There have been a number of studies which report that if you do a Masters degree you are likely to earn 25% more a year than without. Now this might be true in the heady world of business, but I’m not sure that this would be as true with a career in Education. I can be honest and say that I did not enter into my own Masters with any great financial incentive, in fact I had already thought I might be out of pocket for a few years. Given that, why would you choose to do a Postgraduate research degree, especially when the whole world, and in particular the world of work, is changing all around us. Well, that in itself is one reason, which I will expand on in a moment.
When I started my Masters degree or even my doctorate, it was not in the midst of a pandemic, but it was at least for me at a time of reflection. I’ve always pondered the heart/head debate and choosing to take on a Postgraduate research degree has been one of those moments for me. These decisions often happen at a crossroads in your life, that was true for me and I’ve never regretted the decisions I made since. At this global time of reflection it has been on my mind to think, why would you choose a Masters. In fact this week I am hosting some online drop in sessions to share just that with my PGCE teachers as they come to the end of their course. Given everything they have had to endure and continue to endure this year this might be the last thing on their mind, but I still believe it is the smart option. So this blog is very simply going to try to answer that question: why do a Masters? I was going to attempt to give you ten reasons, but ended up with 15 and so in the interests of being balanced I also thought about some reasons why not.
- It is an investment in yourself. As mentioned above, some would go so far as to suggest that completing a Masters can result in an increased wage across your career. However, it is not that kind of investment that I am thinking of in particular. It is more about thinking about yourself, the kind of person you are and what you want out of life. Are there things that you want to investigate further. It is about recognising the complexity of our identities in that we are more than our jobs and that we have a lot to offer the world. Spending the time and money on taking part in a Masters programme is worth it if you want to develop yourself and the way that you think.
- You can study something you are genuinely interested in. Lots of people have different areas of interest, or problems they want to solve, or challenges they want to face and these are often a product of the work and experience that you bring to the course. It is a great idea to work to discover more about these particular areas of interest and even to become and expert on that topic. This too might seem indulgent, but the great thing about carrying out research in Education is that there is a good chance that your discoveries can have a positive impact in the workplace.
- You get to be a researcher instead of just reading about them or pretending you are one. You only have to dip your toe into educational Twitter, or have a good look at a lot of books that have been published in recent years, to see that research in Education is discussed far and wide. There are some excellent examples out there, but there are also a lot of examples of people saying a lot about research even though they have never done this themselves. It is a lot of fun to actually become a researcher yourself and to get stuck into the wonderful world of paradigms and methodologies.
- It opens doors for you. People do really take notice of your qualifications. Lots of people add their qualifications on places like Twitter and LinkedIn and this seems to be even more evident during this time of lockdown (as I write). When applying for higher level posts, it is worth really thinking about how you set out your CV and whether or not your are promoting your most important experience and qualifications. Lots of people never rewrite their CVs and don’t adjust them to be appropriate to the post they have applied to. You can easily use your experiences of completing a Masters as part of your interviews as it demonstrates ability in a number of ways, not least because…
- You acquire a brand new set of skills. I could go on a lot about this, but promise not to get carried away. In particular, I think it is incredibly useful in developing critical thinking skills and also the ability to write critically as a reflective practitioner. You are also required to engage with a wide range of arguments and be prepared to be critical of them, to synthesise arguments and perhaps most importantly to begin to develop your own critical voice.
- It could take your career in a new direction. It did for me and has certainly developed careers for many teachers I know. Not least it could lead to the ability to apply for more senior posts with increased confidence. As mentioned before it gives you an area of expertise to share during applications and interviews. It could also mean that you bring with you new material to a new post, or even a new perspective. You might end up changing direction with your work, for example continuing with research or applying for a different role in Education.
- It can enhance your current work. It did for me and I’ve also seen this for others. When I completed my Masters I was working as a Deputy Head and it led to a number of new initiatives. One in particular I remember came from reading a research article on schools in a small town in New Foundland and this led to the writing and implementation of a new curriculum for Key Stage 3 in my workplace. You encounter so many different perspectives, it challenges and shakes up your own way of thinking…
- A fresh challenge can stop you becoming stale. Once you have been teaching for a while you can easily build up a lot of experience and expertise with the delivery of your work. Whilst it is great to be able to build upon that confidence it can also mean that you can become comfortable. This can mean, although it does not have to mean, that you can become stale and possibly even out of date with your thinking. Ideas are always changing in Education, new research is always coming in to effect and sometimes it is easy to fall behind and not be aware of new ideas. This is why doing a Masters can be so important, to keep you fresh and up to date.
- You connect with people outside of your comfort zone. As part of that comfort zone it is easy to also move within the same group of colleagues. We have people we connect to and work with. Remember how keen students are to ask who are your best friends in the staff room! Engaging with a Masters programme enables you to connect to a whole new group of people. These can be people we can then network with not only across the country, but across the globe. This can happen even at a time of restricted access! I have wonderful students that I work with who are all over the world and they have already shown an ability to work together and connect with each other.
- You push yourself to the next level. Learning never stops. We are continuously trying to push that message across to our pupils and so it is good to be modelling that to our students ourselves.
- If it is good enough for Finland. Many of you will be familiar with the different debates about teachers in Finland and the expectations regarding their training. Certainly there are different expectations regarding the importance of teachers engaging with Masters programmes with many applying for 5 year long degrees. The article linked here talks about the Masters and accompanying training and how this enables teachers to be more autonomous in their work. Worth looking at their experiences.
- It doesn’t have to bankrupt you. I was able to pay my Masters in instalments and many course enable you to do this. Alternatively some courses also allow you to be able to access a Masters loan which helps with the financial impact. Some Masters courses are very pricey, but others can be really reasonable. Definitely worth shopping around with different institutions, particular to work out which are able to deliver with distance learning.
- Research gives you a new authoritative voice. As you develop your critical voice then it becomes even more possible for you to speak confidently on a range of issues. This can give you a real boost and as said before it can help as you make the move to other roles.
- It could lead to more. It should lead to more and that is what is so exciting about taking the first steps on the research road. There are a number of different options once you have done a Master, not least the possibility of a Doctorate. This is yet another big leap, but an entirely possible one. There are lots of ways of working in Education and completing a Masters might take you in a different direction.
It is a great feeling when that certificate arrives. It really is. Plus of course you can have a new gown, another graduation – pandemic permitting. It is a chance to celebrate all that work you did and what you have accomplished.
Depending on the kind of person you are (and this will be a big factor in the research you undertake) this could be a head/heart decision. It certainly was for me and I am so glad that, even as a busy Head of Department in a crazily busy school, I started to head along the research road. It wasn’t easy and took longer than I thought it would as I changed jobs half way through, but I’ve never looked back. As one fellow researcher said to me recently, ‘research is definitely addictive, you get a taste for it’.
Some people keep saying that they are going to do it, usually for reason number one, but it just never seems to happen. I think this is because it does involve a leap of faith, doing a Masters almost certainly comes with a big helping of uncertainty, there are no guarantees for me that part of the fun, there is a fixed bar of achievement and you have to work to it, not the other way round.
Of course, I am totally biased as I am so enthusiastic about Masters that I lead them and write new material for them. However, that is another reason to enter into this work in itself, recognising your own biases and making sure that they are challenged. It is not for everyone, some people start the process and don’t finish it, but I would still think that it is better trying than doubting your ability to do it in the first place. There is already too much imposter syndrome about in education, the choice of whether or not to do a Masters should not be another area where people doubt their potential. There is a lot of talk about being a critically reflective practitioner, I believe that embarking on a Masters helps you bridge the gap between research and practice for yourself. I was recently discussing ‘the fallacy of theory less practice’ (Thompson, 2000, p32) with my students. Doing a Postgraduate research degree enables to challenge whether you are choosing certain strategies for the best reasons or just taking someone else’s word for it (who may not even have done any research themselves!). I have had no regrets and embarking on a research degree path has led to all kinds of wonderful adventures. Why not?
By Dr Bethany Kelly
Director of Programmes, School of Education, University of Buckingham