Published Date

February 1, 2005

From Retrieving the Master’s Degree from the Dustbin of History (2005)

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.

Next section: The History Master’s Degree: A Snapshot in Statistics


  1. Philip L. Harriman, “The Master’s Degree,” Journal of Higher Education 9:1 (January 1938): 23–28; Richard J. Storr, The Beginnings of Graduate Education in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953); Patricia J. Gumport, “Graduate Education and Organized Research on the United States,” in The Research Foundations of Graduate Education, ed. Burton R. Clark (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 225–60. []
  2. Robert J. Barak, “A Skeleton in the Closet,” in The Master’s Degree: Jack of All Trades, ed. Joslyn L. Green (Denver: SHEEO Association, 1987), 32. Barak goes on to quip that “Since the early years, … only the length of time required for the degree (now less) and the cost of the degree (now more) have changed.” []
  3. Ephraim Emerton, “The Requirements for the Historical Doctorate in America,” Annual Report of the AHA for the Year 1893 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894), 79. []
  4. John L. Snell, “The Master’s Degree,” in Graduate Education Today, ed. Everett Walters (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1965), 86, 88–89. Also see Dexter Perkins, John L. Snell et al., The Education of Historians in the United States (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 87–107. []
  5. For more details about this survey, see Philip M. Katz, “CGE’s E-mail Survey Focuses on Challenges in Graduate Education,” Perspectives 39:4 (April 2001): 11–15. []
  6. Clifton F. Conrad and David J. Eagan, “Master’s Degree Programs in American Higher Education,” in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 6, ed. John C. Smart (1990), 107. []
  7. []
  8. Scott Smallwood, “Graduate studies in science expand beyond the Ph.D.,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 6, 2001, A14–15; Council of Graduate Schools, “Professional Master’s Program in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Request for Proposal,” July 28, 2003. On the mixed results of this effort so far, see Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “Poor job market blunts impact of new master’s programs,” Science 5634 (August 8, 2003): 752, and Judith Glazer-Raymo, “Trajectories for Professional Master’s Education,” CGS Communicator 37:2 (March 2004): 1–2, 5. []
  9. Burton Bollag, “European Higher Education Seeks a Common Currency,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2003, A52. Wolf Wagner, “The Bachelor’s and the Master’s Degrees: Higher Education Policy Under Wrong Assumptions,” European Education 34:1 (spring 2002): 88–92, offers a critique of the degree structure in the United States, which has served as a model for many of the proposed European reforms. []
  10. Sally L. Casanova et al., “The Master’s Degree, the Comprehensive University, and the National Interest,” CGS Communicator 25:3–5 (March–May 1992): 1–5; Carol Olson and Milton A. King, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Decision Process of Graduate Students in College Choice,” College and University 60:4 (summer 1985): 308. []
  11. David L. Angus with Jeffrey Mirel, Professionalism and the Public Good: A Brief History of Teacher Certification (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2001) is a useful introduction to the debates over certification, despite the authors’ neoconservative animus against the schools of education. For one recent effort to reinvigorate the master’s degree for teachers, see Peggy J. Blackwell and Mary Diez, Toward a New Vision of Master’s Education for Teachers (Washington, D.C.: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, 1998). Education researchers are deeply divided on the question of whether having a master’s degree, in either an academic subject or in education, actually improves teaching and learning in the classroom; all they can agree upon is that the research is sketchy. See Dan Goldhaber, “The Mystery of Good Teaching,” Education Next 2:1 (spring 2002): 50–55, which should be balanced (politically and methodologically) by Linda Darling-Hammond and Gary Sykes, “Wanted: A national teacher supply policy for education: The right way to meet the ‘Highly Qualified Teacher’ challenge,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 11:33 (September 17, 2003). []
  12. A precocious example can be found in “The Meeting of the American Historical Association at Chicago,” American Historical Review 10:3 (April 1905): 498–501. []
  13. Peter T. Knight, ed., Masterclass: Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum in Taught Master’s Degrees (London: Cassell, 1997), 3. []
  14. Carol Everly Floyd, “Balancing State and Institutional Interests to Enhance Master’s Degree Programs,” Planning for Higher Education 26:3 (spring 1998): 56–59; Kay J. Kohl and Jules B. LaPidus, “Postbaccalaureate Futures: Where Do We Go from Here?” in Postbaccalaureate Futures: New Markets, Resources, Credentials, ed. Kohl and LaPidus (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 2000), 231–36. []