When choosing which PhD program to attend, is it more advantageous to choose a program based on the reputation of one's (presumed) advisor, or based on the reputation of the program itself? That is, when considering future employment prospects, is it more important that one's advisor/letter writer is a "star" scholar in their specialty, or is it more important that the overall rank of the program where one receives one's PhD is high? I am a recent MA who is interested in some PhD programs in philosophy that boast "star" scholars but not high overall rank.
I think this is a great query, one many prospective PhD students are likely to have--and I am curious to hear what readers think. My own initial reaction, to be frank, is to question a presupposition the questions seem to be based on: namely, that reputation (of a program or advisor) is the best way for prospective students to think about which PhD program to enter or what their "future employment prospects" are. Allow me to explain, and then give a more direct answer to AnonMA's query.
In order to properly approach the question of which PhD program to attend, I think one has to first specify what one's aims are, or far better yet, what one's aims are likely to be years down the road...after one has spent years in a PhD program (after all, it is your future self's life your decisions are going to be affecting). So, then, what is it one is going to want years down the road? For instance, will your primary aim be to finish and get a permanent academic job (i.e. any TT job)? Will your primary aim be to get an R1 job (rather than a job with a heavy teaching load)? Or, will you be happy just becoming the best possible philosopher?
For what it is worth, here is my own experience. Given that a PhD program can take anywhere from 5-10 years of your life, chances are the most important thing to you those many years later will be for your time in the program to not have been a horrible waste of many years of your life. As I explained not long ago on my mid-career reflections piece on life and luck, it took me about 8 years (spanning two different programs) to finish my PhD...and then another seven years to get a tenure-track job. It was an incredibly trying experience. There were many times I was so close to the end of my rope--without any clear hope of finishing my degree, and then without any clear hope of getting a TT job--that I wished I could go back in time and make a different decision. Finally, I know more than a few people who either didn't finish their program or who did but were never able to get what they wanted: a TT job.
So, then, what are you likely to want most after spending 5-10 years in a PhD program? In my experience, it's pretty clear: you're probably going to want a tenure-track academic job. That is likely to be your #1 priority. Then, subsumed under that priority, you may be likely to have preferences (i.e. a preference for an R1 job, or a teaching job, whatever). So, then, bearing all of this in mind, how should someone like AnonMA make their decision in the present? Answer: they should probably pick a program most likely to get them a tenure-track job (as that is what their future self is most likely to care about).
The question then is, which considerations are the most reliable predictor of their future job-prospects as such? Conventional wisdom in the discipline has long been that one should "choose the best program", where this is commonly understood in terms of programs with the best Leiter-ranking, which just is a reputational survey ranking for PhD programs. AnonMA's question then seems to be whether that's a better measure of their future employment prospects than the reputation of an individual advisor. However, the cold hard facts here are that neither of these things seem to be the best predictors of whether a particular choice of grad program will be best for one's future job-prospects. For, as I detailed here, the 2017 APDA job-placement report indicates that many lower-ranked and unranked programs have far better TT-job placement rates than the most high-ranking departments in the discipline.
I personally know people from both sorts of positions. I have friends who came out of top-ranked programs who never got jobs, and people who came out of unranked programs who got jobs and whose PhD programs place about 70% of their students in TT jobs. Guess which group of people appear, in my experience, more satisfied with their choices. Hint: it's the people who actually finished their programs and got jobs.
So, then, how should one choose a PhD program?
The first thing I would find out is the program's attrition rate--that is, how many of their students actually finish the degree. If I recall correctly, some programs have something like a 50% completion rate. I've known people who spent 8+ years in a PhD program but who never finished. They weren't too happy about that, to put it mildly (and indeed, when I was in danger of not finishing my program, I was terrified at what that might mean for my life).
After looking at attrition rates and avoiding programs (both highly-ranked and otherwise) with low completion rates, I would look at the program's overall permanent academic-job placement rate. I would then think carefully about my tolerance for risk, and how my future self might think about my tolerance for risk. If I thought my future self be most concerned with being the best possible philosopher, maybe I would choose a high-ranked program with a good placement record (like Berkeley, which the ADPA report indicates has a 59% placement rate). What I definitely wouldn't do is join a highly-ranked program--or a program with a super-famous advisor--that has an abysmal placement rate. Finally, if I thought the most important thing for my future happiness would be to just get a TT job, I would probably forget about reputation altogether and join a PhD program with the best overall placement rate (like Virginia, Cincinnati, Baylor, or Florida).
In other words, given the preferences one's future self is likely to have (though there may of course be outliers), my first suggestion to AnonMA is that they may be asking the wrong question. At least with respect to their stated goal (viz. what is advantageous "considering future employment prospects"), reputational matters--viz. program reputations and individual advisor reputations--are probably the last thing they should be thinking about, since again both of these things appear to be relatively poor predictors of job-market success. If you want to maximize your job-prospects, look at the hard-data: at attrition rates and TT placement rates...end of story. If you want to balance concern with job-prospects against "receiving the best philosophical training", then sure, take into account program and/or advisor reputation, but again bearing in mind the hard data (as again, some highly reputed programs and advisors have good attrition and job-placement rates, whereas other ones have abysmal ones).
Finally, a few thoughts on making decisions based on individual advisors. Some advisors are very well regarded in the profession have much more successful students than others. I know some famous advisors who churn out PhDs left and right, whose students almost all end up getting jobs. I know other famous advisors--often in the same program--whose PhD students tend to never finish the degree, and even if they do, rarely get jobs. This is another kind of hard data to try to collect and bear in mind. If AnonMA is thinking of joining a program on the basis of a particular advisor, they should try to find out a lot more information, such as how the person is to work with, how quickly their students make it through the program, whether they tend to make it through the program, and how they do on the market. Finally, one further complication (which I alluded to in my life and luck piece) is that I think there is a great deal of risk "banking on one person." That famous advisor you joined the program to work with? Yeah, they might get hired away by another program. What then? Or what if your philosophical interests unexpectedly change (as did mine - a person who started out my PhD studies doing metaphysics and epistemology but who ended up doing moral and political philosophy)? What then? Or what if you join the program for Person X and you just don't get along that well or they don't end up thinking you're great? What then?
I guess, then, I'd suggest that someone in AnonMA's position should probably rank relevant considerations as follows in making a decision:
- Highest priority: choosing a program with low attrition rate and high TT job-placement rate (regardless of ranking).
- 2nd priority: choosing a program likely to give them the best philosophical training, subsumed under priority #1.
- Lowest priority: choosing a program with a particular person to work with (subsumed under #1 & #2).
Again, this is just how I would suggest AnonMA think about these matters. It may not be the only or best way...but I've tried to justify why I think it's probably (if not universally) a good way. What do you all think?