Publication Date

April 20, 2021

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Career Paths, Professional Life

The history MA demands our attention. From 2002 to 2018, federal data and the Survey of Earned Doctorates show that universities conferred, on average, 10 master’s degrees in history for every three PhDs granted. Students in high schools, colleges, and universities, as well as the broader public, are far more likely to interact with a historian who holds an MA than one with a PhD. Yet there is little consensus about the degree and almost no broader conversations taking place about the MA, despite its clear significance to the field. Terminal MA students report feeling unseen, while faculty focused on the MA degree in PhD-granting departments similarly feel ignored. After graduation, MA holders struggle to connect to the discipline even though they are often on the front lines of teaching and learning history. Why is there such a disconnect between students, departments, employers, and the discipline at large when it comes to the master’s degree? Are we pretending that the terminal MA is a dead end?

Not just a step on the way to a PhD, the terminal history MA deserves more attention.

Not just a step on the way to a PhD, the terminal history MA deserves more attention.Lindsay Henwood/Unsplash

In 2005, an AHA committee headed by David Trask investigated the state of the MA. The committee reported that the degree, after over a century of conferral by American universities, “remains ill-defined” in its purpose, scope, and impact. While the discipline has carefully studied BA, PhD-track MA, and PhD programs, students, and graduates, we contend that inattention to the terminal MA has worsened over the last 15 years. At a time when historical thinking is essential to public life, how MA historians understand the habits of mind and use the tools of our field undoubtedly influences who studies history and the reach of the usable past. The lack of consensus on how to train the large terminal MA cohort threatens to undermine the work that all historians do and to erode further a stable future for our discipline.

While the AHA and organizations such as Lumina Foundation and the Mellon Foundation have focused their resources on innovative projects to clearly articulate the value of a history BA and encourage career diversity among recent PhDs, the unique needs and skills of the terminal MA have too often been deemphasized. The AHA’s significant efforts in professional development and curricular design, primarily through the Career Diversity for Historians initiative and the Tuning Project, do not focus on the master’s degree, with a few notable exceptions. Inspired by the influence of Tuning on undergraduate history education, we suggest solutions to questions vital to the significant population of historians with MAs, the faculty who train them, and the colleagues who hire them.

Our interest in the terminal MA comes from our own professional and personal experiences. Braun-Strumfels works as the adjunct coordinator responsible for hiring and mentoring in the history department at Raritan Valley Community College. She has found that historians with a terminal MA tend to struggle to articulate their understanding of and orientation to the field in job documents, which can limit their prospects and constrain their effectiveness as teachers. Herbert served as a Career Diversity fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a large Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) cohort, and he himself has started a career in K–12 education. His Career Diversity work has shown him how important it is to include all graduate students—including MAT students—in a department’s graduate culture.

What we know and don’t know about this cohort demonstrates why historians must focus on terminal MA degree holders as part of the larger work of professional development and advocacy. Despite the fact that US universities grant three times as many MAs as PhDs, large gaps exist in the data about outcomes among terminal MAs because departments are not collecting it. Not knowing outcomes for terminal MAs compounds the precarious position these historians occupy, starting in their graduate programs.

The needs of the terminal MA have too often been deemphasized.

We should collect better and more detailed data about MA students and the professional trajectory of degree holders. Who earns a terminal MA, and how do they use the degree? While the most common career trajectory for historians continues to be an academic path, terminal MAs on US campuses remain obscure to the discipline at large. Existing data does not clearly differentiate between terminal and PhD tracks. Identifying terminal MAs within the larger pool of all master’s degree holders is a place to start.

Who we count reflects our priorities; at the same time, the future of our discipline fundamentally depends on the effectiveness of historians with a terminal MA, to whom we pay the least attention. The reach of terminal MAs extends deep into the next generation: perhaps the largest percentage of degree holders teach in postsecondary classrooms. Their training and professionalization are crucial to the health of the discipline at large. When MA students and degree holders feel like part of the discipline, they become critical allies to support a diverse pipeline of history majors, historians, and historically literate citizens.

While Career Diversity has focused on PhD programs, faculty and students at participating institutions have learned lessons that also apply to terminal MA programs. Departments should assess the pathways MA students take into, through, and out of their programs. The path to a terminal MA should link to the work historians do and can create durable connections to the discipline that outlast graduate school. Learning from and with students, departments can create experiences for MAs to prepare them to enter the world as historians, rather than as historians-in-waiting. Likewise, students need to be intentional about how they want to carry their identity as historians into the next phase of their careers. From a career diversity perspective, all degree holders in history should take charge of our trajectories—academic and otherwise—and boldly, aggressively articulate the skills we possess.

Working more inclusively, departments should consider how they might improve or rethink their MA programs in creative ways that better serve students. With new and better data, how can programs reimagine the terminal MA as a distinctive degree that makes an important contribution to the profession? How can programs highlight the crucial work their MA graduates are already doing? We call on colleges, universities, and institutions that employ historians to feature their contributions in public-facing ways. We call on degree programs to center their master’s candidates and graduates and to see these students as adding to the department and the discipline. Once we know who holds a terminal MA and what they do with it, we can better promote and honor their contributions, and keep them connected to the discipline as it continues to evolve.

Why take the time to do this difficult work? Reassessing the place of terminal MA students and the degree within departments and the discipline will help historians respond to several interrelated challenges. First, MAs are a vital link in the K–16 chain, and both the link and the chain require strengthening. Many MA students are, or want to become, K–12 teachers. All historians, especially those who teach in higher education, should want more trained historians teaching younger students, where dynamic high school history teachers can inspire students to major in history at the college level.

The future of our discipline depends on the effectiveness of historians with a terminal MA.

Second, reconsidering the terminal MA might help to address diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in history. A recent Perspectives editor’s column (November 2019) pointed to an “existential” problem: the overwhelming whiteness of our field. At a time when undergraduate student populations are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, departments can do better in recruiting those students into the history major and graduate programs. Furthermore, while a focus on the terminal MA could help increase representation and visibility for underrepresented groups in the field, terminal MAs are less frequently funded by their program, contributing to unequal access to the degree. Because funding for terminal MAs could positively impact the field overall and build a more expansive pipeline starting at K–16 and extending into graduate programs, departments and institutions should consider support for terminal MAs in their long-term fundraising and funding distribution plans.

Last, tracking down existing MAs and focusing more intentionally on current MA students can strengthen the entire discipline by embedding historians in a range of positions and highlighting their contributions. If we’re serious about the power of historical thinking, then we need to demonstrate how those skills translate into careers outside (and even some within) the academy. To do that, we need models. MAs wind up in interesting places, and the health of the profession depends on perpetuating that broad reach. In short, the terminal MA degree offers the discipline a strong opportunity to develop and strengthen connections within and beyond its ranks.

We must provide more resources for professional development and networking from academic departments, the AHA, and other allied organizations. The AHA’s listserv for MAs is a valuable resource but is not enough. Valuing the terminal history MA should lead to an intentional broadening of these networking spaces and tools. How can established networks to seek, secure, and grow in a job become more inclusive and embracing of terminal MA degree holders?

This personal and department-level work should support a broader reimagining: The historical discipline must recognize that history MAs are historians. They have advanced degrees, and they’re doing historical work already, just not always in academic settings. Embracing them as historians would reveal the work they do as ambassadors to the public and enrich the profession with their knowledge and experience. We need to find these people, count them, and learn from them. We would all benefit, in the words of the 2005 report, from “retrieving the master’s degree from the dustbin of history.”

Lauren Braun-Strumfels is an associate professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College; she tweets @braun_strumfels. Tim Herbert is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a history teacher at Proviso West High School; he tweets @HerbsinHorto.

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