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I have to ask - Are MA programs dead?

I have to ask - Are MA programs dead?
Jul 08, 2019 568 views

I presented this paper at Drew University’s Crossroads: The Future of History Graduate Education

The call for papers for this (thus far fantastic) conference asked for graduate perspectives. I am a first-year PhD student, and this is my perspective. Or rather, my story from which, I hope, a very familiar perspective can be seen. I would like to give you a bit of my history as a student to show why a terminal MA program was both necessary and beneficial for me, even though when I entered my Ma I intended to continue on to a PhD. Perhaps less entertainingly, I will present some of the issues students seeking MAs face and the value I see in the Master’s as a separate degree.

Yesterday, Dr.Cassuto mentioned that most students who go on to graduate school do so because they were inspired by a professor. I am no different. Six and a half years ago, I returned to academia after an interlude in horse-farming (long story). I was, officially, a psychology major. That is what I had been six years before that when I was barely managing to not fail, simply for a lack of caring. That first semester back, I took a medieval history class. For fun. Literally. I called it my fluff class. It happened to fit my schedule. And, hey, I liked the “Renn faire” as a kid.

Well, it was fun. But, more than that, it was inspirational. There was something I cared about studying. It wasn’t just the past, it was a study of humanity. I walked out of that class, into the history office, and immediately changed my major. Even so, I had no further ambition. I was in school because I’d always felt bad about leaving my degree unfinished, and I needed something to do. But after a year or so in the program, I started thinking about teaching. I had given riding lessons, and loved it. I was enthralled by my history classes, and admired professors that could somehow marry critical thought with technocolor storytelling, and who could engage with difficult topics through the lens of the past. But, I had many, many friends who taught high school, and they all told many of the same horror stories about the job market that we have heard here. And, more importantly, I didn’t really want to teach high school. I didn’t even consider graduate school ­– I am a first generation college graduate. But I kept taking classes with the professor from that first medieval class, (I was not alone. There were a few of us who joked that we majored in Dr. Lipton, not history) and realized that I would really love to be able to have a job like hers. So, at the tail end of spring before my senior year, graduate school was suddenly something to consider.

There was one problem.

I didn’t know Latin. And Latin wasn’t offered that year. I was a medievalist. This was a death knell.

There was no way I was getting into a doctoral program without Latin, and with my initial, though far out of date, poor grades. I had been considering my school’s 5-year BA/MA program, which might have helped me solve these problems, but I was advised by several faculty members that I would benefit both as a scholar and on the job market if I went to a different school for my MA. They also suggested that going to separate institutions for my MA & PhD would be an advantage, even if I was lucky enough to be admitted straight to a PhD.

So, I had a plan! I finally had a goal for my own education. I started gathering information on Master’s programs.

And was very distressed by what I found. There were very, very few stand-alone History MA programs out there. Even fewer that weren’t tailored exclusively for high school teachers. Only a handful of the rest had medieval programs. And forget about funding! So that further limited both the number and quality of programs I could apply to.

Sounds a little grim, right?

It got grimmer.

Several programs I contacted, who did have MA programs listed, apologized and informed me they were no longer offering terminal MAs. One told me directly that “the MA was dead” and all separate MA programs would soon be closed. I ended up applying mostly to California State Universities, which did not at all upset me, and did receive a few admittances — San Jose’s came with an apology that they were no longer offering a medieval program, though they would be happy to have me in world history since they closed the program after my application was in.

Despite the daunting search, I did land in an MA program at California State University, Fresno (where I met my co-panelist Greta Bell). And of course, I did take Latin and had a much cleaner transcript to send with my PhD application, so my goals were met. I am far from alone in not considering graduate school until late in my undergrad career, and many students have these gaps that MA programs fit perfectly.

So, were they right? Did it benefit me in the job market and as a scholar? Well, as to the first, I don’t know yet, though it seems likely from everything I have heard here, as well as from speaking with job candidates interviewing at UC Riverside. As a scholar? Without a doubt. I had new professors to work with and learn from. But I also had new students, and their perspectives had just as much effect on me as a researcher and as a student. My partner was in the English program at Fresno State (I know we were beyond lucky to get in to the same school in the same year). The English students, being for some reason more interested in writing than History students, had a graduate writing group. I tagged along one day, and they very kindly let me stay. The lone medievalist in the group was actually thrilled to have someone who had some context for his writing. Eventually, since my research relied very heavily on literary sources, I even submitted my own writing. Having their extra-departmental comments on my work helped me immeasurably.

I had a writing group at the end of my BA, and my current cohort is putting one together. So that wasn’t really unique to the MA. Except each one has been different, and as Greta has discussed, simply getting out and talking with other students is invaluable. The more perspectives, the better. Through that writing group, I got a job at the Graduate Writing Studio, and encouraged Greta to apply there as well. Good programs talk about networking at conferences, but often these internal networks are taken for granted. From one day of having an hour to kill and attending another department’s writing group, a cascade of connections was formed. The following year we put together both a history writing group to focus on our own discipline, and a humanities writing group where we came together to make sure we weren’t living in an echo chamber. At the time, it was just English, History, and a lone Classicist I had met while TAing for my Latin professor–another network connection–but we all had something to add, and so much to learn. These opportunities multiply when we attend a variety of institutions.

What was more unexpected was how the MA prepared me as a student. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. There is a large difference between a terminal MA, and an MA enroute a PhD. The step from my intensive senior year with my undergraduate thesis into a Master’s program was very manageable. The step from my MA to my first year in a doctoral program has also been manageable. I think, had I leaped directly from undergrad to PhD, I would have broken something. I am lucky that my current department is fantastic and supportive and cares about its students, and that my undergraduate program was rigorous, but even so, the difference in culture, in responsibilities, in research skills, and in writing skills, is immense. I look around at the other students in my cohort, and though we are as yet all staying afloat, most of those who came straight out of BAs are struggling and stressed almost to breaking. Those who have come out of MAs or postbac programs have largely hit their stride, just two quarters in.

MA programs, thankfully, are not actually dead. However, they are dwindling, and often the unique needs of MA students are overlooked. MA students, even more than PhDs, are there for a wide variety of reasons. One plan does not fit all. Some want to teach K-12, some want to fill gaps in order to prepare for a PhD program, some want to study public history or go into business. Many of the remaining MA programs seek to specialize in just one of these tracks. I find three problems with this. The first is that this prevents MA students from learning from those in other tracks, or broadening their professional skills­– something that is critical in the current unpredictable job market. The second is that some MA students have goals entirely outside these tracks. And the last being that some MA students don’t know what they want to do, or don’t have a clear idea of their options when they enter the program.

For example, our third panelist, Katy Hogue (who was not able to make it) had gone into the MA planning to teach K-12. However, through an internship with the Fresno Historical Society, which at the time was just a way to earn a few dollars, she discovered she loved public history and had a lot to offer the local community. That internship turned into a full time position, which is why she is not here today. MA programs are a valuable part of both graduate education and community development. They serve a unique purpose for both “traditional” and “professional” track academics, and deserve to have their own renaissance.


Katrin Boniface (@KatBoniface) is a PhD student at the University of California, Riverside, studying horses and horsemanship in the early modern world. This story was published on March 13, 2016, on Katrin’s blog (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

Katrin earned her M.A. in medieval history, with Distinction, from California State University, Fresno in 2015. Her Master's thesis was on the social symbolism of the horse, and the disconnect from its practical value that developed in the late middle ages. She graduated from Stony Brook University, in New York, in 2013 with honors in history and a second major in English, both focusing on medieval Europe.

She is the founder and current President of the Equine History Collective, which just ran its first conference at the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Library at CalPoly Pomona. Prior to returning to academics, she earned a trade degree in horse training from Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, along with a teaching certification, and ran an equine program in Maryland. Current research areas include medieval and early modern equine nutrition, changing definitions of “humane” treatment in animal training, genetic history, and breed theory. She runs a blog about research, teaching, and training at http://katboniface.equinehistory.org.

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