Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Applying to MA Programs in Philosophy

by guest blogger Robert Schwartz, Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee


Although I will try to speak in generalities, my knowledge of MA programs is based primarily on my experience as chair of admissions at UWM. Thus some of my remarks may not generalize. For example, the criteria our admissions committee uses in evaluating applicants may not be the same as that of other schools.

Kinds of Programs

There are essentially three types of MA programs:

1. Those that are part of PhD programs

Comment- Unless they indicate otherwise, by and large these programs do not focus on placing students in PhD programs, including their own.

2. Those that are geared mainly toward awarding terminal degrees in philosophy

Comment- These schools are not appropriate for someone wishing to go on for a PhD in philosophy.

3. Those that focus on placing students in PhD programs

Comment- These schools are appropriate, and my remarks will be limited to such programs.

Who should apply to these MA programs?

The commitment and reasons for pursuing an MA degree are not necessarily the same as those for pursuing a PhD. With few exceptions those seeking PhD’s in philosophy wish to have academic careers. At UWM almost all of our students have such plans, but not all do. Some intend to apply to law school, some are unsure of their career plans and wish to determine whether philosophy and teaching are what they really want, some may not want to pursue a research career but hope to teach philosophy in high schools, etc.

I would advise anyone who is determined to pursue a career in academia to look at the applying to PhD programs post. This site provides a thoughtful and forthright assessment of the difficulties achieving this goal. I might add that although ES is right to stress the advantages of attending a “top ranked” or “prestigious” PhD program, I think the picture he paints of the alternatives may be overly bleak.

MA program as opposed to a PhD program

Students have various reasons/strategies for applying to MA programs.

1. They do not have sufficient background in philosophy to gain direct admission to a PhD program or to a PhD program that suits their needs.

Comment- Some, including very good, PhD programs will consider non-philosophy majors if they have strong undergraduate records and have background in areas related to philosophy, for example, math, linguistics or psychology. However, even if a PhD program is willing to consider such students, it is often difficult for them to evaluate the student’s philosophical abilities from their undergrad records, letters, etc.

In general, I think it most advisable for students who fall into this first category to consider seriously the MA route. MA programs will be much more willing to take a “gamble” on such students. Attending an MA program will mean that you will not be eliminated by PhD programs on the grounds that you do not have sufficient background in philosophy. Preparation in an MA program may also make it less likely you will feel in over your head or behind your fellow students. Indeed, you have a good chance of being better prepared than others admitted to the program.

2. As a safety school in case they do not get into a PhD program.

Comment- Given the vagaries and long odds of being accepted at one’s first choice(s), it is a good policy to apply to safety schools when applying to either MA or PhD programs. Students, though, should consider in advance if the safety schools are ones they would actually accept if they do not get into a program of their choice. Students should also take into account that admissions into a MA program may be more competitive than at many PhD programs -- more competitive not only in terms of number of applicants but in terms of the strength of records of the applicants. Students who fail to gain admissions into our MA program are often successful in being admitted to PhD programs.

3. To improve their chances of being accepted at better PhD programs.

Comment- This strategy makes sense in some cases, but is not to be relied on. First, MA programs do not get students into PhD programs. A student’s ability, work habits, performance in the program, GRE scores, etc. do. MA programs do help better prepare a student for PhD work and can help with the application process. Second, the top schools are so competitive that one’s chances of being admitted are slim no matter how good a student’s record is. Third, students who apply and are accepted into PhD programs should consider seriously whether it is wise to give up a bird in the hand for the possibility of doing better after attending an MA program.

Before making such a decision I advise students to ask themselves the following: Although the PhD program is not one of your preferred schools, does it look as if it will be able to fulfill your academic needs? Will you have regrets or keep second-guessing your decision to attend the less than “ideal” PhD program? Will you feel the other students in the program are not on your level and thus holding back your education and job prospects? Suppose you attend an MA program and in the end are not admitted to a PhD program better than the one you turned down, will you feel your MA studies were a waste of your time?

PhD programs' views of applicants with MA’s

Until MA programs were developed that focused specifically on preparing students for PhD programs students who took MA’s rather than applying to PhD programs after their undergraduate degree were often looked upon with some skepticism. Things have changed now, but not everywhere. Some PhD programs seem to continue with old assumptions. From my experience at UWM, for example, there are several schools that have not admitted our students no matter how good they are. We have had students who have gotten into many/all of the very top PhD programs and are turned down (not even put on a waiting list) by schools that are ranked lower or much lower. Also some PhD programs are skittish/reluctant to admit students who do not come from a prestigious undergraduate school. Completing a good MA program can reduce their concerns, but the “glow” factor that results from having an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university often does have an influence.

In sum, attending a good MA program will improve your philosophical skills, background and for many students their confidence. Not having PhD students, an MA program can provide much one-on-one attention. This enables the program to better tailor its courses and a student’s course of study to fit his or her individual needs. Moreover, MA programs have a lot of experience guiding students through the admissions process. At UWM the department as a whole, not merely a student’s advisor, plays a role helping students decide where to apply, balancing their application list in terms of admission probabilities, advising them on the choice of writing sample to submit and counseling them in their acceptance decisions. We also provide a good deal of personalized guidance walking a student through the application/admissions process and keeping an eye on problems that may develop along the way.

As the placement records of many MA programs show, students from MA programs are increasingly being admitted to top schools. In the case of UWM the talent and accomplishments of students we have sent to schools has often led these schools to look favorably on our graduates. I think a similar advantage would hold for students attending other MA programs.

MA Completion and Placement Records

Students should try to get information about the program’s completion record; these do vary from program to program. Student should also check the placement records of the MA program, especially how they have performed in recent years. Comparing this data is not always easy as the schools use different methods of counting and provide different information. Some do not break the data down by year; so the record will reflect many years of placement, not the performance in any particular year. Some may be selective in reporting or list not only the school's students attend but all acceptances. Hence if one student was admitted to numerous very good schools it can skew the data.

As mentioned earlier MA programs do not get students into PhD programs; they prepare them to apply. Thus placement records reflect the quality of the students enrolled in the program, and this can vary from year to year. UWM’s success in placing students at top programs is largely due to the strength of the students in the program. Many who apply to UWM do so in the hope that it will enable them to be admitted to a better program. They probably could and some in fact have been admitted to pretty good PhD programs. I have indicated above my thoughts on the pros and cons of gambling that they will be admitted to a better school.

MA Applications and Admissions

Much information is likely to be found on a program’s web site concerning the application process, requirements, the nature of the program and the faculty. Check this for suitability to your needs. At UWM our primary criterion for selecting students is our assessment of the student’s potential for work in philosophy. We do not require students be philosophy majors or have even taken philosophy courses. A good number of students who have been most successful in gaining admission to top PhD programs fall into this category.

Our admission decisions are most influenced by the writing sample and letters of recommendation. The student’s statement of purpose is important, too, in that it provides background information that can help us assess the student’s overall record, as well as determine if the student’s goals, interests and areas of study fit our program. We have no set standards for GRE scores and grades. They play a role only after our overall assessment of a student’s talents. GRE’s tend to play a much greater role in PhD admissions. We urge student who do not have very good GRE’s to retake them before applying to PhD programs. There are, however, quite good US, Canadian and UK schools that do not require GRE scores.

At UWM we do not give much weight per se to the undergraduate school the student has attended, but as in the case of PhD programs it does play some role in assessment. Attending a high-powered school usually means a student has a long standing record of high achievement and her or his general abilities have to some extent been “prescreened”. A school’s status can also affect how letters of recommendation and other materials are evaluated. For example, if a letter writer says the student is in the top 10% of recent graduates it can be harder to evaluate the significance of the fact when the letter comes from a school with little track record as opposed to a school that consistently produces strong philosophy majors. It is also likely members of the admissions committee will know more about the background and standards of the person writing the letter if the person is from a well-known program.


The better the writer knows you and your work and will take the time to spell it out, the more useful the letter. Since many of our applicants have little formal training in philosophy we recognize that not all the letters may come from philosophers. Informative letters from non-philosophers are reviewed like any others but there often are two problems evaluating them. 1. At times the letters are from a professor who had you in a course that is not readily related to philosophy. 2. The course work is on a more philosophical topic, but the instructor has little background in philosophy and evaluates your work in terms of that are not very informative about your philosophical talents.

Also if a student has, say, had only one philosophy course the letter or the student’s statement of purpose should spell out how this minimal background has led the student to undertake the study of philosophy at the graduate level.

Writing Sample

It is hard to evaluate a student’s philosophical potential if the paper submitted is only tangentially on a philosophical topic or examined from a non-philosophical perspective. Most of the papers submitted to our program were written originally for a course. Do not assume that the paper that received the best grade is the best to send. Grading varies from instructor to instructor and that paper may not best informatively reflect your potential. Speak to your instructor and your undergraduate advisor about the paper you intend to submit and what you may want to do to improve it.

Papers that although good are mainly repeats of course content or simply follow the readings give less indication of the student’s talents than one that shows independent research and an attempt to say something of your own. Similarly papers that largely lay out A’s and B’s position and declare a winner in the debate tend not to make the best case for the student’s philosophical research skills.

Admissions Decisions

Below are the Council of Graduate School guidelines for decision dates that most, but not all, MA and PhD programs go by:

Acceptance of an offer of financial support (such as a graduate scholarship, fellowship, traineeship, or assistantship) for the next academic year by a prospective or enrolled graduate student completes an agreement that both student and graduate school expect to honor. In that context, the conditions affecting such offers and their acceptance must be defined carefully and understood by all parties.

Students are under no obligation to respond to offers of financial support prior to April 15; earlier deadlines for acceptance of such offers violate the intent of this Resolution. In those instances in which a student accepts an offer before April 15, and subsequently desires to withdraw that acceptance, the student may submit in writing a resignation of the appointment at any time through April 15. However, an acceptance given or left in force after April 15 commits the student not to accept another offer without first obtaining a written release from the institution to which a commitment has been made. Similarly, an offer by an institution after April 15 is conditional on presentation by the student of the written release from any previously accepted offer. It is further agreed by the institutions and organizations subscribing to the above Resolution that a copy of this Resolution should accompany every scholarship, fellowship, traineeship, and assistantship offer.
Waiting to hear about admission decisions can be very stressful and not all MA and PhD programs do much to alleviate the pressure. To some extent though students frequently expect more or more definite information before a department really knows what to tell the student. Different MA and PhD programs operate on different time schedules. Once a department accepts and offers to support a student she or he has until April 15 to respond. Naturally the student does not want to make a decision until all the facts are in. So if the student is still in the running for a place at a school she or he would prefer they can and most frequently do delay until April 15.

It is also the case that schools have different policies concerning waiting lists. Usually no school gets acceptances from all those admitted. Some admit more than they want assuming that in the end they will have about as many acceptances as they aim for. Other universities only admit the number of students they are aiming for and put others who they think have a good chance of being accepted on a waiting list. Schools also adopt different policies as to the number of students they put on their waiting lists. This may be determined by their past experience as to how far they have usually gone down their list before filling the class. Some MA and PhD programs less certain of the likely percent of acceptances or not wanting to take chances put a very large number of applicants on their waiting list. And they may not let those on the list know their fate or even where they stand until they actually fill the class. In any case departments often do not know how far they will actually go down their waiting list until quite late, since many students do not make their decisions until April 15.


There are a number of student blogs that provide useful information about a school’s practices, acceptance policies and also attempt to keep track of who has been accepted, rejected or put on waiting lists. One must be careful depending on this information, as it is not always accurate.


Tim O'Keefe said...

Let me chime in here, as Georgia State's Director of Graduate Studies, that the advice here seems spot-on, and the description of UW-M's admissions practices lines up with the way we handle admissions to GSU's MA program.

One point I'd like to emphasize, which is mentioned in passing here: terminal MA programs are an excellent option for talented people coming from unknown (or lesser-prestige) schools. They might not exactly be people who do "not have sufficient background in philosophy to gain direct admission to a PhD program or to a PhD program that suits their needs," as many of these schools give excellent training for further work, but they still often face significant hurdles in getting into good PhD programs. After all, these programs can afford to be risk-averse.

Some of our best students (and most successful PhD placements) have been from this pool, and one of the satisfying things about being in a good terminal MA program (for me, at least) is being able to help ameliorate the impact undergraduate pedigree (or lack thereof) has on these folks.

Michael said...

This is very informative, and much clearer and better organized than a conversation that took place several years ago over at Leiter's blog:


The advice there overlaps with yours, with some variation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks Michael! I'd missed that one. The link appears truncated, and I can't seem to fix it -- but a search of MA Programs at Leiter's blog turns up the discussion, a few results down.

Nabeel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

Bob's advice is spot on! I direct graduate studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and I want to add to (and echo) some things that Bob and Tim have said. The students UMSL helps the most are either 1) 3.8-4.0 students who did not major in philosophy in college, or 2)3.8-4.0 students who majored in philosophy at a college not well-known, often a religious school. We do less well with students who majored in philosophy at a prestigious college, but never aced most of their classes. I suspect that the same is true at most of the other top MA programs.

Jay Carlson said...

Would there be any substantial difference between what would go into a personal statement for an M.A. program versus one for a Ph.D. program? I know Dr. Schwitzgebel has given some advice on personal statements aimed for Ph.D. programs, but I'm wondering if there are any nuances specific to an M.A. program personal statement. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Various posts have highlighted aspects of consideration for schools that are "prestigious"; I was wondering what exactly constitutes a prestigious school (top 35 on the U.S. News rankings, or perhaps some other metric?), versus a school that falls just short of this. Would a school like UCSD be considered lacking in terms of "prestige"?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Oct 28: There are degrees of prestige, of course: Harvard is more prestigious than UCSD. But in most academic contexts, UCSD would also be considered "prestigious". It is a major research university with world-class faculty.

I don't want to say "here is the prestige line" as though it were a simple yes-or-no thing, but any university with a good national reputation in something other than sports is, in a sense, prestigious.

Anonymous said...

This was a great post thanks, it was very well organized and informative.
Over the past couple of months I have been investigation into the more professional aspects
of philosophy and how to prepare if this is your goal. I realized that my mass research was kind of selfish, so I'm putting it on a blog. I thought some of your readers might find it interesting.

It's compiled and updated from philosophy blogs and resources all over the internet including This site, Leiter Reports, Philosophical Gourmet, Philosophy, et cetera, APA, and many others.


"Keeping Undergraduate, Graduate, and Post-Doc Philosophy Students
Prepared for the Job Market.
Particular focus is on the professional aspects of philosophy such as how to create a good C/V, Publishing, hiring/application practices and much more. Please feel free to, "follow this blog", comment on posts, or start a discussion."

Thanks again Eric for running this blog it has been of immense help to me.


- William Parkhurst

Anonymous said...

What is expected with the writing sample when applying to a MA program? Would it still be a 20-page paper on a work of philosophy similar to the expectations of PhD programs or would it be something less substantial in length and depth?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Bob writes:

We have no set length. Most range from 15 - 20. And by and large they seem to be similar in nature to what students submit to PhD programs. Indeed many of the students are and we are getting the same papers they are sending with their PhD applications. The paper is probably the thing given most weight in our deliberations. And the papers of those we accept are substantial.

lawrence said...

Can you tell us more about MA prospects for students who are uncertain whether they want to teach (I'm more interested in doing philosophy than teaching it) and are primarily looking to continue their studies at a higher, but similarly structured level? I didn't see too much information about these kinds of applicants. I have a fairly rigorous philosophy background, but there don't seem to be too many options for potential philosophers as opposed to potential philosophy professors.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

The entry requirements and program would be pretty similar. Most MA programs have plenty of students who are exploring or seeking goals other than professorship. Good luck!

Anonymous said...


I recently applied to an MA program here in London and my application was rejected. That in itself wasn't surprising, since I only sent the one application (at a fairly late date) and the uni I applied to was very prestigious (and therefore competitive). I was wondering whether anybody here had any advice on what to do from hereon. I still think I want to have a career in philosophy, but I'm not sure what I should do now to help me achieve that goal. Some further thoughts on my application "experience":

- I applied to an MA because my undergraduate degree was not in philosophy (it was comparative literature). And I applied in London because that's where I live; there were a few other unis I considered, but their application dates were very early on in the year and I missed them.

- I achieved an average-to-good grade, but most of my "career" was plagued with problems, due to ongoing mental health issues; that meant bad grades for work I didn't put much effort in, although I did manage to turn it around to a large extent in the last year. That means that while I have on the surface a "good" grade, my university record is spotty to say the least. Were I to apply again should I mention that in some form? Or should I just leave it to the "Medical" section of the form and my references to hint at the problem, as it were? Finally, should someone with mental health problems (depression and a diagnosis of Aspergers in my case) even try to get into an academic program?

- Now that I probably won't apply again until next September, is there anything I can do in the meantime to improve my chances for next time? I was thinking of learning logic and studying whatever open source philosophy stuff is out there (MITopensourceware is a good resource), but would that make any difference to my application? I want to keep up the habit of philosophy but it seems hard to do outside an academic setting. Moreover, I want to write a writing sample that isn't obviously "literary", as I was forced to do with my failed attempt.

- Should I apply to the same uni again, or just move on?

In any case, thanks for the already posted advice, I'm a big fan of your blog.

- Juan

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Juan: I wouldn't let issues like depression or Asperger's get in the way of plans to go to graduate school. Many successful academics also struggle with mental health issues.

Informal reading on the side is less likely to help an application than is more formal work. Can you go back and audit courses at your undergraduate institution? Can you work a bit more with a philosopher with whom you already have a relationship?

Anonymous said...

Eric: Thanks for the response. I think my chances of auditing courses are slim, given that I only formalised my plans for a philosophy career towards the end of my lit course, which means that I have no established relationships with anybody in the philosophy department of my old uni. As for philosophers, I did strike up a brief correspondence with a professor in Canada by e-mail, but that ended a while ago and he seemed too busy to maintain the conversation.

The problem as I see it in both cases is that whatever I can do can be done by any phil student working in those institutions. Why would you hire an inexperienced former lit student when you can get one of your grad students to do the same thing in a more efficient manner? I would love to do formal work, specially if I got a reference at the end of it, so I will try to conact the relevant people, but I think my chances of getting it are slim for the reasons I've just given.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Some professors welcome auditors in their upper-division courses. Attending such courses and doing excellent written work in them is one way to get a professor's attention and support.

Anonymous said...

Eric: Again, thank you for the response. I was a bit confused by what you meant by "auditing", I hadn't come across the term in this context before, but a little internet research has brought me up to speed. There's a (now closed) discussion of the matter here:


It seems like a lot to ask of a professor, given that it's effectively asking for a free ride in a class of fee paying students. I will ask, but I won't expect a response; moreover it seems a step too far to ask to have written work graded or looked at in some form, given the burden of unnecessary work (from the prof's/TA's point of view) that that implies. I mean, have you had experience with such an arrangement before? Has it in any way been productive i.e. enhanced someone's chances for grad school? In any case, thank you for your help, you've been very kind.

- Juan

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

If an undergrad class has open seats, I welcome serious-minded auditors. Policies do vary a lot between professors and depending on the situation.

Anonymous said...


What would you think about combined BA/MA in Philosophy? My university has a combined route for qualified student to pick up the Masters in Philosophy in one additional year instead of two by taking extra classes in undergrad. I am thinking this will be a stronger option for me to qualify for PhD programs, and also to get my feet wet so I can walk away if I decided not to go before applying.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You might find the additional coursework and thesis valuable, and they might add strength to your application if it means you have stronger letters and writing sample and a more impressive transcript. But pure quantity of courses isn't a big deal, after a certain point, and the master's per se won't give you much advantage over someone otherwise similar with a BA, nor is it likely to count for much after you start a PhD program.

At least that's my sense of things!

Sarah said...

Hello, I'm not sure if you are still monitoring this blog entry, but I have found it most helpful.

I graduated with a BA in Philosophy in 2003. Over the last 9 years I have completed two Masters programs (Library Science and Education and Human Development). I would now like to get a MA or PhD in Phil. with the goal of teaching at the community college level.

I have not kept in touch with my Phil. professors, is it common for students to seek letters of recommendations so long after graduation? I feel strange approaching them again. I was a slightly above average student, but perhaps not outstanding. I was shy and quite, so I usually got decent marks on papers, but lower marks on class discussion.

Is there any insight you can provide?

Many Thanks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sarah: It's fine to approach your old professors. You might bring along old corrected copies of your work to help spark their memory. Some might decline. I myself, when faced with such a situation, am generally willing to write letters for MA but not PhD (unless the student was really excellent and memorable).

Anonymous said...

Eric: Over these past few weeks I have been in contact with a variety of professors from different institutions. The good news is that I've had a positive response; over half of those whom I e-mailed responded with interest in the idea of letting me audit a course. The bad news is that general university policy concerning the issue is hostile to the idea of letting someone who is not registered with the institution audit a course. During a brief window of time it seemed that I would indeed go on to audit at a rather good university; but that's gone now that it's been made clear that it's not possible. Professors from other universities, while not opposed in principle to the idea, often expressed doubt on the "legality" of my request, while those who do know uni policy have told me it's not possible.
So it seems that on this side of the pond auditing it's not the polite thing to do; I have only been in contact with London unis*, but I wouldn't be surprised if the situation was largely the same in the rest of the UK. I'm back to square one, and I'm surprised that unregistered auditing is possible over in the US of A; the impression I've had here is that the matter is not up to individual professors.


*At least those with a half-decent philosophy department, which are not as many as you would think.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm sorry to hear that, Juan! Policies seem to vary widely in the USA. Maybe it's more uniformly negative in Britain.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for this posting! I am a recent graduate of a small "prestigious" liberal arts college (in the US) with a major in Biology and minor in economics (overall GPA 3.18). I took one philosophy course in my undergrad career and loved it but never thought of pursuing philosophy for a living until recently- getting some time to myself at home and the opportunity to write and pursue my interests has led me to consider doing philosophy at an academic level. Could you make any recommendations regarding my applying to a terminal MA program? Is a 3.2 GPA in Biology and Economics going to harm my chances, and if so, how can I strengthen my application in other areas (ie writing sample and a personal statement that puts my undergrad record into context)?

I'm also wondering if I should apply to MA programs (non-terminal) that are a part of larger PhD-granting philosophy programs, and if these would be harder or easier to get into?

Many thanks for your help!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Few PhD programs admit terminal master's students. With your record it will probably be difficult to get into a highly selective MA program, but it is possible to get into a PhD program from any decent MA program if you excel. More specific details about MA admissions I can't really address.

Anonymous said...

Like some others posting here I'm sure I won't have an easy time getting accepted to a graduate program. My situation is that I graduated from McGill (philosophy) with a 2.0 gpa. In short I had a really easy time getting good enough grades in high school to get into any Canadian arts program. I had high expectations but big classes etc. and no desire to go on to grad school at the time, and having everything paid for by my family (and so on) my grades were usually mediocre and often worse when I cared about classes in later years since I still didn't care about grades, would get caught up in papers and fail for not handing them in. In any case, things started to turn around toward the end and I got some good grades in high level philosophy classes. In the last couple of years, as a non-degree student, I've been taking my classes seriously and in each of my last four courses I have gotten an A+. I'm thinking of applying to a few masters programs like Concordia, Fordham, or Leuven. Would anyone even look at my application? I've made some good contacts with professors and written some pretty decent papers--so lets say, hypothetically at least, that I have excellent (but not superstar) letters and a writing sample on a similar level. My interests are in Ancient Greek and continental philosophy. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, you sound like a plausible applicant for a good MA program. You fit the profile of one type of student that MA programs target: "late bloomers" (as it were) who need to show to PhD programs that they can establish a longer track record of consistently excellent performance.

Unknown said...

Hi professor I had recently finished my Bs in biology but I am not interested in that field I find my self interested in mythology,sufism,budhism, and that stuff that i think that are related to philosophy so can i apply to masters in philosophy or i must consider taking a BA in it before

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

No BA necessary, but it might be hard to get admission without at least some evidence of good performance in philosophy courses.

Anonymous said...

I have two questions: First, to your knowledge, is there a significant difference between how one-year taught masters degrees in the UK and the usually two-year masters in North America are regarded by admissions committees in Philosophy departments in the
U.S.? I know you were careful to stipulate that it’s your track record that counts, not where you go, but you also mentioned some historical bias towards terminal MA programs in general and it seems like one year taught masters (as opposed to two-year
research-oriented UK mphil degrees) might be susceptible to this; Second, since I’m applying to non-philosophy programs as well, do you have any feeling for how a philosophy master’s would be regarded by admissions committees in other disciplines, in say, the social sciences?
I will be studying at a “prestige” school in a program that concentrates on the philosophy of the social sciences and so may have more overlap with the concerns of the other disciplines I’m interested in perhaps switching to. My hope is that these two factors might help offset my lack of background in an area more typically associated with IR and public policy, but am pretty anxious about how such a transition might work out.

Anonymous said...

Very glad to have found both your original post and the all of the
follow-up questions and answers which have been very informative. I'm an
American who attended a small low -prestige state college and
majored in philosophy and anthropology. I've considered career s teaching
philosophy and also thought about going in the direction of public policy
or international relations. Given the obscurity of my college and a good
but not standout GPA (3.65)I decided that doing a masters in Philosophy
would probably be helpful. I was very active in the
philosophy club, presented at numerous undergrad conferences, published in
an undergrad journal etc. and felt that I could probably get into a better
philosophy MA program than a PHD program in philosophy or an MA in another discipline outsided of my majors. I decided to apply to schools in the UK because the courses are generally only twelve months - half the time and consequently nearly half
the cost of doing masters in the US. At this point I’m still waffling between applying to PHD programs in philosophy and doing something more “practical” like a degree in public policy or international relations (I’ll probably apply to both philosophy and non-philosophy programs).
I have two questions: First, to your knowledge, is there a significant difference between how one-year taught masters degrees in the UK and the usually two-year masters in North America are regarded by admissions committees in Philosophy departments in the
U.S.? I know you were careful to stipulate that it’s your track record that counts, not where you go, but you also mentioned some historical bias towards terminal MA programs in general and it seems like one year taught masters (as opposed to two-year
research-oriented UK mphil degrees) might be susceptible to this; Second, since I’m applying to non-philosophy programs as well, do you have any feeling for how a philosophy master’s would be regarded by admissions committees in other disciplines, in say, the social sciences?
I will be studying at a “prestige” school in a program that concentrates on the philosophy of the social sciences and so may have more overlap with the concerns of the other disciplines I’m interested in perhaps switching to. My hope is that these two factors might help offset my lack of background in an area more typically associated with IR and public policy, but am pretty anxious about how such a transition might work out.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: I'm inclined to think the prestige of the school matters more than the exact program. As for admissions outside of philosophy, I'm reluctant to speculate!

Unknown said...

This has been very helpful.

You say that there are essentially 3 types of MA programs, one of which is appropriate as a path towards a PhD. I have been scouring the internet to seek out these programs with very little success. Offhand, are you able to name any more of these programs that would be a good gateway towards a future PhD.

Thank you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jonathan --

I am somewhat reluctant to list places, since my knowledge of MA programs in philosophy is very limited. (The post itself was written by a guest blogger who is no longer checking the comments feed.)

The top national programs you can find on Leiter. Excepting those, you might consult with your letter writers and also look at schools near you. You can land in the right category by the simple expedient of avoiding schools with PhD programs and by only applying if the school can provide a decent-looking PhD placement list.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have one quick question. At least one person in the comments section mentioned that most MA applicants are 3.8-4.0 students from less-prestigious schools. Through my last 110 credits I have a 3.97 GPA, however my record is marred somewhat by a much earlier (15 years earlier) lack of success in college. Do MA programs take into consideration cumulative GPA in every instance, or, like some PhD programs, do they consider the last 60 credits or so of an undergraduate career? Thanks in advance for any responses.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Dec 15 -- Most MA Programs would look mostly at the most recent couple years.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel, I believed I might have ran into your name on the SEP entry about implicit bias on pure accident (I swear I did not stalk you). I really admire what you are doing here- helping students overcome implicit bias in an academic area where people were suppose to learn to eliminate bias (I hope I could put this more eloquently but I don't have a PhD in Philosophy)
I'm math major at a religious school with a 3.8-4.0 gpa. I'm also getting a minor in Philosophy since my school requirements for philosophy major is to take a lot of religion classes, which I could not put myself through. I'm interested in Philosophy of Mathematics/ Mathematical Logic and I also have good relationship with both my philosophy and math professors. The problem is the main concentration of philosophy professors here main focus is Philosophy of religion. I have 2 questions: 1, Can I be admitted directly to a PhD program or should I do a terminal MA first? 2, Who should I ask for my recommendation letters, math professors or philosophy professors?
Thank you very much for your help Dr. Schwitzgebel

Anonymous said...

Let's imagine there is a Philosophy MA student with only year of MA grad work (where they produced a fantastic writing sample before the PhD application deadline). Would you consider that student as looking flighty for not completing the MA? OR would it not be held against them?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Not a problem at all! Many M.A. students apply in Dec-Jan of their second year.

Unknown said...

Hi Eric,

Like others have pointed out, thank you for taking the time to respond to these comments. It really is helpful.

I'm a student who graduated from a small low-prestige school with a 3.9 GPA in English lit. I do have a few philosophy courses completed with excellent marks, but not many. I'm sure I could get great letters of recommendation, but they would be from non-philosophers. I also have confidence in my ability to produce a good writing sample.. The issue is that my GPA from my first school, before I figured my life out and got serious about academics, is only a 2.7. And it is the bulk of my academic career.

I don't mind going to a less than prestigious masters program for philosophy as long as it has a track record of getting placement for students, but my question is, do I even have a shot at one of these "less than prestigious programs?

Thanks again,


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Tom, based on what you've said, it seems like it would be a stretch to get into one of the very top MA programs in philosophy (though I'd encourage you to try, if there's one you especially like, just in case). However, your profile is a good fit for many other MA programs, which often serve as springboards into PhD programs for people who either didn't take much philosophy or had rough patches early in undergrad, or both. If you have a strong sample, strong letters, and excellent grades near the end of your undergrad career, you will be a strong contender.

Eric Wiland said...

Tom, I think you'd have a shot at UMSL, where I teach. In your cover letter, emphasize the gap between your first college and your last college, and explain the difference. Admissions committees should be more interested in who you are now, rather than who you were at age 20. Much will depend upon how polished your writing sample is.