When I reflect on why I left my PhD, I think: yeah, that was the best thing to do. Why work your ass off for the next 4-5 years for a one in 200 chance of getting a tenure-track position? Not a great ROI.
So now I find myself having to work with my Master’s in English and my office and writing experience. Here’s a little summary of what I’ve learned about my situation these past few weeks.
What they tell you in graduate school
Graduate placement officers are not stupid: they know a lot of people will stop at the MA level, and more and more of them actually encourage that. They say you still get a good chance of getting a job without being too over-specialized. Which is true, in a sense, and yet it seems to me that even an MA in this market is a weight rather than an asset.
Why having a graduate degree is great
I love school. I still do, even after leaving. I didn’t leave because I didn’t like learning but because the kind of path that I was taking in the academic world wasn’t working for me anymore. But I had some of the best times of my life in grad school, and met some of my best friends.
A graduate degree pushes your level of analytical thinking, project management and self-reliance. You have to work very hard for long hours and produce consistently excellent work. Competition is fierce. Thesis committees are difficult.
A graduate degree demonstrates that you have developed your interest and involvement in your field beyond the fray of undergraduates. You’ve showed determination, confidence against adversity (writing both grad school and SSHRC applications with the odds against you), self-motivation, positive attitude, writing abilities and sales skills (because really, throughout grad school you are selling your ideas to profs, grad committees, grant committees, journals and book publishers).
All of these skills, as far as I know, are popular with employers. So why in the world is it so difficult for me and my other MA-holding colleagues to convince them to hire us?
Why having a graduate degree is not so great
Graduate degrees in the humanities emphasize so-called “soft” skills over technical knowledge. Graduate students go beyond the textbook, beyond what the professor says, and develop thinking and lines of argument of their own. Requesting applicants with business or marketing degrees is an easy way to find people with technical skills, but they often lack the flexibility, depth and breadth that graduate students have developed over the years. And, as many entrepreneurs will tell you, having a business degree rarely makes you a good business person.
Getting a graduate degree, especially right after graduating from a BA, also stops you from gaining desirable real-world experience. The ivory tower is all well and good, but the business world doesn’t work like an academic department (however that is unfortunately changing). For those (like me) who actually have that experience, graduate school seems like a welcome respite from the rat race of corporate hierarchy.
Employers think (and sometimes rightly so) that graduate degree holders will jump ship at the first opportunity, especially when hired for lower-level employment. After gaining that first bit of experience, it’s easy for someone who’s smart and ambitious to wiggle his or her way up quickly.
What I think should be done
If the skills I described earlier are real, then employers should be lining up to hire graduate degree holders. However, this is not the case. There is still too much stigma around the “elitism” of graduate studies. But I know that some people are waking up and giving us a chance. Here’s why:
- You want people who can think quickly on their feet, reflect critically and not take everything for granted. Graduate degree holders have that.
- About specialized knowledge: anyone can grab a marketing textbook and apply what’s in it. What you want is someone who’s discerning enough to use what works and discard the rest while remaining open to new and original ideas. Graduate degree holders do that.
- You want people who are great communicators, who can work in teams or alone and who are flexible. Graduate students spend years honing their writing and teaching skills, working on solo and team projects and having to adapt to quickly changing situations.
- You want people who are motivated to go beyond the job description and who are able to work through crises and difficult times. Having a graduate degree proves that you are willing to expand and deepen your knowledge and skills and that you can make your way through very demanding tasks and projects with very little external rewards (graduate students are notoriously poor).
My actual work experience is mostly as a secretary, with copywriting more recently.
Let me put it straight: I’m too educated to be a secretary, but I have no other experience outside my freelance work. I’m pretty sure I’m not getting called back for one of these reasons:
- I’m overeducated for the position and employers assume I will jump ship at the first occasion; or
- I don’t have the specific type of experience they’re looking for, despite the fact that I’m perfectly qualified for the position and can demonstrate so.
There may also be the question of salary (someone with an MA can easily justify a higher salary than someone with a BA), but that’s a minor issue, as I would gladly take a lower salary for a chance to build experience in my chosen field.
On behalf of my fellow graduate degree holders, I beg employers everywhere to reflect on how our “soft” skills (that aren’t so soft, trust me on that) can be useful to grow your business. We’re here, we’re smart, we’re talented, we’re willing. A whole slew of motivated youth are going to waste. Don’t let it continue.