A Primer on the Varieties of Graduate Programs in Classics

By: Sarah Teets, Doctoral student in Classics at the University of Virginia (sct4ze@virginia.edu)

If you’re considering applying to grad school in Classics, I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard at least two things about it: the admissions competition is stiff, and once you’re in, the work itself is much more demanding than what you were used to as an undergrad. This is true! And it’s a great reason why it’s important to understand the differences between the kinds of degrees and programs out there to determine which is the best fit for your professional goals and current skill levels. The PhD is not the only option for grad school in Classics, and those who do go for the PhD get there via various paths. This post aims to give a summary of the different options available to prospective students.[1] It’s not a guide to individual schools, but once you decide on the degree(s) you want to pursue, you can identify which schools offer it, and go from there.[2] The four basic options are the PhD, the MA, the Post-Bac, and the MAT.

Getting Advice

The PhD[3]

A typical PhD program in Classics or Classical Archaeology takes 6-8 years to complete (the first two of which generally result in an MA), and many people take longer to complete their PhDs. Six to eight years is a long time to spend with the pressures and demands of grad school (not to mention the low income). You want to be sure before you begin that this is the path you want. So ask yourself, do you want to pursue a career in academia, or do you have another professional goal that you would best achieve with this PhD?[4] Do you believe that this PhD is something you can’t live without? If you’re confident that this is what you want, the next thing is to decide whether to go straight to a PhD program, or whether to pursue one of the options below.

Talk with your professors about your skills in Greek and Latin. This is a crucial factor: in grad school in Classics, it’s not uncommon to have a workload of 500-1,000 lines of text in Greek or Latin per course, per week, and you’ll usually have 3, sometimes 4 courses in a semester, often with secondary reading assignments as well. In Classical Archaeology programs, the standards for Greek and Latin are also very high. If this is something you’re in a position to succeed with, then going straight to a PhD program may be right for you.[5] If you don’t have sufficient background with the languages yet, consider the options below.

One last word about the PhD program: if you are unsure about whether you want to do a PhD, but know you want to continue to study Classics, applying to PhD programs may not be the best idea. Certainly, if you know now you don’t want to finish the PhD, it’s a bad idea to apply. Of course, some graduate students enter PhD programs with every intention of finishing but end up leaving early. There’s nothing wrong with this decision since it’s impossible to understand what graduate school will be like for you until you’ve tried it; your goals may change over time, but this is a separate issue from being on the fence about the PhD to begin with. Fortunately, if you are on the fence, there is another option.

 

The “Terminal” MA[6]

An increasing number of universities are offering MA-only programs, sometimes referred to as “terminal” MAs, but since that sounds like some kind of horrible diagnosis, I’ll just call them MA programs. These are generally 2-year programs which are separate from any PhD program at their respective universities. The advantages of these programs include that they’re a great option for people who are uncertain about whether they want to do a PhD, but are sure they want to continue their studies in Classics. With an MA, you can always apply to PhD programs to continue after you graduate with the MA, either at your current institution, or elsewhere. In fact, having an MA can improve your chances of success in the competitive world of PhD applications, as you’ll have far more experience in the field than you did coming out of your undergraduate institution, not just in terms of your knowledge and skills (which are obviously very important), but also in the less tangible elements of your professional relationships with faculty members and fellow graduate students. An MA program is also an excellent option for those who know that they do not want a PhD, but still want an MA. An MA in Classics or Classical Archaeology can be a valuable asset in a number of fields, especially teaching.

The main downsides of MA programs in Classics include that many of them do not fund all of their students or do not fund them fully. Usually such funding as does exist is attached to teaching and is fairly competitive. This means that you may be on the hook for tuition, which is generally high, and federal graduate student loans have high interest rates and are no longer subsidized. If you do choose an MA program, be sure to apply for funding, and consider applying to more than one to increase your chances of receiving one of those coveted funding packages! Another potential downside is that if you do an MA program, then move on to a PhD program, particularly if you move to a different institution, you may take longer to finish your PhD than if you had gone straight to the PhD. Many PhD programs require all new students to begin at the MA-level, meaning that you would be required to complete a second MA. This may or may not be desirable, and you should know that not all PhD programs will require this; some even do not allow it. If you are in this position, you’ll want to find out about these requirements, decide what you want in terms of a second MA, and apply accordingly.

 

The Post-Bac

Another option, if you want to go on to either the MA or the PhD, but you don’t think you’re prepared for graduate level work (especially if your language skills aren’t there yet) is a post-baccalaureate (post-bac) program. These are generally 1-year, non-degree programs (though some offer a certificate) that have the specific aim of preparing you for graduate-level work.[7]

Unlike an MA program, in which first-year students begin graduate-level work immediately, a post-bac is designed to bridge the gap in language skills that exists for many people coming out of their undergraduate programs. The transition in workload is thus meant to be more manageable. Aside from this, a post-bac can have many of the same advantages as an MA program when you go on to apply to PhD programs: your skills will be better than they were before, you’ll have forged connections with faculty members and fellow students at you post-bac institution. You will also have spent less time accomplishing this before your applications than with an MA program.

The downsides include that post-bacs are expensive and virtually never have funding packages. In addition, since they’re generally non-degree programs, you are not eligible for federal loans (though you’ll want to confirm funding details with individual programs). Furthermore, you may or may not consider it a disadvantage that since it is a non-degree program, if you decide not to apply to grad school after all, you won’t have a degree to show for your hard work.

 

The MAT

If you want to do a Masters degree, and know that you want to teach Latin at the secondary school level, look into programs that offer a Master of Arts in Teaching in Latin. Many universities with graduate programs in Classics have this option, often in conjunction with their department or college of Education. The benefit of an MAT compared with an MA is that you will be certified to teach in public schools as well as private, and your program will be more tailored to your specific professional goals. At the same time, you’ll also be able to do graduate-level coursework in Classics.

 

In addition to your own research on different programs, your best bet when choosing which specific programs to apply to, and later, if you’ve had admission offers, which to accept is to seek advice from multiple people, both professors and current graduate students. Because the selection process is inherently subjective (you want to match your own goals and interests with a potential advisor as well as with specific program requirements, department culture, funding situation, location, etc.), it’s a good idea to get multiple opinions in order to get a broader sense of what program is likely to be best for you. I hope that this piece can serve as a useful starting point for this process.

 

 

Notes

[1] I regret that this post is biased toward graduate programs in Classics rather than Classical Archaeology, though I believe that much of what is written here is applicable to both fields. It is also exclusively concerned with graduate programs in the US.

[2] CAMWS maintains lists of graduate programs in Classics, which are found here: https://camws.org/directories/study_classics_surveys.php. The SCS also maintains a list of graduate programs in Classics in the United States, with degrees offered and links to individual department websites. This excellent resource is available here: https://classicalstudies.org/list-graduate-programs-classics.

[3] See CAMWS’ directory of PhD programs in Classics, available at https://camws.org/directories/phd-programs.php, and the AIA’s directory of archaeology PhD programs: https://www.archaeological.org/professionals/gradprograms.

[4] I’ll leave aside the vexed issue of the advisability of pursuing a career in academia, and would instead recommend that you ask a professor to talk frankly with you about the current state of academic employment in our field, not to discourage you, but so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

[5] Your writing skills are also an enormously important element of success in graduate school. Ask a professor for whom you’ve written a paper for their opinion about your ability to succeed at graduate-level writing.

[6] See CAMWS’ directory of MA programs, including MAT programs: https://camws.org/directories/MA-programs.php.

[7] See CAMWS’ directory of post-bac programs: https://camws.org/directories/post-bacc-programs.php.

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