Rankings and their rationales

by Kino

The American Philosophical Association (APA) has the following statement about program rankings

The American Philosophical Association does not rank departments of philosophy and their graduate and/or undergraduate programs nor does it sponsor or endorse any rankings of philosophy departments or programs that are compiled by others.

The American Philosophical Association recognizes that there is often a need for comparative information about departments and programs. It therefore encourages students and administrators seeking such information not to rely on any single source but rather to check a wide variety of sources and to consider each source critically. General information can be found in the APA’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy. The APA also encourages people seeking comparative information about departments and programs to use the links on the APA website to examine the graduate programs offered by various departments, and to consult with chairpersons or graduate directors.

The ranking of philosophy graduate programs has always been controversial. On the one hand, there is a lack of commonly accepted criteria. Undergraduate rankings (such as the QS) tend to use objective measures like faculty citation (an indicator for faculty research prominence) and faculty-student ratio (an indicator for quality of supervision). There are many problems with these measures, but overall, they provide a rough picture of what an undergraduate institution is like. Graduate programs, however, are much smaller and a “rough picture” often hurts rather than helps.

Consider some things you might care about in selecting a graduate program. You might want the program to be prestigious, its faculty members “big shots”. This can be somewhat tracked through publication counts, although being a “big shot” often means that someone is a program setter, rather than has published a lot. Being a great researcher also does not necessarily mean being a great supervisor. How do you tell if a program has great supervisors? Perhaps great supervisors find jobs for their students; or perhaps great supervisors encourage students to publish early. Finally, there is the question of fit. Is the specific kind of philosophy you want to do accepted and supported in a program? Is the kind of training a program provides well suited for your career goals (more on career goals here)? Since people differ in what they look for in a graduate program, a comprehensive ranking is likely to both mislead applicants and harm programs (by directing great students elsewhere or force-fitting students).

On the other hand, however, programs do differ in quality, and it is difficult to choose without any guidance. In what follows, I review a few rankings that have been around for some time. As you are browsing through them, please always keep in mind that a program ranked higher may not be better for you.

I highly recommend you to consult the APA graduate program guide, which isn’t a ranking, but provides a lot of information that might be useful at signaling various aspects of a program you may care about: e.g., faculty diversity, instructorship opportunities, climate initiatives, program size.

Also see here for another discussion of rankings and their alternatives.

The Philosophical Gourmet Report

The PGR is, to my knowledge, the earliest ranking system specifically dedicated to philosophy graduate programs. It is still widely referred. To a certain extent, the other ranking systems I mention later are responses to the shortcomings of the PGR. For this reason, I still include a discussion of it here, despite the (very reasonable) disapproval by others.

The PGR was started by the philosopher Brian Leiter, and hence also called the “Leiter report”. The method is this: the editor sends requests to professional philosophers, asking for their impressions of the strengths of programs in different areas of philosophy (e.g., ethics, metaphysics). The rationale is that a prestigious program is one where professional philosophers think is prestigious (or, in any case, have heard of).

In 2014, Leiter was severely criticized for his unprofessionalism and uncollegiality. Many methodological criticisms of the PGR, which had been around for some time, also gained more attention. The criticisms I was aware of were: that white men working in the analytic tradition were disproportionately favoured as evaluators, resulting in biased assessment of departments with specialization in other traditions (e.g., continental tradition, feminist philosophy). If you are curious, you can trace some of the discussions here.

In 2015, Leiter stepped down as chief editor and PGR worked towards greater balance and transparency. It still followed a “reputation/prestige” model, which some still criticized.

Academic Placement Data and Analysis

APDA is an initiative started in 2014 and led by philosopher Carolyn Dicey Jennings at UC-Merced. As its name suggests, the ranking is primarily based on placement data — the percentage of PhD graduates from each department who have gotten tenure-tracked jobs. The rationale is that a successful program is one that places its students in jobs, regardless of whether prestige is how it does so.

APDA contains a lot of information about the state of professional philosophy, most of which is probably not super relevant to your immediate decision on applying to graduate programs. The most recent report, the 2017 report, contains a placement percentage based ranking starting from page 44 and a diversity based ranking starting from page 50. This report also includes results from a survey where graduates are asked to comment on their programs. You can read some of these comments starting from page 32. (By the way, in case you didn’t know, “placement” is the short word for “helping PhD graduates find jobs”.) You can also access a combined ranking here.

When you browse the APDA report, keep the following caveats in mind. 1) The placement percentage can be deceptive with small programs. 2) Since, like I explained here, academics tend to see research jobs at R1 universities as the best jobs, programs that primarily train students to become researchers (as opposed to, say, teachers) tend to be ranked higher in placement-based rankings. 3) Much of the north American (probably European too) philosophical landscape is dominated by ethics/ history/ metaphysics/ epistemology done in the analytic tradition. More students pursue these areas and more jobs open in these areas. An “overall” ranking is likely to primarily reflect job prospects in these areas. Smaller fields, such as applied ethics and philosophy of race, may have much different placement landscapes.

The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy

One major criticism of the PGR is its marginalization of undervalued subfields of philosophy. The Pluralist’s Guide is, I take it, an attempt to fill some of these informational gaps. It currently only contains six fields: Africana Philosophy; American Philosophy; Continental Philosophy; Critical Philosophy of Race and Ethnicity; Feminist Philosophy; GLBT Studies; Latin American and Latino/a Philosophy. These areas are very often lumped together with each other or with other subfields (by both PGR and, to some extent, APDA), making it difficult to judge the reliability of relevant assessments. The Pluralist’s Guide is therefore a great place to look if you happen to be interested in one of these six areas.

Technically speaking, the Pluralist’s Guide does not provide a “rank”. It lists a number of programs that it “strongly recommends” or “recommends”. As far as I can tell, the ranking is based on surveys given to professional philosophers in these fields. The survey puts an emphasis on support and climate that students might receive from these programs.


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