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

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What will you learn in a humanities degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and PhD degrees and potential careers.
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Studying Humanities: Degrees at a Glance

Some master's degree programs in humanities give you a broad overview of the arts, literature and social sciences. Programs like these are usually appropriate for people who want to expand their intellectual horizons, and they can also be right for individuals in certain careers who need master's degrees for licensure or advancement. For instance, some states require K-12 teachers to earn a master's degree to maintain licensure, and these programs can fulfill that requirement.

Other humanities master's degree programs allow you to investigate a specialized topic through interdisciplinary study. Such programs may help you advance your career in a cultural or arts organization, prepare for PhD candidacy or simply satisfy your intellectual curiosity. With the exception of community college teaching, a humanities master's degree alone will not qualify you for any particular career. A humanities PhD can help you qualify for university teaching jobs.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Those who want to broaden their horizons, prepare for a humanities PhD program or meet career licensing requirements Individuals who are interested in working as university professors
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) A bachelor's degree and state licensure are required for these jobs:
- Teacher (elementary school, $55,000; middle school, $56,000; high school, $57,000)*
The following careers are only available to those whose degree programs included related studies:
- Junior college art, drama or music teacher ($72,000)*
- Junior college English language or literature teacher ($69,000)*
Same positions available to master's degree holders, along with the following:
- College or university art, drama or music teacher ($73,000 - related study required)*
- College or university English language or literature teacher ($69,000 - related study required)*
- Postsecondary education administrator ($97,000 - some positions in this field only require a bachelor's or master's degree, while higher-level administrators, like deans and provosts, usually need a PhD)*
Time to Completion Usually 1-2 years full-time, up to 5 years part-time Typically 5-7 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - 8-11 courses
- Master's thesis or capstone project
- 8-15 courses
- Foreign language competence
- Qualifying exams
- Dissertation and oral defense
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- Minimum GPA requirement
- Bachelor's degree in a relevant field (some programs require a master's degree)
Online Availability Yes None, but 'low-residency' options are available

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

Master's Degree in Humanities

There are two main types of humanities master's degree programs. The first type encourages you to gain broad humanities knowledge, either by taking a set sequence of general humanities overview courses, or by allowing you to choose a broad range of courses representing the major humanities areas. These programs tend to be geared toward working professionals, especially teachers who need to meet the master's degree requirements for licensure in their states.

The second type of humanities master's degree programs gives you almost total flexibility in the courses you take; however, you are usually expected to select courses that lead to the development of knowledge in a specialized humanities area. These degree programs are often designed to allow you to specialize in fields where the university does not have an existing program, and they are usually intended for individuals who want to advance their careers in cultural or arts organizations, pursue PhD studies or simply satisfy their intellectual curiosity.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You may have the flexibility to study a specialized academic area for which degree programs are scarce
  • Earning a master's degree in humanities may help you meet your state's teaching licensure requirements or qualify you to teach at a community college
  • Depending on your coursework and the type of program you'd like to enter, earning this degree may improve your qualifications for PhD programs

Cons

  • This degree alone is not a strong career qualification for any specific field
  • Completing a master's degree program doesn't guarantee acceptance to doctoral programs, if this is your goal
  • Funding is not usually available for master's degree students in humanities, so you'll probably have to pay your own way

Common Courses and Requirements

If you select a master's degree program geared toward giving you a broad humanities overview, you'll usually take a range of courses in politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, religion, science and art. In general, you'll take one or two courses in most of those areas, and you may be able to take a greater number of courses in an area of special interest. In contrast, if you enroll in a program that encourages you to specialize in one interdisciplinary humanities topic, you'll choose classes from a variety of fields based on their relevance to your interests. Some possible topics of specialization include:

  • Gender studies
  • Cultural policy
  • Global history
  • Classical languages

In addition to your coursework, you may also be required to complete a thesis, research paper or final project. In a very limited number of cases, a written exam may be required.

Online Degree Options

Since humanities courses generally don't require laboratory equipment or hands-on experience, master's degrees programs in this field can be delivered online fairly easily. There are a variety of fully online programs available, many of which are geared toward working professionals and can be completed on a part-time basis.

How to Stand Out With This Degree

In many cases, students who earn a master's degree in humanities will be doing so simply to pursue their intellectual interests, rather than to advance their careers. Other students may pursue this degree in order to meet teaching licensure requirements. In this case, students typically already have jobs and simply need the degree in order to maintain them.

If you'd like to teach in a community college, gaining teaching experience will be helpful. If you plan to apply to a PhD program after completing your master's degree, there are several steps you can take to stand out from other applicants. As you develop a clear idea of your academic interests, research relevant PhD programs to determine which ones are the best fit in terms of faculty interests and reputation. Prior to applying, contact potential faculty mentors to briefly introduce your qualifications and outline your research interests.

PhD in Humanities

PhD programs in humanities are generally designed to prepare you for careers in academia, and they offer a wide variety of concentrations, ranging from aesthetics to literature studies. To earn a PhD in humanities, you'll usually have to take a selection of required courses, along with additional classes in your research specialty. You'll also have the opportunity to make an original contribution to your field in the form of a doctoral dissertation.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Earning this degree will qualify you to teach and conduct research at the university level
  • You'll have the opportunity to attain proficiency in a foreign language
  • If you work as a postsecondary teacher, you'll most likely have a flexible schedule

Cons

  • If you want to be a humanities professor, you'll find that competition for tenure-track teaching positions is strong, since a growing number of jobs are part-time and/or adjunct
  • For those who work as graduate teaching assistants while obtaining their degrees, the need to balance these duties with academic requirements can cause stress
  • Career prospects for PhDs in humanities will not be as strong as those in some other academic areas

Common Courses and Requirements

Most humanities PhD programs require you to take core courses in areas like humanities theory and methods, literature and philosophy. Additionally, you'll be required to develop proficiency in a foreign language, pass comprehensive exams and write and defend a dissertation. To gain the knowledge you need to select a research topic and make an original contribution to your field, you'll supplement your core courses with appropriate classes chosen from among relevant departments at your school. Here are some possible course topics:

  • Social and ethical issues
  • Film studies
  • Culture and society
  • Philosophical perspectives

Online Degree Options

There are not currently any online humanities PhD programs available. However, it is possible to find programs that offer 'low-residency' formats. For example, you may be required to spend as little as 2 years on campus and then finish up your research remotely. Another available format allows you to come to campus just a few times throughout the year for a few days at a time.

How to Stand Out With This Degree

If you plan to seek a position as a university professor after you graduate, it's a good idea to get some teaching experience, even if doing so isn't required by your program. Many PhD programs offer students the opportunity to work as teaching assistants to professors or even teach their own courses independently. You should also seek out opportunities to publish your work in academic journals and present it at academic conferences. In addition, keeping up with current developments in your field is essential.

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