Published Date

February 1, 2005

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


Common Knowledge, Skills, and Identities for History Professionals

The Committee on the Master’s Degree began its work with three related propositions as a guide: 1) master’s degree programs in history should produce historians; 2) there is a common terrain of historical knowledge, skills, epistemology, professional understandings, and habits of mind that should unite all historians trained at the master’s level, regardless of their intended or probable career paths; and 3) no career path (or destination) that begins with a master’s degree in history is inherently more valuable than any other destination.102 We also assumed that master’s degree students who intended to become secondary school teachers, public historians, archivists, community college instructors, doctoral students, etc., might well require some additional, more specialized training.

This presented the immediate challenge of defining the “common terrain” in graduate education at the master’s level—the things that every recipient of a master’s degree in the discipline should be expected to know, understand, and be able to do as a history practitioner. In the mid-1990s, the National Park Service embarked on a similar quest to define the “essential competencies” for historians as part of an ambitious staff development plan (see Appendix 3). First they turned to the departments that train historians, to see what history departments had to say about student outcomes. What they discovered, and what we rediscovered after examining scores of departmental web sites and catalogues, is that most departments cannot offer a clear, effective, or operational statement of the intended outcomes for their own graduate programs. What too many history departments offer instead are banal statements like the following, which is based on several actual examples: “Our master’s students will develop scholarly and professional skills and complete an acceptable thesis.” Such outcome statements—or “mission statements,” as the two genres are barely distinguishable—show every sign of being crafted specifically to satisfy the expectations of outside reviewers, such as accrediting agencies and university administrators, rather than meeting the needs of a department or its students. (See Appendix 4 for some apparent exceptions.)

We do not intend to criticize history departments too harshly for an unwillingness to define outcomes with objective (much less quantifiable) measurements of success. Like most academics, historians have an understandable “antipathy towards perceptions of managerialism and [the] loss of autonomy” that come with efforts to make student assessment a rigidly objective process. After all, the discipline has only recently begun to accept the evaluation of student outcomes at the undergraduate level. The “sheer complexity and ambiguity” of graduate-level work and the sheer diversity of master’s programs, even within the single discipline of history, make graduate assessment even more complicated.103

Nonetheless, “if the assessment of student learning does not attend to the range of knowledge, skills and other qualities that the department claims to be fostering through a master’s programme, it is almost certain that the department is not delivering what it claims—that the pedagogy is faulty.”104 (The admonishment comes from Peter Knight, a British researcher who has closely studied master’s degree programs across the English-speaking world.) Some observers would place the responsibility for assessment in the hands of university administrators, or even statewide higher education agencies.105 We believe the process needs to start at the departmental level instead, and agree with Knight that effective assessment begins with a clear statement of desirable outcomes. We are also encouraged by the fact that “in single discipline areas with strong academic traditions,” such as history, “the process for judging standards, if not of making them explicit, is [already] well established.”106

Which takes us back to the problem of defining the essential outcomes for a history master’s degree. The committee decided to take a deductive approach to the problem, as suggested by Joslyn Green in a collection of essays on master’s education that she edited in 1987. According to Green, the process begins with a deceptively simple question: Should there be a distinction between the work leading to a bachelor’s degree and the work leading to a master’s degree? “Clearly there ought to be,” she answered. “My point is that one could reach that conclusion deductively, reasoning one’s way from an understanding of a discipline to a sense of what aspects of that discipline are best presented to students at what stages. One need not wait passively for a program review to reveal … [the] external evidence of weakness on which inductive reasoning depends.”107 Yet another inductive approach to defining essential outcomes for the master’s degree—that is, collating and abstracting an ideal model from the actual practices at the four hundred or so institutions that offer some kind of master’s degree for historians—was simply impracticable.

In the spirit of deductive inquiry, therefore, the committee convened three focus groups of historians to discuss the essential nature and optimal goals of a history master’s degree. These meetings were held in New York City (May 2003), Alexandria, Virginia (July 2003, where the focus group was convened during a national conference on “Innovations in Collaboration: A School-University Model to Enhance History Teaching, K–16,” co-sponsored by the AHA), and the National Humanities Center in North Carolina (September 2003). Each group included a mix of faculty members from master’s degree programs, faculty members from doctoral programs, community college instructors, public historians, history educators, historians who train secondary school teachers, and graduate students. In the course of three afternoons, these groups chewed over a long list of possible goals for the ideal master’s degree program in history. Some of the items they considered related most closely to the structure of graduate programs, others to the intellectual content of the master’s degree, and still others to the motivations and accomplishments of individual students. They also discussed the difficulty (and temptation) of fitting too many goals into a relatively brief graduate program.

Based on the discussions of these three groups of thoughtful and experienced historians, plus many other conversations with colleagues around the nation, here are the five essential “elements of mastery” that should be expected from a history master’s degree. The quoted remarks are from the participants in the focus groups:

  • A base of historical knowledge, combining both a breadth and depth of knowledge, a familiarity with more than one historiographic tradition, and the ability to synthesize different types of historical knowledge (such as might be required to construct a survey course). Master’s programs should incorporate a comparative, if not a global, perspective on history. Program graduates should be “educated history generalists.”
  • Research and presentation skills, evidenced by the completion of a substantial research project. This project does not have to take the form of a traditional thesis, as long as it demonstrates content mastery, a familiarity with primary research, and competent historical analysis. (A challenge for history departments is making sure that different projects are comparable in quality and rigor, and are seen to be comparable by other graduate students, other history departments, and potential employers.) Master’s degree recipients should be familiar with the tools of bibliography, a foreign language, and the differences between academic and non-academic writing. They should also be conversant with new information technologies, as tools for both research and public presentation.
  • A solid introduction to historical pedagogy, in the broadest sense of the term: what are the cognitive processes involved in teaching and learning history, how do learners of all ages attain their understanding(s) of history, and how do historians present the past to different audiences. If possible, master’s programs should include a teaching component—or, better yet, practical training in the “presentation of history to non-specialists,” which encompasses classroom instruction at all levels as well as public history. This would require graduate programs “to take teaching seriously,” which many do not seem to do at present.
  • The foundations for a professional identity as a historian, including a familiarity with the historical development of the discipline, an introduction to ethical standards and practices, and an awareness of the multiple contexts of professional practice. Master’s programs should promote collaboration and provide a model for collaborative work among historians.
  • Learning to think like a historian, which includes, among other attributes, “historical habits of mind” and “historiographic sensibilities” (i.e., a critical and self-conscious approach to the constructed nature of historical knowledge). Although it is very hard to specify the cognitive and intellectual maturation which indicates that a student is “thinking like a historian,” most of the focus group participants agreed that it was a defining element of effective graduate education.

In addition to providing their students with the common elements of mastery, history departments should strive, as much as possible, to tailor their degree programs to the various destinations of individual students. Degree requirements should “not [be] presented as germane only to finishing master’s coursework or as a one-time product one must produce in order to qualify for the master’s degree,” but as a model for the kind(s) of work graduate students think they will later do. (Good examples are the practica that most public history programs require from their students, research projects with a curricular component for students who plan to become high school teachers, and seminars that help future college teachers prepare syllabi for undergraduate survey courses.) The master’s degree should be seen as “one component on a continuum of professional development with the potential to transform” the career—or even the life—of a history practitioner.108

We expect that some historians will disagree with our approach to defining optimal outcomes for the master’s degree, or with the particular list of outcomes that we suggest here. The important thing is that historians and history departments ask (and keep asking), Where is the mastery in the history master’s degree? The question needs to be addressed at the local level, because history departments face specific challenges and prospects. It also needs to be addressed at the national level, to make sure that master’s degrees in history are roughly comparable across the whole range of graduate institutions, and that recipients of the degree are assessed by roughly the same standards. For its part, the AHA needs to provide more opportunities for discussing the question, through sessions at the annual meeting, on-line forums, and dedicated gatherings of graduate program directors and history department chairs. (The AHA also needs to work more closely with other professional associations, such as the National Council on Public History and the National Council for History Education, that are likewise concerned about the content and quality of history master’s degrees.) In the meantime, we invite our colleagues to share and compare their answers to these basic questions: What should the holders of master’s degrees know? What should they be able to do? What is the best way for a history department, working with other stakeholders, to develop a list of desirable outcomes for its graduate program(s)? What is the best way to make the outcomes known to both graduate students and their potential employers? What is the best way to measure student accomplishments against a common set of desirable outcomes? Does the master’s degree carry an implicit warranty that any individual student meets certain professional standards? Should they come with an explicit warranty instead?

Next section: Defining a Distinctive Role for the Master’s Level in History


  1. An earlier version of this section appeared as Philip M. Katz, “Where Is the Mastery in the History Master’s Degree?” Perspectives 41:8 (November 2003): 24–27. []
  2. Richard James and Craig McInnis, “Coursework Master’s Degrees and Quality Assurance: Implicit and Explicit Factors at Programme Level,” Quality in Higher Education 3:2 (1997): 108–109. For a more general statement about the poor state of assessment in higher education, see Richard J. Stiggins, “Assessment Literacy for the 21st Century,” Phi Delta Kappan 77:3 (November 1995): 238–45. []
  3. Peter T. Knight, “Learning, Teaching and Curriculum in Taught Master’s Courses,” in Knight, Masterclass, 8. []
  4. Floyd, “Balancing State and Institutional Interests,” 57–58. []
  5. Pauline Thorne, “Standards and Quality in Taught Master’s Programmes,” in Knight, Masterclass, 27. []
  6. Joslyn L. Green, “A Cri de Coeur—And Questions to Consider,” in The Master’s Degree: Jack of All Trades, ed. Green (Denver: SHEEO Association, 1987), 55. []
  7. Mary Selke, “The Professional Development of Teachers in the United States of America: the practitioners’ master’s degree,” European Journal of Teacher Education 24:2 (2001): 210, 206. []