University of Michigan faculty and administrators discussed the unique nature of master’s degrees within the academic landscape, and the similarities and broad differences between master’s programs at the fall Provost’s Seminar on Teaching.

“What Is A Master’s Degree?” was organized by the Provost’s Office and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, and took place Thursday at Pierpont Commons.

In his opening remarks, Rackham Graduate School Dean Michael Solomon said the university community has some general consensus and consistency about what goes into and comes out of both undergraduate and doctoral education.

However, the academy still lacks a singular definition of what a master’s degree looks like. At U-M, master’s programs vary greatly in such areas as credit requirements, curricular expectations, student populations and intended outcomes.

The differences are not necessarily a problem, Solomon said. However, identifying them can possibly illuminate a path forward.

“It can help us understand why we do the things we do, it can help us learn from each other,” said Solomon, who also is vice provost for academic affairs — graduate studies, and professor of chemical engineering and of macromolecular science and engineering.

“And possibly, when new degree proposals come along in the future, it might help us better understand if the credential proposed has common features with what we already do on campus or if it doesn’t, we have something new on our hands.”

Photo of Theresa Kaiser-Jarvis asking a question at the seminar
Theresa Kaiser-Jarvis, assistant dean for international affairs at the Law School, discusses the unique nature of master’s degree programs at the Provost’s Seminar on Teaching. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Attendees first listened to a series of “lightning talks” about various master’s programs across campus, including the Stephen M. Ross School of Business’ Master of Business Administration, the School of Public Health’s Master of Public Health, the Law School’s Master of Advanced Corporation Law and the School of Social Work’s Master of Social Work.

Panelists discussed processes to revamp their master’s degree curriculums, their schools’ intended student populations, and the challenges their programs face as they work to serve students of the future.

Seminar attendees then met in groups to discuss the purpose of a master’s degree, how it differs from other degrees, and if there are any common educational experiences within these degrees.

Some themes that emerged included that faculty and administrators saw master’s degree programs as more of a stepping stone than other educational programs, and that many of them include end products like theses and capstone projects.

They said these programs also had more of a transactional quality, in that students seek these programs to gain a certain set of skills to advance to the next level in their professional lives.

“I think what maybe binds them all together is there’s exploration that occurs,” said Brad Killaly, clinical assistant professor of strategy, and associate dean for full-time and global MBA at the Ross School. “But I think the difference between exploration as an undergraduate and exploration as a master’s student is a degree of intentionality.”

Photo of group discussion at the seminar
Faculty, staff and administrators broke into groups to discuss the purpose and potential common experiences among master’s degree programs during the Provost’s Seminar on Teaching. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

James Holloway, vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs, said an unexpected part of the discussion was that he heard from faculty and administrators about their dreams of what could be possible when it comes to master’s degrees.

“I also heard something pretty common about what we would like them to be and the ways in which — even though it may be a transaction for the student — we’d like there to be something more relational between the student and the broad greatness of the university, and the connections between these different degrees and different bodies of master’s students.”

He and Dean Solomon noted that conversations at the seminar will help inform a white paper about the variations in and defining characteristics of master’s degrees.