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I'm with Marcus: don't do it. There are lots of funded MA programs, and they're excellent. Even if Tufts, say, were much better than SFU, GSU, or NIU (which, frankly, I don't think is true), it's not tens of thousands of dollars better, and the advantage conferred is not worth that much.

As far as I'm concerned, the only reason to consider paying for an MA is as an immigration shortcut to another country, and even then, you're better off funded. As a path to the PhD, take the funding every time.


I agree 100% with what Marcus said. Here's another thing to consider: academic jobs don't pay all that well! My first tenure-track job, in a not-astronomical-but-still-expensive coastal city, paid a starting salary of $56k. So even if you get into a good PhD program, finish your PhD, and get a tenure-track job, you may be scrambling when you have to start repaying your loans. I had friends with good tenure-track jobs--better-paying than mine--who were struggling with loan debt well into their 40s.

unjustified beliefs

I will give a different perspective. If you can get into an Masters programme at Oxford or Cambridge, then do it. Otherwise I would not. But, if you are asking this question, I doubt that you can get into such a programme.


Don't do it. I can't think of anything more foolish. I know some foreign students in my program who have racked up their debt in order to pay tuition and to eat. It's horrible. Why would you want that burden? Going into that much debt is no joke and there is no reasonable expectation you'll get a job to pay it all off. My sense with a lot of these people is that they think it is worth the debt to spend years of their life basically prolonging their adolescence. Not saying that is you, but I think it is true of a lot of these students. Go to a program that can give you funding. Or take a couple years off and save. You're still young.

Nick Byrd

I borrowed to start CU Boulder's M.A. program in philosophy (they do/did not fund all grad. students). While taking 12-15 graduate credits per semester, I worked multiple jobs (Home Depot and the Apple Store) to avoid having to borrow beyond the cost of tuition and fees.

By my first summer (end of first year), multiple faculty requested me as their RA and/or TA (via standard assistantships and work-study).

The debt was paid before I finished my Ph.D. at FSU (using my Ph.D. student stipend).

This was my only way of beginning grad. school in philosophy. Every other program rejected my application(s) on two different rounds of applications (not counting the two additional rounds of applications after starting the M.A. program). So planning to pay for a M.A. in philosophy may have been the only way for me to get the postdoc and tenure track offers I received this year.

Of course, this is just a data point. It does not constitute generalizable advice. Indeed, the rest of the data (e.g., from this post) suggest that one should not count on such a happy ending to a paid M.A. program experience.


I am not sure this also holds in the UK, as many of the Master's programmes are 1 year and would not mean a huge amount of debt. Oxford's BPhil is 2 years and quite amazing, but other 1 year degrees also provide excellent value (especially if one has Home/EU status): For example, St Andrews' MLitt, UCL's or King's MA, and so on.

Further, funding for these degrees is really rare. So while this might not mean you definitely should go in debt for some of those (I think the reasons above are good ones), one might be able to make the case more convincingly on this side of the pond.

Anonymous This Time

I'm also squarely on Team Don't Do It. Remaining anonymous here so I can speak a bit more freely, but cannot stress enough Marcus's repeated points that you *cannot* assume that you will be an exception to a series of 50/50 coin flips.

I went to a Leiter-ranked Ph.D. program and entered in a cohort of seven. We were told explicitly on the first day that only half of us would complete, not necessarily because of any failing on our part, but because that's just what the historical data was. One of us left after a semester. A second transferred to a different program on the same campus. A third transferred to a higher-ranked Ph.D. program after getting an M.A. A fourth left without completing after several years of dissertation work. Three of us completed our Ph.D.s.

Of the four of us who didn't completely drop out of a philosophy Ph.D., two of us are employed as what you might call career NTTs; we're not on the tenure track, though our employment is open-ended. One of us, the transfer, is on the tenure track, but this is after getting an M.A. at *two* different institutions and completing a Ph.D. at a third. This person was in grad school for a LONG TIME. The fourth has left academia and works as a consultant.

The thing I can't stress enough is that there is nothing special about my cohort, good or bad. We were all smart, dedicated, and individually had every indication that we could succeed in the various coin flips of graduate school. Some of us didn't for a variety of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with our personal decisions. I had a committee member leave, my advisor almost left, etc.

I am where I am though luck as much as I am through hard work, and I think this is Marcus's point. Taking out a loan to pay for an M.A. program strikes me as taking out a loan to pay for a very expensive lottery ticket. You'll almost certainly have to do everything else Marcus talks about viz. money anyway—I graduated with about $60k in loans despite having a funded position, teaching at the local SLAC, etc. so we could pay for my spouse's health insurance—and still have to win the lottery.

Don't take out a loan to buy a lottery ticket unless the odds are very much in your favor, and here, they're just not.

Derek Bowman

Two points to add to Marcus's excellent analysis:

1. Remember that Marcus's own story *is* the optimistic exception, in that he eventually landed a tenured position.

2. Even people who beat the odds and got tenure-track or even tenured positions are currently in fear of losing those jobs through department and school closings. Employment conditions in higher education was already terrible shape, especially in the U.S., and they're only going to get worse from here.


To echo John's comments, this really depends on the place, and I think that the considerations are quite different in the UK. They might lead to the same conclusion, but still worth recognising the differences. Some important differences to points raised in the OP and comments:

1) MAs here are almost all only 1 year. There is some funding for some places, but it is easier to get on the programme than to get funding. Most are unfunded through their MAs.

2) You don't stand a chance of getting into a good UK PhD programme without an MA (ok, some exceptions perhaps, but broadly true). Even if you were to get into the PhD programme without an MA, you are unlikely to get funding (again, the harder issue in the UK is getting funding for your PhD - getting onto the programme is relatively easy so long as you find someone at the university that is willing to supervise you - remember that to apply to UK PhD programmes, you need a clear plan of the final thesis already, and there is no coursework component - you are immediately ABD).

3) Timelines of PhDs are *much* shorter. Typically, PhDs take around 3-4 years, with many universities now being stricter around rules designed to stop students going into their 5th year. This means that the 5-6 year total spent in grad school (MA + PhD) is more plausible in the UK, if not the norm (for example, I spent 4 and a half years in total in grad school - am now permanent at a generally perceived to be leading university in the UK)

4) If you get funded in a UK PhD programme, the funding is normally quite good. I mean, you won't live the high-life, but it is generally liveable (especially if not in London or expensive cities like Oxford and Cambridge).

None of the above is meant to dispute the central point: that gambling on getting an academic job is a serious gamble, and likely to get riskier in coming years. If anything, the UK job market is worse than that of the US - we have less universities, and, purely anecdotally, I think there is more competition (why? because British PhDs tend to be less willing to move abroad, while jobs at UK universities are [at the moment still, thanks Brexit...] attractive to people from across the world - they are well paid, lower teaching loads than in the US, and you are tenured from day one of the job).

So, it still may not be worth it, and still be bad to go into debt for an MA. But it may be *less* bad if the MA is in the UK given the shorter length of the MA, and the (in effect) requirement on having an MA to even have a chance at getting funding for a PhD.

Lottery winner

I'll join Marcus and the rest in saying this is a bad idea - even though I basically did what Nick Byrd did (except I had to borrow so much money that I couldn't pay it back while a student). I was one of the lucky lottery winners (finished and got a tt job) but 20 years later I'm still paying off student loans from graduate school. I would've been better off working full time for a year and re-applying to graduate schools the next year, and only going if I got in somewhere with adequate funding.

Trevor Hedberg

I don't think it's wise, even under idealized conditions, to go into debt to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. It's just not a favorable wager.

Beyond the points already mentioned in the post and subsequent comments, the reader may also be assuming that getting an MA from an elite program will enable them to get into a top PhD program with a better placement record. But even that assumption does not always hold. For example, one of my grad school peers obtained an MA from NYU (the top-ranked program in the world) before starting the PhD program at the University of Tennessee (an unranked program). So he accumulated about $100,000 in debt to live in New York and spend two years in that program, but this did not translate into being competitive for admission at top-ranked programs. (He eventually quit the PhD program to pursue a law degree; I have no idea whether he is out of debt at this point or not.)

Marcus Arvan

UK-Based: Thanks so much for chiming in with a perspective from the UK. I have a few thoughts I'd like to share in reply.

I've known more than a few people in the US who have said they wanted to pursue a PhD in the UK because the time to degree is much shorter. However, I have some real concerns about this line of reasoning.

First, when I scroll the Phil Appointments page (https://philjobs.org/appointments ), it seems to me that *very* few jobs--let alone permanent jobs--go to UK PhDs. Second, as you note, most of the jobs that do seem to be jobs in the UK itself. This in turn generates at least three problems.

First, if it is correct, then choosing to get a PhD in the UK may dramatically narrow one's job-prospects in what is already an awful academic job-market.

Second, I take it that it may be even more difficult to get a full-time academic job in the UK as a foreigner--as it would not surprise me in an already-saturated job-market if there were some preference (if only a tacit or implicit one) for UK citizens.

Third, although grad program stipends may actually be quite good, *faculty* salaries in the UK generally do not seem to be very good at all. I recall routinely seeing UK jobs (Lecturer positions) advertised with salaries in the 25-30+K salary range, which is only about $30-40K+ in USD. This is far lower than full-time faculty salaries in the US.

Long story short, I think choosing to go into debt for grad studies in the UK as a foreigner is, if anything, even more dicey than doing so in the US. An anecdote: I very nearly considered entering a PhD program in the UK way back in 1999 (when I chose to enter Syracuse's PhD program, before transferring to Arizona two years later). Since then, I cannot recall the UK program I almost entered placing a *single* person in a full-time academic job on Phil Appointments. Not one. Did I dodge a bullet or what?


I agree 100% with Marcus (and the other's who agree 100% with him), but I fear this comment thread has shifted too much to a general discussion of why it's bad to pay for an MA, instead of the OP's question, which was if there's a comparative advantage to paying for an MA.

Marcus addresses this question, but I'll make a few points to highlight the issues.

1. I'd be shocked to find it's *only* the "older" profs who graduated 15+ yrs ago that recommend against paying for an MA or other "opportunities". I graduated in 2015, and I see zero advantage to paying for an MA --- In fact, I've *never* heard anyone tout any comparative advantage to paying for an MA.

2. As Marcus has mentioned a lot (if not here, in other places), the PhD programs that *actually* do the best placing are often the lower ranked schools, or even off the PGR. These programs have no illusions about placing grads at R1s, and their students seem to do well successfully prepping for the more plentiful teaching jobs. So, say you could have gotten into a school in the 30s on the PGR ranking without paying for a "better" MA, but with the paid MA you can make the top 15. While the job odds are better being top 15 than in the 30s, the data suggests the job odds are comparable by going *lower*, to a teaching-focused school. Thus, there's no comparative advantage (money-wise) to the fancy MA and top-ranked program, since you could have had the same job odds by going lower instead.

3. Although you're asking about comparative advantages, the general low odds of (especially financial) success in philosophy are still relevant. Let's say there *was* a comparative advantage to the paid MA. Say it's even huge: 50%, or something. If your odds of success were only 5% (the base rate), upping them to 7.5%, at the cost of 10's of thousands of dollars and possible financial ruin through your prime years, isn't worth the risk. Basically: Don't get so caught up in comparative advantage here that you ignore the base rate and commit some sort of base-rate fallacy.


Hi Marcus: you raise a lot of good points, and some are the reasons why I thought it at best a *less* bad idea, though still a bad idea. A couple of points to your comments

On your first point: I’m not sure how reliable philjobs’ announcement page is a general guide to jobs in the UK. Philjobs is very US focused in my view. Most I know (including myself) did not announce our jobs on there. I think there are a lot of jobs secured not posted about at all on philjobs, either in the announcement page, or in the main section listing jobs to apply to. I think this speaks to a degree against your first point. It certainly does not rule the worry out, but perhaps gives some reason to think the effect is not so dramatic.

On your second point: I’m not sure if there is that tacit or implicit preference for UK citizens. It would be illegal to reason in that way at all formally. Illegality of course does not mean that it does not happen, but I’d be wary about thinking that there is such a preference without some data suggesting it. UK philosophy departments are pretty international in the nationalities of their faculty, so would be interesting if someone has some clear data on this issue.

On your third point: That range is much lower than in my experience (and I’ve only relatively recently come off the market). Starting salary for permanent jobs is at least £34,000, most I know about are closer to £40,000. Even Teaching Fellow jobs are normally above £30,000. A full comparison would require cost of living assessments too – no health insurance payments to worry about here! – but I’m not expertise enough to give that. Either way, salary here is a bit higher generally (I think) than you have observed.

Related to your anecdote: one thing that UK universities are behind US ones on is having a devoted faculty role about placements, or even just keeping a list of placements. This is *slowly* changing. The place that I got my PhD, for example, had at the time no placement director (or anything approaching that). It does now, but has not (at time of writing) updated their placement list for about 4 years…

Still, I agree its dicey to get into debt for any MA, particularly if it involves moving countries (and potential hidden costs associated with that – e.g. appallingly, foreign students have to pay an NHS levy here in the UK).

Marcus Arvan

UK-Based: Thanks for following up - that's all very helpful! (As an aside, in some countries--such as Canada--my understanding is that the laws are exactly the opposite: that citizens or permanent residents are supposed to be given some priority. So, thanks for clearing up UK law for us!).

Chivers Butler

I concur with Mike's comments. I'd like to add that whether an MA from a top-ranked program will increase one's chances of getting into a top PhD program has almost nothing to do with the credential itself. Applying with an MA from (say) Tufts may get your file a look when it otherwise wouldn't make the first superficial cut, but it will not ultimately get you in. What gets you into a top PhD program is a stellar writing sample and good letters. And so, it is worth asking yourself, why do you not have that now? If it's because you simply didn't apply yourself as an undergrad, then a good MA program might help, but this will be because it will give you an opportunity to work up a good sample and impress people who can write you strong letters. If the reason you don't have these things now is that, despite your hard work and dedication, you didn't do well enough as an undergraduate, then pursuing an MA at a top program is far less likely to increase your chances at a top PhD program. You might get the MA, but what you ultimately need is an impressive file.


Incidentally, the US has the same sort of protectionist laws that Canada has. I had a job in the USA as a foreigner, and there is a lot of paperwork, etc. involved. The university needed to get a labor certificate, which stated that there was not a US citizen qualified for the job. People keep forgetting this. The American Dream is meant to be an +AMERICAN+ dream. Sometimes, though, some non-americans can have one.


Original Poster here. Many points to chime in on, and I'm grateful for everyone's replies. To start with, I think point 1) of UK-Based is worth considering. To do a PhD in the UK at a place like Oxford or Cambridge typically means to have done an MA at a similarly ranked university. As mentioned, those MA programs are easier to get admitted to than to get funding at, thus there are many people in them that are unfunded and we should suppose that at least a decent proportion of those unfunded students have taken out debt to finance the program (i.e. are not independently wealthy); also that, of those people who have taken out debt, many are international students and so are not taking on insignificant amounts of debt either. My motivation in writing this query was a concern that in giving the advice that has been almost unanimously given above, we are not considering a silent -- not-majority, but still decent proportion of -- academics who have taken this route and, though having taken on debt, are in relatively secure job positions (as far as security in the academic humanities can currently be defined) and in a much better position to pay down that debt, larger though it may be, than those who still took on some debt (since, as mentioned, there are significant incidental costs which factor in even in funded programs) but now can't find a job out of their mid or mid-high program.

Many people here are confirming that even going to a funded program often means taking on debt, and not insignificant debt either. This is exactly my point: is now not the worst possible time to make a move like this, due to how few job offers are being made and how high a proportion of those offers go to CHMYPS-type graduates, if one is not a CHMYPS-type graduate themselves? (Chicago-Harvard-MIT-Yale-Princeton-Stanford and their equivalents). If the risk of an academic venture is going to be taken on, and the facts of incidental costs and high-likelihood-of-dropping-out are equal facts for all prospective academics (i.e. at both mid-level and top-level funded PhDs, though I would think less so at the latter, which is perhaps another important point) then those facts seem unjustifiable to me in anything not CHMYPS-caliber, *even if* the road to CHMYPS leads to further debt.

To John: though the question for UK-citizens is less relevant, the question still encompasses the UK for those overseas students like myself who would be paying overseas tuition rates.

I find Nick Byrd's experience telling. Yes there is risk, which is the substance of what most on here are saying, but *if* one is willing to take on that risk, is that risk not better taken-on perhaps with more debt but with a better chance of paying off the debt to begin with, some amount of which will be there regardless? I can't help but feel that for someone who strongly desires a job in academia over industry, $90,000 in debt with the greater prospect of being able to pay it off working as an academic is a more palatable risk than $30-40,000 in debt to still *likely* drop out or *likely* not get an academic job anyway.

On another blog-type-forum, discussing the MAPSS program at Chicago, one poster writes: "There is a degree of truth in this critique -- insofar as it's [MAPSS is] clearly a moneymaker for the university that in some respect preys on the folks mentioned above. But in my own anecdotal experience with students, the two students who went there ended up doing exactly what they wanted to do (one in a top-ten PS [political science] program; another in comparably ranked department in another discipline). I warned them both before going that they could lose a lot of money and be no better off academically. I was wrong in both cases. Good for them."

I wonder how many of us are in similar positions to the poster above. Risk seems a lot easier to advise against from a position of security, and I think it is often the case that that position of security can be a blinding factor to things that make the risk palatable or worthwhile for those willing to take them on. One can equally say that the factors that make the risk palatable are what is truly blinding, but, still. If the major warning is that you a) might not finish and b) might not be good enough upon finishing to get into the top PhD program you were hoping for, I think these are omnipresent risks for any venture into academia.

I think John has the most compelling response so far, for one with his point that lower-ranked schools will very often have fantastic placement records into teaching schools, liberal arts colleges, and the like. That is a very good point, one I have observed myself which definitely gives me pause against my own reasoning above. But also his point that a base-rate fallacy might be driving this whole inquiry.

Erik Magnusson


Another thing to keep in mind is that if OP is not from UK/EU, they will be paying international student fees for their Master's program. For the fancy programs that OP is considering, these are exorbitant. For example, the Political Theory Research MSc at Oxford will run the OP £28,040 (or $36,341 USD), which does not even take into account the costs of relocating to or living in Oxford. By the time that OP finishes this program, it is not unreasonable to think they could be over $50,000 USD in debt. And this is before they even begin to apply for PhD programs, where they will face the grim odds that Marcus and others have detailed in their comments. In short, this could be a recipe for many years of financial hardship with little compensating benefit, and I sincerely hope that OP reconsiders.

Anonymous This Time


You wrote, "I wonder how many of us are in similar positions to the poster above. Risk seems a lot easier to advise against from a position of security, and I think it is often the case that that position of security can be a blinding factor to things that make the risk palatable or worthwhile for those willing to take them on."

It may be easier to advise against from a position of security. I'm even willing to grant it. But from my position of relative security, I can say this: I received the job offer for my current job in mid-July, three weeks before the school year started. Before that, it looked unlikely that I would have any job at all, let alone a job that I would have, on balance, loved. Everything else I described about my situation still held. From *that* position, I felt like I had made a colossal mistake and had essentially ruined my life (or at least several years of it) taking on debt, pursuing a degree, and having nothing to show for it career-wise.

In the world where I didn't get a job, I feel like, if anything, I would be advocating even more strongly that one shouldn't pursue the plan under consideration *because* the coin flips wouldn't have gone my way.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous This Time: In fact, I think the OP has it exactly the wrong way around. It's easier to advise against risk from a position of *insecurity*.

The times during my career when I felt most certain that grad school was a terrible risk I never should have taken were when (A) I was struggling to finish my PhD program and wondering whether I had wasted 8 years of my life, and (B) during my 7 years on the academic job-market (when I thought I had wasted 15 years of my life). I cannot begin to explain how hopeless I felt during these (very long) stretches of my life, precisely because of how insecure my situation was. If you had asked me during either of these times of insecurity whether I thought grad school was a good risk, I would have said, "Hell no - I wish above all that I could go back in time and kick some sense into my younger self to stay the heck away from grad school!"

It's only now that I have a tenured position that I feel at *all* like grad school was a good choice for me. I won the lottery, so of course *now* it looks like a good risk. But, for most of my career until I got a tenure track job and then tenure, I thought graduate school was the worst choice I ever made, and the worst risk I ever took.

For my part, I'm inclined to think it is the relative *security* of applicants prior to grad school that makes grad school look like a good risk. Hey, you're young, you have an entire life ahead of you. What's life without a little risk for the sake of pursuing your dreams? Yeah, that was me too. The problem is that it's only *after* you end up in a PhD program when you find yourself in a position of extreme insecurity (not finishing your program, not getting a job) that it begins to look like a bad risk. Imho

(I'll conclude here by adding parenthetically that I don't categorically advise people against taking the risk of grad school. I just think it is very, very important to make the decision with good information and without naivety).


OP - while it's great to be eager about philosophy, the question of whether to pay for an MA is a practical life question and the advice you've been given that it's a bad life choice is spot on.

You write "I can't help but feel that for someone who strongly desires a job in academia over industry, $90,000 in debt with the greater prospect of being able to pay it off working as an academic is a more palatable risk than $30-40,000 in debt to still *likely* drop out or *likely* not get an academic job anyway."

I think this demonstrates a rather severe misunderstanding of how well academia pays and how many years you would be paying that debt. The average assistant professor makes $70k / year (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/04/11/aaups-annual-report-faculty-compensation-takes-salary-compression-and-more).

After taxes, you're looking at $40k/year that needs to cover food, housing, clothing, saving for retirement, family expenses and obligations. Scrimping and saving, maybe you can afford to pay $20k/year down on that debt. Which means after 4.5 years you're out of debt.

But that's 4.5 years *on top of* the 3 years to get a TT-position, 7 years of your PhD and the 2 years of your MA. If you did this straight out of undergrad (so 22), you'd be 38 or 39 before you had a penny to your name. AND THAT'S IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.

Stating things roughly 50% failure rate at completing the PhD. 50% failure rate at even finding something in 3. Plus some failure rate on the plan of getting into a better PhD. So you're looking at a lost decade of time/work where you may not end up in academia at the end.

Now, it's all very possible that everyone is answering the wrong question. The actual question might be something other than life advice ...


PS I'm writing this as someone who paid for an MA (approx $20k of debt from that), was funded for a PhD (and didn't need to take on debt for that), has paid off all the debts to my name (at the age of 38), and has a permanent but non-TT job at a university now.

Other people I know who paid for MAs and completed their PhDs are adjuncting it up several years later or not in academia.


I think it’s also important to keep in mind that *receiving* loans has its limits. In the U.S., federal student and bank loans have their limits. For the most part, federal student loans in the U.S. are of a fixed amount. Once you’ve maxed out your federal loan, you may have to take additional loans from a bank. But even so, whether or not you’ll receive that bank loan depends on your credit as well.

In addition, even if they provide you some loans, it may not be enough to cover your tuition and/or living expenses. As a result, you may have to work full or part-time. However, if you’re an international student, your chances of being able to legally work in the U.S. will be difficult since you might not have a work visa. I don’t know much about the legality of this, but from what I’ve heard from international classmates, being able to legally work in the U.S. is very limited and difficult for them. Tuition is probably going to rise, and so if you don’t have enough money to pay for it, you won’t be able to finish as you’d expect or at all.

During this time in the U.S. with policy proposals aiming and functioning to limit the number of international students from entering the U.S., it will be very difficult to secure a place here. As well, there have been policy proposals that aim and function to limit H1B visas and so even if you secure a Ph.D., applying for a job here in the U.S. will be difficult because of the legal barriers that have been implemented and are currently being pursued. For international students, the U.S. is probably not a hotspot for academic jobs during this time hence should not be on the top of the list.


At the risk of redundancy, I'd like to sign on to the team of no, no don't do it please god no. Academia is already a risky prospect. Don't double down.

lottery winner

OP- since you don't yet seem all the convinced - let me suggest some empirical work. Get as much reliable info as you can about where folks who did non-funded MAs at prestigious MA places (NYU? Tufts? Cambridge? Oxford? etc.) went on to good PhD programs, and compare that to students who did funded MA programs (in addition to the usual suspects such as Georgia State, Northern Illinois, University of Houston, Simon Fraser University) - keep in mind that many programs that have PhD programs also have strong MA programs, esp. in Canada (e.g., Toronto, Calgary, UBC, etc.).

You also need to find out how students do at the respective PhD programs that they get into after their MAs (that's John's point).

Then you might face two choices if you only get into an MA program without funding: Go and pay or wait a year and apply again to somewhere that offers funding. My suspicion is that you're better off with the latter option.

anonymous admissions committee member

I don't understand the OP's question, which leads me to think things probably ARE different in political theory etc. (at least that's the charitable view). But straightforwardly I don't even see what the advantage of going to an unfunded US or UK MA program is over a funded one with comparable placement into PhD programs.

I'm just repeating stuff that's already been said here but: what matters the most is your writing sample, not where you got your MA. Some PhD programs in the US/Canada may be elitist about this, but not elitist enough to discriminate against (Good) funded MA programs. So go to a good funded MA program, or go directly to a decent PhD program and try to transfer out once you get an MA. If you're unsuccessful, you probably would have been unsuccessful after going to a funded MA program, too.

I agree with lottery winner, but also want to suggest something further (That again has basically already been mentioned but seems important): the placement of MA programs into PhD programs has to do surely with the way those MA programs prepare their students for PhD applications--but it must also have to do with the quality of the students who end up *enrolling* in those programs--most of which are only 1-2 years long. So even placement records are not going to accurately reflect someone's chances who gets in everywhere. If you get into all the best MA programs, and you think only unfunded MA programs are the best ones (which I think is wrong), you'll probably do okay in the "next tier" MA programs that are funded, because you're probably a pretty strong candidate to begin with, and 1-2 years is not all that much time to make you into a way stronger candidate--the program is starting with you where you are.

Also I not only think that it is a bad idea to go into debt to get an MA, it is one of the few places in which I think real paternalism towards undergrads and recent grads is acceptable. (I have refused to write letters of recommendations for students who want to apply to unfunded MA programs and who are not in some special circumstance, e.g., aren't independently wealthy, don't have military funding, etc.)


I'd be very careful with a UK MA program. Do some research. It's my understanding that UK programs are not competitive with US programs. An MA in the UK, may trap you in the UK for your PhD. The PhD programs here in general do not seem to offer the kind of professional training that US programs offer. It may be difficult for you to get the teaching experience needed to be competitive with US PhDs, and that applies when applying for jobs in the UK too. They often hire US PhDs here. However, if you look, UK PhDs are hardly ever hired in the US. On top of this, the job market in the UK is almost certainly worse than the US. So, I'd avoid the UK if at all possible. I guess the exception might be if you get into Oxford or maybe Cambridge, but these programs will be very expensive without funding.

TT from Unranked Program

Unless you only want a research focused job at a high-end R1, be careful about getting caught up in the prestige trap. IMO, if you are thinking about paying for "Leiter Points," then you're getting caught up in that trap. Go where you are wanted (where the school is willing to pay for you to be there), then be awesome there. If you care about teaching (which is about the only way the vast majority of us are going to make any impact anyways), then you'll start to see more possibilities in the profession. Full disclosure: I went to an unranked program in a wonderful city where my living expenses were covered by the stipend. The program has a decent placement record in its main specialties. I sure didn't save any money, but I finished my PhD with zero debt. I did get a TT job within a year, but had I not, it was nice to not have debt hanging around my neck.


To the OP:

"Yes there is risk, which is the substance of what most on here are saying, but *if* one is willing to take on that risk, is that risk not better taken-on perhaps with more debt but with a better chance of paying off the debt to begin with, some amount of which will be there regardless? I can't help but feel that for someone who strongly desires a job in academia over industry, $90,000 in debt with the greater prospect of being able to pay it off working as an academic is a more palatable risk than $30-40,000 in debt to still *likely* drop out or *likely* not get an academic job anyway."

1. I wouldn't go by how you "feel". Intuitions and gut reactions in cases involving probability, base-rates, cost-benefit analysis, etc, are *really* bad and usually misleading. So ...

2. You should actually crunch the numbers, compute the expected payoffs based on all the odds and costs, etc. I thought about doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation for you, but I'm too tired. You should do it.

3. As I already mentioned, given that job placement at low-ranked schools is actually good, the above cost-benefit analysis needs to consider the option of just going to some unranked PhD program.

4. I think you're stacking the deck by assuming you'll come away from a funded MA/PhD experience with 30-40k in debt. Sure, some people do that, but not everyone. I walked away from my funded PhD program (I didn't do an MA) with essentially zero in debt. Maybe that's rare, but I don't think you should assume some shocking high figure (10-20-30k) in your cost-benefit analysis.

5. You say you think my two points above about low-ranked schools and the base rate are good, but it doesn't sound like you're actually swayed by them. I'm not asking you to answer here, in public, but I'd ask yourself: why not? What, exactly, are the mitigating considerations which show that, despite these two points, it's still a good cost-benefit trade to pay for an MA?

UK permanent faculty

While I wish that what UK PhD says were false, in my experience it is true, though I think it may say as much, if not more, about the insularity of US academia as it does about UK institutions.


OP frankly seems already pretty convinced that they're going to do this, so I doubt much of what can be said here will deter them.

But, Jesus Christ, don't do this. The job market in the coming years, if it even *exists* in any real sense, is going to be atrocious. And anybody who thinks it's going to bounce back after covid is kidding themselves.

So even looking at all the data we have so far, which already paints this as a horrible idea, *undersells* how horrible an idea it is going forward. Academia is about to get decimated!

OP, please don't latch onto the Nick Byrds of the world. Good for him, really, but do *not* plan to be immensely exceptional.


Also, I think the figure is getting lost in the exchange, so I want to highlight that (to me) *any* talk at all of $90k in debt to get a philosophy PhD is crazy. It's hard for me to really say why that sounds so crazy, but it does. As people above pointed out, post-PhD academic jobs pay like $35-45k/yr (UK), $45-70k/yr (US). Unless factors outside the philosophy career *really* fall your way (e.g., you come into a lot of money some other way), you'll be paying that $90k off into your 40s. If a nontrivial chunk of that $90k is credit card debit, you'll be paying it off into your 50s. (And all this is for maybe a 5-10% shot that it will end in a permanent, FT academic job.)

Here's another factor to consider, as well. It's very likely you won't get a permanent full-time job your first (or second, or third) year out. You'll either be adjuncting (and hence making about the same as grad-student money), or in visiting positions (and hence paying thousands in moving expenses). Either way, you're likely to *add* to your debt your first few years post-PhD, until you finally win the lottery and get that TT (or at least permanent FT) job. So that $90k could easily turn into $100k.


At the risk of being redundant, I feel like I didn't emphasize this enough: we're in uncharted waters since covid. The data that is being discussed in this thread is unlikely to have *any* predictive power for PhDs graduating *now*, never mind in 6+ years. And there's good reason to think things are going to get much, much worse for academic philosophy in the meantime.

Don't double down at the craps table while the casino boat you're on might be sinking.

Prof L

I also think it's not a good gamble, from a purely economic perspective. That's an empirical claim, and I don't have any data to back that up, it just *seems* very unlikely that one will increase one's earning potential substantially in this way.

That's somewhat separate from whether one should do it, which perhaps is what is going on here. I got into Cambridge for an MPhil and yeah, I really wanted to go. Chicago, too, I would have *loved* to go there for an MA. These are fabulous programs with interesting professors and (at least at Chicago, I know less about Cambridge) a really intellectually robust community, lots going on, etc. I have no doubt that the education received at Chicago is better than that from a typical funded MA, at least for someone with my interests. But I certainly could never have afforded to go there unfunded. Things worked out great for me, and I have no regrets. Would I have regrets if I did it? Hard to say, but probably not.

(A side note—sometimes people talk about "prestige" as if it's some fabricated thing, like branding. And maybe that's true in some cases. But prestige can often track value—and not just economic value. Yeah, don't go somewhere just because it has a good reputation. But some places have a good reputations for very good reasons).

Don't do it

When I read OP's reply, I got the strong impression that they had made up their mind and were looking for confirmation/assurance. I might be wrong, but it struck me strongly and immediately.

My advice: don't do it (US market, at least).

Marcus Arvan

To go back to the OP’s comment above, they write, “ My motivation in writing this query was a concern that in giving the advice that has been almost unanimously given above, we are not considering a silent -- not-majority, but still decent proportion of -- academics who have taken this route and, though having taken on debt, are in relatively secure job positions...”

They then note that they find Nick Byrd’s experience telling. But look, Nick is exactly one case. We have not had a single additional person who did what the OP is proposing who has weighed in saying they found themselves with a relatively secure position. Although if could be that these people are just remaining silent or don’t frequent this blog, this blog has a very strong readership. The simpler (any by my mind far more plausible) explanation of the absence of other people giving Nick Byrd-like stories is that they don’t exist or are in such a small minority that they falsify the OP’s suggestion that there is a “significant proportion” of people like this.

In other words, I think that Nick’s story is telling, but probably not in the way the OP suggested. Nick's being the only one to share a positive story like his suggests that people like him are probably exceedingly rare outliers (something which, as an aside, strongly coheres with my sense of Nick’s talent). If the OP wants to bet that they will be an outlier like Nick, then that’s their choice. I just think that if this is what’s going on, they need to be clear that that’s what they’re betting, and then ask themselves whether that is a rational thing to assume.

Of course, it's always possible that a bunch of Nicks will chime in at this point, at which point it might be rational to update our credences. I'm just pushing on this because (as many of us know from our own cases) the drive to rationalize decisions can be very strong.


I basically agree with the naysayers and want to add an additional point. As many contributors have emphasized, the odds to make a career within philosophy are generally low and not really improved by going to an unfunded MA program. An additional issue is that most MA programs do not prepare you for any other career. This does not matter so much, if you are born into the right social circles: in some social contexts it is simply expected that you earn a degree and you will get an appropriate job. If you want to use philosophy for social climbing, academia is, however, your only shot. This might be different in politics programs where people are more likely prepared to pursue a range of careers, not least by the kind of networking that takes place (similar to MBA programs which are only designed for networking). My point is simple: since a MA (and even more a PhD) in philosophy does not prepare you for an alternative career, it is not a good idea to go into debt for it. You might have debts afterwards, but nothing else. I say this as someone who has a working class background and has been very lucking getting a TT job in America. I graduated, however, in a country without tuition fees, my PhD was funded, and I had mostly generous postdoc positions. I nevertheless nearly dropped out and got my TT position after I had already laid eyes on a second PhD. I would have had a second chance, since I did not have any debts...


The struggle with giving and receiving advice in this realm is that we’re missing many crucial variables of OP e.g. economic status, social/familial obligations, social desires (e.g. marriage, children), health conditions, intellectual ability/capacity, etc. As well as the unexpected events that may arise.

Thus, it’s difficult (maybe impossible) to calculate the (actual) odds of success for OP without these variables in the first place. Most of us are starting with the assumption that OP is of average or low degree in terms of those variables because (as most people here know) succeeding in graduate school and securing an academic job is extremely difficult nowadays. It’s only natural that these people are starting off with low expectations of OP’s character, ability, and situation.

What we mostly have is OP’s *aim* and perhaps some of their motivations. Unfortunately, as I’ve written about in another post, just because we aim at something, does not necessarily mean we’ll reach it. And even if the motivation is there, that motivation can greatly be diminished by the harsh and toxic environment of many graduate schools.

It’s easy to conceive of the possible success in this realm, but it’s not easy or always possible to achieve it as many wise people know and accept. If OP is very wealthy, healthy, intellectually sharp, creative, highly motivated, and has no social strings attached, then perhaps they can be the exception. Who knows. Whatever the case, just be prepared for the difficult circumstances that may and usually arise when pursuing that path.


But Marcus, it wouldn't matter if even a dozen Nicks showed up now. The question would be: How many non-Nicks (people who paid for MAs and didn't end up in a stable academic job) are there? --- and, importantly, how does the ratio of Nicks/(non-Nicks + Nicks) compare the ratio of successful-funded-MAs/total-funded-MAs?

The OP is arguing that the extra cash spent on a prestigious paid MA pays off by improving your odds of getting a permanent, FT (TT?) job. We need to know the denominators to know if that's true.


okay, above I harped on actually crunching the numbers. I'll mess with some.

The OP suggested the paid MA/PhD route is 90k in debt, vs 30-40k in debt for the funded MA/PhD route. Call the difference 50k. I'd guess the added extra paid interest over the life of the loan is at least 15k (if doing this for real, I'd crunch the numbers with a loan calculator). So, on standard assumptions, it's only rational to spend this extra 50k+15k=65k if it leads to an expected payoff of at least 65k more. Since the salary range for the end jobs is the same either way (call it 55k/yr, right in the middle of 40-70k range), the difference in expected payoff is all in the difference in odds getting the job (expected payoff is the end salary times the odds). Let's just take 10 yrs of salary as the payoff, so 550k. Call the odds of getting that permanent, FT job on the funded MA/PhD route 25% (two coin flips, one for finishing the PhD, one for getting the job), so expected payoff is 137.5k. So, expected payoff of the paid MA/PhD route needs to be (about) 200k, meaning the odds of getting a job need to be 36.8% on the paid MA/PhD route for the extra cost to make sense.

I'm sure the numbers I've thrown around here are off in a few ways --- it's just a back-of-the-envelope calculation done off the top of my head --- but I've just taken the numbers people here (including the OP) have been throwing around. Note that the numbers, as used here, are super favorable for the paid MA/PhD route; e.g., I'd guess the debt difference is greater, and the odds of getting the job are lower (more coin flips), both of which increase the difference in odds needed to make the paid MA/PhD route have a higher expected payoff. (It does help the case for the paid MA/PhD if we take more than 10 yrs salary as the payoff, but there's good reason not to do that --- e.g., there's no guarantee you'll last in philosophy for 10 yrs, that your department won't close, that you'll get tenure, etc.)

The point is that, even by the OPs own numbers, the paid MA/PhD is only (financially) rational if it improves the odds of getting a job by like 50%. It seems unlikely to me that that's the case (especially considering how placement rates at unranked programs are often really good) --- and a dozen more Nicks showing up here to tell their story won't show us anything about the odds.

please reconsider

I'd seriously reconsider doing a PhD in philosophy in the first place and so any MA probably, or if you love philosophy maybe you can justify a terminal, FUNDED MA, as long as you have a plan for what to do afterwards (maybe law or finance?). The philosophy job market was horrible before COVID, and now it's probably just non-existent. They'll be some recovery down the road, but it's unlikely, I think, to get back to where it was. University tuition has gotten so insanely high that students are questioning the value of university degrees, especially degrees that don't have an obvious connection with a well paying career. With the economy in a depression and probably many years for it to recover, students will more than ever be questioning these degrees. Over the last few years, philosophy departments have already been shutting down. I suspect this trend to continue and, I would think, to accelerate. So, going into philosophy today is highly highly risky.

Let's say you do make it and in 10 years you have a TT job with a middle class salary. Will you like the job? How many mental scars will you have from the job market? Will the job be secure? Obviously many people enjoy their academic jobs after they finally get them but not everyone does. Teaching can be a chore depending on the quality of your students. Does the university you work at admit students who are not prepared for university level courses? Can they write? Can they think? I've enjoyed teaching at times, but at other times I've found it incredibly draining. I've had classes where basically everyone seemed angry they had to be there. I've had to grade dozens of essays that were nearly unreadable. You may feel that more students should fail but know the university doesn't want that. You may feel a need to grade on the curve and pass essays that are atrocious. I've known more than a few university faculty who have become disillusioned with teaching.

Do you think you like philosophy because you enjoy talking about it with your intellectual friends and reading about it in your spare time? Well, so did I. I'll tell you that there is nothing that can do a better job of destroying your love for philosophy than to try to be a professional philosopher. What used to be fun conversation with friends becomes a fight to the death with strangers--this is called the "peer review process." You will spend months writing and perfecting a piece of work, send it off to a journal, and then 6-12 months later receive a rejection letter where the referee didn't bother to read the second half of the paper. I was a good publisher when I was in this rat race and could pump out 2-3 papers a year at decent journals. However, I hated it. The only rewarding experience was posting my accepted paper on Facebook for my friends to like and say 'good job.' What's worse is that after doing all this work to pump out papers they will most likely go down the memory hole. Maybe you'll get a citation or two on some papers but others will never be cited. Yea, sometimes a paper blows up in the literature and gets tons of citations. This is more likely to happen if you work in a popular area, but for many their work is engaged with only sparsely if at all.

Finally what is the mental and physical cost of pursuing philosophy? Unless you're incredibly lucky you may find yourself in an increasingly precarious position. Marcus is not the only one to experience mental disturbances due to the job market. I got increasingly anxious and depressed. I put on a ton of weight due to anxiety and developing an eating disorder. Look I'm a weak person. I struggle with rejection and judgement. Although I have philosophical skills and can write publishable philosophy, I could not deal with other elements of the profession. It's too competitive. It's too judgmental. It's too negative and uncharitable. Okay, so you love philosophy. But do you have skin as thick as steal? Do you have lots of self-confidence? Do you have a sense of your own identity such that you can maintain a positive view of yourself through years of rejection? The reality is that it's not enough to be good at philosophy and to love philosophy to make it in philosophy. I say these things to discourage you, because I wish someone had done this for me.


It is worth emphasizing, too, that the philosophy profession has gotten quite unpleasant. There have always been pompous fools, of course, but that problem seems especially bad now. All anybody talks about, and in the most uncritical ways, or cares about, is race and gender. You did not mention your demographics, but they will have an enormous effect on your future prospects, unless the culture changes in the meantime.

Prestige (in philosophy we call it ‘pedigree’) remains a big problem, and leads to the pompous fools problem mentioned above. Political theory is a total disaster, worse than philosophy, so that I would certainly avoid. It is possible (although it won’t happen) to get a PhD in philosophy and get into a political theory position (only if you have a big shot advisor), but going the other way is impossible.

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