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. Wow! This sounds like me. I had a MA in TESOL but also interested in International Education and Instructional Design. I'm wondering if I should add two more Masters and then get a doctorate. I love colllege and if I could take classes for a living I would. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I would say go for it, if you're comfortable with the costs or work at a college/university so it can be significantly subsidized. I can't say I set out to do 3 masters...but well, that's how it played out. Currently, I am working on my doctorate and enjoying it, because well...I really do enjoy the learning!

  3. Hey, so glad I found this post. It's been a while, I'm curious where your career has taken you since. I have a master's in Instructional Systems Design and currently finishing one in General Psychology. I'm a bit torn on what I want to do next between an EdD in Instructional Technologies and Distance Education or a THIRD master's in Counseling Psychology with a track in Applied Behavior Analysis.....decisions decisions....

    1. Sorry it took me a while to reply--the comments weren't sending notifications. Currently, I'm in the dissertation phase of a PhD in Higher Education. It seemed like the forgone conclusion after doing 3 masters and spending 18 of the last 19 years in higher ed as a student, staff, or faculty (or sometimes, all 3).

  4. I am working on my 3rd master degree. I have an MBA, a M-ARC, and am working on a Master of Theology. I finish in 2 years. Not sure where I will go after the theology degree. It will either be a Law Degree or a PhD. Perhaps I will do both. I am 59 years old. If I get the PhD at this point I am thinking Systematic Theology, but am not sure. I googled 3 masters degrees and this popped up. I wanted to know how common it was for people to have this. I, like you do not see the logic in getting another Masters. I am also doing classes at a J.C. and will be taking acting for 2 years with competitive speech classes to prepare me for law school and to be a better communicator. They have a world class culinary program also so I may as I waiting for Law School to start after the LSAT and application period, will do culinary school. I am also studying music. I suppose I can identify with you, especially with need to do doctorate next, but I have wanted to be a lawyer for some time and 3 years of time to do this in the interim seems like a smart move. I have been building relationship with law school in the University of California and also the Ivy league. Seminary will likely be last degree if I do the doctorate. Just thought I would chime in - Blessings!

  5. Lance you're a legend. I've come back to this post throughout my educational career as pure motivation. And I know others have or will find this post when they are in the same mindset to reach greater heights in life.

    I pursued a Management and Leadership masters (18') WGU, Fashion Marketing master's (19'), and Entertainment Business masters (20') Full Sail University. I got the 3-peat lol

    Waited three years to say this but here it is "Thank You". Goodluck with the completion of your PHD and Never Give Up.

    Utmost Respect,

    1. Hey ZZ,

      That's great! You did 3 masters in 3 years--WOW! That's amazing and not even sure it is something I could even imagine doing. Contrgrats!

  6. I am in the middle of my 2nd MA degree in Foreign Language Teaching. Technically, my first one was an MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching), and it was not rigorous at all...definitely a professional degree. Were your chances of admission into your PhD program affected by having 3 masters degrees, or did the admissions committee seem to like it or find it impressive?

    1. Great question Edward. I don't know that my chances of admission were stronger by having 3 masters' degrees but rather by how I framed them and connected them to my work and my goals in pursuing a doctorate. I do think the ability to tell a clear story about it all helped them to see having the degrees as a positive thing. I hope that makes sense!

  7. Hi, I'm still a high school student but it won't be long for me to graduate. Right now I'm just stuck on what to plan before college. My three interests are in computer science, fashion design, and architecture. I was planning to get a bachelors for both computer science and fashion design. After I would get a masters for all three subjects of my interests. I question if this plan is possible after a bit of researching through the web. Also I'm in a vocational high school, and the program I take is computer aided drafting and design, and it's possible for me to do co-op for the next two terms (Co-op is work related to my program on the week I'm supposed to attend classes related to my program. My school works with a switch between academics/program week schedule.) So I wonder if this can apply as experience for architecture and fashion design. My program does assignments related to those industries, and one of my program instructor also mentioned that those three subjects that I'm interested in are sort of involved with each other. Otherwise, is getting those three masters considerably worth it? I'd like any opinions please.

    1. Hi Omo,

      Thanks for reading and sharing. I'll premise my following response with a caveat that I'm less familiar with the industries and their expectations and anticipated career paths. I'll also emphasize here that my lens is higher education in the US so if you are from another country, my thoughts may be even less applicable :)

      My first thought is to learn about the industries you're interested in to figure out what kinds of experiences are sought after and if you can actually do that in a co-op opportunity. It would seem that CAD or comptuer programming might be useful since often that's a skill that companies look for and you can continue to work on coding projects throughout your college education. In college, I would recommend picking one (fashion or architecture) but with an eye to the other in your projects for classes, as a minor (if possible) or in making sure you just take a few extra courses in that space. Ideally, by the time you get to the end of your undergraduate experience, you'll want to have a stronger sense of a few things:

      1. Where industries are masters' degrees or advance graduate training important or relevant for hiring and promotion? (For instance, I would anticipate that advance education is expected in part for architecture but less so for fashion, which might be more about your portfolio of work).

      2. Are careers still viable in each industry (e.g. is there a huge demand or are jobs far and few?)?

      3. What other professional development do each of these industries expect?

      4. By the end of undergraduate, do you still feel strongly about all three topics or has some risen with interest while others feel more like hobbies or secondary interests?

      5. Through undergraduate, by having all 3 in your head as you think about your learning, is there a unique space/field/pursuit that you might be able to use all 3? If so, what does that look like and do you need another degree in any of them OR do you need something else to better glue your vision together?

      I dunno if that's helpful but it's what comes to mind when thinking about your reply. Thank you!

  8. This post was really impressive I came here to see how common this was, I'm currently in Initial officer training for the Air force as an Engineer and enrolled in a part time maths/stats masters, ill also start a full time masters towards the end of the year in comp science through the D.O.D for the air force following up on my Bsc in software engineering that I currently hold.

    My goal is to break into the space sector within the next decade (I know I'm looking a long way down the line). Often leading to me asking myself am I doing the right thing pursuing these degree's hopefully it works out and a PhD is definitely something I would like to consider further down the line only maybe part time.

    Either way thanks for sharing your experience.


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