Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Done is good enough

Fellow Smoker, Seasick, writes in and asks:
I'm a prospective about to accept an admission. I'm doing this despite hearing, time and time again, not to go to graduate school for philosophy. I've never been dissuaded because in the back of my mind I've always assumed I could jump ship after two years or so with an MA. Now my question is whether this actually IS an option at most schools? I've begun to worry that schools might make it so difficult to actually do this that nobody does.
First, let me make clear that I don't think that there aren't good reasons to go to grad school; there are. That said, the admonition to not go to graduate school is really just an elliptical way of saying: 'If you aren't prepared, after 4/5 years when your funding runs up and you have half a dissertation written, or even if you are completely done with your dissertation, to live your life on uncertain terms from year to year or semester to semester looking for funding, having most, if not all of your applications denied, and having all this adversely affect your psychological and physical well-being as well as your relationships with others, then don't go to graduate school. If you are prepared for that and aren't prone to self-deceptive episodes in which you convince yourself you are the exception to the rule, because it's highly likely you aren't, and the job market won't shit on you, because it will, then, by all means go to graduate school.'

Okay, with that out of the way, here's my answer to Seasick's question: I think what you describe is a live option at most places that offer the M.A. on the way to getting the Ph.D.; after all, it isn't like we sign our grad contracts with the blood of our first born. Moreover, keep this in mind: if you do end up going to graduate school and M.A.s are handed out after two years before you have to do any real heavy lifting (e.g., comprehensive exams, writing chapters, etc.) and you are finding that you hate graduate school, then that's the time to quit. People have been known to do exactly just that and if you are in a welcoming environment, most everyone should be supportive of your decision. There's a very real part of me that envies those people who have done exactly what you suggest.

That said, and I probably don't have to say this because you seem like a smart fellow, just don't start broadcasting these plans or thoughts until you are sure you want to jump ship.

Best of luck.

--Jaded Dissertator


Anonymous said...

There's nothing at all wrong with doing this. In fact, far, far more people who are in grad school should leave with an MA after 2-3 years. If you jump into a program and notice that the placement record isn't so hot and you have no special reason to believe you're way above average for your department, then you probably should jump ship with the MA.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

You should think of the 'leave with an MA' option as a way to cut your losses and see what's out there, outside of academia.

At least at my CC, job prospects with just an MA are kind of slim.... unless you can bootstrap yourself into some adjunct teaching AND be uber-impressive in your letter.

Bottom line, don't think "I'll easily get a CC teaching job with my MA --'cuz there are plenty of Ph.D.s out there in front of you.

FemPhil said...

Before even dreaming about this prospect, Seasick should make sure he is certain about what his program requires for a dropping-out M.A. My institution, for example, doesn't award M.A.s until after coursework, comprehensive exams and prospectus--which, in most cases, means after 3.5-4 years. I assume that this is to quash any such hopes on the part of those who don't really want to do the work of completing the program.

Anonymous said...

Keep a few things in mind.

1) The job market is tough, but not all PhDs are equal. Even leaving out the graduates of top-10 schools who wind up at R1s, those figures of "four applicants for every job" are misleading. Jobs awarded are skewed toward graduates from the higher-"ranked" half of the roughly one-hundred-fifty institutions that grant philosophy PhDs in the US. The advice that you shouldn't even bother to go to grad school is a lot MORE pressing when you're planning to attend a department no one has heard of or cares about, and a lot LESS pressing when you're attending a solid, middle of the pack department with a good placement record (or, hopefully, better). Know your institution's placement record.

2) Not all candidates are created equal, either. As seen in threads about interview and smoker gaffes over at Philosophers Anonymous, some candidates do remarkably stupid, tone-deaf things in their interviews. A few of them might get hired, especially if they are from impressive schools, but many, many more of them will not. So practice some self-knowledge here - are you the kind of academic who insists on behaving as if the University system exists so that you can indulge your idiosyncratic interests? Or are you the sort who can treat this as a profession, where you will be expected to behave with professional decorum? If you are one of the former, honestly, your chances of getting a job are a lot lower, even with an impressive degree. If you're coming from a more proletarian institution, even one with a good placement record, you're chances aren't great. Even more reason not to go to grad school.

3) Not all jobs are created equal, but don't let that stop you. Apply for EVERYTHING you're even remotely qualified for. The stats about jobless PhDs don't tell us how many of them only applied for jobs they'd consider "ideal." If you really hate the private sector (like I did) and would prefer even a 5/5 CC job, well, your prospects just brightened considerably. Graduate school isn't nearly as chancy a thing when you're factoring in the kinds of CC jobs not even advertised in JFP, so if that doesn't bother you, you're in luck.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the advice dispensed thus far. Note, though, that the things that are really tough about graduate school often occur after the MA, especially in cases where the MA is available after a couple years of courses and maybe an exam. It's in years 5+ that it gets really bad: Fighting for funding, getting a committee together that will work with you and each other, completing a dissertation, going on the market and getting rejected/battered, adjuncting for a living, feeling the strain of the life on your relations with family and friends, etc. So, yeah, you can bail with an MA, but once things start to suck you'll have far more invested.

Here's some advice if you really aren't sure about philosophy: use the time in the MA to explore other fields that can secure you a job: public affairs, geography, nursing, law, urban planning, information science, education, econ--whatever. If you've got funding, typically you can take courses in other programs and even count them toward your MA.

My view is that many people who major in philosophy (especially at smaller colleges) have no idea of the interesting, intellectually demanding, and (more) marketable options there are. You can do cool research in a lot of different fields, and job opportunities are way better than in philosophy (both within and outside academia). I wish I'd understood that better on the way in--and I'm relatively fortunate in having gotten job interviews.

So: if you think you might bail, take courses that will help you out (or to figure out) what you'll do afterward.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:44 PM said,

"If you jump into a program and notice that the placement record isn't so hot and you have no special reason to believe you're way above average for your department, then you probably should jump ship with the MA."

If you're in that situation, you should probably just get out, but you might also have a special reason to think that you are way above average, in which case you should move to a program with a better placement record if you can.

I know my comment isn't really addressing Seasick's question, but I think it might be worth having a discussion -- maybe a thread under another post -- about this option.

Suppose you're at an OK program, and you suddenly realize that they've never placed anyone in a very desirable job, and you suspect you could be at a much better program with much better job prospects. You decide that you really don't want to go on the market out of the program you're in. You have two options: quit the profession or move to a program with a good placement record. Lots of people would rather move up than quit. I can think of a few people who have found themselves in this situation and have managed to move up, myself included -- I moved Leiterwise from just-barely-ranked to top 5. I was lucky enough to have a personal reason to move, so I didn't have to say to my supervisors, "Sorry, but I just don't think you can get me a job that I would like, so would you mind writing me some letters for my application to [top 5 program]?" I wonder if there are people who didn't have a personal excuse who have tried doing this who wouldn't mind sharing their experiences.

Anonymous said...

Two comments to make about what's been said above.

Anonymous 2:29 has it right, I think. Not all PhD's are created equal. If you have been accepted into a strong program (I won't try to quantify this, but I do mean strong program) then you are in a much better position than someone who is going to a mediocre or relatively weak institution. I think that the latter sort of institution may make life difficult given that the job market right now is not very good, and then you will have all the strong program people applying ahead of you for jobs. But if the program IS strong then it is likely worth trying out the program and seeing how you do/how you like it, and then making a decision about the MA after that point. There is no harm in getting further education in Philosophy, other things being equal, even if you don't ultimately pursue the PhD.

Secondly, I disagree with Anonymous 2:50 when s/he says "if you really aren't sure about philosophy: use the time in the MA to explore other fields that can secure you a job." I think this is a mistake if you at all think you might continue on with a PhD. You only have so much time in the program when you start and, if you might be continuing, you don't want to be "surveying the options" instead of doing your damn best in your philosophy classes. After all, you will need good recommendations from your Philosophy professors in those classes to get a job, and that will be harder to do if you're busy trying out all these other things. So I would be careful at the least about taking this approach.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to suggest that, while this advice is too late for the applicant who's already been admitted to a PhD program, others thinking along similar lines might do well to apply to a reputable terminal MA program. There are several reasons for this.

1) Terminal MA programs are typically designed to be completed in two years.

2) You can complete the program, get your MA, and decide you've scratched your itch for philosophy without having to extricate yourself from a PhD program and whatever complications that entails.

3) If you do well and decide you really like grad school in philosophy, then you should be a much stronger applicant for PhD programs than you were coming straight out of undergrad.

4) If you enter a PhD program with a terminal MA under your belt, you're likely to have greater clarity about your research interests and thus be in a better position to make good use of your time in your PhD program.

Anonymous said...


Graduate school isn't nearly as chancy a thing when you're factoring in the kinds of CC jobs not even advertised in JFP, so if that doesn't bother you, you're in luck.

Where do they advertise? Seriously. I've thought about cold-calling every CC in the country (here's a convenient list though I don't know how exhaustive it is), but if there's an easier way to find out about these jobs that'd be better.


Anonymous said...

Hi, original responder (12:44) here. I'd like to lodge a gentle disagreement with 8:19. Traditionally, the terminal MA is for someone who attended an obscure undergrad university without a good philosophy department, someone who does not have sufficient philosophy coursework and background, and so on. I can't think of a good reason for a great student from a good undergrad philosophy department to get a terminal MA. I know there are now additional reasons to complete a terminal MA (programs cutting down the number of funding years, etc.), but I just don't think a terminal MA is the solution to the current issue.

It seems to me that the current issue is job-market anxiety amongst people who really do want to go into the profession. And that person is going to maximize his/her chances of success *outside* of philosophy by having an MA from a better university (and surely no one is going to dispute the claim that an MA from even a lowly ranked PhD program will almost always look better to the Average Boss than one from even the best terminal MA-granting universities) and by being young. Getting a terminal MA just pushes the same problem 2-3 years down the road.

Anonymous said...

Even if you don't work in academia, an MA in philosophy will make your stock go up in the business or "real" world IFF you know how to market it. Focus on skills you've hone in grad school, such as writing, critical analysis, logic, research, etc.

The BAs and BSs I've worked with are next to useless. So even two years of intensive grad studies are valuable and puts you on a level above the rest.

Ideally, you could connect your MA to some related area of business, for instance policy, economics, research, strategy consulting, etc.. Again, it's about marketing your MA degree -- there's a link somewhere; you just have to find and articulate it.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

About 10-30% of folks in my program jump ship to a J.D. with their M.Phil (1 year) or M.A. (3 years) in hand. They'll make more money and stand above their law school peers. Sounds fine to me.

Anonymous said...

Of course, one other thing to keep in mind with a terminal MA program is that they can cost a pretty penny. It can be hard to get better than a 1/2 tuition scholarship.

Xenophon said...

Some schools grant a C.Phil. degree when people are ABD (I know UCLA does this, and I'm sure others do, though it's not very common). While that's not viewed as a consolation prize, it does reflect the work a person has done since the M.A., so it might make the decision easier to leave without the PhD.

As for Anon's 10:52's comment ("that person is going to maximize his/her chances of success *outside* of philosophy by having an MA from a better university"): if you're looking for a job in the "real" world among people who know nothing about philosophy rankings, do you really think a master's from Rutgers or Pitt is going to be viewed as a better credential than one from Tufts?

Anonymous said...

To those of you who (however slightly) regret not jumping ship; can you think of any non-obvious reasons/evidence/advice that suggested the whole PhD thing wasn't right for you that you should have heeded when leaving with an MA was still an option?

For instance, did you ignore how much you hated that you only ever had time for philosophy? Did you ignore how much more of a struggle it was for you to do well relative to your cohort? etc.

Anonymous said...

Related to 11:13's question, I wonder if people have thoughts on the following scenario:

A professor thinks it would be best for some particular graduate student in the early (pre-dissertation) stage to leave the program and go do something else with his life. To be blunt, she just cannot foresee that student writing a successful dissertation and getting a job. What are the professor's responsibilities in this case? To be blunt because it's in the student's interest to start a different career while he can? Or to lay off because it is not a professor's job to decide who should continue on in the program, it is simply her job to educate and support the student?

I should note, in case you start worrying that I am your advisor, that I have not had this experience (though I have two colleagues, one in philosophy, the other not, that have struggled with this question).

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:19 here, and with a response to Anon 12:44.

I think you've mischaracterized who can benefit from a terminal MA. You wrote, "Traditionally, the terminal MA is for someone who attended an obscure undergrad university without a good philosophy department, someone who does not have sufficient philosophy coursework and background, and so on." That's not quite right. It is correct that the type of student you've described is the kind who, traditionally, is most likely to benefit the most from a terminal MA. But the potential benefits of a term MA are not restricted to that class of student.

Even students lucky enough to major in philosophy at schools with good name recognition and good philosophy departments can benefit substantially from two years of graduate study in an MA program. It strikes me as obvious that, for any 1st year PhD student, she will be a stronger PhD student if she enters with an MA than if she enters without one.

In response to 9:21's worry about cost: it does seem to be the case that those who attend Tufts incur substantial expenses. However, there are some very good MA programs which provide full support for two years.

Lastly, I'll raise one potential concern which might be an issue for people leaving PhD programs with an MA but which wouldn't obviously affect those who did a term MA. If you entered a PhD program and then decided not to finish, some people may want to know why. 'Was it because you weren't good enough? Was it because you weren't committed to completing the program? Were you not sufficiently focused?' I'm not sure how important those questions are for the average prospective employer, but I can imagine them being important to some people.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me as obvious that, for any 1st year PhD student, she will be a stronger PhD student if she enters with an MA than if she enters without one.

Maybe, though it doesn't strike me as obvious. But is the difference enough to justify taking two additional years in graduate school? Keep in mind that (1) if you aren't able to get an academic job after you graduate, you will prefer to have spent 5-6 years in school, not 7-8 (yes, I know an MA might slightly increase a chance of a job at the end by making you a slightly better philosopher, but I suspect only slightly) and (2) women in particular (at least women who want to have biological children) have to take their childbearing years into account. If you don't get the Ph.D. until your early 30s, you're not going to be able to wait to have children until after tenure. (Not everyone starts a Ph.D. at 22 anyway, but this is the kind of consideration that some might want to think about.)

Anonymous said...

I take it that "...because you won't get a job" is the unstated premise of the advice not to go to philosophy graduate school. This'll sound out of place in a job-market blog, but if you don't care about getting a job in philosophy, then the penalties for going and bailing out early drop, and the advantages rise. If, for example, you want to go to grad school to learn something about philosophy or yourself, or hide out from the wider job market for a few years, or get paid (a little) to read your favorite books (a lot), that in itself might be worth a couple years of your time. If those are your reasons, you might very well try it for the first couple of fun years, and leave before the psychologically crippling stuff starts later.

The idea that you might go to school to learn, etc, and then get out when the fun stops may sound a little idealist and naive. It sorta sounds that way to me, as I struggle on this market. But then again, it seems like an appropriate (and reasonable and aware, and maybe responsible) way of navigating all this. It *would* be naive to assume you can struggle through school and then waltz into a philosophy job. If you aren't set on a job, though, you might waltz through school just fine!

Anonymous said...

I went to grad school in philosophy because philosophy is what I did for fun. I still end up talking about philosophy in bars etc, and that is what I did throughout undergraduate education. I also felt that I could not do anything else--law school was a possibility, but I thought I could always go there, even after grad school (and probably get into a better law school with a Ph.D).

I am older now, and as I look at my impoverished surroundings, I do wish sometimes I jumped ship to become a lawyer. But then again, I think, even in my non tenure trak position, I get paid to talk about what I love. What other job can boast that?

Anonymous said...

Comment pleading for a new post:

Sorry for posting this out of place, but I thought readers here would want to see it (if they haven't already).

One of the more recently posted jobs is a one year at Georgia College & State University. In the job ad, it says: "We seek a colleague engaged in effective teaching who is committed to the mission of a public liberal arts university. The teaching load will be 5 classes a semester."

5 classes a semester, plus expectations of good liberal arts education level/quality of work/teaching. That sounds crazy to me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah that's not possible. I went on a campus visit for a school with a similar advertisement. I was led to believe that the load was 3/3; it was in fact 4/4 I was also led to believe that the classes were small; they were in fact capped at 35 and all except 8ams filled. I don't understand how you can get a "liberal arts" education in a place like that. That's like teaching high school.

Tim O'Keefe said...

Regarding MA funding: most of the terminal MA programs mentioned on the Leiter report do offer a significant number of assistantships that come with a full tuition waiver.

Modal Pontiff said...

Sorry to come in a little late to this, but I find some of it a little disturbing. Shouldn't we be discouraging people who are considering or planning to "jump ship" with the MA from going to graduate school? 1) Your job prospects aren't really going to go up that much (unless maybe you are thinking about law school after that) having only an MA in philosophy. 2) Considering how competitive the PhD programs are right now (Cornell apparently had over 300 applicants for 4 slots i'm told). shouldn't we encourage only those that are willing to stick it out, and not just waiting out the economic crisis? If that's all people want, I suggest a different option for graduate school, like a divinity degree or a terminal master's program.