M.A. Programs in Philosophy


Who should consider an M.A. program in philosophy? Three categories of students who ultimately want to get a Ph.D. and pursue an academic career might benefit from such programs: (i) students whose undergraduate major was not philosophy; (ii) students who majored in philosophy at universities with philosophy departments outside the mainstream of the profession; and (iii) students who majored in philosophy, have a solid grounding in the various areas of philosophy, but who studied philosophy at smaller colleges and universities, or at institutions with weak academic reputations (students should consult their departments to find out whether graduates of their schools have been able to gain admittance to Ph.D. programs of their choice). Students in each category may be both qualified for and able to get into the Ph.D. programs of their choice; but students who fit into one of these categories may be more likely to have trouble getting into Ph.D. programs and may be good candidates to benefit from M.A. programs.

A good M.A. program will provide many benefits: it will allow a student to get a basic grounding in philosophy or expand the breadth of her existing knowledge, develop increased familiarity with current debates in philosophy, prepare and polish written work in philosophy that will be useful in the applications process for Ph.D. programs and get to know some established philosophers who can then provide meaningful letters of recommendation for Ph.D. programs.

Among terminal M.A. programs offered by schools that do not grant the Ph.D., the top program in the country (in terms of faculty reputation) is Tufts University. After Tufts, several other terminal MA programs have very strong faculties: Brandeis University; Georgia State University; Northern Illinois University; and University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Other terminal M.A. programs with strong faculties include University of Houston; San Francisco State University; University of Missouri, St. Louis; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. Other M.A. programs also worth considering for students with the right interests include California State University, Long Beach; California State University, Los Angeles; Colorado State University (esp. for applied ethics); Ohio University; Texas Tech University; and Western Michigan University.

Some of these programs do have specific areas of expertise and emphasis, though most can offer a broad exposure to the discipline. Tufts, for example, is very strong in philosophy of language, mind, and cognitive science, as well as in ethics. Georgia State is one of the few major M.A. programs with a lot to offer students interested in Kant and post-Kantian Continental philosophy, but at the same time is quite strong in cognitive science and experimental philosophy (as well as legal and political philosophy). Virginia Tech has a lot to offer those interested in history and philosophy of science, among other areas. Look carefully at the faculties and their interests when deciding where to apply.

Students should investigate the success of all M.A. programs in placing their students in top Ph.D. programs. A number of terminal M.A. programs now publish placement information on their website. Students should ask those that do not for comparable data.

Another important consideration when looking at terminal M.A. programs is that of whether they offer a waiver or partial waiver of tuition and fees and a stipend. While this can be expected in Ph.D. programs, this is not so for M.A. programs—many of which are intended to generate revenue for the institution. For some philosophy departments the M.A. program is their only way of staying afloat in the wake of the drastic drop in philosophy majors. Before considering attending a terminal M.A. program, students should ask what sort of tuition waiver and stipend they can expect if admitted. Georgia State has a model site providing this information (http://philosophy.gsu.edu/graduate/admissions/funding/), and students should request comparable data.

Many schools with a Ph.D. programs also have a terminal M.A. program. Students should be more wary of the M.A. programs at schools that grant the Ph.D. These programs are even less likely to offer a waiver of tuition and fees and a stipend. Furthermore, M.A. students often take a back seat to the Ph.D. students (in terms of faculty attention), and students with weak philosophy backgrounds may find the pace and level of seminars geared to Ph.D. students daunting. Students considering M.A. programs in top-ranked Ph.D.-granting institutions should investigate the situation of M.A. students at the school carefully before enrolling. However, some Ph.D. programs that are less highly ranked, but still have strong faculties, may in fact turn out to be very good choices for the M.A.

Many students also report to having had a good experience by applying for the B.Phil. or equivalent degrees at various English schools—Oxford, St. Andrews, LSE, UCL, Birkbeck are among the attractive choices—before applying to Ph.D. programs.

The Canadian graduate education system is structured somewhat differently than the U.S. Most Canadian PhD programs do offer a terminal M.A. program as well, and some Ph.D. programs (such as Calgary, Dalhouse, and Simon Fraser) have thriving terminal M.A. programs, whose graduates often go on to Ph.D. programs elsewhere (including in the U.S.). In addition, the University of Victoria has a reputable terminal M.A. program only (no Ph.D.).