. For starters, see the following:

For another perspective, check out James Mulholland’s “Neither a Trap Nor a Lie” http://www.chronicle.com/article/Neither-a-Trap-Nor-a-Lie/64535/.

It’s also worth understanding that the current absurdities of humanities PhD education and the humanities job market are part of larger transformations taking place in the academy. In some ways, it would appear that the humanities are always, perhaps even intrinsically, in a “state of crisis.” One can find apocalyptic rhetoric about the end of English departments stretching back decades. But the threats of chaos have become increasingly real in recent years, both for English as a discipline and the humanities more broadly.

For an introduction to some of the larger issues at play, see the following:

The many articles listed here are recent as of this writing, but as this handbook ages, undoubtedly new ones will appear that are more helpful. Reading publications like The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed on a weekly basis is a very good idea. It’s also worth turning to several more general guidebooks, though, which themselves may continue to be published in revised editions. Some of these are focused on later stages of PhD study and even one’s approach to the job market, but the sooner students can gain a sense of the big picture, the more strategic they can be about the smaller decisions along the way—indeed, even about whether the offer one receives from a program is sufficient to justify the risk. Here are several of the better volumes to look for: Goldsmith, Komlos, and Gold’s The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career; Hume’s Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt; and Heiberger and Vick’s The Academic Job Search Handbook.

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