In defense of the all-too-uncommon humanities coterm

Opinion by Winston Shi
Feb. 23, 2015, 10:13 p.m.

There are a few things every Stanford student needs to do before graduation: party on the ruins of Meyer Library, walk onto the football team and of course, find a way to stick around a little longer. (I have only done one of these things. No points for guessing which.) I decided to get started early; I hunted around, weighed my options, and in my everlasting drive to stay at Stanford forever, I got into a history coterm. And now, you’re asking…who coterms in history, anyway? And if not history, then where else?

The answer is…I’m in a small minority. Coterminal students are heavily slanted towards the engineering fields. Plenty of Stanford students (about 15-20 percent) do coterm programs and spend a year or two at graduate school, but that’s a figure vastly inflated by the School of Engineering, where approximately two out of every five students go on to pursue a master’s degree.

But these numbers don’t really do justice to the sheer disparity in majors that we see. Let’s take a closer look at the data. In 2012-13 – the last year for which I can find hard numbers – 16 M.A. degrees were awarded by the History Department, making History one of the more popular master’s programs in the humanities. But 173 M.S. degrees were conferred in civil engineering, 172 in computer science, 249 in electrical engineering, 165 in MS&E, 147 in mechanical engineering, 62 in materials science…you get the idea. Even though certain departments confer master’s degrees on doctoral candidates, while History doesn’t, that’s still a massive difference.

This is not a “WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE HISTORY MAJORS” piece. The campus does not need another humanities-sciences controversy. With that in mind, it’s important to ask why engineers are pushing themselves to the next level of their academic careers while humanities students aren’t. As a history undergrad, I never felt that there was any sort of institutional stigma surrounding M.A. candidates – the History Office was more than happy to take in applications – but I definitely believe that there the School of Engineering is far more assiduous about pushing its undergrads to graduate school.

And that’s on the humanities, not on the techies. The History Office may have encouraged my application, but I’ve heard from a lot of people in the History Department – professors and doctoral students alike – that a M.A. doesn’t mean much, in particular if you want to become a professor. That is understandable. If you are a graduate student in history, you’re probably aiming for a university job; history Ph.Ds get hired by universities, and master’s students don’t. This is true nearly across the board in the humanities.

Yet the importance of a Ph.D. is one of the reasons why a quick master’s program is so useful. While undergrads get a fine education here, there’s unquestionably a big difference between undergraduate work and graduate scholarship. Consequently, there are plenty of people who might be interested in studying for a Ph.D. down the road – students that may be the future of the discipline – but want to get a taste of graduate work first. Additionally, in allowing students to study at the graduate level, master’s programs give students a taste of high-level academics without a long-term commitment: There are a lot of people out there who have the analytical chops to study the humanities but don’t want to pour five or maybe seven years into them.

Nonetheless, if we look strictly at hiring for humanities students, a master’s degree in engineering is a much clearer path to career success, if not necessarily a more effective one. Hiring preferences and trends are more well-known in engineering fields; a M.A. in history may help, but while the M.A. provides students an opportunity to sharpen their skills at a higher level, the hiring benefit is less clear. And although students shouldn’t necessarily pick majors and graduate departments just because of employability or earning potential – most of our professors could be making more money elsewhere – college is expensive, and its legacies should be tangible.

While students learn plenty outside the classroom, hoping that a degree will help you get a better job is not that much to ask. I believe in doing what you love, but as Grace Chao pointed out last year, there is a dangerous tendency to conflate penury with passion and employability with cold, rational disinterest. People who get hired need to have the right degree and skills for the job, sure, but they typically have to enjoy what they do first. There’s a stigma foisted on the term “employability” that we emphatically need to reject.

In any case, there are tangible legacies of a humanities master’s degree that indirectly affect how attractive you can be for a job. An M.A. may not be the keystone of a resume, but an additional year of school should make you a better candidate to be hired in the first place. The skills that a student can learn at the right grad school should stick around for life. I may not end up doing research in the future, but I will still have to critically analyze complex problems and figure out the right questions to ask. I may not write a doctoral thesis, but I still need to know how to present information in an effective manner. We shouldn’t simply brush off humanities coterminal and master’s programs; they offer legitimate value to their students. And while nobody should study here just to stay in California a little longer, the sunshine is a nice bonus.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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