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Weighing each letter: Is an M.A. in English worth it?

If devouring Shakespeare's work pentameter by iambic pentameter excites you more than a Caribbean cruise or a shiny new set of sneakers, you've probably fantasized about getting a master's degree in English. But is two years studying among peers who can chat endlessly about Tolstoy's character development worth the time and financial investment of a graduate degree?

Crafting a career with your English degree

If your ultimate goal is to build a career, you need to analyze the costs and the benefits, including education requirements, job availability and salaries. If you're dead-set on a life of literature or working as a wordsmith, a bachelor's degree in English can help you land one of the following occupations:

  • Book promoter/seller
  • Book reviewer
  • Commercial/media writer
  • Corporate communications professional
  • Editor
  • Grant writer
  • Writer

While a master's degree may not be required for these careers, the added credential can make you more appealing to businesses that employ in these areas. Not only do many English master's programs give students the opportunity to hone their craft, but some also provide inter-departmental opportunities for those interested in a more business-oriented track.

Teaching with a master's in English

For a career in academia, an M.A. in English is often a critical step toward earning a Ph.D. However, getting a master's degree without progressing to the doctoral level won't open doors to a tenure-track position at a college or university, or guarantee you a job. You can land a position at a two-year school with an M.A., but you may be competing against Ph.D holders. According to the Modern Language Association's (MLA) 2009-2010 mid-year survey, an average of 1,000 students receive Ph.Ds in English each year between 1997 and 2009, with just 400 tenure-track positions opening per year during that same period.

If your goal is teaching college-level English, the Two-Year College Association of the National Council of Teachers of English recommends that your master's degree program includes theories of learning, composition theory and pedagogy and more. Teaching needs to be grounded in research and theory. For this reason, many people who teach in secondary schools choose master's in English teaching degrees or education degrees in specialties such as reading and literacy.

Library careers are often considered an excellent choice for English majors. However, without additional library science-specific coursework, a master's degree in English may not qualify you for librarian certification requirements in your state. Typically, only Master of Library Science degree programs offer the necessary certification.

An M.A. for love, not for money

Does learning from top talent trump earning a six-figure salary? While it's smart to weigh the financial costs and benefits of any master's program--many of which take two years of graduate study to complete--who you learn from can be just as important. For example, if you have Keats, Kipling or Milton on the mind, studying under a professor with a rich publishing history in English poetry can be vital to your academic and professional growth.

Is a master's degree in English worth it?

If your goal is to enter a career that only requires a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in English may not be worth the time and money. But if you're planning to pursue a Ph.D. in English, or if you desire the degree for personal pleasure and don't mind footing the bill, dust off Tolstoy and put on your thinking cap.

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