Publication Date

February 1, 2003

The AHA has received a grant of $50,000 from the Ford Foundation to study the multiple roles of the master's degree in history education. This generous grant will allow the AHA to continue its ongoing investigation of graduate training for historians, which until now has focused primarily on doctoral education. Several members of the current Committee on Graduate Education (CGE), which has guided the doctoral project during the past two years, will remain on the steering committee, where they will be joined by new members with a range of institutional affiliations and professional experiences especially relevant to the study of master's degrees. Philip Katz will continue as research director for the AHA study of master's degrees; he and Thomas Bender of New York University will serve as principal investigators of the project.

From the start, the work of the CGE has been framed by long-term transformations in three aspects of the American historical profession: intellectual scope, demography, and employment. The first two changes have generally been positive, with entirely new domains of history opened to exploration and a profession that has become strikingly more diverse than it was 50 years ago. Unfortunately, the academic market for new PhDs has remained uneven at best during the past three decades. Partly as a result, the master's degree-which has long been marginalized, especially in the humanities-has recently come under serious reevaluation. In many quarters, the master's degree is now being recognized (again, or for the first time) as a valuable degree in its own right, with important possibilities for the future, whether intellectually, as an agent of opportunity, or as a vehicle for more diverse employment options.1

The growing interest in the master's degree has reached the historians' ranks also. In 2001, the AHA asked history department chairs to identify the most important issues facing graduate education today. Among the things that worried them was the state of the master's degree. "The value of the MA in history is very much in doubt," one colleague told us. Other respondents described the freestanding (or "terminal") MA in history as "haphazardly planned" on most campuses, and lamented that master's programs designed to train secondary-school history teachers are often in the grip of education departments rather than historians. The chair of one small department framed the question in its starkest terms: "What exactly should an MA in history be?” The CGE hopes to answer this question in the months ahead.

For starters, we need to address a basic lack of data. There is no reliable count of how many master's degrees are earned each year in the discipline. Department of Education statistics only tell us how many traditional MAs are awarded by history departments (in 1997–98, to cite a typical year, 2,895 master's degrees as opposed to just 937 PhDs), but this does not include MAT or MEd degrees with significant historical content, or most of the master's degrees in American studies, cultural resource management, museum studies, area studies, historic preservation, and other allied fields that might fairly be considered master's degrees in history. The professional work in history performed by the holders of these diverse master's degrees is more pervasive than many people-including members of the historical profession-realize. The MA is the basic certifying degree for community college instructors (indeed, faculty members at these institutions are four times more likely to have a master's degree than a PhD), and more students now take their college-level history courses at community colleges than at four-year institutions. To the extent that high school teachers have any advanced training in history, it will most likely be at the master's level. A master's degree is also the usual credential for historians employed by federal, state, local, and private historical agencies-including the National Park Service, whose historians teach American history to at least 10 million visitors a year. Finally, the master's is the typical degree for public historians who produce museum exhibits, create documentary films, staff historic sites, and work in historic preservation. In fact, the holders of master's degrees are the nation's unstudied, even unknown, but ubiquitous teachers of history.

Our investigation of master's degrees in history will build upon the research and data-collection efforts of the CGE's recent doctoral study. (These findings, plus a series of recommendations from the committee for improving doctoral training in the future, will soon be available in a major report, The Education of Historians in the 21st Century.) Unfortunately, the volume of basic research devoted to master’s degrees of any kind is tiny, and what has been produced is rightly described as “diffuse and fragmented.”2 This makes it more difficult to frame an investigation of master’s education in any particular discipline, yet also more imperative; as a secondary benefit, we hope to stimulate future studies of the master’s degree in other academic disciplines.

For now, the AHA's investigation will address five broad issues of particular concern to historians: the definition and function(s) of a master's degree in history; the intellectual content and standards of mastery appropriate to the degree; the occupational opportunities provided by a master's degree in history, especially for bringing new (or underrepresented) groups into the profession; the role of master's degree programs in promoting interdisciplinary studies; and the preparation of history teachers.

1. Defining the master's degree in history and its various functions. The first task is to create a typology of master’s degrees, in order to understand the relations between program content, access, and career preparation. We will begin by analyzing the existing models of master’s-level education, and move from there to offer recommendations. We are also interested in the MA as a stepping stone to the doctorate, particularly as a vehicle for increasing the access to PhD training. The CGE’s study of doctoral education has revealed some evidence of “credentials enhancement” for would-be doctoral students via the MA, which may well increase opportunities for doctoral training among first-generation college students, graduates of less-selective colleges, students changing fields, and currently underrepresented populations within the historical profession. We need to know more about this.

2. Intellectual content and standards of mastery. What does a master’s degree in history signify, and what should it signify? The MA is often viewed as a half-way house to the PhD, or an advanced degree for those who cannot achieve the doctorate. Both conceptions are wrong; instead, the master’s is a different kind of degree. Our assumption, to be tested in the course of this study, is that a free-standing master’s degree in history should signify at least three things: the mastery of a body of historical knowledge (more often than not derived from secondary sources); the capacity to synthesize and present that knowledge; and basic research competencies-by which we mean usable skills, and not a preparation to make basic contributions to historical knowledge. (Degree programs with a specific career orientation, such as historic preservation, may also require specific skills in addition to these basic competencies.) Research in primary sources is not necessarily an essential part of training at the master’s level. However, we believe that a master’s program should culminate in some form of “presentation” or examination-a written exam, a paper, an exhibit, a film, a web page, a lesson plan, and so on-that reveals a student’s mastery. We aim to discover how well these assumptions compare to the actual practices of master’s education in history, to see if they need to be adjusted, or whether the programs that do not adhere to these premises should be adjusted instead.

3. Occupational opportunities. The AHA recently conducted a survey of nonacademic employers of historians, in which we queried their expectations of historians trained at the master’s level and then asked them to assess the career opportunities for such degree-holders.3 This survey will be one starting point for an analysis of the various occupations that master’s students pursue. We hope to clarify the many paths from a master’s degree program to meaningful employment, while highlighting the role(s) that a college career-placement office might play in the process. We also expect to recommend training standards for the degree.

4. Flexibility and interdisciplinary studies. Complaints about the rigidity of doctoral programs are common, and in our doctoral study we found ample evidence of their inherent conservatism (starting with the lingering assumption that a “master” should be replicated in an “apprentice”). The master’s degree is considerably more flexible than the doctorate, more adaptable to transnational and transregional histories (including world history), and perhaps more open to interdisciplinary methods. Institutionally, new master’s programs present relatively little risk to the established structure of academe. We want to learn more about the specific possibilities and limits of flexibility and interdisciplinarity at the master’s level, as these may be the most valuable gifts that the master’s degree can offer higher education and the culture at large.

5. Teacher preparation. This issue is especially timely, with unprecedented amounts of federal support now being set aside (through the “Byrd Grants,” for instance) for the teaching of American history and more attention being paid than ever before to the credentials that public school teachers bring with them into the classroom. Barely a third of the nation’s high school history teachers majored in history as undergraduates, and even fewer hold a master’s degree in the subject-and those degrees have often been granted by schools of education rather than history departments.4 We need to determine how often, and with what success, history and education departments cooperate to train teachers. And we want to enhance the historical knowledge that teachers acquire while earning master’s degrees (or even bachelor’s degrees).

It is a considerable task that the Committee on Master's Degree is taking on, and over the course of the next year it will pursue a combination of strategies:

A census of existing master’s degree programs that have a significant historical content. Such a list will be compiled from a variety of sources, including commercial publications (such as the Educational Testing Service’s Directory of Graduate Programs), Department of Education data, the AHA’s own institutional membership records, and similar records from more specialized professional associations in the discipline (such as the National Council on Public History). This census will be the starting point for the development of a typology.

A survey of the existing master’s degree programs in history, focusing on program requirements and the subject content, research skills, and other competencies that each program claims to offer its potential students. We will also seek information on questions of access (tuition, demographics, financial aid). To accomplish this, the survey will rely upon several different research strategies: a detailed review of web sites and other publicly available information; a brief questionnaire addressed to directors of various master’s degree programs; and in-depth phone interviews with a small sampling of program directors. If time and resources allow, some site visits are also contemplated.

Three regional meetings of stakeholders in the history master’s degree (at a minimum, program directors, history faculty, graduate students, school officials, education school faculty, and public history employers). These meetings will take place roughly at the midpoint of the project; for convenience, they will be held in metropolitan areas with a relatively large number and diverse set of degree programs in the vicinity. The meetings will allow for the testing of ideas, the raising of new questions, and the improvement of emerging conclusions and recommendations.

A projectreport to the historical profession and other interested parties. This report will summarize the data we collect, present our typology of master’s degree programs, and offer preliminary guidelines for the content of a master’s degree in history. We aim to promote a heightened awareness of the master’s degree as a lively component of graduate education for historians-not just an attenuated version of the PhD, as many still consider it, but a vital degree in its own right, and the gateway to careers that shape the public’s larger understanding of history.

— is research director of the CGE.


1. See, for example, Denise K. Magner, “Master’s degrees are a hot topic at a meeting on doctoral education,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 April, 1999, p. A16; Celia M. Henry, “Reinventing the Master’s Degree,”Chemical & Engineering News, 29 May, 2000, 65–69; Moheb A. Ghali, “Return of the Masters,” CGS Communicator 35:7 (August-September 2002), 3-4, 6, 10.

2. Clifton F. Conrad and David J. Eagan, “Master’s Degree Programs in American Higher Education,” in John C. Smart, ed., Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 6 (1990), 107.

3. See the “AHA Survey of Public History Employers” at The results of this survey will be presented in a future issue of Perspectives.

4. Marilyn McMillen, et al., Qualifications of the Public School Teacher Workforce: Prevalence of Out-of-Field Teaching, 1987-88 to 1999-2000 (Washington, D.C.: NCES, 2002), 58.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.