MA, JD, MS, MFA, MBA, PhD, advanced certificate, certification… when it comes to advanced credentials, there is an overwhelming alphabet soup of options. While some translators break into the field after getting an advanced degree—combining their language skills and academic background—others, such as myself, start with translation and decide to pursue an advanced credential later. This past July, I graduated with my MBA from University of Nevada, Reno. If you are thinking of pursuing coursework for an advanced credential such as a master’s degree, read on for a few things you might consider before submitting your application.
First, I want to make the distinction between advanced credentials and continuing education. In a previous post, I emphasized the importance of continuing education, which is essential to success and an absolute minimum requirement to call yourself a professional in your field. Continuing education does not mean signing up for a $600 correspondence course every other month; it means taking advantage of the 60- to 90-minute seminars that professional organizations of all kinds put on throughout the year (often for free!) to make us better at what we do. When I say advanced credentials, I mean a step above and beyond continuing education.
Freelance professionals are often looking for concrete ways to distinguish themselves in the eyes of their current and potential customers. The most common way to set yourself apart is through price, speed, or quality: cheaper rates, faster turnaround times, or superior quality. Competing on price is generally a no-no, since someone can always undercut you. Quality is often seen as the most effective way to complete—better quality usually equals better rates and better deadlines—but it is also the hardest thing to demonstrate to prospects or current customers, especially when they can’t speak your language. Having a few letters denoting some sort of advanced credential after your name can therefore be a huge asset to demonstrate your ability to provide better quality to your customers. But should you put in the time and effort to get those letters? Here are four things to consider:
Examine your motivation
Why do you want an advanced credential in the first place? Many translators will say that something they love about their work is that they learn new things every day. Translators are curious learners by nature. Something I found when I started my MBA is that learning for the joy of it and learning because it is required are two very different animals. The courses I loved were a breeze and the courses I wasn’t so keen on (Statistics for Decision Making, anyone?) were a challenge. Plus, if you decide to pursue a degree part time, it will likely take a while to complete. Your personal motivation will get you through the harder parts of your degree, so make sure you have enough of it to sustain you before you start.
Do a cost-benefit analysis
How much will obtaining your advanced credential cost? Realistically, what will be the return on your investment? If getting an MFA will clinch the book translation gig that will catapult you to literary stardom, it might be worth it. But what if it costs $200,000 and you’ll have to take three years off of work to get it? Will you be able to earn it back? Will getting an MBA from Wharton be worth more to you and your clients than getting one from the university in the city where you already live? Chances are that the brand value of your credential will be less valuable to you than what you actually learn. Weigh the costs and benefits carefully to arrive at a decision that works for you.
Don’t go into debt (or at least, not too much)
Americans are generally more comfortable with debt than our foreign friends. Advanced degrees and certificates also cost much more here than they do elsewhere. The result? For some, it’s crippling debt. Many of us already have mortgage payments, car payments, credit card payments… adding a student loan payment to the mix can make making ends meet more challenging. If you are going to go into debt, make sure your work load and finances line up first. It would be a shame if something that was meant to advance your career actually stalled it instead.
Evaluate the amount of time you can devote
From January 2015 to July 2017, I was working full time and taking up to 12 hours of MBA classes per week, not including readings, assignments, and projects. This entailed sacrifices in other areas of my life: I put passions like pottery on the back burner, resigned myself to getting less sleep, and had a much less active social life. Find out what your time commitment would need to be and realistically evaluate whether you can meet it. You do not want to spread yourself so thin that you burn out.
I am absolutely thrilled that I have finished my MBA and that I can apply it to everything that I’m doing, including running, growing, and sustaining my translation business. Before I took the plunge, I made sure that I was making the right decision. Before you apply for a program and write your check, make sure the decision is the right one for you, too.
Information about advanced degree programs for translators:
ATA list of schools that offer translation and interpreting degrees (including advanced degrees)
Full-time (global) and part-time (US) MBA programs
General list of part-time Master’s degrees
Graduate programs in language, literature, and linguistics
Corinne McKay’s post of translation credentials
The Pros and Cons of Studying a Part-Time Master’s (The Guardian, 2015)
A great post by Allison Charette on MAs/MFAs in Literary Translation
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