Our department has begun a discussion about our M.A. degree in history. This has led me to think a bit about the potential of a non-thesis M.A. and the nature of the M.A. thesis itself. It seems to me that the M.A. thesis today is neither fish nor foul. Years ago, the M.A. was enough to teach at some universities and represented the mastery of some content and some of the basic research skills of the Ph.D. (Although it is interesting to note that even in the late 19th century, folks regarded the M.A. as a bit worthless. As Philip Katz's recent survey of the M.A. degree in history has recounted). Many Ph.D. programs award the M.A. now, in passing, or designated as a kind of honorable discharge for students who do not make the grade for Ph.D. level work. Other places see the M.A. as a specialized, terminal degree for teachers or even public historians. In general, these two options for the M.A. do not require the completion of the traditional Master's Thesis.
Places like the University of North Dakota, however, who specialize in the M.A. in history and regard is as a stepping stone toward admission into a Ph.D. program, continue the practice of encouraging students to write an M.A. thesis. In general these theses are 70-100 pages in length, make an original contribution to the discipline, and demonstrate a basic mastery of historical methods, academic writing, and vaguely defined "historical thinking". It's a pretty standard approach to the thesis.
The only thing is that these theses are basically exercises in method. At half to a third of the length of a proper dissertation, they often involve far less original research -- our M.A. program is designed to be completed in 2 years. Consequently, a Ph.D. dissertation can metastasize into a book with just the right amount of low level intellectual radiation, the M.A. thesis can rarely produce more than a decent article. To extract a 8,000-10,000 word article, it is common to discard 70%-80% of the material from the M.A. thesis. This seems to me to be a frustratingly inefficient use of time, paper, and intellectual energy. On the other hand, graduate education in history has never been predicated on efficiency. Students are more artisans than assembly line workers.
The real question, however, is not whether that 80% of the thesis that is discarded when a thesis is converted to a scholarly article is a useful component of the process, but whether it is a useful component of the thesis. Most of this material in the M.A. is dedicated to the careful documentation of process. This includes extensive (and frequently over-wrought) historiographic introductions, digressions on method and methodology, and extraneous narrative or interpretive chapters designed primarily to pad out length and show additional competence in the historical idiom. In other words, most of the material in the M.A. thesis is dedicated to documenting the research and composition process in a transparent way. For some students, this material validates their ability to work like a historian, even if the final results of the thesis do not necessarily make a substantive contribution. In my experience, however, and for most students, these pages represent additional editing work, citation work, and busy work which often (but not always) detracts from the overall quality of the main argument in the text by channeling time and energy to less significant exercises. If the goal of the M.A. is to demonstrate basic competence as a historian, the canonical length and standards of a publishable article should satisfy these requirements. Moreover, it would ensure that the student would have the time and energy (especially in a two year degree) to focus attention on the arguments that matter rather than the assorted flotsam that M.A. thesis often attract. Finally, history is a massive competitive field. Finding a job and establishing one's academic credentials are becoming more and more difficult with each passing year. An more professionally oriented M.A. thesis could contribute to a student's developing profession credentials (especially when in a thesis-based M.A. program that is complemented by a non-Thesis M.A. option. The latter could be geared toward professionals in public history, teachers, and others who regard Master's degree as something other than a stepping stone to advanced graduate work in history). So, a re-imagined M.A. would be 8,000-12,000 words of publishable quality work, focused on an original thesis, and bearing the efficiency of prose that marks the best kind of published articles.
Some of the first, M.A.'s produced by Department of History at the University of North Dakota appeared were supervised by Orin G. Libby and appeared in the early volumes of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. So a re-imagined M.A. thesis could even carry the imprimatur of the father of historical research here at the University of North Dakota.