This section contains links to sites helpful to prospective graduate students in philosophy. But first a word about why we should have reservations about rankings of the overall quality of philosophy departments.
Why not use rankings?
Rankings of the quality of academic departments, those that claim to say which programs are the best overall, can be problematic. In addition to the difficulties faced by other disciplines in determining ordinal rankings of quality–for example, agreeing on variables and how much they should weigh–philosophy faces two related issues that make accurate and fair ranking of departments and graduate programs especially problematic. First, the notion of what counts as good philosophy, or philosophy at all, is highly contested. This is not unique to the 21st century–it was there at the start, for example, among the Greeks in the West. Second, the number of specializations in philosophy is very high, and many involve methods and content that differ significantly from those of others. How much does the specialist in philosophy of mathematics share with the expert in Medieval philosophy? Differences of this sort pervade the discipline. If we think about just these two factors, we can see that finding a common standard by which to rank departments would be extremely difficult. In addition, rankings by specialty area face the same problem: even within specializations, there can be very different ways of understanding the nature of philosophy. Finally, as do other disciplines, philosophy has fashions and ideologies that elevate certain areas of study over others in different periods. Scholars in those areas who produce overall rankings carry their tastes and their influence into the data, which are distorted as a result.
Without rankings, how can students figure out which programs they should pursue? Prospective graduate students should consider a range of factors in choosing a graduate program. Among them:
- Are there experts on the faculty in the areas that you may be interested in studying? (Faculty CVs and lists of publications etc., conferences and other events hosted by the department, area-specific awards.)
- Do members of the faculty regularly publish in the areas you wish to study? (Again, faculty CVs etc.)
- What is the job placement record of the program, including the nature of employment, the type of school, the location, number of years from PhD?
- What is the attrition rate of the program, that is, how many students actually finish? (This is a factor often neglected in assessment of programs. It’s great to get into a well-known program, but not so great if only 30% of the students complete it.)
- The teaching and mentoring quality of the faculty (awards, availability, faculty-student ratios, etc.).
- School location. (For example, the school may be part of a consortium–allowing students to increase their options in terms of courses and additional mentors–at nearby schools there will be talks and study groups independent from a student’s own program.)
- Financial support (tuition waivers, assistantships/fellowships, work study, financial aid, funding for language study).
- Does the program have a terminal masters degree? Are those students funded? How many, if any, MA students are admitted to the PhD program each year?
- The graduate curriculum or the courses actually taught in the department. Catalogs may list many courses not regularly taught. Look at semester schedules to see what has actually been taught in the last year or two.
- The program requirements for the degree (exams, papers, language requirements, courses, etc.)
- Average number of years to complete degree. (See link below.)
- Teaching and research opportunities for graduate students.
- The research interests of the graduate students currently in the program (titles of dissertations, articles, projects, groups).
- The experience of students in the program in general: is it a congenial place for everyone, including women and members of underrepresented groups in philosophy? Do people (faculty, students, staff) work well together?
- Look for an organization of graduate students in the department that you can contact to learn more about the program.
Most of these factors are uncontroversially relevant to judgments about philosophy programs. But they are generally invisible in overall or reputational rankings of programs. So where do prospective students find this information?
First, the bad news: much of this information is not readily available in one location on the web. Prospective students will need to speak with mentors about their interests and abilities, and spend time themselves doing research on the web.
Second, the good news. Members of the philosophy profession have recognized that there has been insufficient information available on line on graduate programs, and are beginning to remedy the situation. For example, some have collected job placement data for publication on the internet (see links below).
And more good news: department web sites have markedly improved over the last decade. You can now find all sorts of information on the better ones, including, for example, placement records, interests of the graduate students in the program (students often have their own pages now), conference programs, etc..
Available resources currently include:
- PhilPapers A searchable database for the publications of philosophers.