Wednesday, November 7, 2007

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Training the MAs

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson has a rather odd post at Duck of Minerva in which he questions the utiliy of an MA in international relations. Which is OK, except I'm pretty sure that's the degree program in which he teaches:

I have to admit that at some level I simply do not understand the idea of a terminal MA degree in international relations, although I teach in a policy school that awards large numbers of them every year. I do not understand what is supposed to be gained through the course of study that most MA students engage in, since they don't do enough coursework to develop a real scholarly grasp of the field (or even of their specialized portion of it) and at least in my experience they generally don't do enough concrete skills-training to really develop themselves as competent professionals (and when they do, it comes in their internships rather than in the classroom, which is what virtually any MA in international relations will tell you if you ask them where they learned the most during their graduate school experiences). So as far as I can tell it is largely a certification and networking exercise, and an expensive one at that.

When I teach and work with MA students I am generally looking for those students who really wanted a Ph.D. but perhaps didn't know it yet. Either that or I am looking for those rare MA students who are actually interested in scholarship as a vocation.... as a professor I largely only have one thing to offer to anyone: I press people to clarify their arguments and to take the implications of their commitments more seriously. Period. In my experience a very small minority of MA students find this helpful, and I primarily work with those students.

Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Rob Farley dissents from this view:
The courses in a terminal MA program (at least the one I'm part of) are far more policy oriented, with a correspondingly greater focus on the empirical over the theoretical, than students would encounter in a political science program. Memos are a learned skill, as is the ability to skim the news for noteworthy events, manage time, and so forth.... it's possible that nothing genuinely productive is happening here, but I'd really like to think that students emerge with a firmer grasp of the debates, a stronger sense of the empirical, and a few skills that they'll need in the workplace. As such, it's really irrelevant whether they have a scholarly grasp of the field; indeed, such a grasp might even be counter-productive....

I came to the conclusion very, very quickly that looking for potential Ph.D. candidates would be a serious mistake, both in terms of projecting my own interests onto students who didn't care, and in shortchanging those very talented students who couldn't give a rat's ass about the arcane debates that define the academic study of international relations. In general, I've been very reluctant to encourage even the most capable students to pursue further study, in no small part because I think that they'll have more lucrative and productive careers outside of academia than within.

As I begin my second year at Fletcher, I'm definitely with Farley on this one. If you want to ensure a life of wretched misery, teach at a policy school and try to convert persuade your favorite students to get a Ph.D. Most likely you'll fail in your efforts, which will embitter you. If, God forbid, you succeed, you'll embiter the student 90% of the time.

You cannot and should not coax a student into getting a Ph.D. You can tell them they have the intellectual chops for it, but for them to commit to four five six more than six years of grad school, they need to have the internal compulsion to do it. (To be clear, I'm not actively dissuading my MAs either. If they come to me with the Ph.D. ambition, I'll try to suss out their underlying motivations. If I'm persuaded, then I'll offer my full-throated support.]

As for the training, the goal shouldn't be to ensure that the students have "a real scholarly grasp of the field." You should ensure, however, that they are trained well enough to become discriminating consumers of the policy and scholarly literature (I suspect that Jackson does this when he presses his students to, "clarify their arguments and to take the implications of their commitments more seriously"). Beyond that, as Farley suggests, the skill set of policymakers looks rather different from those of scholars.

UPDATE: A commenter to this post makes an excellent point:

I feel that the best IR/Policy MAs are those earned from institutions that requre their applicants to have actually DONE something before matriculating....

Mr. Jackson teaches at a MA program with a significantly younger study body, and which admits a very significant number of MA students directly out of undergrad. Maybe this makes a difference?

So true.

posted by Dan on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM


I'm with Farley, also. Honestly, I can think of no reason other than ego to adopt PTJ's position on this one (call it the will to mentor?).

posted by: dissenter on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

Many years ago (sadly), when I was completing my undergraduate thesis in modern Chinese politics, I mentioned to my thesis advisor (then a prominent academic in the field)that I was considering getting a joint degree in IR and law. He told me that this made no sense, and I should either go for a PhD, go work in Government (if that was my interest) or get a joint degree in law and business. He said that all an MA in IR will do is allow me to delay my career decision for sometime and maybe give me something to talk about at parties.

In the end, I follwed his advise (at least partially). After working at State briefly(which he had generously helped me organize), I went to law school and, like many lawyers, ended up working in finance (overseas, btw, so the IR bug never completely left me).

posted by: NJK on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

I'm also with Farley on this one, but have to say that I feel that the best IR/Policy MAs are those earned from institutions that requre their applicants to have actually DONE something before matriculating.

SAIS, SIPA, Fletcher, KSG, Georgetown and MIIS all fall into this camp. Their students tend to be in their late 20s and to have had a couple of years working in DC, New York or overseas, in the private sector, government or the Peace Corps, not to mention those who come from the military. As a result, they come to the MA program with much more experience and a better understanding of what they want to learn.

Mr. Jackson teaches at a MA program with a significantly younger study body, and which admits a very significant number of MA students directly out of undergrad. Maybe this makes a difference?

posted by: &chik on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

I appreciate the dialogue, and have a question dealing less with pedagogical theory and more with the reality of enrolling in an IR MA program. Simply put, should someone interested by employment in the public sector or in public policy complete a two-year MA course?

I imagine that if the goal of such an MA in IR is to train a student 'to become discriminating consumers of the policy and scholarly literature', the same could be self-taught through a few years of work experience. Or, is the advantage of an MA simply in placing it on your resume to increase legitimacy and open opportunities for jobs?

posted by: msg on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]


At this point in the game, if you are younger than 35, the MA is most certainly a gate-keeping measure for jobs in public policy or the public sector. Beyond the simple fact that there are TONS of qualified folks and employers need a way to sort through them, there exist certain jobs that you can't even apply for without the MA.

The best example of this phenomenon is domestic jobs with the Department of State or USAID, both of which are only easily accessible through the PMF process. One can only apply to become a PMF directly out of grad school, making those jobs very difficult to get without an MA.

posted by: &chik on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

I don't comment here much, although I read it everyday. I'm right in the middle on this issue. I went to a terminal MA program - the one that PTJ teaches at actually. When I started the program I had an interest in getting my Ph.D. I had chosen that program despite the terminal degree because I wanted to be in the location and had experience with the University previously. One of our opening exercises was to divide ourselves off onto people who were there for the theoretical/academic study and those who were there for more skills-training-type study. I was the only one in my group who was on the academic study side. However, by the time I arrived in PTJ's class (at the end of my program) I was beyond burned out. It wasn't from the study -- I was loving what little of that I got to do. Instead it was from having to work full-time to afford to live here (I won't even go into the full scholarship that I was denied because the school forgot -!!!- to pull my file after I deferred for a year to go on a Fulbright research scholarship).

My point is that PTJ's class was the only one in my program that truly engaged me and excited me on an academic level. So I appreciate that he taught it the way he thought it should be taught and not -like most of my professors - solely to get out of it what you could use in a non-profit sector job. However, I'm quite certain that I'm not one of the students he was "looking for" because by that point I was little more than a drone in a seat. Yet, he still engaged me -most likely without knowing it- and I'm still reading his course materials four years later.

However, what was most useful in my job? The courses where I learned to write a clear policy paper/memo, of course. They didn't challenge me; in most cases they barely kept my attention. I'm certainly not reading the course materials years later. But, since I didn't end up pursuing a Ph.D., I'm glad I sat through those classes too because I couldn't have gotten my current job without the degree.

posted by: darth kittius on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

I don't have much to contribute to this conversation, but as someone who's thinking of pursuing a joint IR MA and JD in the near-ish future, any thoughts on the utility of that combo would be appreciated. My reasons are severalfold:

- I only want to go back to school one more time, and I'm not going to get just a JD because I don't want to be a lawyer, but I'd feel kind of stupid coming out of my next (and last) foray into higher ed without a law degree.
- My area of interest is the actual administration of US foreign policy, an area where the ability to navigate prolix, specific documents like treaties, statutes, int'l law, federal budgets, etc. could be useful.
- Per Farley's point, I feel like the skills involved in both degree programs compliment and amplify each other.

Yes? No?

posted by: Daniel Munz on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

To clarify: I do in fact teach in a school with a large MA program in IR, but I mostly teach undergrads these days since I still don't think that I have much to offer students looking to immediately enter the job market (thanks, darth_kittius -- to have the stuff I assigned read years later makes me feel like I did my job -- my real job, as opposed to the certification-and-training job that so much of any MA program seems to be about). And I don't think that my role in the MA program is to convert/persuade people to Ph.D. study as much as it is to provide support to those people who, in my opinion, genuinely ended up in the wrong program: they wanted an academic degree, they are getting a professional degree (where the "profession" here is something other than "academic" -- obviously a Ph.D. is also a professional degree for aspiring academics, in addition to being an occasion for serious intellectual reflection on things).

If I were an MA student looking for employment in the policy world I wouldn't want to take one of my classes. They'd be far too abstract and detached -- far too much social science, far too little practical wisdom. I'd want instructors with a lot of real-world experience and loads of professional contacts, because that might be more useful to me in the near-term.

What frustrates me, and what largely fueled the initial post, is the way that we have created these spaces in contemporary universities for job training and are calling it "education." Memo-writing, IMHO, is a skill one ought to pick up once one is employed; it's not the kind of thing that we ought to be spending or perhaps wasting our valuable classroom-time on. The fact that the economics of so many major universities' IR programs are intimately interwoven with this job training function is, to my mind, quite distressing. It's kind of of like college football in Division I schools: that's the "minor leagues" for aspiring pro football players. Every time I look at that I kind of scratch my head and think, "and this fits the social purpose of the university how, exactly?" I feel similarly about most professional MA programs, but especially about MA programs in IR.

posted by: ProfPTJ on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

Prof. Jackson's reply, together with the discussion on the instrumental value of a professional MA, raises a few questions for me.

Why the heck aren't "job-training" type qualifications, like writing memos, being picked up in specialized semester-long courses in college? If they are, is there any reason, beyond arbitrary "weeding-out" concerns, that such qualifications are not appreciated in the types of jobs that require these MAs? For that matter, if the point of some of these programs (or parts of some of these programs) is simply to "get certified," isn't that what specialized "certificate" programs were created for?

It seems to me that a year or two of unfunded, rather expensive education is a lot to demand of candidates for jobs which, in the short term, probably don't pay very well (but correct me if I'm wrong).

I've long had the prejudice that "terminal MA" applies primarily to those graduate students whose erstwhile scholarly careers are "terminated" by any number of considerations (life, revelation, admissions errors, etc). But maybe that's a function of where I'm from (Canada, where most "stand-alone" MA programs are PhD track and really for figuring out if one has the chops and the will to continue with academia).

posted by: Aldous on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

A few replies:

Munz: If your trust fund is sufficiently large that the extra two years of tuition and lost income isn't a factor for you than an IR/JD just for the sheer interest of it makes sense, I guess. I can't imagine that the career benefits would outweigh the cost/time.

Aldous: in the US those professionally-oriented MA programs are large and numerous; probably their grads greatly outnumber people with "IR MA" where that means they left a PhD program. And, they *are* the certificate programs; I'm not sure what other ones you might mean. The fundamental issue is that there is a sufficiently large oversupply of young people who want IR-type jobs that the market can easily use possession of an MA as a screening mechanism in order to reduce the number of applicants to those who: 1) still want the job after two straight years of IR classes; and 2) either 2a) have sufficiently rich parents or 2b) are sufficiently motivated to take out $100,000 in loans.

Prof PTJ: I was with commenter #1 at first, but at least you are trying to place yourself in front of the right audience and do seem to recognize the awkwardness of your situation. Given the large number of policy-interested IR profs who are frustrated to be in PhD departments that don't respect those leanings, perhaps a trade could be worked out? Seems there's a Pareto-superior solution to be had here.

Finally, one thing I do not get at all are the many poli-sci departments that don't offer a PhD, but do offer an MA not of the Fletcher/SAIS style but that is just PhD-lite (or undergrad-plus) coursework. What is the point? I'm not sure it's that helpful for admission to a PhD program beyond just having the BA, unless say you have a B+ GPA then stay an extra year or two and get a 4.0 in the Master's courses.

On second thought, I can see some credentialing purposes. Notably, high school teachers typically get higher pay for having MAs in an academic subject. Even so, I wouldn't look forward to teaching in such a program -- I'd be wondering what we were doing other than trolling for more tuition money.

posted by: anIRprof on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

I was enrolled in a MA-level degree in IR. My brother is right now. Several other friends are in some others programmes.

We were all in top universities. Most of us were interested in the PhD.

Well, what I can say is that these "practical" masters had however very little of practical. And even less of theoretical.

My impression is strongly negative.

1) Everybody is certain to obtain his or her certificate. Conclusion: never studied so few in my life. Hardly I could found a less intellectual engaging environment. The more you study, the less you get. What is required is very weak knoweldge of what you study, then "you bullshit". At the end of the year, a friend who has always performed better than me told me "I finally understood the difference between neorealism and classical realism". I think most of my classmates never read Waltz 1979, Keohane 1984 and Wendt1999. Obviously, their essays were on these topics.

2) You have barely the time to study. While you are in grad school, first you have to think about Job Applications, then the Career services, then you have to follow graduate instrutions schemes (basically they tell you that in grad school you have to do everything but study), then follow the deadlines, then think about the dissertation, respect the academic requirements, bla bla bla etc. Those who take it more easy opt for "party-year". Sometimes I felt I was back in primary school.

3) Companies will hire you despite of your knowledge and of your results. Economists call these schools "signalling". One has to pay 40 or 50.000 $ a year to tell a company: "hey, I am a bit smarter than those around". Would it not be more efficient to work for free for a company for a two-years period and do the readings on the week-end? I think so.

The final observation is very simple: these people graduate in IR are supposed to be the leaders of the next generations. I really think we will MORE THAN MISS THE COLD WAR!

best regards, anonimous who is applying to his PHD and would like to avoid any revenge.

ps: I really enjoyed an essay of prof. Jackson. It was about the Constructivist/Realist split.
... No, the reason I am telling this is not that my classmates do not know who prof. Jackson is. The reason I am telling it is because they do not even know what Realism is!

posted by: anonimous - i am applying to the phd on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

Munz wrote:

I'm not going to get just a JD because I don't want to be a lawyer, but I'd feel kind of stupid coming out of my next (and last) foray into higher ed without a law degree.

If you don't want to be a lawyer, don't get a JD. And "feeling stupid because you'd come out of your next foray into higher ed without a law degree" is an exceedingly poor rationale for getting a JD.

posted by: temoc94 on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

To Prof. Jackson: Dude! A B.A. is mostly about credentials. So does that mean you aren't interested in undergrad teaching? An M.A. is just part of the credentials arms race. Once upon a time, one could be upper-middle class with just a H.S. degree and a B.A. really set you apart. No longer. Even a PhD is a credential for entering the college teaching guild.

To anIRprof:

"Academic" M.A. programs have their uses. As you note, they can help promising students live down undergrad GPAs that do not reflect their abilities -my GPA (several years of grade inflation ago, admittedly) was LESS than a B+ and I am now on the tenure track at a leading university. Probably my time in a terminal academic M.A. program -unpleasant as it was in many ways- gave me a boost. I was not the only one to complete a Ph.D elsewhere.

In addition, community college instructors, as well as high school teachers get terminal "academic MAs." The former need them. Maybe in glutted fields (English, History) there are more Ph.Ds teaching at community colleges, but historically this has been an area dominated by MA-holders.

Finally, sometimes an M.A. program is a nice compromise for a school. The one I attended did not have a faculty in my discipline that could have supported a solid PhD program. Nevertheless, the faculty -for selfish, egotistical reasons- WANTED to become a PhD program, but this proposal was shot down. At the same time life for the Profs was made slightly more stimulating by having M.A. students around and some served as R.A.'s and even T.A.s. I think it was a mutually beneficial exchange.

There was also a MPA program which attracted in-state students who wanted to be city managers. THOSE students were in some classes with the MA students and were less interested in theory or going on to get a PhD.

posted by: Vito Marzullo on 11.07.07 at 11:02 PM [permalink]

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