by Brian on March 2, 2004

Over on my other blog, a discussion started up about whether it is valuable to do a terminal MA before starting a PhD. My impression is that in philosophy, the answer is sometimes yes. The obvious costs are that you spend longer in grad school, and may have to move once more often. The benefits are that you may get into a better PhD program after an MA than after a BA, that you’ll be better prepared for the PhD, and you’ll have an opportunity to tell whether you want to be in grad school before making a serious commitment. I think that if you don’t get into a top PhD program, and you do get into a top MA program[1] on balance it probably is better to do the MA. Is this true across the humanities in America? Is it true even in philosophy? The structure of graduate degrees in the UK and Australia is quite different to America, so I’m not sure how well this would generalise across the oceans.

fn1. Assuming these exist in all fields. In philosophy a few schools offer highly respected terminal MA programs, and many of the graduates of those programs are placed in top PhD programs. The most prominent examples are Tufts and Arizona State, but there are several other such programs.



fontana labs 03.02.04 at 7:58 pm

I think an MA is a good idea, for similar reasons. I’m not sure if appealing to a difference in commitment-level is the way to put it, though. After all, people in PhD programs usually pick up the MA along the way, and they can leave at any time.

I think an MA program is a good idea because it reduces the risk of what is, for me, the worst-case scenario– staying in a program because of inertia. A terminal MA is a stopping point, and it forces you to put some effort into continuing. You can’t simply drift into a dissertation because it’s the easy thing to do; you have to pursue it actively. This is a natural stopping place for reflection and reconsideration, and with the MA a student is well-informed enough about the profession, her abilities, and so on, to make decent decisions.


praktike 03.02.04 at 8:36 pm

Is it fair to call it a “terminal masters” if you take it deliberately and not because you’re getting booted out of a PhD program?


JH Bogart 03.02.04 at 9:02 pm

Re Terminal MAs: How do the programs kill the students without anyone noticing? How exactly do these terminal students get resurrected? Are they zombies? Or are they all conservatives?


ben wolfson 03.02.04 at 9:03 pm

Surely one of the most obvious costs is that tuition waivers aren’t exactly common for M.A. programs? I don’t know if it’s harder to get a fellowship for them, but it wouldn’t surprise me.


gthistle 03.03.04 at 12:26 am

The financial aspect that ben wolfson notes is important; MA students in English, in my experience, teach a lot and garner fellowships little. Since completing a PhD also requires teaching comp at most schools, it’s good to keep an eye on burnout.

I’d otherwise concur–for English in the US, at least, and maybe Comparative Lit–with the idea that an MA helps in advance of beginning a PhD. I didn’t take that route, but my peers who entered with an MA were able to transfer some coursework and cut to the qualifying exam a little more quickly than the rest of us. (My school doesn’t have a terminal MA in English, and we can’t pick one up along the way; a residual consolation prize persists.)

On the other hand, in my (limited) experience, earning an MA first doesn’t help one finish any faster than going straight from a BA, nor does it affect likelihood that one will actually complete the PhD.


Kerim Friedman 03.03.04 at 3:49 am

If you don’t plan on finishing the Ph.D. program – don’t tell anyone. Otherwise you’ll never get a dime of funding.


Jonathan Ichikawa 03.03.04 at 5:26 am

Just a bit of anecdotal experience, here… but when I was finishing my B.A. and thinking in terms of philosophy programs, a terminal M.A. never entered the picture. Not only did my advisor never discuss it with me, I never even thought of the possibility, because I didn’t know there were such things as terminal M.A. philosophy programs.

I have no idea how this bears on anything. Maybe it demonstrates that I was pretty clueless in at least one respect.


David Salmanson 03.03.04 at 3:38 pm

I believe Yale’s history department requires an MA for admittance at this point. Michigan’s history department definitely seemed to be leaning towards MA students from specific feeder programs. The advantages work both ways. Institutions get people who are more likely to finish and finish more quickly when entering their institution than someone without an MA. Folks with an MA from a different institution get a whole new clock when counting speed of program and thus more years of total funding, plus they usually have developed a thesis topic, and are well on their way to finishing comps/prelims etc.

Comments on this entry are closed.