MOVING TO FRONT FROM LAST YEAR (SINCE TIMELY AGAIN--originally posted March 6, 2009)
Applicants to PhD and MA programs are now receiving offers of admission and, if they are lucky, are beginning to weigh choices between different departments. I want to reiterate a point made in the PGR, namely, that students are well-advised to talk to current students at the programs they are considering. There are often things you will want to know that you won't glean from familiarity with the excellence of the faculty's work, even if that remains the most important, if defeasible, reason for choosing a particular department. Here are some examples of information that no ranking, no departmental brochure, and no "official" departmental representive will tell you about; all of these are drawn from stories I've heard from students over the last few years about ranked departments (the departments will remain unnamed, obviously). You can think of them as representing "types" of problems you should be aware of before enrolling. I've tweaked some of the details to protect identities.
The Absent Faculty: Are the faculty who look so good on paper actually around and interested in working with students? I heard a story about a key senior person in one department who is an alcoholic, and who simply ignored his students. In another department, almost all the graduate students had to sign an open letter to the faculty a number of years ago protesting the failure of faculty to return graded papers and their general lack of interest in mentoring the students. In yet another department, a well-known senior member of the faculty spent so much time travelling and lecturing around the world, that he rarely had time to review or discuss work carefully with students.
The Sexual Predator Faculty: Are women treated as young philosophers and aspiring professionals, or do faculty regularly view them as a potential source for dates and sexual liasons? It's a bit shocking to realize that this is still a live issue in some departments, but, sadly, it is. Are faculty-student sexual relations common in the department? What happens when the relations end? Are there repeated cases of sexual harassment complaints against faculty in the department? Do they ever result in discipline? I suppose it is possible this could be an issue for male students, but all the reports I've gotten over the years have been from women victimized by male faculty.
The Nasty Faculty: Talented philosophers and scholars often differ, dramatically, in how pleasant they are personally and professionally. I recall the story of one department where a member of the faculty was known to reduce students to tears in seminar. In another department, a faculty member regularly refuses to work with students, even those interested in his areas; he works only with those he deems "worthy," and there are not many of them! In another department, faculty openly express doubts about the competence of the graduate students and their ability. Make sure the philosophers who seem most interesting to you don't fall into these categories!
The Factionalized Faculty: Many faculties are "factionalized," in the sense that there are sub-groups that rarely see "eye to eye" about departmental issues, from appointments to admissions. Where this becomes worrisome, though, for a prospective student is when certain members of the faculty who share interests and approaches control all the key resources--fellowships, resources for speakers etc.--and use that control to define "in" and "out" groups of faculty and students: students with the "wrong" philosophical interests or who express an interest in the "wrong" faculty members are denied access to important perks and support. This kind of ugly factionalization is less common, but it exists.
I wish it were possible to meaningfuly measure and evaluate faculties along these important dimensions, but, alas, it is not. I have no doubt there are many programs that are really exceptional for how pleasant they are as places to do graduate study, and the way for a prospective student to discover them is to talk to lots of current students.
Good luck with your decisions!