Master of My Own Destiny

It must be because the huge cultural extravaganza known as “Back to School” is banging on the front door, but I return again to the ghost that haunts me — the Master’s degree.

As teenagers we were assured that you can’t make it in life without a high school diploma. Check. When I quit college at 20, I was warned that I’ve never make it without a Bachelor’s degree. I went back to college at 32, a single mom with three kids, and rocked it, graduating summa cum laude with departmental honors.

Has this piece of paper earned me any respect or validation? No. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt later, those in a position to hire still smile politely and roundfile my application as soon as my back is turned to leave the office. The new base standard is the almighty Master’s degree (cue angelic choir.)

I almost finished one in 2007. I could choose the path of regret, but I refuse. I hated my program and was only in it because I loved every minute of the accompanying opportunity to teach as a graduate fellow. I was marrying that man for his money.

And I still want to teach. My passion for language and deep desire to share it with others is the only reason I keep revisiting this unpleasant topic of validation-by-paper.

That crossroads is still there — to go further down the path of institutionalization, or just once and for all to jump outside the box and run.

The lure of respect, retirement, health care, all the fancy must-have perks of working in the system sing their siren songs beneath a banner embossed in gold leaf with my name, followed by venerable capital letters which would brand me as belonging to the Worthy Herd.

But the other path, that “road less traveled,” where could it possibly lead? How would a person walk it, and how would you know when you got somewhere?

I think the only way to arrive at a comparable level of respect and validation along an alternate path is celebrity by fame or huge accomplishment. Write a well-received book, found a successful institution, develop a new theory or become otherwise positively renowned and they will throw their honorary diplomas at you like confetti. And at that moment, rather than hungrily grab at them, you would smile a bit and half-interestedly watch them fall.

And if this path never leads to respect or validation by those who dwell in an office wallpapered with credentials? If the journey is never more than a humble scraping by?

Perhaps the most essential question is — how can I become one of them, participating in and advocating for a bloated, self-important system whose stranglehold on the job market might not reflect a legitimate need for more and more education but might simply reveal the epidemic of greed for tuition dollars?

But the most vital question for me personally is, shouldn’t I be willing to make any compromise rather than take the risk that I’ll never teach again?

4 responses to “Master of My Own Destiny

  1. Doing my Masters degree was one of the best things I have ever done.

    Has it brought in lots of money? No.

    But it has brought me satisfaction, discipline, and increased knowledge. And sometimes it brings further opportunity to jump into other modalities.

    I always say that you think you’re finished when you’ve done an undergraduate degree. Then you do a Masters and you realise how little you know, and that you will never be finished.

    And now I understand why the base requirement has become the Masters degree.

    Best Wishes.

    • Thanks for your response, Narelle. One question it brings up for me is — is there a point where you can be trusted to direct your own education without having to pay obscene amounts of money to be told what is important? In my master’s program (French and Spanish literature) the current fad is to focus almost exclusively on secondary texts rather than the primary text. I am very much opposed to this trend and absolutely hated being forced into it.

      I never want to stop learning. I would love to have mentors, professors, leaders that can help me on my path. The fact that I am expected to go into (further) massive debt in order to even BE on a legitimate path is unacceptable. The fact that I was, as a graduate student, just another faceless student with no control over my own studies was disrespectful to the work I’d already done. The fact that in the real world I am judged solely by how many pieces of paper I’ve paid for and not by my real experience, ideas and talent seems like a game rigged to line the pockets of some and drain the lifeblood of others.

      • I guess it depends on what you study and where you study.

        In the course I did, we were expected to go to the source. We were treated as adult learners, and respected for our previous experience. There were some assignments that I could not complete exactly as required due to the type of work I was doing, and negotiation was very easy.

        The masters I did was enriching and rewarding. It was worth every cent, not only personally but enhanced my practice beyond what I could have achieved on my own or through 100 years of experience (I kid you not). Prior to starting the course I did not appreciate or understand how much benefit I would derive.

        Knowing now what I know, and observing the competence of other masters qualified colleagues and comparing them to undergraduates, I have become an education snob. I firmly believe that people should not be allowed to work with and advise families unless they have a masters degree.

        • Your program sounds amazing! It sounds like exactly what graduate education should be. And for your profession, it sounds like practitioners should have as much education as possible. If I were aspiring to a career with the potential to have such a serious impact on people’s lives, I would submit willingly to whatever training was required. But as more and more people receive higher and higher credentials, the bar is raised on things that don’t really require extra years of training. People who are talented, experienced and knowledgeable enough to handle the job are being beaten out of the job by people with a piece of paper.

          My husband for example — a master’s degree in journalism and several years of experience as a newspaper reporter. He will be passed over for a job as a journalism instructor every time by someone with a PhD and no experience because the higher credential looks better than real street experience. Who is the more talented teacher? Who has more passion? Who knows how the journalism world REALLY WORKS? Doesn’t matter. No one cares.

          Same thing with me and teaching a foreign language. The ONLY thing that matters is that I don’t have a Master’s degree. I did 40 credit hours of graduate work, I taught undergraduate French for two years, I am passionate about language and teaching, I’ve read and studied (and continue to do so) in education theory, original texts in French, current events in the Francophone world, etc. etc. None of that makes a whit of difference. If you don’t have the piece of paper, you don’t get through the door. If I wanted to do something that would potentially destroy someone’s life, fine. But I want to explain conjugation and colonialism. I can do it. Right now, today. Why should I have to owe EVEN MORE MONEY to be allowed to?

          I realize that I sound bitter, and I don’t want to feel that way anymore. I guess I just feel personally slighted by the system that refuses more and more to see an individual for who they are and what they’ve done but instead wants to just look at their official transcript and decide their fate from there.

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