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The Terminal MA


Over at Duck, PTJ has an interesting post about a student who decided to pursue a terminal MA in international relations in order to “certify idealism”. PTJ is a bit hostile to this notion, for some good reasons, but I have to say that I find it rather compelling.


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.

I’m not sure that I’d agree with this. 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. I design my own courses to familiarize students with the major policy debates; for example, I characterize my Defense Statecraft course as “what civilians ought to know about military affairs”. Now, 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.

PTJ further writes:

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. This is both because I don’t know what I have to specifically offer the young professional who is primarily interested in learning a thing or three about transnational crime or the Balkans or whatever and then going out to work for some NGO (my rolodex is not really all that filled with people who work for consulting firms and policy institutes in downtown Coruscant), and partially because 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. I neither know nor care what this contributes to their “certification,” since I’m only interested in their education.

There are a lot of different kinds of students in my program, including some who aspire to Ph.D.s What I’ve noted, though, is that there isn’t really a strong relationship between academic aptitude and interest in further education. A few of my very best students have had the (eminently healthy) attitude that an MA is sufficient for their career goals. A few are interested in further academic study, although not always in a social science field. This may be a personal difference between myself and PTJ, but 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.

It’s odd to find myself in the less cynical position, but I have to say that I’ve very much enjoyed teaching at a terminal MA program. MA students have two things that undergraduates often lack; a commitment to the subject matter, and a set of basic academic skills. Moreover, while I do enjoy teaching theory, I’ve found that I rather prefer teaching policy; delving into the Counter-Insurgency Field Manual is not only more fun than immersing oneself in the methodological critiques of the concept of strategic culture, it also strikes me as a lot more productive.

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