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My master’s degree is beautiful and useless

“A ‘Shakespeare Studies’ MA? Wow. So what are you going to… do… with that…?”

This response is pretty much standard when people hear what I’ve been doing with the past year of my life. And, to be honest, a few thousand dollars and roughly one million words about the stage objects of Renaissance theatre later, I’m not totally sure.  Which used to make me feel terrible, and now makes me feel excited and happy and free and shut up Uncle Jeffrey what do you even know.

I got into my MA program at King’s College London thinking that it was Step Two in a decade long, three degree process that would lead to me becoming a university professor. Then I realized there are a lot of reasons why I don’t think academia is the place I want to spend my life. Plus I started performing again, happily fell into some creative writing opportunities, and started getting SO cheesy and embarrassing about how there’s nothing wrong with following your dreams (But really! There’s not!) and why wouldn’t we? Surely that’s the point of youth at least.

With grad school applications rising concurrently with unemployment rates, I think a lot of people—who can afford to do so, and I recognize there is a great deal of privilege at play here—are taking an extra year at school as a way to think through some bigger concepts about science, history, literature, and also about themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard on the papers I was assigned, enjoyed my classes and lectures, and did (most of) the required readings. However, I also had no more than eight hours of class per week, which gave me a LOT of time to wander around London, writing non-school stuff in the corners of cafes and indulging in early-twenties solipsism in parks and pubs. (“Solipsism” and “casual Pimm’s drinking” apply equally here.)

While I understand the concerns of Uncle Jeffrey* and others, I can’t help but think that “how will you practically apply your weirdly specific master’s degree immediately after you graduate” is a slightly reductive way to look at continuing education. Undergraduate degrees are commonplace these days, and don’t necessarily constitute a leg up in the job market. The utility of any level of degree is changing, and it seems reasonable that the factors leading someone to enroll in what we somewhat pretentiously call “higher education” are changing as well.  A look at some of the newer programs on offer—undergrad degrees in enigmatology, master’s degrees in “The Beatles, Popular Music, and Society,” etc.—suggest that it’s not just me taking classes purely out of interest in the subject and a desire for more time to think things through instead of an immediate post-graduation reward.

And, to be fair, I was rewarded immediately upon completing my master’s degree—with a super-fulfilling, completely unpaid internship at the job of my dreams. I worked SO hard, for free, for months. And I loved it… until my scholarship money ran out and I remembered that you need food to live. It is, I suppose, necessary at this juncture to note that this lone article is probably the only paid work my degree will ever get me… and that the point of this very article is, ironically, to reiterate that THAT IS OKAY! (I know that irony is powerful because I have spent years writing essays about all the different types of it, and also because hipsters.)

Fretting about the potential usefulness of a degree in Medieval studies or French Restoration art or Classical history is, I think, unnecessary. Embrace its technical uselessness! What does ‘useful’ even mean in this context? Who gets to define it? No one. You do. If anything, take some time to revel in the opportunity to immerse yourself in something that might not get you a job at a law firm or a giant banking conglomerate. Since when are those the end goals to an education anyway? Isn’t the whole lengthy, expensive process supposed to be about the joy of learning and personal betterment and developing your own unique worldview? Not to get too “grad school” about it, but I feel like we are in the middle of a paradigm shift, wherein the ‘university = guaranteed employment’ ideal promoted by our Boomer parents is crumbling, and the meaning of higher education is being revealed as transmutable, different for each individual who passes through that system. It’s very postmodern, it’s very “culture studies degree,” and I think it’s very exciting.

* Not a real uncle, guys, but you know what I am trying to do here so just let me.

~ Monica Heisey

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