The Hat Trick: 3 Masters Degrees

I just submitted my final project for my last class for my third (and probably not final) master's degree.  Funny enough, it is just under ten years ago that I started my first Master's Degree.  Having accomplished the aforementioned hat trick, I thought I would discuss a bit about the experiences and kernels of wisdom gleaned about the process.

Degree Breakdown

First, I should clarify what I have gotten.  Mostly because the first issue I'll be talking about is that not all Master's Degrees are equal in a variety of ways and it's important to note that my experience is not likely the same as other people who are pursuing degrees that are substantively different from the ones I've earned (e.g. biology, geography, etc).  Here they are:
  • Masters of American Studies at University of Massachusetts in Boston with a focus on gender and sexuality and popular culture.
  • Masters of Public Administration at Suffolk University with a focus on nonprofit organizations.
  • Masters of Education at University of Massachusetts in Boston with a concentration on Instructional Design

What led me down this course?

Most people go for a single Master's Degree, while others may end up with two by odd circumstances.  Yet I'm signing off on #3.  What am I thinking and why don't I just get a doctorates? All great questions and none of which I think I have a good straightforward answer.  To understand the Master's Degrees, one needs to understand the rest of my educational background.

When I entered into college, my plan was to become a high school history teacher after my mentor and all-around favorite teacher, Mr. Metropolis.  He was an inspiration to many and his class was intellectually intriguing.  In fact, that's what drew me to become a teacher was the draw to ideas, discussing them, relating them, and figuring them out.

Statue of Woman in Thinking Pose: Image Source:
A chance conversation with my adviser in the Honors Program, Dr. Pat Ould made me rethink the plan to go back and teach high school.  "You need to get your doctorate's degree," she declared with a sincerity and matter-of-fact tone that I still hear in my head today.  She quickly explained what it was all about and that given how excited and engaged I felt with the academic nature of college, that more degrees seemed obvious.  This made a lot of sense to me and thus, I re-shifted my focus toward attaining a doctorate and most likely teaching at the college level.  However, by the beginning of senior year, I was facing a bit of burn-out as a result of lots of work on my Honor's thesis and personal drama.  I realized that I wasn't ready for grad school and needed time off, so I got a job in the interim.

One side benefit of this job was tuition assistance for employees enrolled in a degree program.  The money would barely be enough to cover one or two courses a year in a graduate program at most.  However, if I took courses at my local community college, the money could go far.  I decided that since I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do for graduate school, I would go to community college and get an associate's degree (in criminal justice).  This choice did several things for me.  It staved off paying school loans (so long as you are enrolled in two courses or more, you do not have to pay your loans) and it helped me stay in an academic mindset until I was ready for graduate school.

Eventually, I realized that I had several different areas to pursue:  Media Studies, Writing, and Sex and Gender Studies.  Thus I applied to programs at Emerson College, Salem State College, and University of Massachusetts-Boston.  I got accepted to all three but for financial and just driving interest at the time, I went with UMASS Boston's Masters in American Studies, where I would focus on gender and sexuality.  It's still definitely one of the best decisions I made in my life.  The program was hard and kicked my ass regularly, but made me a much better critical thinker.

I barreled through the program in two years (which I did with all three degrees) and by the time I was finishing, I had shifted away from my first college job in an online retailer to working in youth residential programs.  The shift was significant especially as I thought about my next move.  I learned a lot about gender, sex, and sexuality over those two years and it had me thinking about how and what I could do with that learning.  Another degree made the most amount of sense because while the program was fantastic, it was also largely cerebral and abstract so I wanted some good technical skills to balance it out or at least apply what I learned in the program.  I applied to Suffolk University for a Master's in Public Administration and either Northeastern or Boston University for a Masters in Sociology (I forget which one).  I got into Suffolk University but not the other, so I went to Suffolk.

By contrast to UMASS, Suffolk University was disappointing.  It lacked the rigor and intellectual complexity that I was used to from UMASS.  However, I figured I would at least have a better sense of ways of how to work with the different systems in society to advocate for better understanding and appreciation around gender, sex, and sexuality.  While working this Master's Degree, I was witnessing another shift in my career.  Over the course of two years, I had turned into a full-time  part-time instructor at several colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area.  My involvement with this grew enough that by the time I was done with my Master's at Suffolk University, I turned to focusing on teaching and writing for a few years.

Then, I became the Coordinator of Instructional Design at North Shore Community College.  In acquiring the job, I realized that though I was qualified, I still needed a stronger background in education.  That is, there was much that I intuited from my experiences as instructor and student, but needed a bit more formal training and technical background to fill in gaps.  In looking for graduate schools this time around, I did not bother to search much.  With the new position, state colleges and universities were the best bet in terms of affordability and UMASS Boston has a Masters in Education with a concentration on Instructional Design that fit.

I do plan on getting a doctorate's degree, but I will start the search process next year with the goal of starting in 2015.  I have a few projects to get off the ground in the interim.

Professional vs. Academic Master Degrees

As I mentioned above, my American Studies Master's Degree was much more challenging than my Public Administration master's degree.  My Instructional Design master's wasn't much more challenging than the Public Administration degree.  The reason is that there tend to be (at least) two kinds of Master's Degree:  the Academic Master's Degree and the Professional Master's Degree.

A good way to contrast this different is in the total work per course one expects.  In an academic program, a course usually has at minimum five or more books, minimum reading of 200 pages a week, and requires at least two papers, one of which is likely to be fifteen pages or longer.  The professional program typically has at most two books, requires less than 100 pages a week, and rarely includes more than ten-page paper.

Lance Eaton - Zombie version
Sometimes, this is what it takes to get through
an academic Master's degree.
The professional degree is typically easier and demands less of students, which for some is a winning endorsement.  However, that's where the degree is at its weakest.  In both professional programs, what I found most disappointing is the level of feedback.  If we take that term "Master" to mean anything, I would think it meant mastery of said subject matter.  But mastery is something that takes a lot of work and since we're talking about intellectual mastery, then it should follow that there should be intellectual rigor.

One's brain should get a serious workout.  However, that workout comes in two forms.  It comes in the form of being exposed to new information (reading, viewing, discussing newly exposed content) and it comes in the form of critically revising prior understandings about the content.  The key to this happening is offering up one's take and having it evaluated and criticized.  That is, critical feedback about how the student is making sense of the new content and progressing towards mastery of the topic is needed.  To some, this can feel like a brutal process wherein one funnels their energy, mind, and heart into (what he/she believes is) an awesome paper, only to have it returned with ample feedback that can feel negative (and even petty--and sometimes, that is true).  But the criticism feedback loop is essentially to pushing thinking and understanding of the subject by the student.  And it's this element--critical and articulate feedback--that I've found most lacking in professional Master's degrees.  It's just not there to the degree that I experienced it in the academic degree.

Why I found that so irksome is that particularly the contrast in what I was paying for my first Master's Degree (the academic one) and my second (the professional one), was substantial.  I paid triple the cost for a professional Master's Degree that gave me 1/3 the quality and intellectual return.

Thus, if I have one nugget of wisdom to bestow upon people looking for Master's Degrees, it would be to spend some time thinking about what kind of degree do you want.  Are you looking to be fundamentally challenged on a subject matter or merely for more professional opportunities?  More than anything else, that could significantly help you find a program that fits your needs most.

What have been your experiences with your Master's Degrees?  What did you like or dislike about them?

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  1. Great job. You are as highly educated as I am. I have two master's degrees: MBA & MSIT and working on a third, the MSMIS. But, I also have two graduate certificates in IT. I would like to follow your website so I bookmarked it.


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