I’d like to raise what I imagine may be a touchy subject but one worth the attention of those in the philosophy profession: We occasionally hear of efforts to shut down undergraduate philosophy degree programs, but rarely do we hear of efforts to shut down Ph.D. granting philosophy programs. In fact, my own perception is that one or two new philosophy doctoral programs open annually.  My question is whether this growth in doctoral programs is healthy, or whether we might conclude that the profession would be healthier with fewer such programs.

I certainly won’t be as bold as Ralph Luker at History News Network, who goes so far as to make recommendations about which history Ph.D. programs should close their doors.  But it can hardly be disputed that there are enough philosophy doctoral programs to replenish the profession’s teaching needs.  Just consider the English-speaking philosophy community: There are Ph.D. programs at the great majority of flagship state university campuses, and in more populous states (California, New York, Florida, Michigan) there are multiple Ph.D. programs at state campuses.  California, where I live and work, has at least eight.  Add in what I would figure to be several dozen programs at private universities and we arrive at the 110 philosophy Ph.D programs in the U.S. reported by Brian Leiter in the Philosophical Gourmet Report.  I don’t know the comparable numbers in Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, but I imagine that those nations would bring the total number close to 200 — and growing. 

Given that the academic job market continues to be tepid — the APA reports about that there are at least 3  candidates for every 2 advertised positions, despite a steady increase in the number of positions advertised — it seems hard to justify that many Ph.D.-granting programs in philosophy on grounds of need.  Doubtless Ph.D. programs provide benefits to their institutions and the faculty who teach in them.  And perhaps some would find this abundance of programs benign, or even a sign of a healthy profession.  But I’m less confident of this. Might there be ethical reasons to have fewer philosophy doctoral programs?  And if so, is there anyway to go about shrinking the overall number?

CODA: I’d be particularly interested in hearing from those affiliated with Ph.D. programs (as faculty or students) your thoughts on the matter.  Has anyone ever seriously discussed closing your program?

10 Replies to “How many doctoral programs do we need?

  1. I know that the Syracuse University PhD program nearly got shut down in the late 70s, but that was a long time ago.

  2. A possible alternative to closure would be to have (esp. lower-ranked) programs do more to help students to find jobs outside of academia.
    (But strictly speaking, I’d think their only obligation is to honestly inform incoming students of their dismal job prospects. If they still want to go ahead, that’s surely their choice to make.)

  3. I’m hoping to start my PhD next October. Both (UK top 15) institutions that I discussed the matter with have strongly advised me that the job market is difficult. Perhaps the US is different, but I certainly haven’t received the impression that potential PhD students are being misled.
    If students are aware of, and willing to accept, the potential risk then I don’t see any objection from a student’s point of view.

  4. I’m in a philosophy PhD program at a flagship state school that falls outside of the PGR’s top 50. To my knowledge there has never been talk of scrapping our program, and we are in fact doing some hiring. One of the things that I find striking about these conversations is that part of the reasoning focuses on the academic job market. The suggestion often seems to be that those PhD programs at the bottom of the pile should get out of the game, especially since the students at such institutions are employment disadvantaged. It seems to me that the story is a lot more complex than this.
    A fair number of people receiving their PhD’s at unranked institutions never intend to enter the academic job market. I know of several individuals who have gone on to work in various administrative positions within the university system where a PhD is preferred. I also know of some individuals who entered government service, and more than a few who went on to do religious ministry work. I know this is only anecdotal evidence, but I do suspect it is somewhat representative.
    Of course the majority of people receiving their PhD’s at unranked institutions do intend to go on the market, but my impression is that they fair just as well as their peers at better ranked institutions. Part of the reason for this is that we are competing for different jobs. People from top ranked programs generally don’t want to teach at community colleges, rural satellite schools, small liberal arts schools, or schools where they might be the one philosopher in the department of humanities. Now, it used to be the case that you could fill a lot of those jobs with an MA, but most of the MA programs have dried up, and a lot of accrediting bodies require PhD’s. So, my impression is that people from the bottom can only go so high, and people from the top only so low. There is a little bit of overproduction, but we all know that not everyone who finishes the PhD should be put in front of students, nor will they all produce great research.

  5. Michael,
    Most institutions moving to Tier I research institutions take steps to develop advanced degree programs across disciplines. This movement is not always sensitive to the relative growth in the departments housing those disciplines. My impression is that these institutions expect the departments to evolve into stronger PHD granting programs, assuming they have administrative support, as the institution advances. I guess that’s the “growing pains” argument for weak departments. Does that address your point? Or are you alluding to perennially weak programs?

  6. Thanks everyone.
    I don’t have a proposal as to what makes a ‘weak’ program, much the less the basis on which we could, even in principle, determine which programs should be eliminated. So there aren’t any programs to which I’m specifically alluding. And I didn’t mean to suggest that considerations of academic employability are all that matters here. Matthew is perhaps correct that many programs considered not-so-prestigious attract students with no intention of pursuing academic employment or do better than we might expect in placing their graduates in academic jobs. And of course, students should know their employment prospects when they enter grad school. (I think Brian Leiter deserves a lot of credit for compelling programs to be more open about this.) But there will always be a desire to market one’s program effectively, which can result in something less than full honesty about placement records and such. And even if students, by knowingly consenting to enrolling in a program, are thereby not exploited, “we’re not exploiting anyone” is not, by itself, a good reason to open (or keep open) a doctoral program.
    I’d cite two drawbacks to the overabundance of doctoral programs, drawbacks that affect the profession as a whole. The glut of Ph.D.’s has made possible an increasing reliance on non-tenure-accruing faculty. This is bad for pedagogical reasons; I don’t mean by this that lecturers and adjunct faculty don’t teach as effectively as permanent faculty. (Heck, I’d venture the opposite might well be true.) Rather, part of receiving a solid philosophical education involves developing long-term intellectual relationships with faculty, relationships in which you can explore and hone your philosophical chops. That’s tough to do if most of your instructors won’t be at your institution in a year or so.
    Second, this glut has enabled the reliance on non-tenure-accruing faculty, which may be leading to reduced salaries and poorer working conditions for younger tenure-accruing faculty. When there’s a cheaper alternative to tenure-accruing faculty, it’s easy to imagine university administrators balking at better pay for younger faculty.
    Finally, I wonder about the public profile of the discipline (something we’ve discussed a lot before). Is it a good thing for many of the profession’s most distinguished researchers to have relatively little contact with undergraduates? Doctoral programs typically mean less undergraduate teaching for faculty. Would philosophy as we know it be on a different intellectual trajectory if more of the most talented scholars spent more of their time interacting with undergraduates (who, after all, greatly outnumber the graduate students)?

  7. I am currently a student at a small master’s program. I have been accepted to a PhD program that does not fall into the top fifty of the PG Report. I do not know much about the job market beyond what I have read in this blog. Although I am interested in attending a PhD granting institution ranked in the PG Report’s top fifty, I am more concerned about my future and the future of my fiancee. That is, will I find a job? Suppose I do enter the program that is not ranked in the top 50. Should I plan on working outside of academia? What are some realistic goals for me to have?
    I look forward to your input.
    Very best.

  8. Daniel, the first thing you should do is find out the department’s placement record. That’s going to be the best indicator of the sort of job you’d be likely to get if you get your PhD there. If it’s not on their website, ask them for it.

  9. MC wrote: “I don’t have a proposal as to what makes a ‘weak’ program, much the less the basis on which we could, even in principle, determine which programs should be eliminated. So there aren’t any programs to which I’m specifically alluding.”
    It seems to me that, in the long term, it might not matter whether the programs that get shut down are good or bad ones. If you shut down a top program, the philosophers who would have been hired there will find jobs at other programs, crowding the market and ultimately forcing candidates who otherwise would have worked at the lowest-ranked programs to find another line of work. But shutting down the lowest-ranked programs would have just the same effect. Thus, someone might argue, some programs should get shut down — but it doesn’t matter which ones.

  10. My suggestion is that pedigree and graduate program ratings, which are very general criteria, should be far less significant in the hiring process than they are now, and that publications and teaching experience (depending on the school) should be far more significant than they are now. (In assessing quality of publications, a more individualized procedure should also be adopted, namely, that candidates should not be judged on the perceived quality of the journal, but rather on the hiring department’s perception of the quality of the candidate’s articles).
    If the education received is so much better at higher rated or more pedigreed schools, then shouldn’t that show up in the publication and teaching evidence somewhere? If it does not show up, then what evidence indicates that this individual is better simply because their institution is rated as better? In fact, we should expect students at institutions with renowned faculty to have more opportunities to publish in the journals of their professors or their friends, and typically they will have better scholarships and fewer teaching requirements, and so they should publish more than students from lower ranked schools. Yet, they frequently do not. I would argue that when they do not, we should very much prefer the more productive student from the lower ranked program. And that pedigree makes a difference in hiring beyond publications is very much the case. The numbers for Gourmet Report faculty indicate that about 12 graduate programs supply 75% of the faculty at the 50 ‘leading’ graduate programs, if memory serves.

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