What is it like to be at a terminal MA program in philosophy?
In this piece I will briefly discuss what life has been like for me as student at a terminal MA. I will try to describe the experience as fairly as possible. I will try to describe my daily life, what I enjoy about it, and the things I don't appreciate. I'll simply be honest about what it's been like for me. I will also include some general commentary on where I see myself fitting into the profession as an MA student.
I am in my second and final year at a funded MA program in philosophy, a program that is well regarded in the profession, and where a few students every year go on to well regarded PhD programs. In the first year we do coursework, and in the second year we teach, churn out an MA thesis, and conclude our coursework. By the time I’ve completed my degree, I will have taught for three semesters as the sole instructor of my own course (making my own syllabus and exams, my own grading, my own lectures, etc.). I will have defended an original piece of philosophical argumentation (my thesis), and presented this same work at conferences. I will also have written several seminar papers on many of the central areas of philosophy (political, ethics, language, ancient, etc.) and I will also have a background in sentential and predicate logic. Some individuals in my MA program have published, though not, to my knowledge, in the most highly regarded journals in the discipline.
The profession has not yet adjusted to the existence of strong terminal MA programs, and as such, many of our graduates have to basically restart their academic careers when they arrive at the PhD, faced with the same requirements as the bright eyed first years straight out of their undergraduate years. I majored in philosophy in undergrad and did very well, but no doubt in part because my school is most well known for its football team, I was shut out of PhDs and came to an MA, a credential which will not be recognized by many of the PhD programs in the country when it comes to setting up my degree requirements. It seems to me very unfortunate that my two years here will not count toward the completion of my PhD, not as distribution requirements nor toward the total hour amount.
I am currently awaiting results from the PhD programs I applied to. Since this was my second time applying out, philosophy admissions has been quite an onerous expense. I promise myself that if I am ever in a position of influence in our profession, I will advocate on behalf of applicants and seek to reduce their exorbitant expenses. I have no doubt that I am a much stronger applicant than I was coming out of undergrad. My philosophical writing is much sharper, my awareness of the literature in my AOS is both broader and deeper, my letters can speak with much more authority to my strengths as a developing philosopher, and I have strong teaching reviews and a fledgling research program.
Despite my disgruntled disposition toward some elements of my situation, I very much have enjoyed my time in the MA, and in fact I think the profession would be in a better place if all PhD aspirants went through a terminal MA en route to the PhD. About 30-40% of our graduates go on to PhD programs in philosophy (and our very best students have secured as high as top 5 PhD spots), but the rest go on to PhDs in other fields, law school, community college teaching or other jobs. Students are able to get a sense for what it’s like to be a professional philosopher with no pressure whatsoever to stay longer than the two years expected to receive the MA. The conclusion of the program is a natural way for some folks to leave the profession in peace, rather than with the feelings of angst and failure that many students report as they decide whether or not to leave their PhD program. Students who do successfully complete a rigorous MA have shown, in my view, exactly the kinds of skills that PhD programs hope their incoming students will have. Consequently, strong, funded MA programs seem like a good way to level the playing field in terms of pedigree, and to allow students the opportunity to see if philosophy is really for them. I have a much clearer understanding of what it’s like to be a teacher of philosophy, of what average undergraduates are like and what is reasonable to expect of them. I also am much more aware of what it means to be a researcher in philosophy. Finally, my advisers have all been very frank about the stark realities of the job market.
I’ll take a moment to dispel two myths that make their way around the blogs about MA programs, 1) that students here didn’t major in philosophy or otherwise bungled their undergraduate years and 2) students in MA programs are wealthy. Neither is true. I won’t name institutions for the sake of anonymity, but pretty much everyone I know in my program majored in philosophy, and some even attended the most highly regarded schools (PGR top 5). An individual who had little background in philosophy, unless they were an absolutely brilliant student, would not be able to succeed here. Many students here were superstars at schools you’ve never heard of, or have only heard of their football team. Secondly, the average student here is certainly not wealthy. Most have as their only source of income the meager stipend we receive, which means almost everyone in the program is technically in poverty. Uninformed individuals who assume folks in terminal MAs are wealthy do us a great disservice in spreading such baseless speculation. For the record, I feel like my MA has done right by me at almost every opportunity, funneling money from grants to the graduate student stipends whenever possible, above what was promised (and given our esteemed and research active faculty, this has happened every semester I’ve been in the program).
On a typical day I attend class, teach, attend talks or participate in weekly pedagogical workshops. I live with several members of my cohort, and I have found a happy, healthy social life with them. I have my complaints, of course, but on the whole I think our department is very well managed, productive, friendly, and achieves a surprising unity of disciplines and personalities towards the ultimate goals of our department (teaching, placement and research, in some order). I would wholeheartedly recommend that promising undergraduates from less well known schools apply to our department.
I have also been humbled in my time here, which I think is a worthwhile value to have in professional philosophy. Coming through undergrad, I was always the philosophy superstar, as it were, winning the departmental awards and the attention of the faculty. Here, I am among my peers. The average student in our department is so intelligent, so hard-working, so nerdy for philosophy, so ambitious and so accomplished that it’s scary to think I will be competing with some of these folks for PhD spots and one day perhaps even for jobs. I know that I’m not the next Wittgenstein. And I’m fine with that.
I will be sad to leave my MA. I will miss my friends, and this city, and this department. I find my teaching responsibilities fulfilling but not overwhelming. I have a lot of freedom to teach what I want and write about what I want. I have sufficient autonomy, companionship and down time to have a happy life, maybe even enough to compensate for my meager wages. I am probably living in the good old days, and though I am so excited to see which (if any!) PhD programs are interested in me, I know that once I’m there I will miss my MA very much.
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