Have you ever thought about a terminal MA in Classics?
I have to confess, I hadn’t before coming to teach at Boston College, where we have such a graduate program. I had firsthand experience with Classics BAs in colleges that only granted undergraduate degrees, BAs and MAs in PhD-granting departments — heck, even a combined BA/MA program. But a freestanding MA degree that was a purposeful end goal rather than an add-on, an along-the-way, or a no-more-thanks? It never crossed my mind. To judge from the conversations that I’ve had since joining a department with a terminal MA program, I think that’s true of a lot of Classics faculty, as well as for a lot of students. And I also think that has led to some unfortunate misunderstandings about terminal MAs and their contributions, both to the field as a whole and to the personal and professional development of individual students.
In fact, this post has grown out of conversations begun at last year’s SCS between the terminal MA programs in the United States in response to a general sense (and more than a few explicit assertions) that many people don’t know what a Classics MA per se is “for” and why anyone would pursue one rather than, say, an MAT, a PhD, or a post-baccalaureate program. I want to share here a few thoughts that have developed from these conversations in order to dispel some myths and to offer some insights about their unique characters and benefits, both from faculty who teach in programs with terminal MAs and from students who have pursued these degrees.
Every program is different, but here are a few elements that many share in common. Terminal MA programs generally offer:
1) Funding. Yes, you read that right — and it’s often pretty substantial, as these things go. The majority of independent terminal MA programs (and a few terminal MAs housed within PhD-granting departments) in the US can offer full tuition remission (that is, they cover the full cost of attending the university) and stipends in exchange for service as a Teaching Assistant vel sim. The stipend amounts vary from program to program, as do the number of semesters students can earn them, but the average comes out to about $6,000 per semester for four semesters (and range as high as $10,000 per semester or last as long as six semesters). A few programs also offer stipended summer TAships. And while most universities require graduate students to pay student fees, the average for these is about $1,300 per year (a few departments even fully or partly cover those, so that the entire MA — less books and living expenses — costs nothing or close to it). A handful can provide partly or fully subsidized health and dental insurance. Finally, more than a few have funding to support travel for research or to participate in conferences or summer programs, such as those at the American Academy in Rome or the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
If you’re interested in applying to terminal MA programs, it’s a good idea to reach out directly to their Directors of Graduate Studies to understand what funding resources and opportunities are available (especially in the economic aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, when budgets and enrollment numbers have become more uncertain). But one key takeaway that faculty in these programs have emphasized repeatedly to me: by and large, terminal MA programs are not expensive cash cows, and their universities and departments are genuinely striving to make them affordable and accessible to everyone that they can.
2) Flexibility. Unlike PhD programs, whose focus traditionally has been the preparation of students to become faculty, terminal MAs often have more flexible paths towards careers. While a number of students successfully use MA programs to sharpen their language skills and to increase the breadth and depth of their Classics knowledge as stepping stones towards PhD programs, many more use them to explore other options and to prepare for other career paths. One of the commonest is teaching in K-12 schools, and here too terminal MA programs offer a lot of flexibility: some have strong placement records with private schools in specific geographic areas, some have longstanding connections to particular day or boarding schools, and although an undergraduate degree in education or an MAT program typically gives the clearest direction towards public school teaching, schools such as the University of Massachusetts at Boston have tracks within their MA that lead directly to state licensure. Terminal MA programs also provide diverse approaches to curricular content and methodology: UMass Boston and the University of Kentucky, for example, have programs that emphasize active Latin and/or ancient Greek (that is, centered on speaking and writing the ancient languages and on Comprehensible Input as an approach to learning and teaching), while Brandeis and the University of Arizona have tracks for students who want to focus on art and archaeology.
One common refrain in my conversations with other terminal MA program directors is that, no matter what prior preparation or interests you have in Classics, there’s a program that can help you deepen your studies. Some programs offer curricula and timelines to completion that can be adapted to meet the needs of those who have had limited or no opportunities yet to study the ancient languages or whose undergraduate program lacked specialized instruction and mentorship in history, art history, or archaeology. Others can work effectively for students who need or want to undertake graduate study part-time or during non-traditional hours. And many allow students to study exclusively Latin or ancient Greek or both simultaneously. In many ways, terminal MA programs are working hard as laboratories of Classics, to modify Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s phrase, experimenting with various models of graduate education in order to adapt to the diverse backgrounds, needs, and interests of students.
3) Continuing Education for Current K-12 Teachers. For Classicists currently teaching in K-12 schools who want to continue working while pursuing graduate study, PhD programs present serious barriers, both practical and psychological. Full-time graduate study requires a quantity of free time and work schedule that K-12 teachers don’t generally have the luxury of. But with their greater flexibility, terminal MA programs can provide a welcoming space for Classicists in K-12 schools to continue their studies and to build and maintain ties with the broader Classics community — as well as more tangible benefits, such as the salary bump and increased mobility that earning an MA can bring.
If you’re currently teaching in K-12 schools, are interested in pursuing graduate work in Classics, and live near a university with a terminal MA program, please reach out: many have expressed how eager they are to make space for K-12 teachers and to find ways to make that possible through evening classes, part-time study, or extended timetables for completing the degree. They also appreciate the unique skills and insights K-12 teachers bring. Some of the richest and most rewarding discussions in my courses have been sparked when advanced undergraduates, recent graduates, and veteran K-12 teachers have tackled a question together, or when older students share perspectives that come from life experience (I myself have learned a great deal from one of our recent graduates, a former police sergeant working to transition into a second career as a Latin teacher, whose insights into toxic masculinity and structures of authority took our class conversations in exciting directions that we would otherwise have missed).
4) Testing the Graduate Waters. One thing I’ve heard from several students who have enrolled in terminal MA programs with the intention of later pursuing a PhD, regardless of whether they continued with that original plan, is how valuable that experience was for learning what “graduate education” in Classics entails and whether or not additional graduate work was right for them. To be clear, I do not mean to imply that a terminal MA is PhD-lite. It is a fundamentally different experience, with different priorities, resources, and goals. Nevertheless, a terminal MA can highlight for students that graduate education is not merely undergraduate education 2.0. It is more autodidactic, often asking that students see their work for courses as a minimum starting point for their own explorations. And the MA gestures at the almost monomaniacal dedication, specialization, and sacrifice that pursuing a PhD — for good or ill — regularly requires. A year or two in a terminal MA program can help some realize, “Yes, this is what I want to keep doing,” and others, “No, this doesn’t give me what I’m looking for.” If you’re on the fence about whether pursuing a PhD is the right decision for you, you might want to consider a terminal MA not as a fallback option, but as a valuable way to gain greater clarity.
There are plenty of other aspects of terminal MA programs we could explore, and this post barely scratches the surface, but I hope it addresses some questions that have arisen lately and conveys where the current discussions about their contributions and characteristics stand. In the meantime, here is a list of institutions that currently offer terminal MA programs in Classics, in case you, your students, or your peers are considering this as a possible next step in their education and career:
Terminal MAs within PhD programs:
Header Image: Roman Bronze Diploma, 149 CE, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image under a CC0 License.