MAPH Mailbag: Between an MA and a Hard Place

Philosophizing with a hammer…

I will graduate this Spring with a philosophy degree from Colorado State, and recently got an acceptance letter from Chicago’s MAPH program and Boston College’s MA in philosophy. I’ve heard from some people who have gone to Chicago that it is sometimes difficult to study in the areas that you would like there. Are professors willing to work with you in the areas you want to study, or do you have to work on their pet projects? Also, I’ve heard that MA degrees in general aren’t a good idea because you wind up paying for something that PHD students get for free. Should I go to Boston or Chicago or take a year off? I’ve heard mostly negative things on Grad Cafe, but when I talk with folks in the program they seem to disagree. Help!

(name withheld by request)

Thanks very much for your questions! As a fellow philosopher, I hope that this blog can be a real insiders view of the program for you. First, congratulations on being accepted to two great programs. I have two friends who have graduated or are currently working towards degrees from Boston College and I have nothing but respect for Boston’s Ph.D. program.

I would not go so far as to suggest that Chicago philosophy profs are unwilling to work with students on their preferred projects—but I will say that some projects are easier to “sell” than others. First, in all likelihood the research proposal that you crafted for your Ph.D. application probably isn’t very good. Now, before you start spamming the comment box with hate mail, hear me out. I came from a good program, had a lot of help from great professors, and even ran my proposal past a person on a university’s admission board—and looking back on it after having written a thesis proposal for Robert Pippin at UChicago I can honestly say that my earlier effort sucked. Sometimes I think people misinterpret professor’s advice designed to sharpen a proposal as somehow intended to “taking over” a student’s project. Proposals can suffer from too broad a scope or too narrow a scope. They can be concerned with too old a topic or try to make too much of a recent a research fad. Sometimes you can have a wonderful research idea that—for whatever reason—cannot be crafted into a viable research question. In general, my sense is that UChicago profs are pretty open to a wide variety of philosophical areas—but not every prof is willing to take up the questions you have in mind.

That being said, there are some ground rules worth knowing. First, if you want to work with a Rock Star you’ll probably have to be more flexible with your project. Second, you will need to look in the right places to find thesis advisers interested in your preferred area. In general, the divinity school is the place to go for Continental interests and the philosophy department harbors those with an analytical bent—read the professor’s bios online to see who fits into which camp, though. Since MAPH students can work with any professor at the school who is willing to take them on, it is just a matter of barking up the right trees. Third, presumably you applied to UChicago with a certain philosopher in mind for your future Ph.D. adviser—that person who does just exactly the sort of work you are interested in. However, there are some folks who apply to Chicago just based on its prestige or location or for other reasons and who might discover that no one at UChicago does their flavor of work. For example, I have a friend who is a committed Thomist and was completely unable to find a thesis adviser more knowledgable on the subject of the Good Doctor than himself. Similarly, another of my acquaintance is deeply into the moral and political philosophy of Ayn Rand and had to expand her topic to secure a knowledgable adviser. To be honest, if one doesn’t know of someone working in a particular school who has written on the sorts of subjects they are interested in–or at least works in the same tradition– that person should probably avoid applying to that school in the first place.

With regard to MA programs verses Ph.D. programs, the plain and simple reality is that more competition for fewer funded Ph.D. slots means that more students are going to have to settle for a Masters degree even when they really wanted a shot at the Ph.D. That being said, there is nothing wrong with waiting another year and re-rolling. If you take the time to strengthen your writing sample and other application materials and are more fortunate the second time than you were the first, you will be glad you waited. However, the nice thing about a rigorous program like MAPH is that it quickly dispells any lingering pollyannaish views of grad school. Most of the incoming MAPH philosophers this past year came in with every intention of going on to a Ph.D. As of one quarter in, the vast majority have decided to go the professional route—at least for the time being. (Myself included). If things continue as they seem to be, in a few years all but the absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant and well-connected will need to pay their dues in a masters program before receiving serious attention from a Ph.D. admissions committee.

I don’t know why so many malcontents seem to lurk around Grad Cafe. I sometimes wonder if there aren’t a few folks who get a charge out of flaunting fictional admissions to top-tier schools and disparaging every one—in the real world–who failed to secure one of those prestigious candidacies. Many top-shelf schools don’t have terminal masters programs currently. I think this is a hold-over from the halcyon days when most people of even average qualifications could manage to go straight from their bachelors degree to a Ph.D. The prestigious schools that still offer masters degrees tend to get the “piggy bank” label and, to some extent, the label is appropriate. There is no doubt that I am funding Ph.D. students with my 42k, but that’s how it works—if I had been a better candidate with better application materials and credentials I would have been one of those being funded instead of doing the funding. However, it is not as though I’m not getting anything for my money. I have access to the best and the brightest in the field—philosophers like James Conant, Jean-Luc Marion, Robert Pippin, and many, many others—and I have nine-months to soak up all I can. While a degree from UChicago isn’t going to magically get you into any Ph.D. program if your grades are so-so and your thinking is sloppy, a well written thesis and letters of recommendation from “name” professors are going to at least get some attention.

So, Boston or Chicago or a year to re-roll? I guess you need to ask yourself whether your application materials were really representative of who you are as a candidate. If you really believe that you are capable of securing a top-tier Ph.D. slot, then perhaps it would be worth polishing up your application materials and saving some money. If, however, you recognize that the folks getting those positions have something a little extra that you don’t, you might want to apply to a masters program to give yourself a leg up.

If you have a question about MAPH, Hyde Park, or University of Chicago graduate studies in general, I invite you to email us here at and see your questions get the “insider” treatment.


3 comments on “MAPH Mailbag: Between an MA and a Hard Place

  1. Robert Minto says:

    I’m one of maphman’s friends in the PhD program at BC. Thought you (author of question) might be interested to hear from someone in the other program you’re considering. Of course the biggest difference is that at BC you’ll be studying for three years for your MA rather than nine months. That makes the MAPH program a better financial option I’d bet, but I don’t have the numbers to compare. I can say that BC has a remarkably supportive and friendly department. Professors are very easily approachable, and seem willing to spend a lot of time with students, MA, PhD, whatever. Moreover the BC MA Comps exam — which PhD students also take, though earlier and under the name “preliminary comps” — provides an excellent grounding in the basic texts of the history of philosophy. Another thing to consider is that it’s not unheard of for a PhD student to get accepted into the PhD program after they’ve earned their MA at BC. For instance, two of this year’s first year PhDs were MA students last year in the program. I think that’s a significant opportunity for an MA student prepared to really distinguish themselves with hard work. So, all in all, I would say go for BC if you have an interest that veers more toward the history of philosophy or continental philosophy, you are interested in attending a PhD program in the set of universities informally affiliated with BC (ie., Catholic universities and ones with a continental-heavy department like The New School, etc. — but don’t expect to get into a PhD program in UofC with an MA from BC), would prefer a more relaxed pace with (I imagine) a heavier emphasis upon acquiring competence in the history of philosophy, or would prefer an extremely accessible department with non-aloof professors and basically competition-free student to student relations. On the other hand, the MAPH program is probably more financially reasonable, and will undoubtedly provide you with a wider array of options for applying to PhD programs again. — I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone with an MA from Chicago getting accepted into BC’s program in the same way that I would be surprised to see someone from Boston getting accepted into UofC’s program, and, of course, your chances at top-tier analytic schools (NYU, say, or University of Michigan) are much better (though low, let’s be honest) with an MA from UofC than BC.

  2. maphman says:

    I’m glad to hear that BC is taking more–any–of its MA students into the Ph.D. As you know, I avoided BC’s masters program specifically because I had been warned that Boston seldom promoted from within. I won’t say that this makes me wish I’d taken BC’s offer, but it does make the college a legitimate choice for more folks.

    I would agree that Boston seems to have more of an emphasis on grounding students in the history of philosophy. For many reasons, including the brevity of the program, the university’s strong analytic emphasis, and the fact that classes taken tend to be those that support one’s thesis writing, the MAPH program can easily lead to majoring in the minors–focusing on one particular corner of the philosophical landscape to the exclusion of all else. I have been told that Catholic schools in general tend toward a history of philosophy approach and your experience at Boston backs that up.

    Now, all that being said, you can balance your philosophy education through your course selections or you can choose to specialize. I took two overview type courses focused on the analytic tradition–to offset my continental background–a course in modern philosophy (Hume & Kant) and a course in contemporary continental philosophy (Heidegger & Derrida). But, obviously, I’ve not taken courses in ancient philosophy at the grad level and my four of my nine classes are focused on aesthetics and the philosophy of language. That is where three years at BC could be a real help–just giving you enough slots to take a holistic approach. However, while I tend to favor a history of philosophy approach, not all schools are concerned that their new professor be able to teach every class in the department. I have heard that U of C’s philosophy for the longest time was simply to hire “the smartest, most interesting” people they could find and work out later what they could teach. I’m not sure how widespread this practice is today–even at Chicago–but I suspect that more than a few research schools get excited by depth–even at the expense of breadth.

  3. Robert Minto says:

    I agree with Maphman. Certainly whether you are competent in history of philosophy will have little impact on whether you get hired at most schools. The fact is, usually a university has a specialty in mind — say, a Kant scholar, as BC recently sought — when they put out a job ad. Though often the ads themselves are unspecified (check out the jobs in philosophy board to see what I mean). The benefit of an emphasis on history would be entirely a matter of one’s vision for personal development as a philosopher — which is of course an important matter, but it has little to do with the job market. It’s good Maphman clarified that.

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