Graduate School in Philosophy in the US: Terminal MA Programs In Philosophy





We offer this analysis of placements from MA programs in philosophy in an effort to place some data behind the assertions made by various programs and to provide some guidance (and comfort) to students pursuing an MA.  Which MA programs are the best at getting students into good PhD programs?  Do most MA students go on to study philosophy?  What do students do after their MA if they do not go into academic philosophy? This is what we wanted to find out.


Other Reports

pr_phdThe Placement Report for Ph.D. Programs
pr_prestigeThe Placement Report Based on School Prestige
pr_contential[5]The Placement Report for Continental Philosophy

The Motivation: Why do this Study?

When making a decision to pursue a career in philosophy, I decided to pursue a terminal MA first (Northern Illinois University, 2012).  I had a great experience, and had I chosen to apply to PhD programs, I know I would have been well prepared.

MA graduate students often discussed in our TA office how our program compared with other MA programs. We discussed the collegial atmosphere in our program, which was very supportive and friendly, and compared it with what we had heard about the collegial atmospheres at other MA programs.  We noted further similarities and differences between our program and others regarding requirements and faculty expertise.  We also discussed placements from various programs, debating whose program truly was the best, and wondering where we would end up in academia.  As I began to consider not entering into academia, I wondered what I would be able to do in the private sector.  What skills did having an MA in philosophy give me?  What sorts of jobs or other academic pursuits would be a natural fit for me?

The Mark:  The Goals of an MA Program in Philosophy

There seem to be two broad goals of an MA program.  Programs emphasized these goals to varying degrees

1. An MA program in philosophy ought to prepare students for doctoral study in philosophy; it ought to prepare students to teach philosophy at the college or university level.

I entered my MA program with the goal of attending a PhD program afterwards.  As I did not have a BA in philosophy (I had discovered philosophy late in my undergraduate studies), my professors encouraged me to attend an MA program first in order to boost my chances of getting into a well-ranked PhD program.  My fellow students were of similar backgrounds; either they did not have a BA in philosophy, or they had come from a small and lesser-known school.  My fellow students are bright and capable and just needed a bit more background and more established credentials before applying to PhD programs. After completing the program, most of my fellow graduate students applied for doctoral study in philosophy and they are now at some of the best programs in the country. MA programs are great places to prepare for doctoral study in philosophy, particularly for students whose philosophical background is not yet impressive enough to attract the best schools, but will be after completing the program.  Furthermore, an MA gives a student the ability to teach at the college and university level, even if he or she does not pursue a PhD.  Whether as a full time faculty member at a community college or a part time lecturer at a university, the MA opens the door to teaching philosophy professionally.

2. An MA program ought to provide valuable skills to those who do NOT pursue academic philosophy; a student should graduate with strong writing, reasoning, and analytical skills that will be useful in other academic disciplines or in other career paths.

It is generally expected that those entering a PhD program in philosophy will continue on to professional philosophy in some way.  This, however, is not necessarily the case at the MA level. After completing the MA, students should be able to pursue philosophy for its own sake and for the sake of acquiring useful skills that can be applied in other disciplines.  I know that the writing, reasoning, and analytical skills I learned and honed at NIU have been very helpful to me in my work as a data scientist, programmer, and DBA.  Even though I did not go on to the PhD, I found that my MA program prepared me well for working outside the discipline.  As one of my former professors put it, "the intellectual training that one gets in a master’s program in philosophy is rewarding and valuable no matter which career path one subsequently decides to take."  As an added bonus, the MA is only a two-year commitment, as opposed to a 5-7 year commitment at the PhD level.  As such, MA students can study philosophy at a high level without the pressure of a long-term commitment, and earn these valuable skills relatively quickly.

The MA program at Brandeis University sums up these two goals very well on its department website: "The Master’s Degree Program in Philosophy has two main goals: (1) to offer students the opportunity to learn more about philosophy and (2) to enable students to apply to top-ranked doctoral programs in philosophy or in other fields.  The M.A. in Philosophy will enhance students’ qualifications if they plan to pursue a doctoral program in philosophy; this can be especially useful if they seek to enter graduate school without first having obtained an undergraduate major in philosophy. An M.A. in Philosophy is also valuable for students seeking to pursue other career paths. A demonstrated capacity for rigor in reasoning and analysis, as well as enhanced communication and writing skills will strengthen the applications of those pursuing careers in fields such as business, economics, law, medicine, publishing, and divinity."

The MA program at Northern Illinois University also characterizes its mission in a similar way on its website: "Those who complete this program are extremely well prepared for advanced work in leading doctoral programs in philosophy or for teaching philosophy at the community college level. The Master of Arts degree also provides excellent preparation for further graduate study in fields other than philosophy."

How are MA programs doing in meeting these two goals?

The Method: How I Gathered and Analyzed the Data

I gathered all of the placement data from all of the MA programs listed here on The Leiter Report. Based on the wording and structure of the paragraph, I have assigned the following ranks to the MA programs for 2011 (understand that rankings like these are subject to some interpretation and I expect others may evaluate the data differently):

MA_Schools 2011_Leiter_Rank
Tufts University 1
Arizona State University 2
Brandeis University 2
Georgia State University 2
Northern Illinois University 2
University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee 2
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University 2
San Francisco State University 8
University of Houston 8
University of Missouri, St. Louis 8
California State University, Los Angeles 11
Colorado State University 11
Ohio University 11
Texas A&M University (MA) 11
Texas Tech University 11
Western Michigan University 11


Using past Leiter Reports and averaging the rankings for each school across time since 2002, I found the average of rankings, along with the overall average ranking, for each school*.  Here are the full results:


Brandeis University has a very new MA program and has only been ranked since 2009.  As such, it does not yet have as extensive a placement record as other programs that have been around for much longer. Also, Arizona State University and Ohio University have only been ranked once (2011), even though their MA programs have been around since before 2000. Consequently, I have inferred a ranking (in comparison to the other MA schools) for both schools for each of the years that it had an MA program but was unranked.  Similarly, I have inferred rankings for California State University, Los Angeles prior to 2006, when it was first mentioned in the Leiter Report.

Tufts University – Their placement dataset does not contain anyone who did not apply for or who was not received into a PhD program. I had to infer the number of students for each year.  Very likely, some students are missing from this dataset that did not apply to PhD programs or who did not receive a PhD offer. If this is the case, Tufts’ placement record will look much more favorable than it actually is. I will look for more data to determine if there are any students missing from the data set and update as soon as I can.

San Francisco State University – The placement dataset was not in a very usable format for my purposes. The schools that students had been accepted into were aggregated into a list, so it was impossible to tell how many students were enrolled in PhD programs, and where they were enrolled.  As such, it is not represented in the data, and I cannot make any comment on it’s placement effectiveness.  I hope to gather data about this program soon.

University of Missouri, St. Louis – Only the dataset from 2010 through 2013 was included in the analysis.  Before 2010, the dataset was aggregated into lists, so it was impossible to tell how many students were enrolled in PhD programs, and where they were enrolled.  As such, I cannot comment on its placement effectiveness before 2010.  I hope to gather more data about this program soon.

Ohio University – Only the 2013 dataset was available.  I have no idea how this school placed students prior to 2013, so I cannot comment on its placement effectiveness before 2013. I hope to gather more data about this program soon.

Western Michigan University – The placement dataset was in a very confusing format.  I had to make a lot of inferences regarding where a student was enrolled in a PhD program, and there are probably students that attended that were not represented in the placement dataset.  What I have is my best effort to make sense of what was offered.  I will keep looking for better data.

Texas A&M University – This school has a PhD program in addition to its MA program.  I only used the MA placement records in evaluating the school’s effectiveness in placement.

Finally, many programs included a list of schools for each year into which students had also been accepted.  This is often done for legitimate reasons (e.g., to maintain student anonymity, to avoid an unhealthy competitive atmosphere among students within a program).  I did not include these in any way into the rankings or analysis since I cannot tell which students are responsible for these schools (e.g., one student could be responsible for all of the well ranked acceptances, and as such, would be misrepresenting the school’s overall placement).

I encountered other challenges which are noted here.

The Data

Gathering all of the placement data I could find from the previously mentioned schools, I created a dataset with the following columns:



Year The year a student graduated from the MA program
MA School The name of the school from which a student graduated
Thesis/Writing Sample The thesis or writing sample associated with the student.  If none was given, then a value of "Unknown" was assigned
Primary Area of Study A student’s primary area of study, as given by the school, or as inferred from the thesis/writing sample title.  These values are "Aesthetics", "Continental Philosophy", "Epistemology", "Ethics", "History of Philosophy", "Metaphysics", "Philosophy of Language", "Philosophy of Logic", "Philosophy of Mathematics", "Philosophy of Mind", "Philosophy of Science", "Social and Political Philosophy", and "Unknown"
Applied to Philosophy PhD Programs Whether or not the student applied to philosophy PhD programs.  Values are "Yes", "No", and "Unknown"
Job or Schooling after MA The type of job or schooling a student pursued after receiving his or her MA in philosophy
Enrolled Philosophy PhD Program/First Listed Acceptance The PhD program (school) that a student was enrolled at.  When it was unclear which school a student enrolled at (or if he or she had enrolled at all), I selected the first school listed as an acceptance into the program.  Values are the school names
History and Philosophy of Science Some students enrolled in a History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) PhD.  I wanted to separate this out from other PhD philosophy programs.  Values are the school names
Law School Quite a few students attend law school after their MA, so I made this an additional column.  Values are the school names
Other Academic Programs Quite a few students enter into other academic (master’s or doctoral) programs after their MA, so I made this an additional column.  Values are the school names
Type of Other Academic Program The type of institution a teacher is teaching at: high school, community college, four year college, and university
Teaching Many students go straight into teaching at the college or high school level, so this is an additional column.  Values are any information about the teaching position
Type of Teaching Institution The type of institution a teacher is teaching at: high school, community college, four year college, and university
Outside of Academia or Teaching Many students go outside of academia or teaching after their MA, so this is an additional column.  Values are any information about the professional pursuit outside of academia or teaching
Fully Funded Some schools explicitly noted whether an acceptance was fully funded or not.  I added this as an additional column.  Values include "NA" (for non academic positions), "No", "Yes", "Yes (Assumed)" (no information given about the funding, but in a PhD philosophy program), and "Unknown" (the status of the student cannot be inferred).  However, the data was not explicit and complete enough to do any useful analysis on this data
2011 Leiter Rank The inferred Leiter ranking of the MA program from 2011 (see above)
Overall Leiter Rank The inferred overall Leiter ranking for schools since 2002.  Found by averaging the rank of each school for each year it was evaluated and ranked

The Meat: Trends, Observations, and Conclusions

Since 2000, there have been over 1,000 students that have graduated from terminal MA programs in philosophy.  Here is my analysis column by column…

MA School

The distribution of records by MA school that I have gathered, post-2000.  Considering that several of the programs are new and/or are missing data, this should not be taken as showing the size of each school’s student output compared to other schools over the past 13 years.  This merely shows the distribution of students in the data set, that is, in all of the data immediately and publicly available.


Primary Area Of Study

Most students submit as a writing sample or do a thesis related to ethics (15%), followed by metaphysics (11%), social and political philosophy (7%), epistemology (7%), and history of philosophy (7%) (Note: 36% of students have an "Unknown" primary area of study).


Has this changed over time?  It is difficult to say when each subfield is considered by itself, especially as the number of "Unknown" primary areas of study has increased over time.

When grouped together by similar subfields, each group seems to be decreasing, except for Science and Math subfields which appears to be steady, while the "Unknown" category increases.  If we compensate for this, then we can infer that Science and Math subfields are increasing while the other subfields are maintaining/decreasing slightly.


Applied to Philosophy PhD Programs

About 30% of students who receive an MA in philosophy from one of these programs DO NOT apply to a PhD program in philosophy; 66% do apply, and 6% are unknown.


Has this distribution changed over time? Slightly. The ratio of students that do apply for PhD programs seems to be increasing, while those that do not seems to be decreasing ("Unknowns" are very slightly increasing). So, overall, it seems that more and more students from MA programs are applying to PhD programs in philosophy as time goes on.


Breaking this down by schools, and ranking schools by the ratio of students that do apply for a PhD program in philosophy (i.e., "Yes"), we see that overall, the schools whose students on average most apply to PhD programs in philosophy since 2000 are (1) Tufts University (100%) (Note: see my disclaimer about Tufts up above), (2) Western Michigan University (97%), and (3) California State University, Los Angeles (79%).  Here is the full list:


Since 2011, the schools with the highest ratio of MA students that apply for PhD programs in philosophy have been (1) Tufts University (100%) (Note: see my disclaimer about Tufts up above), (2) Western Michigan University (100%), and (3) Texas A&M University (90%).  Here is the full list:


What does this mean?  For students that are very intent on studying philosophy at the PhD level, attending a school where the great majority of MA students apply to PhD programs (e.g., Tufts) may be the best environment for them to learn in.  However, for students that simply want to study philosophy and have no intention of pursuing a PhD in philosophy, a program where fewer students apply (e.g., University of Missouri, St. Louis) may provide the best learning environment for them. 

Job or Schooling after MA

What do students do after receiving their MA in philosophy? 

  • Over half of them do enroll in a PhD program in philosophy
  • 20% have no further information about their placement
  • Approximately 8% take on additional schooling in a different academic discipline
  • 6% leave academia and teaching
  • 5% go straight into teaching (at the high school, community college, college, and university levels)
  • 5% attend law school
  • 1% explicitly attend a History and Philosophy of Science program (note: this is probably higher than reported since many programs do not explicitly state the kind of program a student is going into)

Thus, at least 61% of graduating MA students remain involved in professional academic philosophy or teaching in some way.  At least 74% remain involved in academia in some way.  However, at least 24% of students do not go on to attend a PhD program in Philosophy or the History and Philosophy of Science.



Has this distribution changed over time?  It does not appear to have changed significantly.  When there is a sharp rise or fall in the data, it seems due to the number of "Unknown" placement rising and falling sharply, and thus, affecting the overall distribution.  So at least for now, it appears this distribution is fairly stable.


Enrolled Philosophy PhD Program/First Listed Acceptance

Now for the more controversial analyses.  First, which schools have accepted the most MA graduates? There are about 500 MA graduates from these schools that have enrolled in/been accepted into philosophy PhD programs since 2000. In order of ratio of most MA students accepted: (1) Ohio State University (3.5%), (2) University of California, San Diego (3.3%), and University of California, Riverside (2.7%). Here is the full list (of schools where the ratio is greater than or equal to 0.01):

Of those students who have applied, which schools have sent the most students to a PhD program in philosophy?  Without considering the prestige of the school, I provide three columns below.  The first contains a ratio of all students who enrolled in a program compared to all students who applied or whose application status was unknown.  Thus, these numbers will, for the most part, underestimate the enrollment rate of students that have applied.  The second only compares the number of students that enrolled with the number of students that I am sure applied (leaving the unknowns out of the count).  Thus, these numbers will, for the most part, overestimate the enrollment rate of students that have applied.  The third averages these two values, and is (I hope), closest to the true ratio of students who enrolled to students who applied. (Note: for programs that distinguished students that applied from students that did not, these ratios stay the same.)  In order of estimated rank, the schools with the highest enrollment/applied ratio are (1) Tufts University (100%) (Note: see my disclaimer about Tufts up above), (2) Texas Tech University (95%), and (3) University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (91%).  Here are the full results below:

Averaging out the average ratios, we can determine that approximately 85% of MA graduates that apply for PhD programs in philosophy are accepted into one.

Which MA programs send students to the most highly ranked (Leiter Report ranking) schools?  That is, which MA program has the overall highest average placement rank as determined by PhD faculty ranking?  I found the average English world faculty rank for each PhD program since 2002 and matched it up with the school that each MA student attended.  Then, I found the weighted faculty rank of each MA program’s placement by multiplying the average faculty rank of each PhD school by the ratio of MA students that went there for a particular MA program, which I then added for each MA program (e.g., if 50% of an MA program’s students went to a number 10 school and 50% went to a number 15 school, then the MA program’s faculty rank of PhD placement would be 0.5 * 10 + 0.5 *15 = 12.5).  (Note: when a school was unranked in the world category, I inferred rankings using its average mean since 2002.  When a school was unranked and had never been evaluated, I ranked it after all schools that had been evaluated and ranked at some point. There were 26 such unranked and unevaluated schools that students attended.)

In order of the average weighted English world faculty rank of a PhD program since 2002 that the MA programs place their students into: (1) Tufts University (23.4), (2) Brandeis University (41.5), and (3) Northern Illinois University (41.9).  In other words, the average MA student from Tufts that enrolls in a PhD program in philosophy attends a school with a English world ranking of 23; for Brandeis, 42; for NIU, 42.  Here are the full results:

History and Philosophy of Science

There are not enough data to do any useful analysis of History and Philosophy of Science placements.  However, the programs that students attended that were listed explicitly as being HPS programs were at Arizona State University, Cambridge University, Indiana University (Bloomington), and the University of Pittsburgh.  This is not an exhaustive list of all HPS programs in the country, and MA students probably are in attendance at HPS programs at other schools, though these other school placements were not explicitly mentioned as HPS programs.

Law School

Where do MA graduates go to law school? I counted 34 distinct schools that students attended, and the distribution was fairly evenly distributed.  However, the following schools had more than one MA graduate attend: Catholic University of America, Law school; New York University, Law School; University of California, Berkeley Law School; University of California, Hastings Law School; University of Colorado, Law School; University of Texas, Austin Law School; and University of Virginia, Law School.

Other Academic Programs

What other academic programs do MA graduates pursue? Here is a list of the various doctoral and master’s programs that students attended following their MA in philosophy:

Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT)
Cell and Molecular Medicine
Cognitive Anthropology
Cognitive Psychology
Counseling Psychology
Educational Policy
Educational Psychology
Fine Arts
Health Care Ethics
International Relations
Library Science
Modern Thought and Literature
Near Eastern Studies
Pharmacy School
Planning Governance and Globalization
Political Science
Public Administration
Public Policy
Rhetoric and Politics
History of Science & Technology
Science, Technology, and Society (STS)
Social Policy
Social Science
Social Work
Urban Studies
Veterinary Medicine
Women’s and Gender Studies

Thus, it appears that an MA in philosophy can be a prelude to virtually any other academic discipline.  However, students leaving academic philosophy tend more towards the social sciences than any other discipline. The most popular choice among these is Psychology (10%).  Here are some other top choices for academic disciplines following an MA in philosophy:


At what type of institutions do MA graduates teach?

  • 35% of MA graduates that go into teaching end up at a university
  • 28% go to a community college
  • 26% teach high school
  • 11% teach at a four-year college

Most of the positions at the community college, four-year college, and university level appear to be temporary/lecturer/contract positions, although there are a few exceptions.


Outside of Academia or Teaching

What do MA graduates do who do not go into another academic program and who do not go into teaching?  Here is a list of some broad categories that I saw:

Account Management
Administrative Services
Clinical Psychology
Criminal Defense
Financial Aid Advising
Health Care Work
Human Resources
Human Rights Advocacy
Judicial Clerk
Law Clerk
Law Practice
Library Specialist
Non Profit Research
Pharmaceutical Sales
Private Sector (Unspecified)
Public Sector (Unspecified)
Software Consulting
Think Tank Research

Thus, MA graduates enter into a wide range of careers following their degree in philosophy.

Moving Forward: What Next?

Placement records are important, and increasingly so as the job market in academic philosophy becomes more and more competitive and students become more concerned about getting a job after they graduate.  Schools can offer better guidance to prospective students by keeping their placement records neat, complete, and organized in an easily-readable, understandable, and flexible format (see here for my recommendations).  If schools do this, then students can quickly and painlessly compare how different schools rank in their placement, further helping them to make the right decision for themselves as they consider a career in academic philosophy.  And if they choose not to go on into academic philosophy, placement records can still provide a valuable resource for students as they consider alternative academic and career paths.

Two final thoughts.  First, if you believe I have grossly misrepresented your school and would like me to correct it, please send me a .csv file, using the same columns and meanings that I have given up above, with all of the corrected information. I will update this article as often as necessary to keep the data current, correct, and fair. Second, if you know any students in or currently considering graduate school in philosophy, please send them a link to this article. I know I would have benefited greatly from an article like this when I was weighing my decision to continue pursuing academic philosophy, and I am sure they will too.

Andy Carson
swoosh_64x52Philosophy News





Job List:  Americas Name of institution:  Langara College Town:  Vancouver Country:  Canada Job Description:  Job Description: Langara College is also...