Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History
History departments in the United States offer a rich variety of master's degrees, intended to promote the professional, career, and personal goals of a highly diverse student population. Collectively, master's degree programs reflect our profession’s commitment to enhancing the historical understanding of all Americans, both directly, by strengthening the ability of graduate students to analyze and interpret the past, and indirectly, through the many encounters that Americans have with professional historians who earn master's degrees. Individual graduate programs, however, are shaped by local needs and conditions as much as they are shaped by national practices or disciplinary commitments. History departments need to serve the goals of their students, their faculty members, their institutions, their communities, and their discipline. Sometimes, these goals will conflict.
What is the best fit between the work of history graduate programs and the needs of our students and society? What should historians with master's degrees know? What skills should they be expected to possess? What careers should they be prepared to pursue? And what kind of profession will they be joining as historians and educators in the twenty-first century? In this report, we call upon all historians, wherever they happen to pursue their careers, to reflect on the state of the profession and its relation to current social conditions. This is not a call for historians to privilege the master's degree as an employment credential nor to resign themselves to the inevitability of current trends. Instead, it is a sober response to the fact that, in today’s world (including the world of higher education), professionals are increasingly expected not only to define their work but to present measures of the work’s effectiveness and utility.
These are reasonable expectations and should be easy for historians to meet. But if we do not define our own work as historians, then others will rush in to do it for us. The possibility applies with equal force to historians working in every possible setting (schools, colleges and universities, museums, government offices, etc.). Nonetheless, we think it especially important to emphasize the role of external forcesboth negative and positivein defining the content and role of the master's degree. The "master's degree," as a general category, is often promoted as a tool for addressing specific employment needs while improving the lives of successful students. The master's degree for historians has the additional burden of enriching the nation’s sense of the past. The success (or failure) of the degree to meet society’s expectations will have important implications for the status of our profession in the years to come. So will the success (or failure) of the degree to promote a richer understanding of history and a stronger, more inclusive community of practicing historians. The master's degree deserves our full attention.
David S. Trask
Chair, AHA Committee on the master's Degree
Last Updated: May 11, 2007