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Why a Humanities MA Doesn’t Have to Mean a Future in Academia

Why A Humanities MA Doesn’t Have to Mean a Future in Academia main image

By Rosemary Proctor

Many people who go into a full-time MA in a subject like English Literature or History have the idea (however vague) of a possible career in academia. And many of these people, once they’ve received their postgraduate degree, will decide that academia is not for them.

The realization that you don’t want to be an academic can be a little disorientating, especially if you began your postgraduate degree resolved to continue on to PhD and eventually become a fully-fledged member of the academy. MAs that aren’t a necessary part of training for a particular career can sometimes (wrongly) be seen by their holders as something to be ashamed of – an indication that they are afraid of (and have thus tried to put off) entering the “real world”, only to end up there several years too late and with little to show for their time in higher education.

This, of course, is not true; an MA in any subject is a mark of success, and does not signal anything negative to a potential employer. But that doesn’t mean that during the job application process you won’t be asked about your studies and why you chose not to continue them. Here’s some advice on how to answer two of the most important questions you will face. 

What have you learned from your MA?

An employer is going to want to know what you took away from your MA. Even if there is a part of you that regrets the decision to extend your studies beyond undergraduate level, achieving an MA is still a major accomplishment, and one that you shouldn’t downplay.

Far from being time wasted, your degree will have equipped you with a set of transferable skills and attitudes that aren’t necessarily fostered in undergraduate study. It will also have allowed you to develop the skills and attitudes you acquired from your first degree. You can’t achieve an MA without advanced analytical skills; nor do you get very far in postgraduate study without a self-starting attitude and the ability to organize yourself.

As part of your MA, you will have given papers or presentations – that’s public speaking experience. And if you secured funding for your postgraduate degree, that’s a stamp of approval, sending the message that it’s not just you who thinks you’ve got something special.

Why aren’t you moving on to a PhD?

The question of why you chose not to continue on to PhD is a really tricky one, not least in that it can dredge up any self-doubt you might have felt when you decided to leave academia. Even if you don’t have any feelings of insecurity about your decision, you’re still on dangerous ground. Go one way – “my work was not appreciated”, “I disliked the culture in academia” – and you risk coming across as churlish or arrogant. Go the other – “I wasn’t good enough”, “I didn’t get funding” – and you might seem defeatist and unenthused about the job you’re being interviewed for.

The best thing to do when asked why you didn’t carry on your studies is to answer not what you couldn’t do for academia, but what academia couldn’t do for you. Avoid statements that have the potential to be interpreted as disparaging of yourself or others, and focus instead on what you came to realize you wanted from your career. Don’t say: “academics are really isolated”, or “I don’t think I could handle the isolation that would come with a job in academia”. Say, “I realized I wanted a job where I would have more interaction with people”. Use your answer to communicate the skills and attributes you want to put to use in your job, selling yourself in the process.

You thought you might like to be an academic, so you took an MA. You got a taste of what a career in academia would be like, and you decided it wasn’t for you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You spent a year or two trying something out, and ended up with a degree to show for it – so show it off!  

Rosemary Proctor writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency which specializes in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To browse graduate jobs London and graduate jobs Manchester, visit their website.

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