Advice on Choosing a Graduate Program
So you can't trust the Philosophical Gourmet Report. How are you supposed to find out to which programs you should apply, then? How are you supposed to decide in which program you should actually enroll, once you get all those wonderful offers? The short answer, of course, is that you should talk to your advisors, surf the web, and ask a lot of questions. (A good place to start your search is Keith DeRose's list of PhD programs.) But before doing that, you need to have some sense of what questions need asking and what exactly it is that you're trying to find out.
To do good work in philosophy, one must:
- have good ideas;
- know a lot (that is, have mastered the relevant literature);
- be able to take one's good ideas, think about them in light of what one knows, and thereby develop them;
- be able to express the results of this process clearly and effectively.
Students often overlook (iii) and (iv). You can't teach (i). And (ii) is, in large part, a matter of reading a lot, and knowing how to read critically: That, of course, is something one will learn to do better in graduate school, and it can be taught, to some extent. But it seems to me that the most important thing one learns in graduate school, and what can most be taught, is how to do philosophy: How to develop one's ideas, and how to write. How to take that half-baked idea one got in the shower yesterday, the one you're not sure makes any real sense, but somehow seems interesting, and work on it, massage it, nourish it, and grow it, until it turns it into actual philosophy. This aspect of the work is what one might call the 'craft' of philosophy, the day-to-day practice of it, and it is teaching the craft that constitutes what we faculty call 'training' our students.
What one should be seeking is a graduate program that will give one the best possible education and training. And if that is the object, it should be obvious that the mere fact that program A has faculty that are more famous (or even do better work, in the sense of having more interesting and profound research programs) than the faculty in program B is, in itself, not a reason to prefer program A to program B. That fact, in itself, gives us no reason to believe program A does a better job of educating and training its students than program B, and that is what should matter to you.1
To excel at educating and training students, the faculty must excel as teachers of graduate students, not just as researchers. Intellectual brilliance does not always correlate with pedagogical ability, as anyone who's ever been to college can tell you. Moreover, success in teaching and training graduate students requires a commitment not just from individual faculty, but from the department as a whole. No amount of philosophical depth among the faculty guarantees that such a commitment will be in place. (I've heard it suggested that too much philosophical depth can lead to lack of interest in graduate education. I disagree, but I see the point.)
So, again: The problem is to choose a program that excels in the teaching and training of graduate students. The problem is not to find the most famous faculty, or even to find the 'best' faculty, as measured in terms of philosophical depth and power. To conceive the problem in those terms is to missunderstand what graduate education accomplishes and how it accomplishes it. It is not as if philosophical brilliance is some sort of infectious disease that you will catch from your advisor.2
There are a number of corollaries of this simple point.
- First, it is almost always a mistake to prefer program A to program B simply on the ground that some famous philosopher whose work one likes teaches at A. For one thing, Prof. Smartperson might get run over by a bus before you ever get there, or leave before you ever get around to writing a dissertation. You might be unable to stand the person. Or s'he might be a horrible teacher. And then where will you be? Fine, if the program is a good one, but very unfine if not. But more importantly, and a bit more seriously, the great bulk of your education will not be provided by Prof. Smartperson, even if s'he turns out to be your thesis advisor, and even if s'he turns out to be a good one. The nature of graduate education in philosophy is such that only a department can provide it.3
- Second, note that I said that the department provides your education, not that the faculty do. The faculty are not the only ones from whom you will be learning. Ask most anyone who's gone through graduate school, and they'll tell you they learned as much, if not more, from their fellow graduate students as they did from the faculty. One will spend more time talking to other grad students than to faculty. Often, one will end up getting more feedback on one's papers from the other grad students, as well, in both formal and informal settings. Moreover, the overall quality of the graduate student body has a direct effect on the courses that are offered and what discussion in those courses is like.4 One can obviously teach much higher-level courses if the students are really good than one can if they are less so, and what one gets out of the course will depend not just upon the quality of the lectures but also, and perhaps even more so, upon the quality of the discussion they inspire. That is especially true of seminars.
- Third, it is natural to expect a program's strength in a given area (say, epistemology) to be a function of the department's
strength in that area: That is, it is natural to think that how good a program will be at training students who want to work in a given area should correlate with the philosophical depth and power of the research programs being pursued by faculty at that department who are active in that area.5 That is a natural assumption, but however natural it may be, it is still false: Departmental strength in an area, in this sense, is neither necessary nor
sufficient for program strength in that area. It is not sufficient, because most of what one needs to learn, to be a good philosopher of any
kind, has nothing to do with the specific area in which one chooses to write a dissertation: Most of what one learns are general skills, such as those falling under (iii) and (iv) above. Unless a program does a good job of 'training' its students, of teaching them the craft of philosophy, it will not produce good students in any area. And you may well learn more about the craft from people who don't
work in your chosen area than from people who do. Judy Thomson and Tom Kuhn were especially important figures, in this respect, in my own education.
But, more importantly, a department simply doesn't need to have strong faculty in a given area, in this narrow sense, to be able to train students in that area. There is a very simple reason for that: Whether one is capable of being a good advisor of theses in a certain area has almost nothing to do with whether one has an active research project in that area. Of course, your advisor needs to know what's going on in your area to advise you effectively: If s'he doesn't 'know the literature' h'erself, s'he can hardly guide you through it, and h'er comments on your work may not be up to date, as it were. But h'er having that sort of knowledge and ability is an entirely different matter from h'er having an active research project in the area. Every established philosopher has substantial, and current, knowledge of many areas of philosophy other than those in which s'he actively works: In whatever area one works, there will be nearby areas that bear upon one's own research areas and about which one therefore has to have a good deal of knowledge.
So, in short: It is the quality of a graduate program, overall, as measured in terms of its ability to educate and train students, that is the important factor. But how can one tell how good a program is, in that sense? That, I am afraid, is a very difficult question indeed, but there are some things worth saying.
- First, the sine qua non
of a good graduate program is the faculty's commitment to graduate education. One good source of information on this score will, obviously, be current students in a given program. But it is worth remembering that, to get accurate information, one does not just want to ask, "How many hours a week do you spend with the faculty?" And one should also remember that each student is an individual: The best program has students who are unhappy, and the worst one has students who love it.
What one wants is some sense of how involved the faculty is with graduate students. Do the students feel well cared for? Do they feel as if they have to struggle for attention? Are they satisfied with the sorts of feedback they get on their papers? If they have a question, do they feel comfortable barging into someone's office to ask it? What is the atmosphere like in the seminars? Is the discussion free, open, and wide-ranging? or is it constricted, repressed, and a bit too respectful of the teacher? Do students feel as if they are taken seriously by the faculty? Do they think the faculty likes reading their work and likes talking to them about philosophy? Or do they feel like they are just in the way? a distraction from what the faculty would really prefer to be doing, namely, their own stuff?
One further note on this matter. It is worth making a point to talk to students other than those the department suggests, especially if you have already been accepted and so are being 'recruited'. Not unreasonably, departments have their own self-interest in mind, as well as yours, and so are likely to recommend you speak to students they know are not unhappy with the program. Older graduate students may have developed perspective that younger students do not have, so they can be an especially valuable resource. Also, recent graduates of a department can be an excellent resource; in the case of departments that publish extensive placement information, they can be easy to find, too.
- Second, perhaps the best guide to the quality of a graduate program is its placement record. Even if it had nothing to do with how well the program educates its students, placement would matter a
lot: After all, what one wants, ultimately, is a good job, so it makes sense to go somewhere with a good record of placing people in good jobs.6 But, obviously,
the sorts of jobs graduates of a program are getting is some
measure of how well they have been trained. Other factors, such as the reputation of a program, can affect placement: Departments have been known to hire students from program A, in part, at least, on the ground that program A trains its students well, and so this particular student probably is trained well, and so is worth hiring, even over this other student, who
seems better, but maybe hasn't been trained so well, and so won't be better in the long term. But still, even in this sort of case, the department is attempting
to hire the student who has received the best education and training, and the various judgements departments make, after considering the work of many different students from many different departments, is obviously worth taking seriously as a guide to how different programs are doing.
Most good programs now include placement information on their web sites. If they don't, or don't include very complete information, one might wonder how proud they are of their record.
It is worth emphasizing again that your best resource, as you seek a graduate program, should be your faculty advisors. You should ask them a lot of questions: You will find, in most cases, that they will be more than happy to answer them. And if the first people to whom you talk don't seem happy to answer them, go talk to someone else. Anyone who is now a professional philosopher was once a terrified but excited undergraduate, trying to make the same decision you are: Most of us had a mentor who guided us through this process, and we are quite happy to repay them by doing for you what they did for us. If you can't tell whether program A has a good placement record, just by reading it, print it out and ask your advisor. If you don't understand the quirks of program B, ask about that. And if your advisor doesn't know, ask him or her to put you in touch with one of their friends at some other school who might. Be persistent. It's your life.7
1. In all honesty, it probably also matters to you what your job prospects might be after you get your degree. We'll get to that in a bit. But let me say, right off, that if this is what matters to you, then you're probably more likely to get useful information about this by studying the placement records of various departments than you are by looking at the rankings in the Gourmet Report.
2. Note that it is entirely consistent with what is being argued here that a strong faculty should be a necessary precondition of a top-flight graduate program. It does not follow, however, that increases in faculty strength (as measured by the depth and interest of the faculty's research programs) imply increases in the quality of the graduate program. To infer the latter claims from the former, uncontroversial, one would be to commit an obvious fallacy. The Philosophical Gourmet Report is, in effect, predicated upon this very fallacy.
3. Certain highly specialized fields, as noted in the next note, may be exceptions, but I am much less sure that they are exceptions to this rule than that they are exceptions to the principle on which that note comments.
4. To only a slightly lesser extent, this is also true of the quality of the undergraduates. At some departments---including Harvard and Brown, for example, where I have taught---graduate students regularly take courses that are (also) intended for the undergraduate concentrators: survey courses on epistemology, philosophy of mind or language, early modern rationalism, Kant, and the like. The courses can be taught at a high-enough level to be appropriate for graduate students because the undergraduates are good enough. That just isn't so at all departments, and so graduate students at some other departments, including some top-notch such departments, have a much smaller range of courses from which to choose. I have often had graduate students from such departments comment to me about how much they wish they could take, e.g., a survey course on epistemology. But no-one is going to teach such a course as a graduate seminar.
5. There are exceptions to the claim about to be made. In certain highly specialized fields, sufficient expertise to guide a student through the literature, and to provide useful comments on papers or dissertation chapters, is rare. Examples would be the philosophy of physics and mathematical logic. Ancient philosophy may be another.
6. It is worth, perhaps, saying a word about what makes for a 'good job'. I assume that you want to go to graduate school because you want both to do philosophy and to teach it. So a good job is one that makes teaching rewarding while providing enough time for one to do one's own research. Having time to do philosophy means not teaching so many courses each semester that one hasn't the time (let alone the energy) to write. And it doesn't hurt to have help with grading and such (that is, to have teaching assistants), which one typically will at a department with a Ph.D. or M.A. program, though not at a department without one. (If classes are small, as they often are at the better liberal arts colleges, that won't be as much of an issue.) Teaching is rewarding when one enjoys it, intellectually, and finds it challenging. Ideally, the gap between teaching and research shrinks to nothing: The experience of teaching contributes to one's research, rather than competing with it. The ideal is rarely attained, but, if one's students are good, discussion in lectures, sections, seminars, and individual advising sessions will be philosophically illuminating in its own right.
A Disclosure of Sorts
My own thought about graduate education is, not surprisingly, shaped by my own experience in graduate school. I was a graduate student at MIT, beginning at a time (1987) when MIT was not, as it is now, widely regarded as a top-flight program. Not that there weren't notable graduates: There were many good ones, and some outstanding ones, though they tended to be widely spaced. More importantly, I have it on good authority that, in those years, MIT struggled to find good students. I and many of my classmates went to MIT because that was where we were accepted. We didn't have the luxury of choosing among MIT and Harvard and Princeton, and few people who got to make that choice back then ended up at MIT. Nor, I think, would MIT's faculty then have been considered top-notch. Not that there weren't wonderful people at MIT: There were, but many of the best, and many of those from whom I learned the most, weren't widely known and certainly weren't famous. I wonder whether it would have cracked the top 10 back, if there had been a Gourmet Report back in 1987.
And yet, beginning in about 1990, MIT started to have all kinds of placement success. It was that success that brought MIT's graduate program the enormous respect it now has, not, note, a string of blockbuster hires. Year after year, students graduated and went to jobs at respected research universities, from the absolutely top-notch to the slighly less so. And what was most amazing about these successes was that MIT wasn't simply starting with the best and brightest: On the contrary, we were a bunch of rejects, and proud of it!
Obviously, MIT was doing a good job of finding the overlooked but still good students. But surely that wasn't all they were doing right. So what was MIT doing right? Having been there, and thought about the question a lot, I think the answer is really quite simple: They were extremely dedicated to graduate education, and they were very good at it, many of the faculty being gifted teachers of graduate students. Let me take this opportunity to thank them all.