Published Date

February 1, 2005

Resource Type

AHA Archival Document

A Report to the Members of the American Historical Association

Prepared by Philip M. Katz for the AHA’s Committee on the Master’s Degree in History.




I. A (Very) Brief History of the Master’s Degree

II. The History Master’s Degree: A Snapshot in Statistics

III. Destinations and Desires

IV. Where Is the Mastery in the Master’s Degree?

V. Defining a Distinctive Role for the Master’s Level in History

VI. Unanswered Questions

Appendix 1. U.S. Colleges and Universities that Award Master’s Degrees in History

Appendix 2. Survey Distributed to Graduate Students in Spring 2003

Appendix 3. Essential Competencies for National Park Service Employees: Historians (Developmental Level)

Appendix 4. Sample Outcome Statements from History Master’s Degree Programs

Appendix 5. Defining a Distinctive Role for the Master’s Degree: Recent European Efforts


Committee on the Master’s Degree in History

David Trask (Guilford Technical Community College), chair
Thomas Bender (New York University)
Fritz Fischer (University of Northern Colorado)
Patricia Mooney-Melvin (Loyola University Chicago)
Colin Palmer (Princeton University)
Carlton Wilson (North Carolina Central University)
Barbara Winslow (Brooklyn College, CUNY)
Rosemarie Zagarri (George Mason University)
Arnita Jones (American Historical Association), ex officio


History departments in the United States offer a rich variety of master’s degrees, intended to promote the professional, career, and personal goals of a highly diverse student population. Collectively, master’s degree programs reflect our profession’s commitment to enhancing the historical understanding of all Americans, both directly, by strengthening the ability of graduate students to analyze and interpret the past, and indirectly, through the many encounters that Americans have with professional historians who earn master’s degrees. Individual graduate programs, however, are shaped by local needs and conditions as much as they are shaped by national practices or disciplinary commitments. History departments need to serve the goals of their students, their faculty members, their institutions, their communities, and their discipline. Sometimes, these goals will conflict.

What is the best fit between the work of history graduate programs and the needs of our students and society? What should historians with master’s degrees know? What skills should they be expected to possess? What careers should they be prepared to pursue? And what kind of profession will they be joining as historians and educators in the twenty-first century? In this report, we call upon all historians, wherever they happen to pursue their careers, to reflect on the state of the profession and its relation to current social conditions. This is not a call for historians to privilege the master’s degree as an employment credential nor to resign themselves to the inevitability of current trends. Instead, it is a sober response to the fact that, in today’s world (including the world of higher education), professionals are increasingly expected not only to define their work but to present measures of the work’s effectiveness and utility.

These are reasonable expectations and should be easy for historians to meet. But if we do not define our own work as historians, then others will rush in to do it for us. The possibility applies with equal force to historians working in every possible setting (schools, colleges and universities, museums, government offices, etc.). Nonetheless, we think it especially important to emphasize the role of external forces—both negative and positive—in defining the content and role of the master’s degree. The “master’s degree,” as a general category, is often promoted as a tool for addressing specific employment needs while improving the lives of successful students. The master’s degree for historians has the additional burden of enriching the nation’s sense of the past. The success (or failure) of the degree to meet society’s expectations will have important implications for the status of our profession in the years to come. So will the success (or failure) of the degree to promote a richer understanding of history and a stronger, more inclusive community of practicing historians. The master’s degree deserves our full attention.

— David S. Trask
Chair, AHA Committee on the Master’s Degree