Published Date

February 1, 2005

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

The Committee on the Master’s Degree began its work (and this report) with just one question: “What exactly should an M.A. in history be?” We end the report with no firm answer to the original inquiry—and with even more questions about the current role(s) and the future potential of the master’s degree for historians.

First, there are things that nobody knows about the master’s degree. A close review of the scholarly literature on higher education reveals a number of significant gaps relating to the master’s degree, starting with the shortage of research devoted exclusively to the degree.126 Here are some of the most pressing issues that education researchers have identified as needing further attention:

  • Assessment strategies: “The development of criteria for assessing quality in the master’s degree needs more emphasis.”127
  • The effectiveness of coursework: “[T]here has been little systematic study of coursework in graduate programmes … [even while] the quality of higher degrees and the maintenance of standards have become pressing questions.”128
  • The role and effectiveness of the master’s thesis: “Research into thesis writing refers mostly to the doctoral thesis … [but] the problems and experiences of master’s thesis writing have specific characteristics that need to be examined in their own right.” In general, “little research on the master’s thesis experience is available.”129 (Indeed, our own inquiries among graduate students and department chairs confirm that there is a good deal of uncertainty surrounding the thesis, regarding both the format and the pedagogical utility of the exercise.)
  • The evaluation of master’s degree students: “[I]n most academic institutions, [the graduate] instructors are not trained in what is expected of them as evaluators. … [I have] found very little professional literature relating to ethical issues of evaluation in higher education. … I was mazed to find how inadequate and general were the evaluation guidelines in most institutions of higher education, both for the evaluator and the evaluatee.”130
  • The professional development of graduate instructors: “While staff development for the teaching function [of master’s programs] appears an obvious target for quality improvement, little evidence was found of institutional staff development programmes targeted directly at postgraduate teaching other than research supervision. Perhaps postgraduate teaching is considered less problematic because of the assumed autonomy and capacity for self-direction of postgraduate students.” In most cases, the professional development of graduate instructors at the master’s level is “informal, not the product of any institutional provision [i.e., training] for learning about master’s level teaching and learning.… If there is something distinctive about master’s level work, then there ought, logically, to be dedicated provision for master’s programme faculty. The absence of examples of such programmes is striking.”131
  • The goals and desires of graduate students at the master’s level: “[T]here is almost no literature on how students experience their master’s programs, much less the effects of their experience on students themselves. … Conspicuously missing are the voices of students and program graduates….”132

We challenge historians—as individuals, as members of a history department, and, collectively, as members of the American Historical Association—to tackle these important issues on behalf of instructors and graduate students in every discipline.

Concerns about student debt and financial aid loomed large in the AHA’s recent investigation of doctoral education. These are also real concerns for graduate students pursuing master’s degrees, although the master’s students we consulted while preparing the present report did not seem nearly as worried about the cost of graduate training as did their counterparts in doctoral programs. Nonetheless, to quote one of our colleagues (an independent scholar with little direct stake in graduate education), “the money factor must be taken into account.” As he rightly noted, many master’s students pay their own way. “What percent of M.A. degrees are provided department funding and what percent find funding externally? What does this external source of revenue [represented by many master’s students who pay their own way] mean for history departments and the schools? Are there political/economic factors that keep the M.A. alive and well and thus contribute toward keeping it as a valid degree?”133 These are all good questions; they deserve more attention; but we do not have enough information about the funding of master’s students to begin answering them.

History departments need to collect more information about their own master’s degree students: who they are, where they come from, what they want from their graduate training, why they choose to attend a particular institution, what their intended destinations are, what they study, how much debt they incur, why some leave before completing a degree, etc. We also urge history departments to track the careers of their graduate alumni, not just for a few months but for five years or more. The AHA can then use this information to compile and disseminate a fuller, richer description of the historical profession, which will be an important resource for all historians, including graduate students, and for anyone else who is interested in the future of the discipline.

Finally, we encourage every history department that offers a master’s degree in history—or is contemplating a new master’s degree program—to consider the following questions: Who benefits from your master’s degree program? Does your program reflect the mission and circumstances of your department and your university? Whose interests was the program designed to serve? Whose interests does it actually serve? Whose interests should it serve? There are as many possible variations on these questions as there are stakeholders in graduate history education:

  • The community: Does your master’s degree program prepare teachers, train civil servants, provide better-educated workers for local businesses, enrich the community in other ways?
  • The history faculty: Does training students at the master’s level keep the members of your faculty engaged as scholars? Does it merely satisfy the ego needs of faculty members who might prefer to teacher at doctoral institutions?
  • The university: Does your master’s degree program bring a diversity community of engaged graduate students to the institution? Or does it simply provide a steady source of tuition dollars and cheap teaching assistants?
  • The historical profession: Are you broadening the pool of qualified doctoral students? Introducing a wide range of historical presenters to the best recent work in the discipline? Promoting a “big-tent” vision of the profession that includes both M.A. holders and Ph.D. holders, college professors, public historians, and schoolteachers—or privileging one of these career destinations over the others?
  • The graduate students: Do you know what they want from your master’s degree program? Are they getting what they want?

From the outside, these questions may invite an unacceptable level of speculation while offering an easy temptation to pass judgments. Every history department faces a different set of circumstances and challenges, a unique set of competing stakeholder interests. Every history department needs to explore these questions in light of local particularities—but also as part of a discipline-wide conversation about the nature and purpose(s) of the master’s degree. No less than the future of the historical profession is at stake.

Next section: Appendix 1


  1. As one expert lamented in the late 1980s, “a search of the literature yields many publications on graduate education, but precious few on the master’s degree” (Barak, “A Skeleton in the Closet,” 33). Little has changed since then. []
  2. Judith S. Glazer, “Toward a New Paradigm,” in Green, The Master’s Degree, 10. []
  3. Richard James and Craig McInnis, “Coursework Master’s Degrees and Quality Assurance,” 101. []
  4. Oili-Helena Ylijoki, “Master’s Thesis Writing from a Narrative Approach,” Studies in Higher Education 26:1 (2001): 22; Ada Demb and Kelly Funk, “What Do They Master? Perceived Benefits of the Master’s Thesis Experience,” NACADA Journal 19:2 (fall 1999): 20. []
  5. Naama Sabar, “Toward Principled Practice in Evaluation: Learning from Instructors’ Dilemmas in Evaluating Graduate Students,” Studies in Educational Evaluation 28:4 (2002): 330–31, 339. []
  6. James and McInnis, “Coursework Master’s Degrees and Quality Assurance,” 106; Knight, Masterclass, 11–12. []
  7. Clifton F. Conrad, Katherine M. Duren, and Jennifer Grant Haworth, “Students’ Perspectives on Their Master’s Degree Experiences: Disturbing the Conventional Wisdom,” in The Experience of Being in Graduate School, ed. Melissa S. Anderson (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 65–76. []
  8. From a posting on the H-World electronic discussion list, October 9, 2003, archived at, accessed on October 25, 2004. []