The Sad Story of the P.M.A.

Why the professional master’s degree in the humanities is on life support

Fabio Venni / Creative Commons

August 04, 2015

Academe is conservative with a small "c," meaning that it’s suspicious of change. And that’s a good thing. We wouldn’t want colleges and universities to be driven by the latest fads. But graduate school is conservative even by academic standards. Its structure has barely changed in more than a century. That goes beyond conservatism to fossilization.

There have been exceptions, though. I wrote last month about the success of the professional science master’s (P.S.M.) degree. Carefully planned and thoughtfully designed before its creation, in the late 1990s, the P.S.M. received prolonged support during its fledgling years from the Sloan Foundation. The degree soon took flight on its own and has been a boon to both students and institutions.

It also became a role model — and justifiably so. Its early good fortune led naturally to efforts to extend that success to the humanities and social sciences. That is what inspired the Council of Graduate Schools to approach the Ford Foundation in 2001 about creating a degree in the humanities and allied fields to be called the professional master of arts (P.M.A.) degree. It was a splendid idea.

The council subsequently brought together a group of humanists and social scientists to think through the design of the degree, and did a web survey to look for consensus. Then the Ford Foundation financed some feasibility studies, and when the findings proved encouraging, the council put out a request for proposals for pilot programs.

At that point there was a sense of growing interest in professional master’s programs — and early surveys by the graduate-schools council bore out that interest. Professional societies in history and geography, among other fields, took the initiative especially seriously. Some early P.M.A. programs were established on 18 campuses, in fields like applied public history (at Appalachian State University) and applied philosophy (at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte). It was an auspicious beginning.

In 2003 the council, again with Ford support, awarded planning grants to 38 institutions to determine the feasibility of creating new P.M.A. programs (or adding to existing ones). Based on those efforts, Ford awarded grants to 18 universities to create 26 P.M.A. programs in 2005, in fields including sociology, nonprofit administration, and economic forecasting.

But after five years, the grant money ended. Carol Lynch, the council officer who took the lead on the P.M.A. campaign, saw her position end in 2012. Part of the reason for the withdrawal of support, she said, has to do with the difference between the Ford and Sloan Foundations. Ford "didn’t have the same kinds of resources as Sloan, or the same philosophy" of how to disburse grants, she said. While the science master’s benefited from "a consistency of support" from Sloan over an extended period — 10 years of grant money, plus a two-year extension — "Ford is not used to the kind of sustained funding to get something like this going," Lynch said.

External support for the P.M.A. ended at just the wrong time. As a result, there is no national leadership for the idea anymore, and no national grant program for reform of the traditional M.A. Today the P.M.A. exists only in individual departments, on individual campuses. New programs are not being created beyond the handful of pilot programs that marked the beginning of the initiative. If the P.M.A. is not dead, it’s on life support.

But why? The degree was working. Yet its lifeline was cut off just at the point when it might have grown.

The new humanities degree clearly didn’t get the kind of support or promotion that its counterpart in the sciences did — and not surprisingly, it didn’t grow as the latter did. That long-term support helped the P.S.M. to grow roots. The P.M.A. has none, and "without long-term investment and branding," said Lynch, "you don’t get an organizational structure that would support reform at a national level."

The P.S.M., she said, is a "proof-of-concept success story." But it was also treated like a hothouse flower from the start. The P.M.A. was a promising-looking plant, but it was left to take root in the cracks between the concrete slabs in the backyard, exposed to the elements, and nourished only by the rain. Is it any wonder that it has withered?

What a lost opportunity. The P.M.A. could have performed necessary public service to both the educational and the employment communities. It had a chance to offer useful alternative training for those interested in humanities but who don’t necessarily want to work as professors. At a parting meeting, Carol Lynch recalled, people involved in the P.M.A. effort asked, "Where’s our national movement? Where’s our organization? Where’s our support? And I didn’t have an answer to any of those questions."

The P.M.A. languished from "benign neglect," she said. "There were no resources to keep it going." In retrospect, Lynch said, it may be that the Council of Graduate Schools got overtaxed — in part by the success of the P.S.M. But gone is gone. And students are the ones who lose the most.

American academics at all levels need to think more clearly about the master’s degree, and about degrees in general. The professional science master’s — and even the failure of its counterpart in the humanities — show that there is room for creative thinking in the development of new graduate degrees. At Lynch’s home institution — the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she served as dean of the graduate school before moving to her council job — she oversaw a move to five-year B.A./M.A. programs, for example. Those proved successful in departments like East Asian languages and literatures, she said. Students and faculty members welcomed the hybrid programs as "a steppingstone not to the Ph.D. but to the world."

I’ve been writing about master’s degrees for the past few months because the master’s needs both respect and attention. American universities lack a clear idea of what many master’s degrees are or what they ought to do. The variation of possible meanings persists and shows a lack of care for our own garden.

The professional master’s degrees offer an interesting possible path, but in the process they highlight the need for wider discussion of the degrees we confer and why we confer them. We need to spend more time thinking about what our degrees are for and how they might be contoured to serve all of the people who use them. Both the master’s and the Ph.D. need clarification. In an academic world dedicated to separating the two wherever possible, that’s something they have in common.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, will be published in September by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.