History Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a graduate history degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of graduate degree programs and the potential careers available to graduates.
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Studying History: Master's and PhD Programs at a Glance

Graduates with a master's degree in history may teach this subject at high schools and colleges. A master's degree in history also prepares students for careers as museum curators, conducting historical research and serving as staff to organizations focused on historic preservation.

With a master's degree in history, you can also work as a project consultant for local governments and other cultural organizations. In addition to careers directly focused on history, graduates may also use the writing and analytical skills they acquired to work in publishing, government and public relations.

A doctoral degree is required if you want to pursue historical research or university-level educational careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for historians is expected to grow by 18% from 2010 to 2020. Jobs for college professors are expected to grow by 17% for the same period. These rates are within the average growth rate for all jobs, so historians and college professors can expect intense competition for the best positions.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Students interested in teaching at the secondary or postsecondary level Students who want to advance in their careers as historians and researchers in the public and private sector, and those who want to teach and gain tenure
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Historians ($58,000)*
- High school teachers ($57,000)*
- Archivists ($50,000)*
- Curators ($53,000)*
- Museum Technicians, and Conservators ($42,000)*
- Federal government historians ($88,000)*
- Scientific and development services research historians ($49,000)*
- Postsecondary Teachers ($72,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 3-5 years after the master's program
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 6-8 graduate level courses
- Master's thesis (a research paper can be used in lieu of a thesis in some cases)
- Master's exams
- Foreign language requirement
A master's degree plus:
- Approximately 4-6 more graduate level courses
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation prospectus
- Dissertation
- Teaching requirement (not required at all schools)
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in history or a related field Bachelor's or master's degree in history or a related field
Online Availability Yes, but accredited schools are rare None currently available, but on-campus programs may offer independent study options for some students

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in History

Classes for master's programs are typically small, with less than 20 students. You are usually required to specialize in a certain time period or culture, which requires a large amount of individualized research, in addition to classroom lectures.

Students work closely with their academic advisors to shape the geographic focus of their history studies throughout the program. Some schools have one advisor for the duration of the program, and others use a combination of a main advisor and a team of advisors during various times of the program.

Some schools have separate tracks for students who plan to end their schooling with a master's degree and those who plan to enter a PhD program. If you study through a terminal program that ends with a master's degree you may not need to complete a master's thesis to graduate.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Although most high school teachers only require a bachelor's degree, some schools may prefer to hire applicants with a master's degree
  • This degree program helps you develop strong writing, research and critical-thinking skills that are useful for historians, curators for museums, archivists and more*
  • Offers a broad-based education and allows graduates to pursue a variety of non-technical careers, including consulting and employee training

Cons

  • Master's degree programs are very expensive and graduates who follow a typical career path for history graduates often discover that the job of their dreams doesn't pay enough to justify the cost of their degree
  • Graduates who want to teach college are usually limited to community college teaching positions*
  • Non-business master's degree programs may not qualify graduates for high-paying entry-level jobs*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Writing a thesis may be required for graduation, especially for students who plan to apply for admission to PhD programs. After completing the thesis, the master's candidate is required to defend the thesis orally before a committee.

Research is an important component of graduate programs and may require that you take seminars to hone your research skills. Some schools have a foreign language requirement, which includes proficiency in reading and writing the language, based on your area of concentration.

For instance, students of Greek history will have to become proficient in reading the Greek language and probably one other foreign language. Students of Medieval history may need to study Latin and at least one other foreign language.

Online Degree Options

Online programs for master's degrees in history from accredited schools exist, but they are rare. Like on-campus programs, online master's programs are a combination of courses and seminars. In addition to these courses and seminars, online students personalize their studies by focusing their thesis and other papers on their area of interest.

Because research seminars are an important part of this type of program, even if most of the classes can be attended online, students may still have to attend these seminars in person if they can't be made available online. Students who plan to attend traditional schools may also be able to arrange to take some of their classes online.

Stand out with this Degree

A master's in history could be considered a bridge degree because according to the BLS, the most prestigious jobs directly related to history often require a PhD. You may take the opportunity to focus attention on a particular area of history or try to do as much history research as possible. According to the BLS, internships and volunteer work are good ways to stand out and gain hands-on experience.

No matter where their degree takes them, students should become as familiar with publishing and educational technology as possible. As noted by O*Net Online, the ability to efficiently gather data is an important part of a historian's job. Taking online classes is a good way to become familiar with this type of technology. You can also take Web design classes and start a blog to get hands-on experience in social media networking and the mechanics of running a blog.

Degree Alternatives

For other careers that require skills in conducting research, writing and the ability to analyze and assimilate information well, you may be interested in pursuing a master's degree in sociology to prepare for a career as a sociologist. According to the BLS, in 2011 the average salary for sociologists was $79,000, which is higher than the average salary for historians. The expected job growth from 2010 to 2020 is 18%, which is the same as historians.

PhD in History

Many PhD candidates are already teachers, or they plan to become teachers. According to the BLS, although a master's degree is enough for many entry-level research positions, graduates may discover that some of these positions require a PhD. Students interested in research careers should tailor their degree programs to focus on their desired area of research. For instance, if they want a position as a researcher of ancient Greek history, their PhD program should reflect their ability to handle research in this area.

The focus of the coursework for a doctorate is a more defined and specialized version of the student's master's degree studies. For instance, if the student's master's program was on the philosophical, social and economic implications of life in early Medieval history, that student's PhD studies may narrow that focus to the lives of women during that time.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Many schools waive the tuition of PhD candidates who work as teaching assistants and also offer them a modest living stipend
  • The opportunity to obtain tenure as a professor can mean job security*
  • Tenured professors have flexible job benefits with freedom to travel for research to work on papers and to attend seminars*
  • Good opportunity to get a job with local, state, or federal government*

Cons

  • A history degree is one of the most popular liberal arts degree, so competition for educational and government jobs will be intense*
  • You may need to relocate to find the best jobs*
  • Doctoral graduates may be competing against applicants with a master's degree and experience

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Because many doctoral candidates are teachers or plan to teach, some PhD programs include teacher training. These students are required to work as teaching assistants after their first year in the program. Candidates must also demonstrate proficiency in foreign languages. A typical PhD program might consist of studying coursework for the first year with foreign language courses as needed. The second year may be a combination of coursework and preparation for a series of comprehensive written and oral exams.

The third year may be devoted to the exams and working with the program's dissertation committee to develop a dissertation topic and come up with a research plan. Your last years of study are generally devoted to dissertation research and writing.

Online Degree Options

Accredited schools offering a PhD in history entirely online aren't available at this time, but some traditional schools may allow students to attend some of their classes remotely. Some schools may also allow students to work with their professors via e-mail during portions of their studies.

Students who require this type of flexibility should discuss this during the application process because if allowed, permission will be required in advance. Additionally, because doctorate programs often require that candidates become teaching assistants, students will need to be on campus for much of their studies.

Stand out with this Degree

In addition to finding work in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, museums, historical societies and other organizations, many PhD students also want to become tenured professors. Students who want to stand out should not choose historical areas that already have a lot of competition. For instance, medieval history is not as popular as modern history, so medieval history students might have a better chance of standing out more.

According to the BLS, many schools also want applicants for teaching positions to have related job experience. Because of this, PhD candidates who want to teach should choose schools with strong teacher training programs. The BLS also notes that having your articles published can also increase job opportunities.

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