Are Terminal MA’s Part of the Solution?

Are Terminal MA’s Part of the Solution?


My proposal, if I had a magic wand to make it happen, would be to not to make PhD admissions out of college. Turn a lot of PhD programs that aren’t serving their graduates well into MA programs, and have PhD programs accept students from the MA programs. Then the PhD programs would be evaluating applicants who’d spent a couple of years doing graduate-level work. The writing samples, with luck, would be more reliable indicators of philosophical ability (whatever that may be) than undergraduate papers; and recommendations from faculty who the students had been working with full-time for a couple of years would be more reliable than recommendations for undergraduates that depend on how well they’re able to network with their professors. If, as David Velleman worries here, “[a]s publication becomes a requirement for job placement, graduate programs will have to select for applicants who will be ready to publish in only four or five years,” at least that’ll be more plausible if they’re selecting from applicants who already have a couple years of graduate work. (And again, part of the hope is that with fewer PhDs the job market won’t be so brutal.)

And a student who couldn’t get into a PhD program out of their MA program, or who decided they didn’t want to, would be much better off than a PhD who can’t get a permanent job. Looking for a new field as a 25-year-old MA seems much less painful than as a 30-year-old PhD, especially because the PhD is more likely to spend a few years working at bad jobs in the field before giving up. I’ve even talked to some people who’ve said that they’d have been interested in grad school in philosophy if they’d only been expected to do a couple years of it.

That is from a post by Matt Weiner (Vermont) at Saucers of Mud.

Let’s consider this proposal: no PhD program in philosophy should admit a student who will not, by the time of enrolling, have a Master’s degree. And let’s imagine away a few problems with the proposal to start: let’s assume that the MA programs provide tuition waivers and stipends, and let’s assume that PhD programs that also had terminal MA programs did not “cheat” by making it easier for their MA students to get into their PhD programs. Now, with a few idealizing assumptions in place, we can ask whether this proposal would solve any of the employment issues in the discipline. Would this do the kind of good Weiner thinks it would? Would there be other benefits? What are the downsides?

(art: TAF Stair by Gabriella Gustafson & Mattias Ståhlbom, photo by Bobo Olsson)

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