Published Date

February 1, 2005

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

Is there a way to describe the master’s degree, in history or any other discipline, that is not inherently hierarchical, and that does not privilege the Ph.D. as the preeminent credential? What distinguishes the master’s degree from the bachelor’s degree or the doctorate, other than the age of the recipient and the number of credits under his or her belt? In other words, where is the masterness in the degree, as opposed to the mastery?109 The answer to this puzzle has both theoretical and practical implications for historians.

At most colleges and universities, the basic definition of “the master’s degree” (without regard to any particular discipline) has been generated by the state higher education authority, a graduate dean or registrar’s office, or some other university administrator. Usually, their starting point is a set of policy guidelines promulgated by the Council of Graduate Schools and reinforced by the regional accrediting agencies, which concentrates on such things as the “program requirements which master’s programs have in common … [including:] a) a minimum number of required credits; b) a core curriculum to be mastered or a prescribed program of courses, seminars, and/or research component[s]; and c) an assigned faculty advisor and/or advisory committee for each student.”110 The typical result is a generic definition of the master’s degree that emphasizes time served, not objective outcomes or even a subjective standard of achievement.111

The “one-size-fits-all” approach to master’s-level training makes very little sense, across disciplines or even within a single field; too little variation between graduate programs is just as bad as too much variation. In many cases, a public history master’s degree or a master’s degree for teachers will simply require more credits and time to complete than a traditional (predoctoral) M.A., because of the necessary practica and additional training required to master technical skills. Yet students are likely to earn the same credential at the end of their efforts: a “master’s degree in history.” One solution is to redefine the Master of Arts as the base degree in graduate history education, with a uniform number of credits leading to the same diploma regardless of a student’s “track,” but then reward any additional work needed to provide acceptable preparation for a particular career destination with a supplemental certificate. (A firm distinction between the base degree and supplemental certificates would also make it easier for mid-career historians to re-tool for new professional opportunities without starting from scratch.) The goal, once again, is to distinguish competencies from mere credentials. Ideally, history departments should start with a well-considered set of program outcomes and then decide how many courses and other training opportunities (practica, theses, general examinations, etc.) are necessary to achieve the desired objectives. If the optimal training for the master’s degree turns out to be the equivalent of thirty-six credits, or forty-two credits, or even more, departments should then be able to convince administrators to adopt this standard, rather than adhering to arbitrary numbers developed without reference to the needs of our discipline.112

The focus on credit hours leads to what a graduate dean once called the additive fallacy, according to which “the master’s degree is nothing more than an accumulation of course credits. … The additive fallacy assumes that one’s competence increases in an additive manner as one accumulates credits. It assumes, for example, that completing 15 hours of a program makes one precisely half as competent as one will be at the end of a 30-hour program.”113 The additive fallacy may also be the source for perennial complaints about the dilution of the master’s degree, which succeeding generations of professors have decried as being no better than the “old Bachelor of Arts degree.”114 (Or, as a conservative critic of American higher education recently argued the case, “‘critical’ methods of teaching and learning have been ‘pushed forward’ to earlier and earlier years of study in the past generation, [while] mastery of a discipline … has been ‘pushed back’ to the M.A. years of graduate school.”115) Meanwhile, both faculty attitudes and administrative policies continue to hearken back to “a time when it was assumed that master’s degree programs were housed in doctoral-granting departments and served either as interim degrees for full-time, Ph.D.-bound students or final degrees for those who were not advanced to candidacy.”116 This gives rise to a subtractive fallacy, where the master’s degree is considered to be just like the doctorate, only less so.

Generic definitions of master’s level graduate work do have their place, however, especially as an aid to planning and evaluating specific graduate programs. For example, as part of the ongoing effort to harmonize academic requirements in Europe, a group of university educators recently drafted “a general statement of the expected attributes [i.e., outcomes]” for recipients of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The “Dublin descriptors” (named for the city where most of their discussions took place) attempt to define student outcomes in five broad areas: knowledge and understanding, applying knowledge and understanding, making judgments, communication, and learning skills. In their scheme, both quantitative and qualitative differences separate the different degrees. A second group of European scholars—in this case, just historians—has proposed a set of “specific skills and competences” for postsecondary history students, including distinctive achievement targets for students completing a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degrees. (See Appendix 5). These European documents should be useful tools for any American history department that wants to examine its own graduate program(s) from a fresh perspective.117

Still another way to look at the distinctive role of the master’s degree in training professional historians has been suggested, albeit indirectly, by Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In a recent essay, Shulman reflected on “the study of professional education that The Carnegie Foundation is now undertaking, looking concurrently at preparation for law, engineering, teaching, and the clergy.”118

One emerging theme in this work is that learning to be a professional isn’t a purely intellectual endeavor. To become a professional, one must learn not only to think in certain ways but also to perform particular skills, and to practice or act in ways consistent with the norms, values, and conventions of the profession. Thus, to learn to be a lawyer, one needs to think like a lawyer, perform like a lawyer, and act like a lawyer. … Acting is more than knowing something or performing well; it seems to involve the development of a set of values, commitments, or internalized dispositions. It reminds me of what theological educators talk about as formation—the development of an identity that integrates one’s capacities and dispositions to create a more generalized orientation to practice.

A similar view can be applied to the master’s degree in history, which is not a professional degree in the same sense as a J.D. or D.D., but more accurately a practitioner’s degree. Master’s education in history does not necessarily involve a formation of the sort Shulman describes, and perhaps not even a transformation. Instead it involves, or should involve, a process of appreciation, in both senses of the word: an incremental addition of value (i.e., value added to a student’s knowledge and skills, in ways that can be fruitfully assessed) and a heightened awareness and understanding (i.e., of the craft and discipline of history). Doctoral programs are primarily designed to train scholars in particular types of historical analysis that emphasize theoretical and structural explanations (as opposed to primarily narrative reconstructions), and which rely upon the critical evaluation of multiple voices and the willingness to accept that historical knowledge is always tentative and incomplete.119 In the world of practicing historians, the Ph.D. is the anomaly, not the master’s degree; the Ph.D. is for those who have the time, resources, talents, and inclination to pursue theoretically informed research at a sustained level of intensity.120 Indeed, as a growing body of research shows, in most cases K–16 students and the general public do not process history in the same way as historians with doctorates.121

Most historians with master’s degrees will spend their careers as “past specialists,” presenting and interpreting history to students or the general public.122 They should be trained in a style of historical presentation that accommodates and builds upon nonprofessional understandings of the past, rather than rejecting these understandings because they do not match with the most abstract or “sophisticated” types of historical analysis in the discipline. At a minimum, “it is essential that they [do] not continue to reinforce mistaken views of historical knowledge, whether in schools, in museums, or at historic sites.”123 To achieve this end, master’s degree students need to become familiar enough with the various types of historical analysis to value and understand the differences between them, but they do not have to master the exhaustive-inquiry approach that has traditionally exemplified doctoral education.124 Instead, they have the harder task, in some ways, of mediating between different modes of historical interpretation and making sure that their audiences get the best historical information and analysis in any given setting, where “best” is defined as the most accurateappropriate, and useful. Historians in the public sphere also face the enormous challenge of “stag[ing] dialogues with complex, already-moving minds, not knowing (or being able to evaluate) what the public’s synthesis of this material is likely to be at the end of the day.”125

Next section: Unanswered Questions


  1. Knight uses the term “masterness” in a headnote on p. 16 of Masterclass. []
  2. Mary Ann E. Borchert, Master’s Education: A Guide for Faculty and Administrators—A Policy Statement (Washington, D.C.: Council of Graduate Schools, 1994), 30–31. The CGS also funded the most thorough review available of master’s programs: Conrad, Haworth, and Millar’s A Silent Success. Conrad and his co-authors take a much more sophisticated approach, distinguishing four basic types of master’s programs: Ancillary programs (i.e., master’s degrees earned on the way to the Ph.D.), Career Advancement programs, Apprenticeship programs, and Community-centered programs. Each type has its own cluster of goals. []
  3. Thorne, “Standards and Quality,” esp. 17–20; on the tyranny of the credit hour in general, see Jane V. Wellman and Thomas Ehrlich, eds., How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education: The Tie That Binds (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003). However, Kohl and LaPidus argue in Postbaccalaureate Futures that “the quality measure in postbaccalaureate education is shifting from credit, or time spent in class, to competency” (232). []
  4. These arguments were suggested by Noel Stowe, chair of the history department at Arizona State University, during a roundtable discussion of master’s education at the annual meeting of the National Council for Public History, Houston, April 27, 2003. []
  5. Joyce V. Lawrence, “The Additive Fallacy and an Added Concern,” in Green, The Master’s Degree, 28–29. []
  6. Harriman, “The Master’s Degree,” 24, quoting Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell. In 2003, we heard similar complaints during our focus groups with historians. []
  7. Mark C. Henrie, “Finding and Following the Core,” in Choosing the Right College 2004, ed. Jeremy Beer (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003), xxiv. []
  8. Casanova et al., “The Master’s Degree,” 2. []
  9. The practical difficulties in applying a generic set of standards to particular academic programs are discussed in Harvey Woolf et al., “Benchmarking Academic Standards in History: an empirical exercise,” Quality in Higher Education 5:2 (July 1999): 145–54. The authors describe the efforts by an informal consortium of history departments in the United Kingdom to define performance measures for both graduate and undergraduate degree programs. They conclude that “whatever methods [are] used … the whole process of establishing standards is subtle, organic, and opaque … [and] many of the informal methods of setting commonly-agreed standards that were used when group sizes were smaller [are] no longer viable or sufficient” (151). In their view, the process of defining performance standards was ultimately more useful than applying the benchmark standards to assess the quality of individual programs. []
  10. Lee S. Shulman, “Making Differences: A Table of Learning,” Change 34:6 (November/December 2002): 36–44; quoted here from the online version at, accessed October 15, 2004. []
  11. As E. H. Carr noted long ago in What Is History? (New York: Vintage, 1961), “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which is very hard to eradicate” (10). []
  12. My thanks to Linda Shopes, chair of the AHA Task Force on Public History, for reminding me of this fact. []
  13. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Persistence of the Past: The Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Barton, “Research on Students’ Historical Thinking and Learning.” []
  14. The phrase “past specialists” comes from Dipesh Chakrabarty, keynote address to the annual meeting of the World History Association, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 29, 2001. []
  15. Personal communication from Keith Barton (University of Cincinnati) to Philip M. Katz. []
  16. As Harvard historian Wilbur Cortez Abbott, a member of the AHA Committee on the Writing of History, wrote back in 1926, there are “there are plenty of [graduate] courses in ‘historical method,’ in ‘analysis and criticism,’ in ‘problems,’ in all the scientific side of historical work, [but] there are to be found few or none on the side of presentation. … The whole stress has been laid too much on information and on methods of investigation, too little on presentation.” Abbott, “The Influence of Graduate Instruction on Historical Writing,” in Jean Jules Jusserand et al., The Writing of History (New York: Scribner’s, 1926), 46–7. []
  17. Personal communication from Richard Rabinowitz (American History Workshop) to Philip M. Katz, September 30, 2003. []