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Lee Walters

There are numerous risks of picking a grad programme based on one particular member of faculty, since they may switch departments, or die, or go on leave, or not be interested in your project, or you might not get on with them, etc.

Even if you think you can rule out all these factors in advance, don't you want to attend research seminars by faculty who work in other areas, and have great grad students to talk to?

Ideally you'd pick a school that had a great faculty/environment in genreal and with two or three people who you'd like to work with.

David Morrow

I'm not sure the trade-off is as simple as weighting the two things. Here's some fairly conservative advice, aimed at increasing your chances of getting a job in philosophy when you finish your PhD (as opposed to increasing your chances of loving grad school):

1. If the two schools are fairly close in ranking, go for the one that is stronger in the area(s) you think you'd like to work in and has people you'd like to work with.

2. For placement purposes, the importance of relative ranking seems to decrease as you move further down the rankings. That is, the difference between Michigan (Leiter #4 US) and Arizona (Leiter #14 US) strikes me as much greater than the difference between Northwestern (Leiter #31 US) and Carnegie-Mellon (Leiter #40 US).

3. Note that equal Leiter rankings do not necessarily entail equal placement success. For instance, CUNY is tied with Cornell, Arizona, and Berkeley in the rankings....

4. For placement purposes, the importance of having a well-known advisor increases as you more down the rankings. That is, having a well-known advisor is more important at, e.g., Rochester than at Cornell. (Some departments have Local Big Shots who are not well-known outside the department. These people are often impressive and charismatic, but it's worth checking their students' placement histories before signing up with them.)

5. Turning down a top school to go to a much lower-ranked school because you want to work with someone at the lower-ranked school is *very* risky. (The main exceptions to this are schools that are exceptionally strong in a specific subfield, as Florida State and Riverside are in philosophy of action.)

6. Going anywhere to work with one specific person is risky. The person could very well change schools or retire before you have a chance to work with him or her -- or you could very well change your interests. One advantage of a highly-ranked program is that it will probably have lots of good people in lots of areas.

7. Remember that "someone you want to study under" is not necessarily coextensive with "someone who would be good to work with, professionally speaking." In particular, if you are really into somebody's work, but he or she is not (yet) well known or well respected, you might have a harder time getting a job than if you worked with someone else. In that kind of case, it might be wiser to go somewhere else and try to establish an informal connection with the person whose work you admire.

What do other people think?


In my own case I feel that my attitude has changed over time. I'm currently attending a school that generally appears somewhere in the bottom ten of the top fifty Leiter-ranked schools. However, my advisor is well regarded in his field and we have an excellent working relationship. My first three or four years as a graduate student I felt as though things couldn't have worked out any better. Now that I'm well along on my dissertation and job searching looms large, I'm beginning to have doubts. I've seen how difficult it's been for other students in my program to find jobs. A large part of me thinks that, given the opportunity, I'd move to Princeton (last I checked they have the strongest placement record in the discipline) in a heartbeat even though no one on the faculty there is well suited to my current research interests. I could work on something else. It isn't as though my dissertation topic is my only philosophical interest. At this point the opportunity to stay in the field seems more pressing than the opportunity to work with someone whose interests align with my own. However, if you find me five years from now and I'm happily placed in a tenure track job, I'm sure I'll be back to thinking that studying with someone you're excited to work with is far more important than the overall ranking of the program.

Marcus Arvan

Jason: I'd like to second and add to some of the points made by David and Lee.

1. It is very risky going to a (much) lower ranked program for the faculty. First, if recent job-hiring threads are a good indication, the vast majority of TT jobs go to people from the most highly ranked programs. Second, great faculty from lower-ranked programs can get hired away by higher ranked programs. For example, I spent my first two years of grad school at Syracuse when John Hawthorne, Ted Sider, Dean Zimmerman, and Brian Weatherson were there. Halfway through my second year the first three were all hired away by Rutgers and Weatherson was hired away by Brown. This gutted the department. I transferred to Arizona and lost two years of graduate coursework, not to mentors that I got along with amazingly well. Finally, the other person I wanted to work with at Syracuse -- the famous epistemologist Bill Alston -- died just a few years after I left.

2. As David points out, it's not just important to admire someone's work. Some advisors are good mentors and people you will mesh with, others aren't. You can't know whether someone will be a good advisor for you to work with on the basis of their work. You need to find out a lot more about them, such as how they work with grad students, what their placement record is, etc.

3. I also think it is absolutely critical -- perhaps the most important thing of all besides program ranking -- what the *culture* in the department is like. You would be shocked, I think, at how incredibly different department cultures can be. Some cultures are friendly, supportive places that place a premium on mentoring grad students. Others are unfriendly, cutthroat places that essentially let their grad students sink or swim -- and some of which explicitly "rank" their grad students, which I'm sure many would tell you isn't very pleasant. And then the point is this: which environment would you flourish in? Some people thrive I'm cutthroat environments, others wilt. You really don't want to go to a culture for 5-9 years of your life that is fundamentally the opposite of your nature.

4. Finally, I don't think it's a good idea to choose a grad school on the assumption that your research interests will remain stable. I started out grad school interested in metaphysics, epistemology, and mind. When I transferred to Arizona I lost interest in these areas and switched to ethics and social-political. And I'm glad I did. For this reason, I think it is generally a good idea to choose a department with many strengths as opposed to just one or two. For what happens if you go to one of the latter departments and lose interest in those one or two subjects? You're out of luck!


Leiter took something like this question up. I think (a) it is impossible to give a general metric but that (b) in specific cases it is easier to weigh the overall rank/specific adviser (or program strength) issue. So I'd say don't think of it as a trade-off between overall rank and a great adviser, think of it as a trade-off between School X (with its placement, culture, etc.) and Adviser X (with her placement, personality, possibility of moving, etc.).

One caveat though: if you get into a top 5 program, you should prolly go no matter what. Or perhaps even a top 10 program, if the adviser in question is far down the rankings. Rankings do matter (in oh so many ways) such that there is some vague cutoff you must respect (Quick and dirty heuristic: if in the top 5, don't go anywhere outside the top 8 for an adviser; if in the top 10, don't go anywhere outside the top 25 for an adviser).


I doubt there are any decisive general rules. Each place is different, each person's options are different, and people just have to be good bayesians and weigh all the factors. What is important is reflecting on *all* the circumstances that *might* be relevant and mulling these over, not appealing to a general rule that abstracts away from one's real situation as if to make a principled, justifiable decision.

Here are a few questions

1. Do you want to publish or do coursework? Top institutions will leave you doing coursework. Lower Leiter institutions have you publishing before you graduate.

2. Do the faculty of interest have diverse past research interests, or have they found a comfy niche?

3. Do you have many local conferences and workshops? Can you take courses at nearby institutions? What are the nearby schools?

4. What are the other students' shared interests? Do they cluster into communities of shared interests?

5. Will you *need* to balance a budget carefully? What are the living conditions and expenses?

6. If you ask people about topics they probably do not care about, are they interested or skeptical? What is the graduate student intellectual culture and community?

7. How often do faculty co-author with past or present students? What is the focus on grad students by faculty members?

8. What are the coursework options and graduation timelines? What will your weekly schedule be like?

9. What is the TA, RA, and teaching work burden?

10. Does the department have proof of caring about equity and diversity?

11. Do the faculty and graduate students interact in social settings much? Will they be your friends, or acquaintances?

12. Who has done the past advising? What are the previous dissertation titles of previous graduates? What are the actual placement records, and who advised the successful students?

13. What are the faculty turnover rates in general? How does this affect the community?

14. Is the university a major research institution? Are there tons of grad students in the area, or just a few?

15. How diverse is the faculty work? Do you have the chance to be exposed to things you presently think are unimportant? (This is a *good* thing to have happen.)

16. What are the local community and politics like? Will you make many non-academic friends?

17. Will you see other grad students at your office every day? Is there one building or many? What's the department's physical structure?

18. What's changing about the department? Are they hiring every year? Is that state likely to increase or decrease their funding?

19. Do 5 faculty do 70% of advising? What is that spread?

20. What are the department's extracurricular academics like? Are they full of reading groups? Are there many faculty *only* ones?

21. Do departments host lots of social events? Do people invite the whole department to birthday parties and such?

22. Can you go to dinner with colloquium speakers? Even the most famous ones?

Please feel free to add more, even if redundant. Good luck to everyone!


I think some people need to check placement records again. The top 5 programs on the Leiter ranking are not the top 5 in terms of placement.

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