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Hope to help

I second Marcus's point---PLACEMENT, PLACEMENT, PLACEMENT.

A couple other things to consider might include: time (how many years of your life do you want to be a student in a discipline with terrible, horrible job prospects?), cost of living (tuition remission plus stipend aren't all that much in high cost areas), community (what is the department like--supportive or combative?), and teaching opportunities (which path provides you with ample opportunities to teach).

Also, re-applying with an MA may help your odds at getting in at top places but at the end of the day it is still a crapshoot.


Check the placement record for the MA program. If they routinely place students into programs better than the PhD program, then the MA program might be a good bet. If they mostly place students into programs better than the PhD program, then the MA program is likely a good bet.

MA then PhD

The details matter here since some "low" ranked Ph.D. programs place well in niche areas or certain types of schools (e.g., religious schools). However, in most cases I think it would be better to take the M.A. program option (because the one described by the OP is funded and places well). There are costs involved in this, such as the cost of moving somewhere new if one has a partner.

I faced this same decision and ended up choosing a well-regarded M.A. program that was funded over a low-ranked, funded Ph.D. program. It ended up working for me (I was admitted to a much higher-ranked Ph.D. program after the M.A.). It didn't work out this way for everyone in my M.A. cohort who faced this same decision, though. One person ended up finishing the M.A. and was then admitted to a similar ranked Ph.D. program as before the M.A. program. There is some luck in these situations, but the person did not end up *worse* off than before apart from spending 2 years (not a total loss, since M.A. was funded). I ended up *much* better off than choosing the Ph.D. program first.

My extended family thought I was making the wrong choice at the time since I had already been admitted to a Ph.D. program (and wasn't that what I wanted to do?). I ended up making the choice to go to the M.A. program, though, because an advisor told me that where you get a Ph.D. is one of the most important factors (perhaps *the* most) for getting a job in the future. I thought the advisor was overstating this, but I think this is right now.

Another applicant

I'm a student with a few questions for the people who have answered already:

What if someone had been in such a situation two years ago, and decided to take the MA offer and reapply - as it turned out, during COVID, where now, their odds of acceptance anywhere are worse than before, even with the MA? Even assuming something this major wouldn't happen again, it seems like a big assumption that with an MA, one would do better in applying to PhDs, since we don't know what things will be like two years from now.

Also, couldn't one just accept the PhD offer and try to transfer to a better program the next year or so?

RJ Leland

I agree with what Marcus says in the main post: probably MA, unless it's a PhD that places really well.

In response to Another Applicant: my sense is that if you're just looking to transfer out, an MA is a better bet than a PhD. In the MA (at a well-placing terminal program) nobody feels taken advantage of that you're leaving, and everybody is more likely to be invested in helping you to be successful at the PhD admissions thing.

Finally, off topic FWIW: I think that the experience of a terminal MA can be really great: I did a terminal MA at UW-Milwaukee and it was the best educational experience I've had (tons of students who were really excited about doing philosophy together plus really engaged and available faculty members).


What do you mean by "lower ranked"? Compared to the PG top 20? Compared to the prestige of the MA program?


(1) Hi RJ.

(2) Transferring from a lower-ranked PhD program to a higher-ranked one is in my experience much less common than a higher-ranked program admitting someone from a MA program. I can think of one person during my PhD who transferred into our program, and that person was transferring from a program in the 15-20 range to work with a specific advisor with whom they already had an established relationship.

(3) If anything, the pandemic makes the MA more advisable. Given the collapse of the job market, it is more important than ever to go to programs with consistently solid placement records, which largely tracks ranking. If you spend two years in an MA program and do not get admitted to somewhere which you deem good enough, you can change careers at 25 and be fine. If you are two years into a PhD program without much likelihood of placement, you are likely going to ride out the PhD and then make the same decision when you're 30 or 32. It's not fun.

Original Poster

Thank you, everyone, for these insightful answers! For Annie, I have been waitlisted at quite a variety of programs at really all different levels of PGR-ranking from top 10 to unranked.

The focus on placement is very helpful, and something I had been taking seriously anecdotally, but will now really dig deeper into the reports provided.

I think JDF's comment is also very important about the difference between an MA routinely placing people into top programs and mostly placing people into top programs. Thank you for that!


I think Annie's question is important. If by 'lower-ranked', you mean 'lower than the PG top 20', then the PhD could still well be the smart move, and not because of the point about 'religious schools'. Cornell, to take one example, is outside the PG top 20, but I could easily imagine preferring it to a number of top-20 places depending on your interests (e.g. if you wanted to work on agency/responsibility/moral psychology). Perhaps, though, by 'lower ranked' you meant *well below* the top 20.

Current PhD student

I would take the PhD over the MA every time, unless you are happy getting shut out later on. It would be a terrible thing to lose out on the chance to get a PhD just because you thought you could get a better offer somewhere else.

You also never know what graduate school will be like for you to go through, and the MA might change you in ways that make it harder to get into a PhD program.


If you got into a top 10 then go there.
Decision made.

I Faced the Same Decision

I was in exactly this situation. I had been accepted to several top MA's with funding, but then got into a lower-ranked PhD (ranked around 40 on the PGR) at the last minute. I turned down the PhD offer for one of the MA offers. My reasoning was that I didn't think I'd do any worse in terms of PhD admissions after the MA, and I thought with some more work, I could do better.

In the end, I did move up the rankings a bit--about 10 spots. I'm at a solidly mid-ranked program now. Was this the right decision? Honestly, I don't know.

I didn't see that there were any costs to doing the MA when I made my decision, but I wasn't entirely right. I had to borrow some money while doing the degree (MA funding is usually pretty low), and there was a psychological cost (as well as a monetary one) involved in going through the stress and expense of a second round of PhD applications. The second time around, I didn't have MA applications as a backup, if I didn't get into a good PhD program. That made the application process much more stressful. My current program has better placement than my first acceptance, which is good, but it's not clear in the post-COVID era if I'll be able to get a job coming out of this program anyway. Now, if I'd gone straight to the PhD, I may have always wondered whether I could've done better having done the MA first. Even so, I think it's a toss-up.

My advice: visit the PhD program, talk to faculty, students, check out the town, see if you like it. If you think you'd like to be there, and placement is at least not too bad, then I think I'd take the PhD offer. If you have reservations about the program, then take the MA offer and reapply.

Good luck!

Similar Decision

Solid advice, in my opinion, offered by "I Faced the Same Decision."

I was in a somewhat similar position myself, but accepted to a PhD program in a different field. (OK, perhaps not that similar.) I would lean towards the MA, but second Same Decision's warning: doing the MA bears serious costs that should be accounted for, both first-order ones (financial, moving, etc.) and opportunity ones. That being said, I wouldn't bother with a PhD unless I was able to get into a 'tippy top' program. I wish I had appreciated that more while I was applying out during my MA (where I focused on research strengths and fit, which don't matter much in my humble opinion).


I also lean toward the MA in this situation, but the particulars of the programs matter a lot. The pros of going to the MA are at least twofold:

1. You get a boost in admissions prospects in the future, have a stronger writing sample, better letters, some teaching experience, and more signs of serious commitment to philosophy.

2. You may not enjoy the taste of the profession you get at the MA, and decide to do something else with your life. This is probably the best outcome :)

But in all seriousness, the evidence is that the prestige of your PhD institution is the most important factor for obtaining a job later in your career. In a field scarce of jobs, any investment you can make toward cracking the top ten or so programs is worth it.

Another point

Another point worth considering: the overall prestige of the school (not just for philosophy) you end up at may have significant impacts on your "plan B" and general job prospects. As an applicant I deliberately discounted how "fancy" the school was overall, but the truth is bigger names can open a lot of doors for you nationally (though if you are interested in a particular area, then area schools can give you a good local network).


I was in this same position many years ago when I started my PhD. I took the offer from the (lower-ranked) PhD program. I'm now TT at a well-regarded R2 with a PhD program after only 1 year doing a VAP in between.

Like others have said, I think the biggest thing to worry about is job placement. But I also want to emphasize that job placement is not all about prestige. I did my PhD at a lower-ranked (but still PGR ranked) place and I did, compared to many others, perfectly fine on the job market. (5 VAP offers the first year, 3 TT offers the second year.)

Prestige certainly matters for job placement, but what matters *more* for job placement is what you actually do doing grad school -- getting good publications, developing a strong teaching profile, building connections outside of your own department.

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