New Guide to Terminal MA Programs in Philosophy


What kind of advice can you offer students trying to figure out which terminal MA program in philosophy to apply to or attend?

Perhaps you know something about some of the faculty at some of them, and perhaps you’re familiar with the “Funded MA Programs in Philosophy” page maintained by Geoff Pynn (Elgin Community College), but apart from the departments’ own websites, there is not a lot of information out there.

Gil Hersch (Virginia Tech) noticed this and did something about it: he created the Philosophical GourMA.

Professor Hersch’s site includes some general remarks about the benefits of such programs, worth noting here:

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).

He then provides a ranking of the programs, based on how well they place their graduates in PhD programs. However, it isn’t just a matter of counting placements. Professor Hersch explains:

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 [Philosophical Gourmet Report] 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… 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.

He put the results in a sortable table. Here are the results ranked by number of placements (left) and median placement score (right):

Ranking terminal MA programs in philosophy by number of placements, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, does best. Ranking terminal MA programs on the basis of their PGR-weighted median, Virginia Tech does best]

[from the Philosophical GourMA]

Hersch admits some of the limitations of his approach. Among other things, he says:

  • since his measure “piggybacks off the PGR mean score measure… any issues with the PGR will probably carry over to this one,”
  • “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).”
  • 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.

There’s more of interest in the section of the page entitled “Discussion of methodological issues.”

Professor Hersch welcomes feedback on the Philosophical GourMA, including information from programs that would like to make corrections to the data or be added to the measure (to submit such information, use this form).

Check out the site here.

 

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

20 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
EAL
EAL
7 months ago

George Mason University also has a terminal MA

Helpful
Helpful
Reply to  EAL
7 months ago

Prof. Hersch’s post has a link to a placement data form that your DGS can send in if they want to have the program added to the list

Gil Hersch
Gil Hersch
Reply to  Helpful
7 months ago

Thanks, yes, any terminal MA program that wishes to be included can have their DGS fill in the form on the webpage and send it to me.

Adam
7 months ago

please consider including the University of Wyoming terminal MA program;

thanks : )

Bradley Rettler
Reply to  Adam
7 months ago

Sadly, although 57% of our students who finished the MA were accepted to at least one PhD program, a previous administration paused admissions to the MA program and the current administration has slated it for elimination due to low enrollment.

R. Clarke
R. Clarke
7 months ago

Professor Hersch appears to have omitted data on terminal MA programs in departments that also have PhD programs. Here at Florida State, we have both. Students who complete the terminal MA program may apply for admission to our PhD program; their applications are considered alongside others for that program.

In the past five years, 15 students who completed our terminal MA program have entered Philosophy PhD programs. Some have entered our own program, others have entered programs at other universities. Our MA placement record can be found on the department’s website, https://philosophy.fsu.edu/graduate-study/ma-student-placement-record

We fully fund all MA students, with three years’ funding for the terminal MA program.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  R. Clarke
7 months ago

I had a similar thought – almost every Canadian philosophy department with a PhD program also has an MA program (with separate admissions) and most all are funded. If you wanted to include those, that might be useful. Perhaps also with some thoughts about the pros and cons of such programs for the MA.

Gil Hersch
Gil Hersch
Reply to  R. Clarke
7 months ago

Thanks, I originally only intended to include programs that only have a terminal MA program. The reason was that I didn’t want to end up in a situation in which I am comparing apples to oranges in the sense of comparing two different types of programs–one only with terminal MAs and one with both terminal MAs and PhD programs (I now realize things in Canada are also different from the US in this regard). Given what Randy raised, I will go back to look at some departments that offer terminal MAs and PhDs, and figure out whether it makes sense to expand this list.

Aaron
Aaron
Reply to  Gil Hersch
7 months ago

As a philosophy bachelor looking at MA programs, are there disadvantages to schools with both MA and PhD programs if you’re only interested in attaining the MA at that particular school? Less attention from professors/different workload/etc.?

Grad Student
7 months ago

I must be misunderstanding the measures in this resource. Is this the left column just number of placements to PhD programs in the same period of time? If so, isn’t that not useful unless we know how many students were admitted during that time? I went to NIU, and as far as I know the average NIU cohort is smaller than the average GSU cohort, and the average Western MI cohort is smaller than the average NIU cohort.

Nevertheless this is still a nice resource since you don’t have to go to each program’s website and find their placement page, but to me this just calls out that terminal MAs need to track percentages of placement as much as the absolute placement number. NIU’s website claims that their placement percentage is 86, and gives the number of placed and the number of admitted in the relevant period. If GSU admits, say, 40% more students than UWM, then that different of 4 out of 30ish starts to look much different. Additionally, if a place has high average PGR placement but low placement percentage, then there’s reason to think the faculty only attend to who they think will be successful and sort of leave the rest behind. (That is, unless there’s good non-academic placement, which some places seem to list, but no info about their incomes, understandably; It’d be kind of weird if the NIU DGS asked me how much money I make).

Last edited 7 months ago by Grad Student
Gil Hersch
Gil Hersch
Reply to  Grad Student
7 months ago

You are not misunderstanding the measure. I would want to include number of graduates from each program so that then one could also compare rates of successful placement, which seems like an important piece of information. However, the data currently publicly available is not uniform across departments and many do not include number of students graduating. The form for DGSs on the webpage asks for this information as well. If there are enough departments that provide me this information, I can add this important information as well.

Matt Murphy
Matt Murphy
7 months ago

Professor Hersch,
Upon seeing your replies, I decided to ask a question of my own. Would you be able to add data for Oxford’s BPhil?

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
7 months ago

One note of caution about this that students should be very aware of is that this somewhat penalizes programs who help students find a good fit in the PhD program they choose. Often enough, when students get more than one acceptance, and also visit the programs, they end up deciding to go with the program that is a better fit – lively atmosphere, good people to talk to, lots of great opportunities for their interests – instead of the higher ranked programs. PhD program choices should not be based on Leiter rankings, and often a higher ranked program will result in a worse fit for students. If students are going to a terminal MA program to make an informed choice about whether or not they want to continue in professional philosophy, and if so to put together the strongest portfolio of materials in their PhD applications, then this list is not going to be an effective guide for that. The basis for the ranking does not contain the kind of information that would guide good decisions about terminal MA programs. In that regard, having a full list, along with something like links to programs’ placement pages, would be a very helpful addition. But having a list that spuriously downranks a program because e.g. a student picked a less highly ranked program even though they were accepted to a higher ranked one, distorts the information students need, and introduces poor incentives for MA programs to nudge students into PhD programs that are a less good fit them as individuals, but higher ranked according to the general Philosophical Gourmet rankings (not even the specialist rankings).

Gil Hersch
Gil Hersch
Reply to  HK Andersen
7 months ago

This is a good point, and I agree with the worry. Indeed, as I mention in the methodological discussion of the measure, 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.

If you have suggestions as to what would be useful to add to the measure, or what else should be discussed on the webpage (I already have the excel spreadsheet with each department’s complete placement record available to download on the webpage), I would appreciate the suggestions.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Gil Hersch
7 months ago

Hi Gil,

I think that there is very limited decision-relevant information in the Philosophical Gourmet, for PhD programs, and I usually only refer students to it as a list of what programs there are, for further investigation and discussion. So in that sense, a list of programs that are MA-focused would be a very big help, even if it just lists them by geographical area and links to their own placement pages. Since there is so little way to compare the way in which that sort of placement is listed, it is better (in my view) to let them assess that on their own, instead of adding what may be a misleading linear ranking by numbers.

If you do for your own reasons really want to stick with the Philosophical Gourmet (hard to let a pun like this go to waste!), a method that added fewer distorting incentives would be assigning a rank to each school based on its ranking in the specialty rankings, in particular, in the ranking in which it comes out the highest. Many schools that specialize in something rank higher in specialty rankings than the general ones, and so students going there interested in that specialty are getting into the top program(s) for that subfield. Using the highest ranking a program achieves across the rankings would give a more even playing field, since some top programs in certain subfields are lower ranked in the overall rankings. This would also reduce the likelihood that students, or MA programs, end up getting nudged toward the overall ranking with less good fit.

Cameron Buckner
Reply to  HK Andersen
7 months ago

FWIW, in our (University of Houston MA) placement data we list all funded offers to PhD programs in addition to the ones accepted ( https://www.uh.edu/class/philosophy/graduate-program/placement-record/ ). It would be tricky to take this into account in a metric, though, as I think it needs to be anonymized (not tied to particular individuals). One can eventually figure out publicly which PhD offer each grad accepted because they will show up on that PhD program’s website, but one probably doesn’t want other acceptances to be deducible by individual. At any rate, potential applicants can get a sense of the choices grads might have had when all declined offers are listed in bulk.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Cameron Buckner
7 months ago

I agree that this is very difficult to take account of in a metric, which I why I think that having a list of places one could apply to, if one is interested in a terminal MA, is better than any kind of ranking. But, if one really insists on doing a ranking despite that, and despite the clear issues with the Philosophical Gourmet as a research-reputation ranking, not quality-of-grad-program ranking, then I think one should use the highest ranking that a program receives. This suggestion is a smaller modification to what Gil Hersch has done.

And I agree completely about the anonymization. We have it listed on our placement page by the school the student eventually chose, and do not list the other schools to which they were individually accepted. We tried this tactic, of compiling the info into something like, “students this round were also accepted and declined offers at…” and then pile them all in together for the year. What I found, though, was that as Grad Chair, prospective students were somehow fixated on discovering exactly which offers went with which students, despite my reasoning as to why we do that. They were finding it hard to make a decision and thought they should have access to all kinds of otherwise confidential info for making their choices, even though the info they wanted would not actually indicate anything about whether our program was a good fit for them.

So having seen a lot of students latch onto rankings as “at least its better than nothing”, even though it turns out to be somewhat worse than nothing, and I think they can be actively dangerous.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Cameron Buckner
7 months ago

And one more thought – there are programs that are top in e.g. philosophy of language, and lower ranked in the generalist rankings. This means that a student who is keen on philosophy of language and gets into their top choice program might actually be lowering our department’s overall score on this metric he is using. This is why I think it is problematic for guiding decision-making, and why it would be preferable even just to use the highest score a program has anywhere in the specialty rankings, instead of just the general ranking.

Terminal MA student
Terminal MA student
7 months ago

I did a placement survey with more information years ago like this:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1hWoJN3dn-sloAgCIwyisBtxidc5HpU4stGN-c6igeik/edit#gid=822569766

The application/acceptance rate and cohort capacity are also important. Applicants may want to know the chance of a successful application when admitted. A bare number of placements does not tell us what they want to know.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Terminal MA student
7 months ago

Thanks for this resource.

Speaking for one program, SFU, that does not publish the general cohort size, I can shed some light perhaps on why that information about cohort size versus placement is not included in ours, and many others. A lot of students use terminal MA programs as a chance to actually decide whether, or not, they want to go forward in academic philosophy. We try to provide a supportive place for them to get a clear and accurate sense of what is involved in this as a career choice, including pedagogy, colloqiuia, workshops, and going to conferences. Deciding not to continue in academia is not a failure, for us or for them. Many of them would be great at philosophy, but philosophy as a profession would not be great for them. We don’t want to push them into it anyway. And, we don’t want their choice to be something they might feel bad about, as ‘ruining our numbers’ by counting as a ‘failure to place in a PhD program.’ So we take those students to be alt-ac successes, not failed PhD applicants. Having to list cohort size would 1) put pressure, however subtle, towards thinking of applying and going to a PhD as the ‘right’ choice, nudging people still deciding towards a trajectory that might be a poor fit, and 2) give a misleading impression to prospective students that this number of people ‘failed’ to complete some part of the program. For 2), the % of students in a cohort who decide to apply to PhD programs does not translate into a % chance that *this* applicant will successfully apply. But that is definitely the inference a lot of people want to draw.