The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What's in a Master's Degree?

While at the SAAs last week, I got to speaking with people about the interesting phenomonon of archaeologists from the U.S. going over to the U.K. for their Masters degrees. The reason for this is that there are numerous Masters programs in the U.K. that can be completed in a year, whereas the normative time to degree in the U.S. is, depending on the program, between 2.5 and 5 years. The reason for the difference is that the U.S. MA in anthropology typically requires a larger amount of coursework, ideally preparing the student for the wide range of issues that they will confront as a professional archaeologist. As a result, 1-year U.K. Master's degrees are often looked down upon by North American archaeologists. However, I think that this is done without actually considering whether or not U.S. programs are any better.

First off, there's a fair bit of ambiguity regarding how, precisely, one earns a Master's degree. There are, of course, programs that simply offer Master's degrees. Some of these programs are aimed at producing CRM professionals (a great example being Sonoma State's program), while others are research-degrees geared towards moving a student into a PhD program. Someone who emerges from Sonoma State is much more likely to have a firm grasp on how to perform CRM than someone from a research-oriented program, but the person from the research-oriented program may be better able to incorporate new research into the work produced by a CRM firm. So, it's a trade-off.

There are, however, also Master's programs that offer a degree, but which produce neither a CRM professional nor a researcher. These tend to be, as far as I have been able to determine, modeled on MA programs for different trades, but with no real concept of the business of archaeology. As a result, there are people with MAs in archaeology and anthropology who know no more about the subjects than one would expect an advanced undergraduate to.

And then there's the matter of PhD programs that don't offer Master's degrees as such, but will award them to students who have completed the first two-to-three years of training in a PhD program, regardless of whether they complete the PhD itself. My graduate school, UC Santa Barbara, offered both a Master's track and a PhD track, where most students attended the same classes, did the same projects, etc., until the end of the second year, when the Master's students went off to work on their theses, and the PhD students wrote a "data paper" in preparation for working on their dissertations. The majority of the students who don't finish their PhD but are granted Master's degrees are competent, and I have no problem with sharing a title with them.

However, there is always a chance of someone slipping through. I remember one fellow who came in during my third year, I'll call him Gonzo, who was barely capable of tying his own shoes, much less doing independent resaearch or running a project. He managed to squeak through classes, and managed to complete his comprehensive exams (which all of the graduate students were required to take), and then was gently nudged out of the program by the faculty. Upon leaving, he was granted a Master's degree.

Meanwhile, the other Master's students and I had completed all of the classes with a minimum of an "A" in each class, passed our comprehensive exams, designed and executed a research project, and produced a Master's thesis (mine clocked in at over 250 pages) in order earn our degrees. So, even at the same insitution, there were two decidedly unequal ways of earning a Master's degree.

So, there is a lot of variability as far as how well gaining a Master's degree prepares a person for a job as an archaeologist.

With this in mind, the notion that the 1-year Master's programs in the U.K. are somehow inferior strikes me as being rather weird. I believe that I was better prepared than a 1-year student would be, and that someone from Sonoma State is better prepared than me. However, I have met numerous people who were certainly no better off with a U.S. Master's degree from a poor program (or as a consolation prize after missing the PhD) than someone with a 1-year degree would have been. In fact, from what I have seen of the 1-year programs in England, I would place them above some of the U.S. programs that I am familiar with.

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