I spent part of yesterday afternoon thinking about the prospects for a non-thesis M.A. degree in history here at the University of North Dakota. At present, we have a traditional thesis based M.A. in a graduate program where most of our students go elsewhere to continue their graduate education or regard the program as a terminal M.A. Many of the terminal M.A.s plan to teach secondary school in the area, although some reveal a wait-and-see attitude toward graduate education; that is, they complete their degree and plan to wait and see what opportunities arise before deciding whether to continue their degree.
Over the past four or five years, we've produced some top rate M.A. degrees. Several of my students have moved from our M.A. program to decent Ph.D. programs and most of these students have produced very fine M.A. theses and completely their M.A. degree within two academic years (around 6 semesters including summer). These theses tend to be between 70 and 100 pages, are filled with the typical scholarly apparatus, and make some unique contributions to the discipline.
We have also had a number of students who really struggled to complete their Master's Theses despite performing admirably in the classroom. This is partially a product of our willingness to take risks on marginal or non-traditional students who would not have a chance to pursue graduate education at a traditional, top-tier program. Some of these students have time limits or family obligations that make it difficult for them to complete a good thesis within the time available. Others struggle intellectually to complete a sustained research project or discover at some point during their M.A. program that graduate work simply isn't for them. These students are often good students and are capable of performing well in seminars style classes, but for whatever reason come apart at the seams during the thesis writing process. As faculty, we are then left in the difficult position of deciding how to do with good students who are either stalled in their thesis writing process or in such a rush that they can't produce a good quality thesis for a proper defense. In the past few years this situation has produced some poor quality M.A. theses and has led the the attrition of some good students. Neither of these results reflects accurately the ability and dedication of either the students or the faculty who have worked with them.
It took less than an hour to collect a considerable number of examples of non-thesis M.A. programs in history from across the interwebs. Many schools with the non-thesis option are similar to UND. They have small departments with small Ph.D. programs and presumably accept a wider range of students than we might expect at a larger, top-tier graduate program. In some cases, however, even better programs have non-thesis M.A. programs geared toward students who are leaving the graduate programs before achieving a Ph.D. or geared toward local teachers.
In any event, these programs tended to have 4 characteristics:
1. Many of the non-thesis programs required students to demonstrate research proficiency through seminar papers. It seemed common for students to have to produce two research papers over the course of two seminars. In some cases these papers had to be submitted to the department for review; in other cases, the student was required to defend one of these papers publicly. Since any graduate degree in history requires the student to demonstrate some advanced competence in research, these papers provide a good opportunity to demonstrate such abilities. Moreover, they allow a student to "double dip" so to speak and use papers that had been developed over the course of their course work rather than to create a separate research paper for the completion of the M.A. One program required that non-thesis students prepare an "article length" manuscript (10,000). I thought that this was a particularly smart idea as the traditional M.A. thesis -- which can run as long as 50,000 words -- is neither sufficiently long (or developed) to stand as an independently publishable manuscript and too long to for publication in a scholarly journal. An article length manuscript for a non-thesis student would give them a chance to demonstrate a level of professional ability that is consistent with the most common form of peer-reviewed scholarship.
2. Many non-thesis M.A. programs require additional course work. Like many M.A. programs, we require students to take 6 "thesis credits". These are "empty" courses which allow the students time to do research on their thesis while still remaining a full-time student. If a student isn't writing a thesis, these credits become available for additional coursework. I could imagine a non-thesis program requiring the student to demonstrate an additional level of content mastery. These credits might also become available for new programs, like Public History, which could, perhaps, replace a thesis with an internship or some other form of professional development. Several of the programs that I surveyed actually required students to take more credits for a non-thesis option. While I like the idea of making sure that a non-thesis option had a similar level or rigor to a thesis based program, I worry that adding another layer of course work would be unfair.
3. Many non-thesis M.A. programs in history had some form of comprehensive examination. I like the idea of some kind of culminating experience for any non-thesis student and the idea of a comprehensive exam based on a selection of courses is appealing. But I wonder whether thesis kind of exercise will end up being redundant. I would like to assume that the completion of a graduate level course with an acceptable grade is sufficient to demonstrate the mastery of that course material. I suppose a comprehensive exam could include material that was not presented over the course of typical graduate course work, but such an option might come at the expense of additional course work or a revised and refined seminar paper. That is to say, any exam based option would have to take into account workload and any additional requirements in terms of coursework or research.
4. Many of the non-thesis M.A. programs had explicit ties to either public history programs or education programs. Since most of our non-thesis students will consider the M.A. degree their terminal degree in the field of history, it only makes sense that they dovetail their degree with training in a more practical direction. Education is the traditional partner for history and public history, archival/library studies are increasing in popularity. One might also want to consider a certificate in Geographic Information Systems or certification in editing. Building partnerships across the curriculum (they call these synergies here at UND) might attract new students to our M.A. program while at the same time expanding the influence of history across the curriculum. One might even see a non-thesis M.A. as a stepping stone into our one-of-a-kind Doctor of the Arts in History program.
These are just my preliminary thoughts regarding the non-thesis M.A. and in now way reflect anything official from our department. We are still in the early moments of an exploratory phase. Let me know if you have experiences with these kinds of degrees or in these kinds of programs.