This post shares an email sent to me last week by a good friend, an NTT English professor with a secure and well-compensated ongoing position in English at an R1 institution. This email is a follow-up to an email she had forwarded the week before, from a talented undergraduate English major who had been in her class. The student had written to tell my friend excitedly about her plans to move across the country to start a terminal Masters degree in English at an elite East Coast institution, as a first step to getting a Ph.D. in English She had received no funding from the institution, and was explaining that the cost of tuition alone would be $45,000 a year.
“But I’m absolutely committed to getting a Ph.D. in English!!!” her email affirmed. “I’ll do whatever it takes!!!”
My friend wrote to me in consternation, asking: “WWTPIID??” ( What would The Professor Is In Do???) “I already sent her to your blog,” she wrote, “but should I stage an intervention??”
To my eyes, what was most striking about the email from the student was her apparent belief that her single-minded fixation on obtaining the Ph.D. in English at any cost was a sure path to earning my friend’s approval. It does make sense: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so naturally a naive and starry-eyed student would believe that an overriding life goal to get the Ph.D. in English would be the surest path to the approval of her former English professor.
I responded to my friend that the best intervention might be to communicate clearly that the life plan she APPROVES of is the one that does NOT include a ruinous and self-destructive plan for unfunded graduate school in English.
My friend didn’t tell me if she agreed with this advice or not, but this is the email that she wrote in response.
Grad school is a bad idea under the best of circumstances. The job market is SO bad, and there is so little that grad study in literature can help you do beyond seeking jobs in the dismal academic job market that pursuing a grad degree in English only makes sense if the following conditions are met:
1. You are fully funded (or at least have reason to expect to be after the initial year).
2. You really, genuinely, honestly don’t care if you find yourself at 30 needing to start over again in an entirely new line of work having failed to find an academic job.
I’m frankly surprised that condition #1 doesn’t hold for you. You strike me as the sort of student who would excel at grad school, based on your performance in my course. That said, I don’t have much sense of what the pool of grad-school-bound applicants looks like nor do I know first-hand what admissions/fellowship committees look for. So you should take my affirmation simply for what is it: a profound respect for you and your abilities–NOT a reading of the tea-leaves that hold your future.
The fact that you did not get admitted with funding suggests that this is not the right career path for you. It’s not the right career path for ANYONE at the moment, even those who do get admitted-with-funding. The world needs smart people who know how to read and write critically, and you can find fulfilling work without entering the black hole that is academia. I have no doubt of that.
If you want to continue to pursue graduate study, then the main thing you need to do is figure out what went wrong this year, what parts of your package are not holding up, and what, if anything you can do to improve it. You should also, if you can, find out if you aren’t being damned by faint praise in your recommendation letters, or inadvertently sabotaged by someone who doesn’t understand how competitive graduate admissions have become. You need to show your statement to everyone who has ever worked with you. Then you should probably research carefully the grad programs that are particularly strong in your interest area (that is, they have a lot of faculty taking on students) and try and find specific information on how many grad students they admit and how those students get funded, so that you can target your application to the institutions where you have the best chances.
If, while you retool your application, you want to get more coursework under your belt (and make more professional contacts) by getting a terminal MA, then I would encourage you to do it as cheaply as you possibly can, and don’t take out loans unless you absolutely have to–particularly since an MA wouldn’t really fill in gaps in your current record (if, say, you were a business major and wanted to switch to English lit., a terminal MA might be helpful to show that you had the necessary skills–but that’s not your situation.) I repeat: no loans.
$45K is NUTS and suggests to me that [Elite Private University] sees its MA program as a cash cow, nothing more. Seriously, the added prestige of going somewhere particular or working with someone specific is simply not worth it. (Terminal MA students are the last priority for professors’ time and energy.) It’s not unusual for people to take a year or three out between college and grad school–and so long as you maintain contact with your recommenders and use the time to grow intellectually, I don’t think it would look bad NOT to be in a terminal MA program (but this is advice you might want to confirm with people who have more first-hand experience with grad admission).
Even if you had been admitted with funding, these are some links I would be sending you to encourage you to reconsider. There are many ways to be happy and make a meaningful contribution without being in academia. In fact, it might be easier outside academia. When I referred to academia three paragraphs back as a “black hole,” I was not exaggerating. Please, please read them and take them seriously.
http://philosophysmoker.blogspot.com/2012/03/out-of-hunt.html (it’s philosophy, not lit.., but the nature of the job market is the same across the humanities)
I realize this is probably NOT the e-mail message you wanted to get from me at this stage. I wish I could in good conscience urge you to take a leap of faith and move to [East Coast City] to suffer for a year before going on to a brilliant career. But it just doesn’t work like that and it would be terrible if you found yourself a year from now with huge sunk costs and no better prospects of achieving this particular goal. Especially when you have so much to offer the world. I wish that academia was currently in a state to welcome you and make use of your gifts–but it just isn’t.
Feel free to come talk to me after break.