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A master’s degree does not really make you a master

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A master’s degree does not really make you a master

I was very excited when I gained admission for a master’s degree course in 2011. The thought of a master’s degree in law was birthed or perhaps became more pronounced in my mind almost three years after I began my working career. I searched google for the top 10 universities in the United Kingdom and settled for the chosen University on the list based on the admission criteria.

The United Kingdom was a default option because two of my siblings were already resident there. Learning experience in the UK was quite demanding as it was enriching. One had to adapt quickly to the culture, weather and learning style which were different from what one was familiar with. It was a bit of a struggle but the thousands of pounds spent on fees would become a source of motivation if nothing else. Writing essays was the hardest part of my time in school but in the end, I graduated with a distinction, thankfully.

In the course of my master’s degree study, I realized that there was a fundamental problem with the way I had learned all along. There was little room for independent and critical thinking. In fact, during my undergraduate program and even at the Law School, I had to memorize sections of statutes because we were not allowed to sit for exams with copies of statutes and legislation. Learning was mostly a ‘copy-and-paste’, rote approach leaving little room for independent and critical thought. I took advantage of the Skills Program offered by the University which had useful courses students could undertake to sharpen skills in critical thinking, research, writing, presentation, etc. This helped to improve on my ability to undertake research and develop critical approach as well as apply independent thought to my coursework.

Recently, I had cause to reflect on the benefit of my master’s program. To be fair, the entire experience during the program has definitely contributed to shaping my outlook on life and the exposure is invaluable. However, I cannot say the same for the utilitarian value of all the courses I undertook during my program. Out of all the courses/modules, corporate governance (Module) and anti-money laundering (a subject in International Banking Regulation Module) continue to ‘resonate’ with me although I have not had the opportunity to fully harness and deploy the knowledge in those areas in the course of my practice as I would like to.

Some degree of disappointment set in while I reflected. It struck me that I, and probably many others who enrol for a master’s program do so with the mindset of becoming a ‘master’ i.e. specialist/expert in an area. I think this underlying expectation formed the basis of my feeling of disappointment. I realized that I didn’t quite master any specific area out of all that I was taught in the real sense. It was more like an introduction to a number of broad specialist areas. This brings me to my argument for a better approach to the structure of master’s degree program,especially the taught programs.

  1. Time Constraint: I never appreciated how short one year was until I enrolled for my master’s program. I realized that the time for the program is very short, about 10 months, which is insufficient to really ‘master’ a course or subject area which is mostly broad in its structure and application. So, the idea of having five or six modules already places an onerous demand on the inadequate time allotted for the program.
  2. Workload: In my humble view, a better way to approach master’s programs is to reduce the quantum of work and replace quantity & generality with quality & particularity. This way, anyone who successfully undergoes a masters degree program is more likely to come out well rounded in a specific area in which he/she can be referred to as an authority or expert.
  3. Student Interests/need: During my master’s program, I understood that decisions on choice of modules for a particular course will not always be on the basis of interest. Sometimes it is just to make up the number of courses. That doesn’t mean that one will not learn but learning without interest could eventually be a sub-optimal use of time and resources. In the end, one would realize that not every course was expedient or necessary.

Ideally, there should be a screening/assessment to ascertain a student’s area of interest, passion or career path in order to tailor courses that best suit the need.

In summary, the ability to effectively apply knowledge is arguably a function of thorough understanding of a particular field or subject area and this will require time and continuous learning beyond a master’s degree. Nevertheless, it may be necessary for academic institutions to consider how best to achieve maximum value for the time spent for a program in terms of depth in order to achieve the best outcome for the student. In the final analysis, one who holds a master’s degree certificate does not automatically become a master by reason of the knowledge and certificate gained. Therefore, it should not be seen as an end but a means to an end.

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Teingo Inko-Tariah is the Managing Partner of Accord Legal Practice.

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