I. A (Very) Brief History of the Master's Degree

The Master of Arts is an academic rank with a considerable pedigree, going back to the great universities of medieval Europe.1 Originally, Magister was the title conferred upon university graduates when they began to teach. Later it became a distinct degree, typically awarded "in course" to recipients of a baccalaureate degree who were able to maintain a respectable lifestyle (i.e., "keep … out of jail for three years") and willing to pay a token fee.2 It remained that way for centuries. The idea of an earned master's degree, signifying advanced study in a particular academic discipline, is thus relatively new; in this country, it dates from no earlier than the 1870s, about the same time that the modern, research-driven Doctor of Philosophy degree was transplanted from Germany to the United States.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the professional historians who dominated the young American Historical Association still considered the Master of Arts "an object of deserved ridicule and … an ill-defined being."3 In the decades that followed, few historians paid much attention to the degree. In 1965, John Snell finally returned to the question, "What is the master's degree?" After several years of close investigation, first as research director of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education and then as dean of the graduate school at Tulane, he was forced to admit that "the question cannot be answered simply, because there is no single master's degree. … [And while] it is understandable that variations appear among the requirements for the master's in different professional fields, … the great variations within a single field are more difficult to understand and to justify." As a case in point, he catalogued the striking variations among master's degree programs in the field of history, looking at such things as entry requirements, grading standards, language and thesis requirements, the presence or absence of general examinations, and even the number of credit hours required. But the lack of standardization among history degrees was hardly unique, in Snell's time or today.4

Although Snell and his colleagues on the Committee on Graduate Education recommended a number of reforms in the master's-level training of historians in 1962, particularly in the area of teacher preparation, at the start of the twenty-first century the master's degree remains ill-defined. This was one of the clearest messages from a survey of history department chairs conducted by the AHA in early 2001, in which we asked them to identify the most pressing issues in contemporary graduate education. "The value of the M.A. in history is very much in doubt," complained one chair; a second pointed to the challenge of "conceptualizing the role of the M.A. in history beyond specialized public history programs, … professional advancement for teachers, … and preparation for the Ph.D."; while a third asked, somewhat plaintively, "What exactly should an M.A. in history be?"5 This report will begin to answer that question—a question that we believe is vital to the future of the historical profession.

Why Now?

Why are we examining the master's degree for historians now? Is the master's degree "broken," as one director of graduate studies recently asked? We don't think so, though we still lack enough information to make a fully informed judgment on the matter. The master's degree has been neglected for far too long. Compared to the volume of research on the doctorate, very little has been devoted to master's degrees in any discipline, and what does exist has rightly been described as "diffuse and fragmented."6 Four decades have passed since the last major investigation of graduate education for historians that paid any significant attention to the master's degree. In 2000, the AHA began to remedy that lapse by reviving the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE), newly charged with investigating all aspects of graduate training at both the master's and doctoral levels. The work of the CGE was framed by long-term transformations in three aspects of the American historical profession: intellectual scope, demography, and employment. For pragmatic reasons the CGE focused its efforts primarily on the Ph.D.—though much of the evidence and advice offered in its detailed report, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (University of Illinois Press, 2004), also applies to history departments engaged in training historians at the master's level and to graduate students who are seeking a master's degree. The present report is a continuation of the AHA's effort to review and rethink graduate education.

The AHA's efforts, in turn, are part of a rising swell of interest in the master's degree. Public historians, led by the National Council on Public History's Curriculum and Training Committee, are examining the training standards for historians in various non-academic settings while mapping the public history curriculum. This effort has focused on the graduate education that historians—as well as archivists, museum curators and educators, cultural resource managers, historic preservationists, and history professionals in allied fields—receive at the master's level. Other academic disciplines are also "revaluing the master's degree,"7 while the Sloan Foundation and the Council of Graduate Schools are busily promoting a new class of "professional master's degrees" that combine academic content with specific market-oriented skills.8 In Europe, meanwhile, a "quiet revolution" is reshaping higher education, with twenty-nine countries "abandoning their national degree systems—mostly adopted in the 19th century and largely incompatible—and introducing new ones based on a single model: a three-year bachelor's degree and a two-year master's."9

The AHA is also concerned about basic issues of student access, quality control, and truth in advertising related to the master's degree. Students at the master's level are much more likely to enter a local or regional graduate program than a program in a distant part of the country10—unlike doctoral programs, which tend to attract a national pool of applicants, and thus tend to converge more closely in their requirements and standards. Are master's programs in different regions of the country comparable? Do students have adequate information about the comparative quality of local and distant graduate programs, or of programs in public and private institutions? How can they be sure that a geographically convenient program will actually serve their needs? Does geography place some students at a disadvantage? Is there anything the AHA can do about it—say, by promoting a national set of degree standards? We think it is time at least to raise these questions.

Traditionally, interest in the master's degree has been spurred by three kinds of external pressures (with a certain amount of overlap among them):

  • The perceived need for more and/or better school teachers, especially at the secondary level but also in the primary grades. This has often involved calculations about the future demand for teachers and debates about the proper credentialing of teachers. In recent years, the leading voices in such debates have been those of politicians (e.g., the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" initiative) and professional educators (including teachers' unions, schools and departments of education, and national accrediting organizations such as NCATE), not scholars with academic expertise in the subject matter being taught in the schools.11 One result is master's degrees designed for history teachers and offered by history departments that have much of their content dictated by outside standard-makers instead of historians. We will return to this problem later in the report.
  • Concerns about the general state of doctoral training, in which the state of the master's degree is at best an incidental consideration.12 The history master's and the history Ph.D. are closely related, to be sure, but they also diverge in significant ways—in terms of graduate student interests and career aspirations, the time to degree, the commitment of institutional resources, the depth and nature of the research expected from matriculants, and so on. Questions and solutions that are appropriate to the doctorate (or, for that matter, to the bachelor's degree) are not necessarily appropriate to the master's degree as well. As Peter Knight, one of England's leading experts on graduate education, reminds us, "master's students are not a breed apart. … However, there are sufficient differences to make it unwise to assume that good practice for taught master's students can simply be read off from research with undergraduates or Ph.D. students, as if we were using the academic equivalent of a miles to kilometres conversion table."13
  • Questions about the role of colleges and universities in training Americans for the work force. Ideally, these questions are motivated by a sense of civic mission or other good public policy considerations ("society needs more skilled workers and well-informed citizens" and "we need to serve the interests of our local community"). Yet they can also be spurred by somewhat narrower budgetary calculations, especially when it comes to master's degrees ("students will pay good tuition dollars for career-oriented graduate programs").14

Increasingly, university administrators want to know what academic departments can contribute to an essentially market-oriented view of graduate training—or, indeed, whether history graduate programs can justify their expense in an era of academic budget-cutting. We think that history departments should have ready answers to these questions before they are posed; and because master's degrees in history serve important societal functions, we think that history departments can have good answers. Historians need to seize control of the future of the master's degree in their discipline, and to embrace the master's as a valuable degree in its own right. For all these reasons, in 2003 the AHA Council created a separate Committee on the Master's Degree and gave it the task of examining the current state and possible futures of the master's degree for historians.

Outline of the Report

This report includes the following sections:

  • A collection of basic data about the present state of the master's degree in history, including the number and variety of institutions that offer the degree and the number and variety of students who pursue it.
  • A close look at four career paths (or "destinations") that may follow from a history master's degree: additional study towards a history Ph.D., a community college faculty position, teaching at a secondary school, or a career in public history. The report raises, but only begins to answer, three important questions: How well do master's programs prepare students for the various destinations? What are the employment prospects along each of the paths? Do any (or all) of the paths provide an avenue of opportunity for currently underrepresented groups to enter the historical profession?
  • A discussion of the common knowledge, skills, and perspectives that ought to be part of every student's training for a history master's degree, regardless of his or her intended destination as a historian. We call these desirable outcomes the "elements of mastery."
  • A related discussion about the distinctive role of the master's degree in historical training. What is the substance of history, as a discipline, that is most appropriate to the study of history at each particular level? How does a master's degree differ from a Ph.D.? How does it differ from a bachelor's degree? One answer, we want to suggest, is that most historians with master's degrees focus their professional activities on synthesizing and presenting history (as opposed to consuming history or even producing new historical knowledge at the leading edge of archival research), so their training should focus on synthesis and presentation as well.
  • Finally, a list of unanswered questions about the master's degree that historians still need to ponder. Many of these will be useful to history departments that are interested in critical self-reflection and the transformation of their own graduate programs. Others point the way to additional work that the American Historical Association needs to undertake on behalf of the entire profession.