Another View of the Master's Degree: Switching Institutions on the Way to a PhD

Philip M. Katz, January 2004

Theodore Hamerow, for many years a distinguished teacher and scholar of European history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, once described the master's degree in history as "[one] of those academic legacies from the days when scholarship was more flexible and diversified." By the 1980s, however, the master's had become "little more than a decorative title . [its role] almost entirely psychological and ceremonial. Only for those who leave graduate school without the doctorate in order to become secondary school teachers does it provide a modest increment in salary. Otherwise, it serves as a spur to the students who go on for the PhD and as a consolation prize for those who do not."1 His discussion of the master's degree combined an explicit hierarchy, in which the doctorate is the highest and therefore best degree, with an implicit disparagement of any student who undertakes advanced training in history but does not reach the heights of the PhD. Alas, Hamerow's shortsighted view of the master's degree has never been the exception; it has quite a long pedigree, and at many doctoral programs it remains a tenet of received wisdom.

Table 1

The view is often summed up in a single dismissive adjective: the "terminal" master's degree. However, "terminal" can have more than one meaning, referring not just to untimely cessation and death but (as a noun) to a place of transition and possibility—like a train or bus terminal, where you can leave, arrive, or just switch vehicles. In the words of one student who recently earned his MA in history from the California State University at Long Beach, the master's degree is a "gateway to multiple doors," and each door leads to a different destination. For many students (perhaps three quarters), the master's degree is the last stop in their formal training as historians, and their intended destination is a secondary-school classroom, a public history venue, a community college teaching position, or simply a richer sense of the past. Only a small number of each year's MA recipients are disappointed graduate students who have been asked to leave a doctoral program under circumstances not (entirely) of their own choosing—though it is hard to know exactly how many, given the absence or unreliability of attrition data collected by most history departments.

Figure 1

For the rest, the master's degree is a stop on the way to a history PhD. But how many "switch vehicles" (that is, disciplines or graduate institutions) in the course of their journey? To answer this question, the AHA commissioned from the National Opinion Research Council (NORC) a special analysis of data from the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates. The survey gathers information about the entire graduate career of each newly minted PhD in the United States, including any previous master's degrees he or she might have earned. There are limits to the data, which only reflect the experiences of successful doctoral students, and then aggregate their experiences in ways that obscure the individual details. Nonetheless, the data reveal some important facts about the transition from master's-level to doctoral-level education in the discipline of history.

Most history PhDs in the United States earn a master's degree first (at least 78.1 percent in 2001, and probably closer to 85 percent).2 In 2001, about 60 percent of the new PhDs first earned their master's degrees in history, while another 6 to 7 percent earned a master's degree in a closely allied field. For the graduate training of historians, discipline switching is a much less significant phenomenon than institution switching (see Tables 1 and 2). Most PhDs who also have a master's degree earned them from the same institution—but more than a third are "institution switchers" (about 38 percent of all new history doctorates in 2001 and 48 percent of those with a master's degree). While the total percentage of new history PhDs with a master's degree in any field has declined slightly over the past two decades, the ratio between "switchers" and "non-switchers" has remained surprisingly constant, averaging 44:56 each year (see Table 1 and Figure 1).

Table 2

Women are less likely—the figures show—to switch institutions than men on the way to a history PhD, as long as their master's degrees are also in history. This pattern has remained consistent over the past two decades (see Table 2).

As a group, minority historians do not differ in any substantial way from their white counterparts when it comes to institution-switching or field-switching on the way to the doctorate—a pattern that has also remained consistent over the past two decades (see Table 2).

"Switchers" earn their master's degrees from a variety of institutions. From 1981 to 2001 (inclusive), a total of 37 history departments awarded at least 20 master's degrees to students who then went on to earn a PhD from another graduate program. Together, these departments accounted for less than 30 percent of all the history master's degrees earned by "switchers."3 Thirty-one of the top MA producers were public institutions; surprisingly, 29 of them (24 public and 5 private) also awarded doctorates in history during the period. Meanwhile, a small but significant number of minority PhDs got their start with a master's degree from a minority-serving institution (see Table 3).

Unfortunately, the statistical data from NORC will not answer the most challenging questions related to institution-switching. Most of these have to do with the interests and motivations of the graduate students involved. How many "switchers" plan to earn a PhD from the start, and how many pick a new destination en route? How many start their graduate work at a local or regional institution (perhaps because of family obligations that tie them to one area), but then relocate for the doctorate? How many use the master's degree as a trial run to decide if graduate work is right for them, before they take on the more substantial commitment of a doctoral program? How many use the master's degree as a way to enhance their credentials before applying to a doctoral program—and is this a more significant use of the master's degree for some groups (for example, first-generation college graduates or non-history majors at the undergraduate level) than for others? How many PhD-bound students start with a relatively cheap master's degree from a public university because they can't afford the more substantial expense of a doctoral program? How many switch when their funding disappears (or never materializes) at the first institution? How many switch because their research interests change? How many switch because their principal adviser departs for a new job? How many switch because they just don't like the first institution? What (if anything) distinguishes the switchers from the non-switchers? And what distinguishes the switchers from other master's degree students, who plan to depart for other destinations with their degrees?

Table 3

Students who come directly from such experiences, therefore, may not be ready to learn from college lectures. College instructors need to explain to students that their lectures will be more abstract than "note giving" and that students do not have to copy down (or electronically record) every word that is said. College instructors should certainly provide their students at the outset of a lecture with clues about what to listen for, perhaps in the form of a printed or projected outline, but also need to emphasize that notes should include more than the helpful headings or terms or statistics that will be written on the board or projected on the overhead.

Another group of questions is more directly pertinent for graduate programs, and they fall under the general heading of "the ideal functions of the terminal master's degree for a PhD-pursuing student" (to borrow the title of an article by two psychologists concerned about the state of graduate training in their own discipline).4 Should master's students who intend to pursue the PhD at a second institution be treated any differently from the students with other destinations in mind? What difference does its make that some large doctoral programs are also training a cohort of MA graduates who will continue their training elsewhere? What advantage does (or should) a master's degree confer upon a graduate student when he or she applies to a doctoral program, beyond an additional measure of maturity? An Australian scholar notes, "Students from low-status [master's] courses are likely to find that their master's degree counts for little when they try to enroll in doctoral programs elsewhere."5 This is certainly true at many history departments in the United States, which are liable to count all, some, or none of a student's coursework from the master's degree towards a PhD, depending (in part) upon the quality of the MA-granting institution. Several graduate students have told me this is a source of particular frustration, especially since the policy varies from school to school, and even between campuses of the same state university systems. Is there a role for formal articulation agreements between master's-granting and doctoral-granting history departments, along the lines of the articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions?

In the long run, what difference does it make if the historian earns a master's degree at one institution and a PhD at another? Does it affect career opportunities? Does it broaden the student's view of the profession, or make him or her a better adviser, by offering more than one model of graduate education? These questions would be easier to answer if history departments did a better job of following the paths of their graduate alumni, including both the "terminal" master's students and those who go on to the PhD at other institutions.

—Philip M. Katz is research director of the AHA's Committee on the Master's Degree.


1. Theodore S. Hamerow, Reflections on History and Historians (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 94. For the persistence of this view, see Philip L. Harriman, "The Master's Degree," The Journal of Higher Education 9:1 (January 1938), 25–6, and Clifton Conrad, Jennifer Haworth, and Susan B. Millar, A Silent Success: Master's Education in the United States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 314–15.

2. The figures provided in Table should be considered underestimates, because the analysis there does not account for non-responses on the survey or for students who earned their master's degrees from foreign institutions. If we only consider the new Ph.D.'s in history during the past decade who were American citizens or permanent residents, then about 85 percent earned a master's degree first (see Table 2, right-hand columns).

3. These figures only include Ph.D. recipients who were U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

4. George H. Tucker and Lawrence V. Annis, "The Ideal Function of the Terminal Master's Degree Program for a Ph.D.-Pursuing Student," Professional Psychologist 12:3 (June 1981), 336–340.

5. C. McInnis, et al., The Master's Degree by Coursework: Growth, Diversity and Quality Assurance (Canberra: Australian Government Printing Service, 1995), 70.