What’s the Purpose of an MA in Applied Linguistics?


When you look at all the course materials and bibliographies that most universities offer their MA students, you’d think the course lasted 5 years. MA students are presented with an unrealistic amount of course materials and even more unrealistic series of bibliographies. It must be evident to those who create these materials and bibliographies that no student will read either all the course materials or more than 10% of the bibliographies. Thus, I suggest that the academic staff who deal with MA students should acknowledge that their students won’t engage with anything like all the stuff they’re supposed to engage with. And this is no bad thing, which brings me to my view of the purpose of an MA in Applied Linguistics (AL) and TESL.

Its purpose should not be to get a general understanding of the field. For all the grand claims that the promotional material of any MA programme might make, an MA should not be designed to give you a general understanding of AL or TESL; it’s purpose should be to get you to flex your intellectual muscles. An MA programme is short and limited. The difference between an MA and a first degree or a doctorate is similar to the difference between a short story and a novel, or a sonata and a symphony, or a sketch and a painting. Short stories, sonatas and sketches are highly-concentrated: they make demands on those who make them which are peculiar to the genre. It’s a bit strange to compare an MA to a genre, but not so strange to compare the output, the papers MA students write, to a genre.

An MA should have as its objective not that you amass information or that you come up with something new, but that you compress your thinking into a series of 3,000 word papers, and then into a small study for the dissertation. Undergraduate work and doctoral work are fundamentally different from MA work: while undergraduate work is knowledge-based, and doctoral work is research-based, MA work should be thinking based: it should demand that you show critical accumen, not just knowledge. Like the short story, the sonata, the sketch, MA papers are deliberately limited in the area they address and they’re judged on their ability to say something concisely. The purpose of an MA programme should be to develop the skills necessary to critically assess lots of sources, think for yourself, and write reasonably well in an academic style. Most importantly, in my opinion, it should show whether or not you’re capable of doing a doctorate. To be clear: I think the main purposes of an MA should be to sharpen critical thinking and to identify those who should do further study.

The basis of all my advice to MA students contained in this website is based on these assumptions and consequently I stress the value of focus, which effectively means ignoring the majority of the material you’re offered.

The problem is that people do MAs in AL because they can’t get a job in ELT without one. To the extent that this is the case, this strikes me as a grave mistake on the part of employers. You don’t need an MA to be a good EFL teacher. I doubt, frankly, that you even need a degree. You should do an MA if you’re intellectually curious, if you want to hone your thinking, if you want to learn more about how to think straight, or if you want to go on to do a doctorate.

I know that this is not a popular view. I know that lots of people do MAs in AL and TESL to learn more about various aspects of ELT. But, in my opinion, the purpose of an MA should be different. Those who want information about English grammar and pronunciation, or about how people learn a second language, or how to teach it, or about discourse analysis, or language policy, for example, shouldn’t be doing an MA; they should be doing training courses. Only those who, for whatever reason, want to engage in serious critical thinking about these issues, who want to read in depth about them, and condense their thinking and reading into academic papers, and maybe go on to do further academic work, should do an MA.

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