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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Amy Lara
Amy Lara
6 years ago

I think there are a lot of upsides. Potential downsides: any scheme that increases the amount of moving people have to do from place to place will tend to disadvantage women (and possibly other underrepresented groups). Any scheme that increases time to PhD will disadvantage women (ditto). There’s been a lot of discussion about these problems in the sciences (where the scheme is slightly different: PhD to postdoc (potentially multiple postdocs) to tenure track position).Report

Seamus
6 years ago

This is, basically, how things already work in the UK. And, indeed, in much of Europe (from what I gather). The practical downside of this system, compared to the US model, is that it’s standard to only allow your PhD students 3 (or possibly 4) years to complete your PhD.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Since MA programs don’t tend to waive tuition, etc., this will just churn out more MA and PhD students in more debt.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Anonymous
5 years ago

Some MA do in fact do this, such as Simon Fraser University. And it is likely that more will in the future, if the proposal to turn some PhD programs into MA programs takes effect. Most students in PhD programs do TAing or even independent teaching in their first two or three years; this can be modified somewhat to make sure everyone has funding, and that everyone gets experience in teaching of some kind, which is itself a job skill that is useful in many places outside of academia.Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
6 years ago

Welcome to CanadaReport

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Amy, is it possible that the benefits for disadvantaged groups may outweigh the disadvantages? If it did significantly improve the market, I’d think that would, on balance, be better than not having to move while have very low job prospects. And isn’t the advantage currently only very slight? Most don’t move after an MA, but most move for the PhD program, and then most have to move a few times before they land a permanent job.

Seamus, is that 3 or 4 years in addition to the MA? If so, how is that a downside? My BA-PhD program cut off funding after 5 years, and briefly tried to get people to do it in 4. So if I had been able to do an MA, then work on the Phd for another 4 years on the PhD, I would have found it much less stressful.

I think another advantage of this proposal is that it may be a good way of filtering out a type of student that I think is common but underidentified: the studenty student, who is excellent at *studying* philosophy and loves learning about it, and may even be really good at it, but has no strong particular desire to either produce it or teach it. I have lots of these students, and they tend to assume that since they love learning it and they’re good at it, they should do it. But most would not be happy with the job, since it’s only being a *student* that they love.

If the MA became the norm, they would have the opportunity to pursue this love further, to feel a greater sense of closure and completion in a more in depth, advanced study, while also getting a glimpse of the professional side which, I suspect, most will decide they don’t want to go into. Then they’ll still have lots of time to transition to other things after the degree. This will reduce the number of failed or quitting PhD candidates and the overall number of PhDs.Report

Joshua A. Miller
6 years ago

“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.”

This reads a little like “assuming a can opener.” Where are the departments starting MA programs with full funding for incoming students (rather than as sources of revenue)? Isn’t this the same funding that could be paying for PhD students’ teaching releases and or to make class sizes smaller? Intuitions and justifications developed under these conditions are likely to be completely reversed from those that would function in the actual universities where we toil.

In a world of infinite resources, this sounds okay, maybe even good. In a world of finite resources, this seems unlikely: notice that it’s not just funding that is limited, so the objections so far have been about other limitations, like a person’s time.

I also worry that assuming infinite resources in a world of finite resources often serves pernicious ends: like other framing effects, it’s primary consequence is to ratchet our expectations.Report

anongrad
anongrad
6 years ago

Don’t lots of PhD programs offer students the opportunity to collect a Master’s upon completion of coursework, comps, etc.? This kind of practice provides a natural “out” for students who don’t want to continue with the PhD (and for faculty who decide that a particular student can’t cut it). What seems to matter is that students can quit or get booted out with an MA after two years of graduate work. Why multiply the number of times students have to go through the time-consuming, expensive, and exhausting process of applying to graduate programs, especially if (as Amy Lara points out), this process disadvantages women and underrepresented groups? The real lesson here is that it should be easier for students to leave their programs early with something to show for their work.

As an aside, I did an MA program and it was great, but 4-5 years of graduate coursework (MA+PhD) gets to be a bit much.Report

anon grad
anon grad
6 years ago

While the idea of tuition remission and a stipend might not sound possible, I would like to point out that there are a few terminal MA programs that do offer precisely this. UMSL and UW-Milwaukee are just two that I know of.Report

H.W.
H.W.
6 years ago

This is what I did of my own volition, doing a Masters so I knew exactly if I wanted to continue to a PH.D. Issue being that yes I had to take on my debt, though in my case I did manage to get a Teaching Assistant position during my second year. The question is that many women in philosophy did not go in as young as I have, I might well be under thirty when I get at PH.D. This is not a common situation, and the older a woman is the more pressure she has on her to move along to her “real purpose” aka producing children. Of course I do not agree with this, women can have children well into their forties, and very well might never want to have them at all…and that is completely fair. But this pressure becomes downright intense, along with the pressures of academic life. I feel that it needs to be an option, but not something enforced as “we wont take anyone without an M.A.”Report

Trystan Goetze
Trystan Goetze
6 years ago

As others have pointed out above, terminal MAs are the norm in the UK. In Canada, we’re halfway between the USA and the UK (as usual); often PhD programmes have 4-year and 5-year options for those with MAs and only BAs, respectively. I don’t know what the funding situation is like for MAs in the UK (not great?), but in Canada it seemed to me fairly standard to provide funding for at least one year.

I found the terminal MA approach very helpful (but only because I made a weird decision, see below). It gives you a chance to see what grad school in the field is like and to develop your skills at an advanced level before committing to a PhD. That’s key, I think: while the MA-en-route can let you exit a PhD programme early and still get credit for time served, I think doing so would feel like giving up on something you’ve committed to and discourage those who might have been better off (professionally & emotionally) not going on.

There seem to be two models for MAs: one year by coursework, and two years by coursework & thesis. Having done the former in philosophy, I have to say, it doesn’t achieve the benefits we’re looking for. This is largely because application season for PhD programmes begins the fall you start a one-year MA. Applicants to PhDs from one-year MA programmes probably don’t have much improvement in their writing samples (I certainly didn’t) or in their reference letters (I did, but only by luck), and have to make those applications without much grad school experience to guide them. Indeed, in order to be properly prepared for applications, you basically have to make the decision to go on to a PhD *before* you even start the MA! I managed to get the benefit of added experience before going for a PhD (in philosophy) only by taking a second MA in a different field (philosophy and sociology of education). If terminal MAs are to become more common, I think they should be two years in length. Whether they should have a thesis is another matter.

Incidentally, I’m now taking my PhD in the UK, and I really prefer the 3-4 year model, which gets you working on research right away. To me, the prospect of more coursework was not pleasant.Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Yes, I meant MA programs that fund their students; the MA programs I taught at fund most of their students so it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to say that explicitly. No one should have to go into debt to do graduate work in philosophy!Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

I’m not sure if my last comment which was meant to be a reply to #3 is posting in the right place, and there’s a lot to discuss, so I’ll put some more responses here.

Amy [email protected]/[email protected]/[email protected]: The prospect of adding a move is a problem, and the disparate impact on women even more so; thanks for bringing that up! One hope might be that it’d usually be easier to move twice at the beginning of your graduate career than at the end, when you’re more likely to have a family; and if this proposal makes it easier for people to go straight from grad school to tenure-track jobs that might make up for it a bit. But assuming that the proposal actually would cut down on the number of one-year VAPs is probably too much pie-in-the-sky. The experience of the sciences is definitely worth thinking about; thanks for bringing that up.
[email protected]: Yes, one of my ideas was that this could cater to the studenty student; someone who really wants to dabble in in-depth philosophy for a couple of years without committing their life to it.
Joshua A. Miller/[email protected]: Well, my idea was that current PhD programs could offer MAs instead. So they would fund their MA students the same way they fund their current PhD students, most likely by having them teach. One of the particular problems with this idea is that central administrations wouldn’t like it; at the very least it’d take a coordinated push from the discipline to try to convince administrations that MA programs were A Good Thing and as worthy of support as PhD programs, and even that could well not be enough.
And yes, this is definitely not a practical proposal, more pointing to another way things would work and saying “Mightn’t this be better?” If the answer is “yes” that doesn’t really tell us what to do next. It may be that this would just serve as a distraction from more practical proposals to address the problems we have on the job market–though I’m not sure what proposals are out there!
[email protected]: Yes, PhD programs often award MAs along the way–mine did–but there’s definitely a cultural presumption that if you leave after your MA you’ve “dropped out.” And, if the problem is partly that we produce too many PhDs (which I think it is), a program that boots a lot of people out after the MA stage, or that presumes most people won’t finish their PhD, seems like it’d create a toxic and possibly competitive atmosphere.
[email protected]: Yes, it does sound coercive to say “You must do an MA somehwere else first.” The worry I have is that if we have a system where some people do MAs first and many go straight to PhDs, it’d create a two-tiered system where the “elite” PhD programs still tended to vacuum up the flashiest students from the snootiest undergrad institutions, which wouldn’t serve underrepresented groups very well either.
Trystan [email protected]: Thank you, that’s exactly the experience I hope MAs to provide, and the concerns I have about the MA on the way to PhD model. I agree that two-year MAs would be better here.

Another point, in response to things a few people have said, is that maybe having students come in with MAs could allow PhD programs to shorten themselves. I feel as though if I’d had a clearer direction going into my PhD I’d have finished it much sooner. Perhaps that would alleviate some of these issues a bit. Although again this may be assuming a can opener, or assuming that my ideas have the best possible effects in the best of all possible worlds.

Thank you for the comments, all!Report

John Basl
6 years ago

I haven’t thought much about the proposed setup, but I would definitely worry about the effects on undergrads. Assuming universities will still take advantage of grad students to both TA and teach undergrads, I’d worry about a loss of quality in cases where a place has an MA program but no PhD program. In places with both or with only a PhD, you can expect advanced students to fill teaching roles while providing guidance to early students who are TAing. When I was in grad school, the other, older grad students, helped me as a teacher so much and I was not expected to teach my own course until much later. Just something to consider.Report

Marcus
Marcus
6 years ago

I think the worthwhile version of the proposal would have to assume something stronger:
that MA programs provide tuition waivers and stipends in line with PhD.
Some current MA programs provide much more modest stipends than PhD programs and MA students in those departments generally rack up more debt.

Also I fear the Daily Nous proposal alters the original in a really significant way. The Original Proposal is for Terminal Masters Programs rather than Terminal Masters Degrees. If a school is offing MA’s and PhD’s then a large part of the benefit of a Terminal MA is lost (As a Terminal MA grad, I can say I never would have gotten the attention I needed at that stage of development a program that also gave out PhD’s).

But even with these assumptions in place, I guess I wonder what the problem Matt is trying to solve?
He says
“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. ”

Is the assumption that along with this change we collectively would only admit the number of PhD’s for the jobs available?
or that after getting an MA people would be less likely to walk away from philosophy after not getting into a top 20 program but still getting into a PhD program?

Or is it simply that if several schools switched from PhD programs to terminal MA programs there would be less total PhD’s? Thus the proposal mitigates in some small way the harsh economic realities of the market? This last assumption seems the most reasonable, but I fear that the effect of requiring terminal MA’s would increase the completion % of people who enter PhD programs, so even if PhD candidates were to be decreased (by say 20% or 25% each year b/c we have converted some PhD programs to MA programs), the number of PhD’s granted would likely go down by much less, perhaps not at all.Report

Shea
Shea
6 years ago

So, there have been a few complaints about funding. I take it that a large part of what would make the MA strategy work is this. We currently have a glut of PhDs. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that there are too many PhD programs. Thus the idea is that many of the new funded MA programs would be at departments that used to offer PhDs, but were unable to place students for whatever reason. This way those programs can still reap all the benefits of a funded graduate degree. Then the real competition would occur at the level of PhD admissions rather than on the job market. It seems to me that it would be MUCH better to have your dreams dashed after only two years with an MA to show for it than to spend 5-7 years of your life on philosophy only to find your career prospects non-existent. I would also hasten to add that it is somewhat ethically dubious to continue to have a PhD program that can’t place anyone. If anything it is irresponsible for the field to produce a number of PhDs that far exceeds the number of available jobs, so the competition SHOULD take place at the level of graduate admissions.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Joshua A. Miller:

This isn’t about assuming infinite resources, it’s about reallocating existing resources. Plank one of the proposal is: “Turn a lot of PhD programs that aren’t serving their graduates well into MA programs.” In other words, taking the money currently being spent on those PhD programs and instead allocate it to full-funded terminal MA programs.Report

Kenny
6 years ago

This proposal is most definitely not assuming infinite resources. As far as I can tell, the idea is to take resources that are currently devoted to PhD students in their first few years, and instead devote them to MA students, leaving the resources currently devoted to PhD students in their later years to be devoted to the PhD students that can take advantage of shorter programs.Report

Sherri Irvin
6 years ago

At the University of Oklahoma, we have converted up to 4 of our fully funded PhD assistantships to MA assistantships ($16,000 stipend, health insurance, 20 hours per week of duties as a TA). We did this in part because we noticed that many of our applicants who are women and/or members of racial and ethnic minorities had special circumstances such that they needed more training to be strong candidates for PhD programs: e.g., they were in the process of switching from another field, or they were returning to school after a long period away, or they had attended undergraduate institutions with limited philosophy training.

The students get to see whether they really want to do philosophy (without going into debt), their prospects as PhD applicants are strengthened, and we are graduating somewhat fewer PhDs into a difficult job market. From my perspective, it’s a win all around.Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

[email protected]: “Is the assumption that along with this change we collectively would only admit the number of PhD’s for the jobs available?”

Yes, or at least a lot closer to that number. I didn’t emphasize this enough in the original post perhaps, but the the whole problem that the proposal is meant to solve is that there are far too many philosophy PhDs for the available jobs and this creates a whole lot of problems.

And part of the idea behind turning PhD programs into MA programs is that I don’t think it’d be reasonable to expect PhD programs to continue as they are and only admit the numbers of students they can expect to place; there’d be a huge collective action problem. Whereas if there are few enough PhD programs that they can run at full capacity, and lots of MA programs, then individual programs won’t have to worry about holding themselves back in admissions. (There would be more MAs than slots in PhD programs, so the real competition would be for PhD admissions as Shea says @17; but as Shea also says it’s a lot less problematic for a program to admit many more MA students than they can place than to admit many more PhD students than they can place.)Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Sherri Irvin @20: Sounds great! That’s exactly the sort of thing I’d like to see happening.Report

Louis
6 years ago

It is indeed standard practice in the UK. The primary downside of which is the conjunction of, firstly, nearly all MA’s being one-year programmes and, secondly, applications to PhD (eligible for consideration by public research councils) requiring submission by Christmas. The implication being that you apply to a PhD on the strength of a couple of months of your MA programme, usually without having either developed a strong relationship with your supervisor, or written anything substantive. It is woeful to say the least.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

I agree with the proposal and the comments noting the many advantages to getting a terminal M.A. before applying for Ph.D. programs. My only question is what incentive a department would have to “downgrade” its Ph.D. program to a terminal M.A. program, even when placement statistics are poor. At minimum, this kind of move would give administrations a very good reason for not renewing tenure lines. Even if such departmental downsizing did not outweigh the job market benefit of having fewer Ph.D. students competing for jobs, what department would want to go down that route? If ALL Ph.D. programs required a terminal M.A. before admittance, then more B.A. only departments (some of which are excellent) might be encouraged to develop M.A. programs. That might be a good thing, and it might provide a rationale for more tenure-lines at such departments, but would it reduce the number of Ph.D. graduates, assuming no Ph.D. program would be willing to downsize?Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

Great point, Avi. I think that is the million-dollar question: how to get a current PhD program to “unilaterally disarm” and accept fewer or no students for the good of job seekers and the profession as a whole. I always think of this and would love to hear others’ thoughts. Most departments would probably be ashamed to downsize or disband a PhD program, although it could be an act of great nobility that is very helpful to the profession. Any ideas?Report

Nick Byrd
6 years ago

In a previous post, many commenters said that MA thesis work is less useful than a couple extra graduate courses (in the current system).

Do commentors feel the same way about MA thesis work in the system being proposed here?

I can imagine reasons for both sides:

Pro-thesis work:
– it makes the MA program 2 years, minimum, which overcomes a problem that some expressed about 1 year MA programs (not having enough time to experience the extra graduate training the this proposal is supposed to provide in time for PhD application season).
– it gives a student an idea of what it is like to take on and defend a larger, more self-guided project (a foretaste of a dissertation and perhaps subsequent work as a professional)
– it gives letter writers the ability to say something about how well the student fairs in a dissertation-like project (assuming the committee has seen drafts in time for PhD application deadlines).
– it separates the “studenty students” from [whatever the preferable counterpart is supposed to be].

Anti-thesis:
– some students need as much grad coursework as possible (e.g., they are switching from another field, their undergrad program did not fully prepare them for graduate study, etc.)
– more seminars = more seminar papers = more candidate writing samples = better chances of having higher quality writing samples for one’s PhD application

With compelling reasons on both sides, perhaps thesis work should remain optional and professors could advise MA students on a case-by-case basis.

Are there reasons for or against and MA exams in the proposed system?Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

Amy Lara (or anybody else): honest question from someone who may be a bit blind to this issue – why is it that moving from place to place will tend to disadvantage women? Same with the issue about time to PhD graduation. Thanks!Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

[email protected]/[email protected]: Yes, one of the reasons that this might not be practical even if we agreed it was a better outcome would be the collective action problem in getting PhD programs to convert. Maybe there would be some advantage to some programs deciding that it’d be better to have a relatively prestigious MA than a relatively unprestigious PhD, but there would also have to be some push to raise the respectability of MA programs somehow — not sure how this would work.

(Sorry if this is a little clipped; an earlier response was eaten by the captcha.)Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
6 years ago

Moves are bad. I am 1/2 of an academic couple, which is much more common for women than men. Would PhD programs accommodate academic couples in their admission practices? I doubt it. I have children. Add to the complications of a move new childcare, applying for social services such as medicaid, etc. No. nonono. Also, I feel like the professional relationships are harder for women to build in male-dominated departments. Women and minorities have to ‘prove themselves’ more than others, and so it’s nice to just have to prove yourself once.Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

With respect to the issue of too many PhD programs and graduates, I feel like a first step could be a public statement affirming this as a problem. If the APA or a group of esteemed philosophers could agree that PhD program slots need to be reduced by, say, 30%, then we could all start to think of ways to get there.

One other idea is to see what happened in other disciplines that have contracted over the years, or even other professions.Report

Mark van Roojen
6 years ago

What are we fixing with this proposal? (BTW, just so as not to sound too hostile, I appreciate the tone of Matt’s comments about thinking about this in the abstract and ideally.)

I think I’m against any proposal that seeks to limit PhD admissions to fit with the current job market. We are not very good at figuring out who will do well and who will do badly. By matching current admissions to current demand we would be pushing the important decisions back to earlier points in the careers of those who pursue philosophy. I find it hard to see how this would either increase opportunity or increase the ability of people to show that they have the skills to do well at what we do. This is a way of making it harder for people who are not already privileged to break into the guild.

I know that it causes a lot of stress that there are more graduates than jobs. But it is not the end of the world to spend time in grad school but not get an academic job. I very nearly did that myself. It is also the case that not everyone needs to go to an MA program to be ready to go through a PhD program. To suggest that everyone needs to do that, even if the extra money is covered by decent scholarships, is at the very least to raise the cost in time of going into the field for some people. When people are already pretty well off that may not took so bad, but if you don’t have a cushion to fall back on, it increases the cost (and the risk) of choosing a career in the field as compared to other pursuits that are more immediately lucrative. So, I predict, such changes would make us less diverse, not more so.

But maybe I’m not understanding the point of the proposal, which is why I led with a question.

MarkReport

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Mark van [email protected]: thanks for the comments and no problem about the tone! The problem is that it’s much worse to get a PhD and not a permanent job than to get an MA and not get into a PhD program, for many reasons, the most prominent being that you come out much older. So in this way pushing back the decision point is a desideratum.

If success on the job market is determined in large part by where you get your PhD (a live-ish question, perhaps), then also we might not really be pushing the decision point back. If that’s true, a large part of the decision is made when students first apply to PhD programs (but students may not be aware of the extent to which their fate is decided); if they’d gone to MA programs, that decision would be made based on better information.

I do see the idea that, from the point of the absolute production of the best philosophy, it might be better to admit everyone we can and let things shake themselves out. (Or not; the pressure to get jobs might harm the quality of the philosophy people produce, which is part of what I took David Velleman to be arguing on the specialization thread.) But I think the human cost of producing too many PhDs is too high to be justified by this.Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

I agree that if we limit PhD admissions significantly, it could hurt those from disadvantaged groups who are less well positioned to apply to PhD programs out of undergrad. I think we would need aggressive initiatives to offset this, like greater outreach to these students at the undergrad level, application boot camps to help people from various backgrounds, less emphasis on pedigree in grad admissions, and maybe MA programs for students who need more time to develop their skills.

However, I think there are huge downsides to spending ten years in grad school and temporary positions only to not get a permanent academic job, downsides that might be especially salient to some members of underrepresented groups. Self esteem is one issue. Also, starting a career in business, say, at age 22 vs. 32 will have a large impact on a person’s ability to start a family with financial security on their own terms, as well as on their lifetime earnings including things like retirement savings, money to support extended family, or money to give to charity.Report

Different anonymous grad
Different anonymous grad
6 years ago

I had the same thought, I’m not really clear on how moving from place to place is disadvantageous for women and other under-represented groups, as opposed to being disadvantageous for grad students with families (some of whom are male, and not members of under-represented groups). As a grad student with a spouse and children, there are lots of things my unmarried, childless peers are willing to do that, for family reasons, I won’t even consider. I too would appreciate some clarification regarding this concern.Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

[email protected]: Yes, exactly. And I’d add that, if those from disadvantaged groups who are less well positioned to apply to PhD programs out of undergrad are winding up in PhD programs with worse placement rates, then we’re not doing them any favors. And if they aren’t, then converting the PhD programs with worse placement rates into MAs isn’t going to make things less accessible.

My hope is that more MAs would actually help with some of the problems you talk about. Students from a less elite background may have less ease getting their PhD applications read even with glowing recommendations; hopefully applicants MA programs, which would send out a pretty steady supply of PhD applicants, would get fairer hearings.

BTW, I’ve realized that my proposal might be taken as an attack on “lower-ranked” PhD programs. That’s not my intention at all; I’m no big fan of the rankings. It’s just that right now I think we’re doing our PhD students a disservice. The key point is what Chris said at 30; if it’d be better to produce 30% fewer PhDs, then we should make a public statement of that and try to do something about it. One thing to do about it would be for PhD programs that have trouble placing students to start offering (or emphasizing) terminal MAs more.

Different anonymous [email protected]: If I may chime in on this, I think one of the reasons that an extra move might disproportionately affect women is that, given the sexism of our society, women bear a disproportionate burden of extra moves. I know more opposite-sex couples where the woman picked up and followed the man to his job than the other way round; and it’s relatively more burdensome to move if your partner is more reluctant to move with you. Also, as anon female grad student [email protected], if you move with kids you have to find new childcare arrangements, and the burden of that falls disproportionately on women. And against as anon female grad student said, a woman or a member of an underrepresented group has to find two welcoming grad school environments instead of just one.

These are all big concerns (and mostly concerns that still do apply to men with families). Maybe one way to resolve it is to tweak the proposal so PhD programs would be more likely to admit students with families or underrepresented students direct from undergrad? Or, since these issues will disproportionately affect older students, just make it so the policy is that PhD students shouldn’t accept 22- and 23-year-olds direct from undergrad?

I will say that these issues return with a vengeance if you wind up taking a series of temporary jobs after you finish your PhD, especially because you’re more likely to have a family by then. I was single when I started taking one-year jobs; I’m not sure if I could’ve lasted it out if I’d been married let alone with kids.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Avi @24 writes:
“My only question is what incentive a department would have to “downgrade” its Ph.D. program to a terminal M.A. program, even when placement statistics are poor.”

How about this: They recognize the value of graduate education in philosophy but care about their students as human beings to whom they have moral and personal obligations and, as such, can’t stand watching them spend years of their life preparing for a professional job, only to end up unemployed or exploited, all while losing 5-10 (or more!) years during which they are not accumulating retirement savings or seniority and experience in a field with better career prospects.

And these reasons don’t require solving any collective action problem, since they’re not contingent on any relationship between the philosophy MA and PhD admissions. A philosophy MA can be valuable for many of the same reasons as a philosophy BA, even if one doesn’t make it into a PhD program. Studying philosophy – and being paid to study philosophy – is a wonderful privilege. A fully funded terminal MA gives people the opportunity to have that experience without all the (personal) costs of completing a PhD and ending up without a real job.

The other advantage of this kind of program over the ‘just do a PhD program and quit after 2 years’ option is that, over time, your program will have a network of graduates who have moved on to other careers. Those graduates will be a resource for current students trying to figure out what to do after they finish, and they will collectively be ambassadors to the non-academic world who can testify to the value and importance of humanities education.

Compare this to the status quo in which people who were so enthusiastic about humanities education that they spent a decade or more of their life studying and teaching in it have that enthusiasm shoved back in their face. From the outside: “Well what did you expect to do with that degree anyway? Welcome to the real world.” And from the inside: “Well that person was never really a serious scholar / couldn’t get into a good program / whatever other excuse why they didn’t make it.”Report

Joshua A. Miller
6 years ago

To be clear, though, most PhD students aren’t “funded” with grants and donations: that’s a myth of university accounting that works on “lines” and not revenue/costs. In fact most PhD students more-than pay for themselves and their stipends as teachers of undergraduates. (And this is acknowledged in a reply from Matt Weiner above, too, so it’s explicitly a consideration in the proposal.)

So I think when we move from “funding” to “teaching jobs” we can see the issue: what is being proposed is to continue to exploit graduate student labor (and continue to flood the market for teaching positions by replacing PhDs with BAs in front of the classroom), but to offer less in return: not a PhD but an MA. The additional benefit is that we give these graduate students an opportunity to quit or to be culled at the end of the MA, which too many programs are not willing to do for/to their PhD students.

It’s a supply-side solution, which has worked in other fields (like law and medicine) when implemented early to prevent a glut. I think it’s probably too late in philosophy, especially because a norm of terminal MAs would force most serious candidates to pursue this path against a backdrop where time-to-completion is already stretched to seven and eight years.

As a result, I prefer demand-side solutions: let’s require Critical Thinking courses in all US public High Schools, to be taught by MAs or PhDs in philosophy.Report

Geoff
Geoff
6 years ago

This doesn’t directly address Matt Weiner’s proposal (which I think is pretty interesting) or most of the points made in the discussion, but it’s a mistake to think that funded terminal MA programs in philosophy are rare. Here is some information I’ve been compiling on this issue:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/w8wqvzgon4i2oxy/Philosophy%20MA%20Funding.pdf

The info is definitely incomplete (e.g. I didn’t know about Oklahoma until reading Sherry Irvin’s comment above and will add that ASAP; I am sure there are other gaps). Someone else remarked above that terminal MA funding is not generally as good as PhD funding; that is clearly correct. But funded US terminal MA programs are not uncommon. What *are* uncommon are US doctoral programs that *also* offer funding to terminal MA students — Florida State and (now I have learned) Oklahoma are exceptions.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

someone asked why longer time to degree was worse for women (I’m not the person the question was directed at, but ill take a shot). Here’s just one reason: a lot of women want (biological) kids. women are routinely told now (by ob-gyns no less..) that they should have kids before 35 (yes, 35!) if they want to minimize certain risks. and most women will not be able to have their own kids without risking some complications (or at all) after 40ish. So — a lot of women I know want to start trying for kids in their early 30s or earlier. They don’t want to be wrapping up a phd then and dealing with the stress of being on the market for multiple years (which is what it frequently takes now). if their phd isn’t going to lead to a career in philosophy, they want to figure that out sooner than later, so they can make an appropriate switch and have a family.

ive known one philosopher who told me explicitly that she wanted tenure *before* having kids shes incredibly gifted, organized, and ambitious, and — though I haven’t kept up with her to see if that is still her plan — I wouldn’t be surprised if it is in her particular case (she has a TT job and is young-ish, up for tenure soon).

And one reason that frequent moves are worse on women — women are more likely to be part of an academic couple than men. This fact is surprisingly seldom mentioned so I was pleased to see anon female grad mention it. The reason for it is that the statistical majority of philosopher-philosophers couples are female-male (rather than male-male or female-female) and females are a statistical minority in philosophy. When you crunch the numbers, this ends up meaning that out of all philosophers in a philosopher-philosopher couple, a disproportionate number are women. Incidentally, this is a reason that partner-friendly hiring policies also wind up being friendly-women hiring policies.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

not quite on the topic of whether MAs could help, but I think another, really simple intervention could dramatically improve things: have all departments publish attrition data and the rates at which their grads get TT jobs within say 5 years of their Ph.D. Or the APA or another group could gather and disseminate this information. Very few prospective grads have a concrete idea of how bad things are on the market.Report

Shea
Shea
6 years ago

RE: Joshua Miller @37

The demand-side solution would be grand. Unfortunately, academic philosophers have approximately zero say in decisions concerning what is taught in public high schools. In contrast, they DO have a significant say (albeit perhaps not the final say) in decisions regarding the structure of academic degree programs.

And let’s face it… American voters don’t exactly place a premium value on critical thinking.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

There’s something I’m missing about this proposal. How does the MA help? It seems like what does the work is that fewer people are admitted to PhD programs, and so ultimately there are fewer people on the job market.

What does the MA do for students who don’t ultimately get into a PhD program? Delays their other career another 2 years?

The only suggestion seems to be that it gives them a taste of what they really wanted to pursue before they have to go work at their second choice. I don’t know I’m sold on the value of that.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

The MA gives you a chance to study philosophy in depth, decide if you want to try to pursue a PhD, learn more about what it takes to qualify for a PhD, and to enjoy the intrinsic value of studying philosophy with others who are committed to the intrinsic value of studying philosophy. Spending two years in school before moving on to something else (which may turn out to be a ‘more informed choice’ rather than a ‘second choice.’)

When defending the humanities we love to talk about the way studying them can enrich people’s lives. The fully-funded MA allows people who might not otherwise be able to afford it the chance to step away from other day-to-day concerns and have their lives enriched that way. But unlike the PhD it takes much less time commitment and much less socialization toward and preparation for a career that is increasingly unlikely to materialize.Report

Trystan Goetze
Trystan Goetze
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

I agree, contra Anon Grad @42. Not everyone who would benefit from grad school wants an academic career. The length and character of a PhD programme commits you to at least trying to make it in academia professionally (or at least often pressures you to, but this depends on the department). An MA provides a valuable educational experience without such expectations, and ends before a person not interested in being a professor would be getting sick of his/her PhD. Also, my impression (though I may be completely wrong) is that, in many fields, an MA on your CV is looked at favourably—”Oh, you have some extra education”—whereas a PhD is considered more skeptically—”You did what, exactly, for seven years?”—so it’s not just a “two year delay” to one’s career. That said, if MAs are to accommodate both those interested in going on to the PhD (and beyond) and those without academic aspirations, the design of the programme might have to be different from the standard “do some tough courses then write a major research paper or thesis” model. Greater consideration of the relationship between philosophy and life outside academia, explicit training for or assistance in finding non-academic careers, maybe more interdisciplinarity? I’m just throwing out ideas.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

“Greater consideration of the relationship between philosophy and life outside academica…”

I agree, and I think that would be a predictable benefit of a proliferation of funded MAs. Over time I think this would occur naturally, not by professors trying to imagine what’s useful outside of academia or inventing misguided ‘alt-ac’ training programs, but by actually staying in contact with students who leave your program – and leave academia – excited by what they’ve studied, rather than bitter about the career they didn’t achieve.Report

Nick Byrd
6 years ago

RE: “explicit training for or assistance in finding non-academic careers, maybe more interdisciplinarity?”

This sounds excellent, and not just for those who do decide to work outside philosophy. Philosophy departments that offer thriving relationships with other departments and outside resources is not good only for those who want to pursue careers outside philosophy; it is really good for those who want to pursue careers IN philosophy. It is no coincidence that interesting and progressive work has come from taking tools and concepts from other fields and putting them to work in philosophy.

Connections with other departments will help aspiring philosophers broaden their academic awareness (e.g., by being introduced to more history, more empirical work, and other methods). Connections with these departments will also help people who aspire to things outside philosophy (e.g., by being introduced to a new field, by learning new skills [e.g., data analysis, programming, computational corpus linguistics, various experimental methods], and by building social capital).

But philosophy departments can also benefit from connections with non-academic organizations. For example, some students get into philosophy because they are wooed by the arguments in ethics that champion, say, effective altruism. There are a variety of non-academic organizations that do great work for the causes championed by certain ethicists. Wouldn’t it be neat if people with graduate level training in philosophy made connections with these organizations as part of their graduate study (and then perhaps increased their chances of being professionally engaged in these causes after they finish their MA)?Report

Nick Byrd
6 years ago

RE: Shea On Philosophers’ Engagement in Public Schools

This might be giving up too quickly. A number of philosophy departments have done a swell job of connecting themselves with local public schools to introduce students to philosophy in curricular and co-curricular ways (shout out to Claudia Mills and her like-minded colleagues for their important work!). While this a smaller step than changing public policy, it could certainly have dramatically positive effects. All that to say that this kind of connection to local public schools is a virtue to which all MA (and PhD) programs might aspire. After all, if graduate programs had this kind of connection to local schools, then this would benefit both public school students as well as the department’s MA students — especially the MA students that end up seeking careers in other domains of education.Report

Shea
Shea
6 years ago

Nick, the question is whether we can motivate the public school system on the whole to create jobs for philosophers by establishing things like critical thinking courses. I have no doubt that individual philosophy departments can reach out to their community, but this will only involve philosophers who are already employed by the university. It doesn’t solve the problem at hand.Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Anon [email protected]: In addition to what Derek and Trystan have said, the thought was that if there are going to be many fewer PhD admissions we need better bases for deciding them than we have now. I think we’d be better at doing selective PhD admissions if we were looking at MA graduates rather than undergrads. (Though I’ve never been involved in PhD admissions.)Report

Joshua A. Miller
6 years ago

I think we may have a bit more power than you’re indicating. I’ve personally managed to find teaching for a lot of philosophers in the prison education program I run: the demand is there. There’s a real hunger to study philosophical texts and think philosophically. If we were willing and put our mind to it, we could probably get commitments from many high-end high schools to employ philosophers.

It wouldn’t even be that hard: all it would take would be for one MA program to partner with their university’s School of Education, and start cranking out highly employable grad students. Start offering philosophy courses as electives at the best suburban schools, gather data that shows increased standardized test scores (later refuted as selection effects), work to develop Common Core standards for critical thinking, and then expand to other high schools.

Come to think of it, maybe I should take this up with my Chair….Report

J
J
6 years ago

I think 5 years is long enough to wait to launch into an academic career. I’m already going to be at least 30 before I launch into an academic career: I’d rather not have had it be at least 32. Granted, I took time off to work (which I had good reason to do), so my story is somewhat atypical. Nonetheless, the longer grad school goes on, the longer it takes to launch into adulthood and the greater the opportunity cost that pursuing academia entails.Report

J
J
6 years ago

Not to mention that I doubt I really have the patience for 4 years of coursework after undergrad, often with repeating requirements.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

so, i love the idea of more philosophy in high schools. Something to consider is that in the U.S., teaching in public high schools requires a teaching certification, whether or not you have a masters (or even PhD) in your area. I wonder if some education programs could pair with philosophy departments to create a certification in high school teaching, with an emphasis on philosophy (or perhaps humanities more generally). These students could take philosophy and the regular ed classes at the same time.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

I like the idea of pushing more programs, particularly, those that fail to place, to offer a terminal MA. Certainly, chipping away at the number of Phd’s hitting the market is a way to improve the likelihood of job placement for those that remain. But I want to add that there are a lot of other things we should try to do to improve the market. For instance, Philosophy has a general PR problem which undoubtedly affects the job market. The more students that show an interest in philosophy at the undergraduate level, the more jobs there will be. But few students want to study philosophy. There has been a lot of discussion about the climate of graduate programs and reaching out to underrepresented minority groups and I’m all for that. But we should also think about recruiting more students at the undergrad level, in general. Why don’t philosophy programs do more on campus to recruit students? Think outside the box! A poster about the benefits of studying philosophy, pasted on a wall of the philosophy department is not going to do the trick. Utilize media. Brand. Rethink pedagogy. Your lectures are likely to be very boring and alienating to most of your students. The readings are most likely too difficult for most of your students. Make philosophy exciting and accessible for students that have no background in it. Stop exclusively writing books and articles that only your fellow Phd’s can understand or will find interesting. Of course a few philosophers doing these things is not going to change a thing—it needs to be systematic.Report