The Philosophical GourMA
There are a variety of resources available to students wishing to apply to a PhD in philosophy in order to help them understand how different PhD programs are perceived, what the student experience is like, and what jobs graduates of these programs go on to get. The case for terminal MA programs is very different. Practically no attention has been given to terminal MA programs in online academic philosophy circles.** Yet for those who are considering embarking on the academic philosophy path, getting a terminal MA before applying to a PhD program can be an attractive option.
This is particularly true for students from less prestigious undergraduate institutions, students from underrepresented backgrounds, students with an uneven academic history, or students with limited philosophical training during their undergraduate degree. For such students getting admitted directly into a PhD program can be quite difficult, and terminal MAs in philosophy can be one of the only possible entryways into the field.
A terminal MA can increase the odds for such students of getting into the sort of PhD program that they are interested in. It also provides a low stakes way of trying out academia. Students get to explore whether they like doing independent research, teaching, being part of an academic community, all this without having to make at least a five-year commitment. Many terminal MA students end up deciding that academic philosophy isn't the life for them, and a terminal MA can help them see that, ideally debt-free and with a degree in hand. Generally speaking, terminal MAs play a crucial role in diversifying the profession, both demographically and in terms of research (because they allow students to major in something else and then transfer into the field).
Nevertheless, those that are likely to benefit most from a terminal MA are less likely to have access to good up-to-date advice on what good terminal MA programs are out there. Such students tend to have attended institutions with very few philosophy faculty members or have faculty members who themselves do not know what current terminal MA programs are out there.
The Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) has a section dedicated to MA programs in philosophy. Yet it is an informal appraisal based on faculty quality made by the PGR editors, members of the advisory board, and Brian Leiter (it was last updated in 2021).
Consequently, I decided to collect publicly available data and create a measure that prospective MA students can consult with while deciding which MA programs to apply to and attend. This measure is based solely on placement records into philosophy PhD programs. There are many considerations that are relevant to students thinking of applying to MA programs that are not addressed by this measure. Potential students would be wise to consider a broad range of issues before deciding which MA program to attend. Other relevant data includes information on funding, departmental specializations, departmental climate, fit, location, etc. For an excellent summary of funding at terminal MA programs, see https://fundedphilma.weebly.com/.
The measure here is a simple one. Yet as I argue below, I think there are some good methodological reasons to use it. This measure takes each terminal MA program’s placement record at philosophy PhD programs over the past five years. For each MA graduate placed in a philosophy PhD program I assigned a numerical value based on that PhD program’s mean score in the PGR general ranking. The PGR general ranking is based on a reputational survey of the overall research strength of the department’s faculty, so the scores below roughly reflect the average overall research reputation of the PhD departments students attended from each MA program. The PGR general ranking does not measure many other factors that can make a department more or less suitable for a particular student, such as its placement record, its climate, or the quality of its mentoring (https://philosophydata.org/ gathers data on job placement).
I created both a mean and a median score of those values (1.5 is the lowest and 5 is the highest) to arrive at an overall numerical value for each MA program that can then be used to order the MA programs (the table is sortable, click on the title of each column to order it based on those values), in addition to ordering them by number of MA students placed over the last five years. I restricted myself to sufficiently detailed publicly available data only from the past five years. I believe this strikes a decent balance as I think anything less would be subject to too much noise and anything more might be too outdated. All the data I used can be viewed on the Excel spreadsheet attached.
Here is a box plot of placement mean score.
Here is a graphical visualization of placement with programs ordered by size, with each program divided into bars based on their placement in top 10 PhD programs, 11-25 ranked PhDs, 26-50 ranked, and unranked programs.
Another potentially useful visualization is mean of placement vs. number of students placed:
This one is similar except that I take median placement vs. number of students placed:
I think data on number of students graduated would allow for even more helpful visualization, but unfortunately not enough programs share this data. If and when more programs share this data, I could add some more helpful visualizations.
I imagine more can be done with this data, and people are welcome to it. The Excel file is available here.
Note to terminal MA programs
All the data I used to generate this measure was available on the various departmental websites. I looked at all the standalone terminal MA programs mentioned on Geoff Pynn’s website: Funded MA Programs in Philosophy https://fundedphilma.weebly.com/. Not all programs had data that was sufficiently clear to make it usable. For any program that wishes to either make corrections or to be added to the measure, please have the director of graduate studies fill out the program's placement data on the spreadsheet linked below and send it to my email address.
Discussion of methodological issues
There are, of course, a variety of issues to address with such a measure. This measure piggybacks off the PGR mean score measure, so any issues with the PGR will probably carry over to this one. While my measure uses data from the PGR, it does not employ a similar methodology. How a particular MA program does on my measure has no direct link to how that program's faculty are evaluated. There have been a variety of criticisms leveled against the PGR (for example here). One particular example of this is that some PhD programs might be extremely strong in a specific area of specialization and be a great place for students interested in that area, yet nevertheless rank poorly in the general ranking. This measure does nothing to address these concerns. Nevertheless, I do think the PGR gets a variety of things right in general. I believe it is a useful tool, but again, not one to be taken as the only standard by which to judge a program.
Some aspects of the PGR required that I make a few value judgements. First, some students ended up going to unranked programs (only the top 50+ US programs and top 50 global programs are ranked), which makes it difficult to assign such programs a numerical value. For my purposes, I simply assign all such programs a value of 1.5 (this is 0.1 less than the lowest mean score on the PGR).
The PGR mean score of PhD programs changes over the years, and it would probably be more appropriate to match the year in which a student was admitted with the ranking of the program at the time. This is more work, not impossible to do, but also because these changes in rankings over a five-year period are not significant, I did not bother doing so.
Some MA programs are much larger than others, and so the mean or median might mask other issues that can arise. For each MA program I ultimately hope to provide information about the number of students who went to philosophy PhD programs, and the size of the graduating cohort when I can get better information from more programs.
Many students are admitted to multiple PhD programs, some of which might be ranked even higher than the program they decided to join. Since not all departments make this data available, and because it is unclear how we ought to weight a student who was admitted into multiple programs and a student who was admitted into only one (there is no data on how many programs a student applied to), I found it more reasonable to simply focus on the PhD program to which a student actually decides to go. This has the added benefit of making gaming the measure slightly more difficult, since any student can at most go to one PhD program, and since the decision is a very important life decision for that student, they are less likely to decide where to go based on any strategic considerations of their MA program.
Not all MA graduates end up applying to philosophy PhD programs. Some departments encourage/discourage their students from applying to PhD programs more than others, again something that can affect their standings in this measure. Students who did not apply to PhD programs, or who applied but did not end up going to a PhD program (either because they were unsuccessful or decided against it), are not reflected in this measure. I think this is fine. First, not everyone shares this information. Second, it would be too difficult to distinguish between those who applied and didn’t get in anywhere, and those students who simply didn’t apply.
Many programs also list non-philosophy postgraduate programs their graduates end up going to, either PhDs in other disciplines, law school, or medical school, many of which are quite prestigious. My reasons against including these in the measure are that, first, I wouldn’t know how to rank these other options, just as I wouldn’t know how to rank non-academic options MA students pursue after graduating. Second, this measure is primarily intended to help prospective MA students who would like to go on to do a philosophy PhD. To them, information about students who went on to different career paths may be less relevant. Nevertheless, I hope to collect this data going forward and have added a way for MA programs to make available information regarding the number of graduates who pursue other advanced degrees besides philosophy in the placement survey.
There are also questions of correlation and causation. Are the MA programs that place at higher ranked PhD programs merely better at admitting and recruiting the more promising students? Are they training them better? Do they do better in helping their students prepare for the PhD application process? I don't claim that placement records provide any good answer to these questions.
This measure, just like any other, is as good as its data and can be gamed. That said, the most straightforward way to “game” the measure is to do more towards helping one’s students get into the best PhD programs they can. It is my hope that this measure will encourage departments with terminal MA programs to do just that. I also trust that the different ways of gaming the measure that are not in the students’ interests will not seem appealing to anyone advising students. Getting a PhD in philosophy is an important life shaping decision for many students, and treating the students’ interests as secondary to how well an MA program does on one measure would be craven. I hope this way of presenting the information will be helpful, but user discretion is advised.
Lastly, I want to thank Dan Burnston, Mercedes Corredor, Tyler DesRoches, Amy Flowerree, Daniel Hoek, Jordan MacKenzie, Jimmy Martin, Tim O'Keefe, Wendy Parker, Rohan Sud, and Danny Weltman for extremely helpful feedback on this project. I especially want to thank Grant Bailey for his amazing work in transforming an amateurish use of Excel into a much more serious end product. Many great ideas of how to compile and present this information were his. That said, helping me does not imply endorsement and all errors are my own.
* I thank Rohan Sud for coming up with this terrible pun title.
**One great exception to this is Geoff Pynn’s website: Funded MA Programs in Philosophy https://fundedphilma.weebly.com/. This, however, solely focuses on the important question of funding.
Placements in Phil. PhD
California State University, Long Beach
California State University, Los Angeles
Georgia State University
Kent State University
Northern Illinois University
Oklahoma State University
San Francisco State University
Simon Fraser University
Texas Tech University
University of Houston
University of Mississippi
University of Missouri Saint Louis
University of North Carolina, Charlotte
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Western Michigan University