The Degree for Quitters and Failures

A look at the melancholy history of the master’s degree

Jim Surkamp / Creative Commons

June 01, 2015

Today’s arguments about alternative academic careers almost always center on Ph.D.s. Should we train Ph.D.s for nonfaculty jobs? Some say that we already have a credential for people who don’t want a full-blown scholarly Ph.D. — it’s called a master’s degree.

Instead of reforming the Ph.D. to make it more relevant to different career choices, this argument goes, we should just direct undecided graduate students into master’s programs. After that, they can either go to work or — if they’re told the score and still want to play the game — enter a Ph.D. program. Why worry about alt-ac careers for Ph.D.s when that’s what a master’s degree is for?

If only. It’s convenient to think of the M.A. as a carefully crafted educational stage that prepares graduate students either for related employment or further scholarship. The problem is that so few departments have actually crafted the master’s degree in that way.

In discussions of graduate school, the master’s degree gets lost easily because there has been little conversation about it. Educators "want to talk about Ph.D.s," said Carol Lynch, a former graduate dean and program officer at the Council of Graduate Schools. "They don’t want to talk about master’s degrees."

And because the M.A. gets so little notice, there’s no agreement about what it should do. It’s not so much that the degree lacks meaning as that it has too many meanings — though in the end, that’s much the same thing. The master’s has a long history as a teaching degree, an in-between degree, and a professional degree — often in bewildering combinations. Some master’s degrees carry considerable prestige. The M.B.A., for example, is a well-respected terminal degree. Other master’s programs offer a necessary credential, most commonly to teach public school. Still others offer mostly consolation, such as those handed out to students who fail to qualify for certain doctoral programs.

Master’s programs have one thing in common, though: They don’t offer graduate-student aid to the vast majority of their students. More than anything, that suggests the main purpose of the M.A. in today’s graduate-school universe (read: cash cow).

The idea that a master’s indicated advanced study in a particular discipline dates from relatively recently, no earlier than the 1870s, which is the same time that the modern Ph.D. was instituted in the United States. But what sort of disciplinary study? Even in those early days, some of the justifications for the M.A. centered on the simple notion that it was something less than a Ph.D.

The Johns Hopkins University, for example, instituted the master’s degree in 1908 for "those graduate students of the University who, for good reasons, cannot spend the necessary time for completing the work for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy." That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the value of an M.A., and Ira Remsen, the university’s president, knew it. His annual report continued in a defensive crouch: "It is believed that this degree is sufficiently protected to prevent any abuse. It is not a cheap degree." Remsen’s successor, Frank J. Goodnow, went further in his deprecation, crossing the line into contempt. Master’s candidates, he declared in 1923, "are not graduate students in the sense that we use the words." They have "little inclination and less capacity to train themselves in investigation and research."

With "research lite" characterizations like that, it’s not surprising that locating the M.A. within the disciplines didn’t solve its indeterminacy problem. Into the 1890s and beyond, the master’s degree still seemed, in the words of a late 19th-century historian "an object of deserved ridicule and … an ill-defined being."

The muddiness persisted until the 1930s, when the continuing neglect of the M.A. by the Ph.D.-granting enterprise opened up the opportunity for others to appropriate the meaning of the degree. Into that void stepped graduate schools of education, which emerged in the United States beginning early in the 20th century and invented education as an area of graduate study as public high schools became widespread. The professionalization of education led logically to a credentializing process. Teachers were once local employees with local reputations, hired and fired by towns. Now they could get a mark of validation that could be recognized across community borders. The M.A. was co-opted for that purpose, and many states began to require it of secondary-school teachers.

The result was a huge leap — more than tenfold between 1900 and 1932 — in the number of M.A. students. American institutions granted 1,744 master’s degrees in 1900; by 1932, the number was 19,339, according to Philip L. Harriman’s 1938 article "The Master’s Degree."

Academics in the 1930s attempted to create better standards and a coherent definition of the M.A. During the 1920s and 1930s, when the degree was given out in droves, the M.A. represented a kind of commoditization of learning that offended many high-toned humanists of the day. Those contemptuous attitudes persisted. In his 1959 article "The Master’s Degree for the Prospective College Teacher," J.P. Elder, dean of the Harvard graduate school, described the M.A. in simultaneously vulgar and biblical fashion as "a bit like a streetwalker — all things to all men (and at different prices)."

Today, the meaning of the master’s degree — especially in the humanities — remains confusing. Apart from the fields of engineering and education (and of course, business), the degree is misbegotten. It also carries a stigma because of its continuing association with high-school teaching. Recent surveys of students in the City University of New York, State University of New York, and California State University systems suggest that many (if not most) M.A. students pursue the degree as a credential for teaching in both secondary schools and community colleges. Some students also said that they sought the degree as preparation for the Ph.D., or for professional growth.

Some universities have sought to tap the "personal growth" market with M.A.s in "liberal studies" and other broad designations. From the universities’ perspective, those programs are designed for a different kind of growth, the kind that you see on the bottom line.

Many Ph.D. programs follow the medieval tradition of granting a master’s degree along the way to a higher goal. Besides functioning as a steppingstone toward the doctorate, however, the master’s also serves as a balm of sorts for failed doctoral candidates. It’s common to describe those master’s recipients as having "washed out" of their Ph.D. programs.

That phrase demands close reading: It renders such students as human stains. No wonder the master’s degree has a respect problem.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the degree also carries the same taint of failure when it’s awarded to students who leave doctoral programs on their own. That’s a deplorable and bell-ringing example of the kind of indifference that led to the degree’s marginalization in the first place — and which turns it into a cheap bauble for "quitters" as well as "failures."

But there’s another reason that the M.A. fell off the radar and turned into an afterthought. Its denigration arises paradoxically from the generous support lavished upon the university enterprise during academe’s so-called golden age. In an interview, Michael Teitelbaum, a senior adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said the increasing support for Ph.D.-level education in the sciences that began in the 1950s and 1960s — part of an unprecedented expansion of American higher education generally when demand for Ph.D.s was at an all-time high — caused master’s-level training to lose its importance.

At that time, the burgeoning availability of funding for Ph.D. programs caused educators’ attention to drift upward and leave the master’s degree behind. Master’s training lost its financial lifeline instead of receiving the runoff from the Ph.D. funding stream. When overall funding of higher education waned in the 1970s and afterward, master’s programs everywhere found themselves starved for support because, once the flood of money slowed, doctoral programs sucked up whatever was left.

Some science departments did away with the M.A. entirely, as did others in the humanities. The value of the degree waned. Always hard to classify, it became a degree that the professoriate stopped caring about at all — and it shows.

So when talk turns to the master’s degree as an alternative course of study for alternative (or non-) academic careers, we might reasonably ask, "study of what?" Generations of neglect have damaged the master’s degree so that it means all manner of things to all people — and nothing much to anyone.

But there is a notable exception to this sad tale of an abused and neglected academic credential. Next month I’ll focus on the professional master’s degree, a story of both triumph and woe.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @Lcassuto.