The old MA just ain’t what it used to be

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It is around this time of year when the more indecisive students, spooked by life outside university, scramble to apply to master's programs at schools with later deadlines.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/02/2010 (4688 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is around this time of year when the more indecisive students, spooked by life outside university, scramble to apply to master’s programs at schools with later deadlines.

At first it seems like a good idea. The commitment is only for a year or two, and you get to avoid the work world. In reality, it might be an ill-advised choice.

It is true that master’s degree-holders earn, on average, salaries that are 25 per cent higher than bachelor’s degree-holders. It is also true that people with a master’s are less likely to report being overqualified in their jobs. But even on a strict cost-benefit analysis, the value of the degree is muddy.

Last June, a C.D. Howe Institute report found, when considering tuition, books, living expenses and foregone earnings when in school, that the rate of return over a lifetime for men with a bachelor’s degree is 12 per cent and 14 per cent for women.

For those holding a master’s degree, however, the lifetime rate of return for men is just three per cent more than it would be for bachelor’s degree-holders. For women, it is five per cent. So, while people with master’s degrees may earn significantly higher incomes, much of the gains vanish when factoring in the extra costs associated with pursuing an advanced credential.

Financial gain is not the only reason students pursue a master’s degree. However, according to a 2006 study authored by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, fully 70 per cent of master’s students in Canada are pursuing professional credentials. These include fields such as business, education and engineering, where career advancement and economic incentives are often what motivate students to enrol.

With respect to the arts and sciences, where economic incentives are lessened, the report noted that master’s programs once offered students an education beyond the bachelor’s degree, while falling clearly short of a PhD.

Today, depending on the university and field of study, master’s programs often adopt the characteristics of either the bachelor’s or the PhD programs.

Traditionally, a thesis — a lengthy piece of original research that is defended in front of a committee and subject to peer review — would be the standard for earning a master’s and preparing students for doctoral studies. The program would usually take two years.

As outlined by the CAGS report, students in some programs increasingly are remaining for as long as four years in order to publish in academic journals and present at conferences, activities that used to be reserved for PhD candidates.

Although this increases the research output of universities, and provides students with extra training, it raises questions as to the usefulness of the master’s degree and whether it is redundant.

So far, Canadian graduate faculties have been skittish about transitioning to the American model of admitting students directly into PhD streams.

In other programs, the research component has been watered down to the point that the master’s degree is indistinguishable from the final year of a bachelor’s program. For example, at the University of Waterloo, where I received my master’s degree, the department of political science actively discouraged us from writing a thesis.

Instead, we were told to take the course-based stream, where students take a few extra classes and produce a master’s research paper. The degree is intended to take only a year. Little more than an enlarged term paper, the research paper is similar to what some schools require students to produce in the last year of their first degree.

Widely available across the country, these programs cater to students looking to get an edge on their cohorts in the job market, or to students who are accustomed to the comforts of the university. For others, they are a source of frustration.

The late British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote “the characteristic gift of a university is the gift of an interval.” Being an undergraduate affords students the opportunity to learn absent the restraints experienced later in life. He is quick to stress that it is the “character of an interval to come to an end.” For Oakeshott, “the eternal undergraduate is a lost soul.”

Anyone considering enrolling in a master’s program, or advising someone to enrol, should ask the question: Will it offer something unique, or is it just another way to delay adulthood?

Carson Jerema has a master’s degree in politics and is a past editor of the Manitoban.

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