We tell ourselves stories of our eventual success: the thing we believe we will become. Not achieving that success can be debilitating and disorienting. My story about getting my master’s is about failing. I have the degree. It’s in a brown envelope sitting propped up against the shelf under my desk. That’s how I feel about it most days.
Congratulations come from my parents and my friends. They smile proudly. But I can only return a tight-lipped nod of acknowledgement, not wanting to say how that little piece of paper has not contributed to the idea of my success the way I thought it would.
Getting your master’s is never about grades. Most operate on a pass-fail. And it’s not about missing coursework, as there are usually elaborate ways to make it work in the end. It’s about finding the path toward what you most want to accomplish. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes that we have two lives, “The life we live and the unlived life within us.” That unlived life is the project we dream about when we wake up in the morning. The skill we wish we had that permeates our daily thoughts as we sit at our desk filing another report. It’s what we are most afraid to do, but know deep down is the only thing that will make us happy.
If you are thinking of pursuing a master’s degree, you are likely someone who has these thoughts. You wake up thinking about urban plans or music compositions or the possibilities in political activism. You want to create the best possible project and dedicate yourself to it. Taking the step toward that is overcoming that fear of failure and dedicating yourself to its creation. Institutions of higher learning can help to achieve that project. A master’s degree can be the next step in creatively challenging preconceived notions of the world, tearing down what we thought we knew and rebuilding it. But we have to be prepared with what comes along with that; knowing that the pursuit of any goal takes sacrifice, it’s important to be prepared for what a university education can bring.
Today there are great financial and political pressures on universities. These are not the open academic environments of reflective, intellectual stimulation that provide visions of revolutionary students and hours of debate over poetic lineage. In some cases they can be, but government cutbacks have forced universities to seek out alternative funding in the form of corporate partnerships, forcing outputs rather than reflectivity. The arts continues to take hits. The elimination of 20 arts programs at the University of Alberta last year is just one example of the way in which universities are shedding programs and professors to streamline outputs and ensure they can justify their existence to the next government. Opportunities for new academics close in around them, while established profs feel the crunch of research demands and cutbacks.
For students, this means fewer experts to engage with. As tuition increases, the tens of thousands of dollars of student debt demand a justification—the return on investment university administrators love to talk about. Students need to have jobs when they graduate. This all creates a pressure to fit into a mould, to succeed on very defined terms. For my particular degree, a master’s of journalism, the high bar of success was to get a job at the CBC or a daily paper. Anything else was, perhaps subconsciously, considered less. So, slowly, over two years, I convinced myself that’s what I wanted. Even though this was not the original intention behind going to get the degree.
Coming from a background in community and alternative journalism, my goal was to ensure I had the appropriate skills to create investigative and responsible reporting, but to continue to perceive journalism from an alternative perspective. But slowly I conformed to the standard established by the institution. And my ideas got lost in the scramble to finish assignments according to a certain formula. I began to accept that my ideas were wrong. And engaging with the establishment in a creative and critical way took a back seat to just getting through.
My thesis suffered. My supervisor had me convinced my it was not publishable due to the timelines of the story and he encouraged me to take out the elements I had originally found interesting. The whole thing became a mess of a work and I didn’t pursue publishing it. Upon my return to Alberta, I noticed the front cover of a provincial magazine. It was my story idea, but with someone else’s byline. My initial instincts had been correct and I should have continued pursuing the topic my way.
After this experience, one of the most important tips I can give is to find an ally who supports you. The academic institution is standardized and wants you to graduate and get a job. But you have your own experiences, knowledge, and goals that can be achieved with the assistance of the experts around you. But they can also be destroyed by the established narrow definitions of success.
I’m only four months removed from the experience, so it’s hard for me to recommend to you your best path. If there is a school out there, a professor or department that will help you to achieve your project, the thing that wakes you up, that permeates your mind throughout the day, then the money, the travel and the emotional challenges are just part of your next step. And you will handle them.
Are there less expensive, more creatively engaging and equally legitimate ways to achieve that project, those skills, that job that is your passion? Probably. Either way, my only recommendation to you as you contemplate your academic future and work to build your skills is to maintain a connection with what you are truly passionate about. Connect in with a network of people who will help to challenge your ideas, but who will also encourage them, and ensure you are not forgetting that thing you most believe in.