Pursuing a master’s degree is a pretty big commitment. It’ll take 1-2 years to complete, and it constitutes a lot of hard work. That’s why it’s important to understand the scope of an MA in history.
Here’s what you need to know about taking on a master of arts program in history—from someone who went through it.
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The full scope of an MA in history
First off, it’s important to note that this is an academic track, not a professional one. It involves doing much of the same work as you’d find in an undergraduate history program, except it’s geared more toward academic papers instead of just pure classwork.
Doing a master’s degree in history encompasses these responsibilities, depending your choices:
- 3 courses per term(usually for two terms)
- A major research paper
- A teaching assistant position for three terms
- Optional extracurricular activities
You’ll find three streams for a master’s program in most institutions:
- Pure coursework
- Two semesters of courses and one semester for a major research paper (50 pages)
- Thesis (150-page research paper)
We’ll talk about those streams below.
Most master’s programs take three semesters, which translates to a full calendar year—however, most students take the summer off to work part-time because there aren’t enough teaching assistant positions to fund their academic term from June to August.
It’s common to resume the third semester in the next fall term, and that’s why the time commitment for an MA in history usually stretches closer to a year and a half.
Some stragglers need more time to polish their research papers, but funding isn’t guaranteed for a fourth semester at most institutions. Since teaching assistant positions make up the bulk of your funding in grad school, it can make or break a fourth semester. Incoming grad students need those positions to fund their degrees too, and there is a steady supply of students.
Teaching assistant position
Teaching will probably be a new responsibility for you in grad school, unless you had some kind of undergraduate teaching assistant position beforehand. That’s rare, though.
This is a bit more serious because it involves teaching students directly and in moderate numbers. Your teaching assistantship is important within the scope of an MA in history because it’s the largest piece of funding you’re likely to get.
It’s almost equivalent to the workload of another course on its own, so you’ll need to juggle it alongside your coursework and your research paper.
My own contract stipulated 140 hours of work for a single term (approximately 16 weeks in length). That’s supposed to work out to 8.75 hours per week, but that’s just an average.
This is how the time will break down in practice:
- 2 hours of leading seminars per week.
- 2 hours of seminar preparation per week.
- 1-2 hours of grading assignments per week.
- 1 hour spent meeting with students per week (“office hours”).
- 12 hours spent marking midterms, essays, and final exams over the weekend whenever they occur.
You won’t be leading lectures or crafting course materials, but you’ll be leading smaller seminar groups and marking assignments for those students you teach. It’s common to teach around 40-60 students per term split over two seminar groups.
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Classes within the scope of an MA in history
Most grad students take the second stream, which involves two terms of coursework and a major research paper in their third term.
- Researching and writing a single, large research paper is daunting for most people at that academic level. It was for me, too.
- Taking on coursework helps to break down the MA program into smaller chunks.
- Courses let you meet people in your program—scholarly life gets pretty lonely otherwise.
Be warned that doing all coursework is considered to be below the standard needed to continue on to a PhD program. I have heard several professors say this openly.
That matters because—as I learned the hard way—everything that falls within the scope of an MA in history exists to prepare you for a doctoral program. If you don’t intend to do a PhD, then you’d probably want to consider hunting for a job, an internship, or a professional program.
Most of these courses will revolve around historiography and research papers, even if they cover a specific topic or time period.
Pro tip: You can ask professors to help you create a private reading course that’s tailored to your area of expertise. This is a great way to catch up on books and journals that you’ll need to know for your major research paper. It’s also a much better use of your time than taking 3-4 courses on general historiography.
Thesis or major research paper
The thesis or major research project is the third major component of a master’s program, and it tends to have the largest impact on your chances of getting a PhD.
It’s considered more important than coursework because it most closely resembles what academic work really looks like. It also demonstrates your vision and direction for a potential PhD thesis.
These are larger than the 20-page course essays you’re probably comfortable writing. A major research paper is expected to be at least 50 pages in length, while a dedicated thesis is expected to reach 100-150 pages.
Managing a major research paper (50+ pages)
If you’re pairing coursework with a major research paper then you may want to consider organizing your time like this:
- Term 1: Learning the ropes of grad school and doing coursework.
- Term 2: Focusing on coursework but reserving time set up your major research paper.
- Term 3: Focusing entirely on your major research paper.
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Managing a thesis (150 pages)
If you choose the thesis stream then you’ll simply spend all three terms on a single paper, of course. In that case you’ll want to manage your time like this:
- Term 1: Research everything you possibly can and consult with professors for helpful sources. Start organizing your paper’s major discussion points.
- Term 2: Organize and plan the major discussion points completely. Write a complete first draft of your paper. Get informal feedback from your supervisor along the way.
- Term 3: Get formal feedback on your first draft and incorporate new sources as needed. Polish it for flow and then proofread it.
Your research paper will be the key to advancing further into academia, so take it seriously.
Where do you go after the MA?
Everything above covers the scope of an MA in history, but there is a larger question: should you even do a master’s program in history?
A master’s degree looks good on a resume. It is usually a requirement to do a PhD, too (in the U.S. and Canada), but it won’t lead to jobs the way that professional degrees can
Here’s my perspective after completing an MA in history: doing a master’s program wasn’t a bad idea, exactly, but I wish I had chosen a professional field instead, like journalism. Professional degrees are also competitive, but they impart skills that are more widely applicable and transferrable.
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There’s more to consider, though.
Pursuing a career in academia isn’t wise. The odds of getting a tenure-track job in history are incredibly slim. Estimates from 2009 showed that the odds of landing a tenure-track job in the humanities sat below 50%. Far fewer actually attain tenure itself, with estimates as low as 10%.
Enrolment in the liberal arts and humanities have been on the decline since then, which means that fewer positions exist to teach classes since those estimates were published.
That’s pretty grim.
I discovered this in my second term of grad school—only one of my professors thought to share this crucial information. From that point onward I focused on acquiring as much writing and editing experience as I could, and I’ve never looked back.
There are in fact many suitable entry-level jobs for history majors that you can land with a bachelor’s degree. In fact, outside of the history field itself, employers don’t distinguish much between a BA and an MA except that it signifies hard work and the ability to deal with heavier workloads.
I’d recommend you consider careers outside academia sooner than later, too!