Having a Master's Degree: Good News and Not So Good News

Let us say that you are an adjunct instructor with a Master’s degree in your content area and several years of pertinent teaching experience; however, the current job market has made it challenging to find a full-time, long-term teaching position. You wonder if you should just hang in there; after all, things have to improve sometime. Perhaps you are weighing the option of continuing with your education and working toward a Ph.D. to make yourself more marketable. There is so much conflicting information on the subject right now; one school of thought says you must do whatever you need to do, including continuing your own education to give yourself a better chance. Another school of thought says the time and expense would not be worth it, because there are already too many Ph.D.s in the academic job market, a “glut.”
Whatever you decide, keep in mind that there is no perfect or obvious option. You may be able to have a long and successful career teaching college without a Ph.D. or doctoral degree, and there is both good news and not so good news about having a master’s degree in today’s academic job market. Here are some examples:
Good News: Some colleges are hiring Master’s degree instructors with English composition teaching experience to teach composition rather than hiring Ph.D.s trained in literature with no experience teaching composition. From one Inside Higher Ed article, “We get these cover letters and they are so out of tough with what we need,” one community college faculty member said of those seeking to teach writing. “We’re looking for someone who has actually been in a community college classroom, and they are writing letters about their dissertations in literature.” http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/18/cccc
Not So Good News: Many colleges with jobs for adjuncts are requiring PhDs, not master’s degrees. There are so many Ph.D.s in the academic job market, that supply exceeds demand and the Ph.D.s are taking the jobs usually given to adjuncts with Master’s degrees.
Good News: With so many colleges trying to save money, the employment of instructors with masters could save the college almost half of the money that would be paid to instructors with Ph.D.s. Two lecturers for the price of one professor! http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos066.htm
Not So Good News: The Master’s may get the job, but not a position on the tenure track. Tenure track positions are usually reserved for instructors with Ph.D.s; instructors with Master’s are likely to get a contract for one to three years with the possibility of renewal. You know what this means: you can buy new furniture, but maybe not a house to put it in.
Good News: Holders of Master’s degrees have mastered their content area and are often excellent teachers. The Ph.D. has been trained in research which may or may not improve his or her teaching skills. You can be a great teacher with only a Master’s degree.
Not So Good News: Many universities have rules which dictate a maximum number of years you can work consecutively before they must offer you a full-time, tenure track position. For some schools, it is “six years and you’re out.” When I taught at a public university a few years ago, the rule was that you could teach three contract years in a row, but then you had to take a year off before they would hire you to teach again.
Good News: Because of the large demand for adjunct instructors, you will always be able to find a job.
Not So Good News: Because of the nature of the system, you may always be looking for a job.
Like anything else, there are no hard and fast rules about continuing higher education. It has to be your personal decision based on the best information possible and based on you, what you really want. Can you find a way to pay for another degree and is the acquisition of a Ph.D. or doctorate a burning desire of yours? Then, do it! On the other hand, if you are only doing it because you think you should, or if the money or time required will place a real hardship on you, then the master’s may be your terminal degree.

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