Issues in Graduate Education
What is the Meaning of the Master's Degree? An Introduction
Aaron W. Marrs, April 2007
In recent years, the American Historical Association has taken an intensive look at the way in which graduate students are prepared for their careers as historians. Doctoral programs were the primary focus of the Committee on Graduate Education, whose report was published as The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (2004). Master's programs received sustained attention in the report of the AHA's Committee on the Master's Degree, entitled Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History (2005). This report, prepared by Philip M. Katz, is available free of charge on the AHA's web site, and deserves a wide readership since it concerns the critical issue of graduate training at the MA level. Because more Americans probably learn their history from professionals with a MA degree (for example, at historical sites, in community colleges, or in high schools) than from those with PhDs means that the profession needs to understand the MA degree better in order to learn how to communicate with the broader public ("Retrieving," 17).
In response to this report, the AHA's Committee for Graduate Students organized a panel for the 2006 annual meeting in Philadelphia entitled "What is the Meaning of the Master's Degree?" The committee invited historians from a variety of backgrounds—public history, secondary education, and the university—to reflect on the purpose of the degree. I am pleased that all three of the participants in the roundtable agreed to make their comments available to the entire organization through Perspectives. All three essayists touch on the challenges and promises of the MA in history. Articles by Thomas Brown and Dan Vivian note some of the difficulties that history departments may have in positioning the MA in history in the increasingly competitive landscape of graduate education, while Helen Grady reminds us that the MA in history does have a positive, real-world benefit to those who earn it.
It is the hope of the Committee for Graduate Students that the "Retrieving the Master's Degree" report will inspire continued interest in master's level training, and that these articles will contribute to the ongoing interest in the significance of the master's degree.
—Aaron Marrs, who was a member (2004–07) of the AHA's Committee for Graduate Students, is an editor in the office of the historian at the U.S. Department of State.