A reader writes,
I am a prospective applicant to PhD programs in the US from a non-English speaking country and a regular reader of the Philoshoper’s Cocoon. I was wondering whether you could open up a thread to discuss a topic that I have been thinking about in the past few weeks. I would like to know what you and other readers think about the pros and cons of studying at small and large departments.
My take on this issue is that small departments provide a closer interaction between staff and students and you get to know your colleagues better. On the other hand, you are most likely to work with less-known people, which might make things difficult when seeking for jobs. Also, opportunities might be scarcer since small departments usually have lower budgets.
I am drawing such conclusions based on my experience on my country’s academic environment, so it might not be true of academic philosophy in the US. Anyway, I think that at least some of you have thought about this before, and it would help me a lot to hear your take on that.
Any thoughts? Here are a few I had off the top of my head in favor of choosing a larger department over a smaller one:
- Your philosophical interests can change greatly (and unexpectedly) during graduate school, and studying in a large department with a large, diverse faculty may present one with more opportunities to change focus while still receiving a strong education. I speak here from experience. I entered graduate school firmly believing I wanted to focus on metaphysics and mind. Then, as time went on, I found myself gravitating toward moral and political philosophy--neither of which I ever expected to be interested in. Fortunately, because I was a member of a large department, I was able to change my focus and work with excellent faculty in my new areas of interest. Had I been a member of a small department (or a large but homogenous one), I might have been out of luck.
- Breadth of education is something worth thinking about--and I would say, something worth preferring--in graduate study in philosophy. Although there seem to be strong trends in favor of greater specialization both in the US and (especially) many places abroad, I tend to think breadth is an important thing to develop. I, at any rate, am really glad that I enjoyed such a broad education in philosophy (in metaphysics, language, mind, philosophy of science, ethics, and political philosophy)--and, all things being equal, a larger, more diverse department is likely to provide greater breadth of sound philosophical education.
Of course, these are just a few considerations. Perhaps there are just as many considerations in favor of studying in a smaller department. Or perhaps there is no fact of the matter, epistemically, about which is generally better. I'm curious to hear what everyone thinks!