In the last couple of weeks, I had the pleasure of giving talks at two of the best terminal MA programs in philosophy in the U.S., at Georgia State University and then Northern Illinois University. Both have very strong faculties and have long been among the top terminal MA programs in the discipline, but unlike Tufts (also an excellent faculty), they also offer really good financial support to their MA students. (I apologize for not recognizing much sooner how weak MA funding is at Tufts. MA students, like PhD students, should only go to the schools that will offer financial support.) At GSU, I enjoyed an excellent two-hour seminar with graduate students who had been working on Nietzsche with Prof. Jessica Berry, and they asked excellent questions (GSU is the best terminal MA program for students interested in Kant and post-Kantian Continental traditions in philosophy, and it showed during my visit). At NIU, another terminal MA program with very good PhD placement, I was impressed by how the Department handles placement (matching students to recommenders, based on coursework and performance) and also with the intelligence and focus of the students.
A propos the recent post about the proliferations of PhDs, here are a few reasons why academic philosophy needs more high quality terminal MA programs, like GSU and NIU:
1. Attrition rates in PhD programs are high, but I believe, based on a lot of anecdotal evidence, that they are lower among those who do an MA first. If someone has contrary evidence, please e-mail me.
2. Many promising PhD students lack adequate undergraduate preparation, and terminal MA programs are uniquely situated to help students with philosophical interests be better prepared.
3. Even undergraduate philosophy majors benefit hugely from refining their work and interests with the research-active faculty characteristic of the top terminal MA programs.
4. Many students interested in a PhD program are still uncertain about whether that is the trajectory for them. Good MA programs, meaning not only good faculty but which also provide financial support, help students figure out whether that is the right path. I talked with students in the last couple of weeks, but also elsewhere, for whom a terminal MA helped them figure out that academia was not for them.
Terminal MA programs involve a two-year commitment, and the best programs provide full financial assistance (whether through fellowship or teaching assistantships). The importance of terminal MA programs is further highlighted by the ridiculous number of PhDs in philosophy currently being awarded. Everyone who is awake knows there are too many PhD programs in philosophy: too many in terms of demand for philosophy teachers; too many in terms of what is in the long-term interests of students; too many in terms of their quality. So let us be candid, with an eye to the well-being of young people interested in philosophy.
There are several examples of faculties that had (and could again have) very attractive terminal MA programs who have now added PhD programs in recent years: University of South Carolina, Arizona State University, Texas A&M University. There is no discernible reason other than institutional advancement for those schools to offer PhDs, and their faculties should lobby to return to the terminal MA. Most of these places were ranked in the PGR in earlier years for the quality of their terminal MA programs. It is shameful that they are now trying to recruit PhD students. [UPDATE: See the apt response of Prof. Portmore at ASU to the preceding.]
There are other schools that have had unnecessary PhD programs for awhile that also should convert to terminal MAs: University of Kansas, Michigan State University, and Tulane University are examples. These departments could plainly have some of the best terminal MA programs in the country if they chose to make that their focus.
And then, of course, there are PhD programs that should probably not award any graduate degrees, given the current quality of the faculty and the outcomes for graduates: Emory University; University of Oregon; Villanova University. Emory is the saddest case here, because this was a department that had some really good faculty who either departed or retired or expired (e.g., Donald Rutherford, Rudolf Makreel, Steven Strange). Despite being a wealthy private university, the department has been captured by mediocrities, and really should stop offering the PhD or even the MA. Even in the "SPEP" universe of middling scholars of the Continental traditions, Emory, Oregon and Villanova look to me like outliers. But it might be they could have great terminal MA programs for those going into the SPEP orbit.
I am opening comments here, but those who want to criticize or praise programs will have to do so with their full name and a valid e-mail address.