Brian Leiter’s ‘Gourmet Report’ is not highly regarded in Britain; indeed, it is hardly regarded at all. Some years ago I entered into a correspondence with Professor Leiter in the effort to persuade him that it was misleading to rank Cambridge by looking only at people in the Philosophy Faculty (i.e. Department), since half of the philosophers are in other faculties. When I reported my efforts to my colleagues, I was told not to bother, and that no one could care less what ranking we received. This attitude might be short-sighted: some prospective graduate students, from the US if not the UK, might pay attention to the Report. But it reflects a deeper, underlying wisdom, at least if the Leiter rankings are regarded as mainly to guide graduate students looking for where to take their doctorates. The difference between doing a PhD at a British university and at a North American one are so great that it would be utterly foolish to use these rankings to determine, or even influence, the choice.
In America, one can speak of a PhD course. It is taken in a particular department, and it trains students to be professional academics – teachers and researchers – in that department. And so it matters a great deal which department you take it in: for instance, if you want to be a philosopher, you take it in a philosophy department; if you want to be an historian, you go to a history department for it. In Britain, there are no PhD courses: taking a PhD means writing a doctoral thesis. You are not trained to do anything, except by accident: simply, you write a thesis, and that’s that. What department you happen to be in hardly matters, and PhDs on medieval philosophy might be done in theology, history, languages, classics, history of science, law or even, occasionally, philosophy departments.
In America, a PhD is usually a long drawn out affair. American doctoral students, especially those near to submitting, almost invariably strike me as very grown up: men and women of sober and considered judgement, with recognized positions and offices in their departments, with houses and gardens, spouses and children, dogs, cats and the family car. Although they cannot these days face the future with complete equanimity, they can at least feel confident that there is a system aimed at helping them find a post; their department feels a responsibility for their placement, although it cannot guarantee success.
British PhDs are usually fresh-faced. True, a little less so now than previously, since they are unfortunately required to do a year’s ‘taught’ MA course before they start doctoral work, and theses are more and more inclined to stretch into a fourth year. But doctoral work remains essentially a prolongation of undergraduate life and, at least in Oxford and Cambridge (the most obvious places in Britain for medieval philosophy), there is a strict division between ‘senior members’ – those who have, or have retired from, a job in the university or one of the colleges – and the rest, undergraduates and graduates, PhD students included. Doctoral students may do some teaching, perhaps even a lot of it; but it will be free-lance, usually one to one and very badly paid. And, in every branch of the humanities, but all the more so in medieval philosophy, realistically-minded doctoral students recognize that, in taking a PhD, they have set out on a wild adventure, which may well lead them nowhere in terms of a career but should at least provide a certain intellectual fulfilment. That is not to say that their supervisors and others will not try their hardest to find them a post when they are finished, nor to deny that there are still opportunities in Britain for post-doctoral positions. But there is no system for finding academic employment and, when it comes to teaching jobs, a very limited, sporadic market on this side of the Atlantic.
For doctoral students everywhere a lot depends on their supervisor. In the American system, though, there is a whole ‘thesis committee’ for each PhD candidate. There are taught courses at the start of the programme, examinations and a regulated system of supervision; and the student is likely to interact with various members of the department. In Britain, there is usually just a single doctoral supervisor, and the degree of his or her involvement with a student’s work is a matter of inclination and temperament, on both sides. In my own case, I had just two or three one-hour meetings with my supervisor in the course of my PhD. This might sound like a complaint, but, on the contrary, I think the way I was supervised was almost perfect for me. The first supervision showed me that I had become bogged down in detail, and I was not even accurate about it. The next meeting encouraged me in my progress. My supervisor supported me to the utmost, personally and professionally, from the beginning and right through my career. He put me in touch with the best experts in my area and, after I had taken my PhD and he no longer had any official responsibility for me, he gave his time unstintingly to look at my work and discuss it with me. Of course, this example is not typical – but then no example is typical of the British system. Some supervisors will give some PhD students hours of individual attention every week – and sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Graduate supervision is indeed now regulated a little more closely by faculties than in the past, but the system remains essentially amateur, based on taste, inclination and good will. The important thing is for there to be the right fit between the PhD student and the supervisor.
So far as PhDs in medieval philosophy are concerned, the biggest difference of all between the American and British systems concerns the ancillary linguistic and philological skills which research in this area requires. The student will need either Latin or Greek or Hebrew or Arabic (if not two or more of these languages), French, Italian and German (for the secondary literature) and, in some cases, a knowledge of palaeography and codicology. In America, the general assumption, I believe, is that students beginning a PhD are unlikely to have these skills and that, if they are to be required, the university needs to provide instruction in them. Some universities there at least – I am familiar with the excellent system at Toronto – provide elaborate tuition and testing for medievalists (including philosophers) in these areas. In Britain, the assumption (it is a strange assumption, since everyone knows that it does not line up with the reality) is that those beginning a PhD in the area have these skills already, or can acquire them with little difficulty and with a minimum of tuition. Among my doctoral students, those who came with an excellent grasp of one or more of the medieval source languages, and were good linguists, have all flourished; those who lacked such skills found it hard to do outstanding work and would probably have done better in America.
These remarks are not intended as criticisms of the British system. On the contrary, it is the system I know well and, without blindness to its drawbacks, love. It seems to me that, in this small area, Britain strikes a balance between the excesses of the Continental European system in one direction, and those of the Unites States in the other, just as, arguably, it does in wider matters of economic organization and social policy – except that the poles are reversed. With regard to doctorates, Continental Europe, France especially, is the land of laissez faire: a nod of agreement from a professor is just about all it needs to become a doctoral student, but you will then often be left almost entirely to your own devices and it may be only as a member of the jury judging your work that the supervisor will first read your thesis. By contrast, universities in the US (Canada too) are, in this respect, like the Nanny State, intervening at every stage, encouraging you, cajoling you, protecting you from your own weaknesses and, at least to some extent, guiding you along a path which others have determined.
The Gourmet Report is not, then, a useful guide for graduates trying to decide on whether to study medieval philosophy in Britain. It also seems to me very questionable whether is particularly helpful even for those in more mainstream areas of philosophy choosing between different American doctoral programmes. What it does well is exactly what it claims to do. It rates departments according to the esteem in which their members are held by a group of Anglophone, and predominantly American, philosophers, and applies the same methodology to specialized areas within departments. In the central areas of analytic philosophy, the ranking should give a clear public expression to how departments, and specialities within them, are regarded by some of those best qualified to judge. A favourable result might justifiably be a matter for university or departmental pride; a poor one a challenge to its self-esteem. In medieval philosophy, however, where many of the best specialists are not in philosophy departments at all, and where the most, and a good deal of the best, work is done in Continental European universities (excluded from the survey) – and where the majority of leading specialists are not Anglophone – I doubt whether the Philosophical Gourmet rankings show anything significant at all.
Next up in my series on the medieval rankings in the Philosophical Gourmet Report is Gloria Frost (University of St. Thomas [St. Paul]). Gloria was an undergraduate at Catholic University of America, and received her PhD from Notre Dame in 2009. Here is her perspective:
In his initial post, Bob described the methodology of the Philosophical Gourmet Report rankings and he noted some unique challenges to ranking programs in medieval philosophy. He ended by providing some advice to prospective students about how they might go about deciding which professors they’d like to work with and thus, which program they’d like to attend. In my post, I will discuss another factor (besides faculty) which prospective grad students may want to take into account when choosing between programs in medieval philosophy. This factor is the other educational opportunities which a program provides for learning about medieval philosophy. Graduate school is a mix of (1) independent research, writing and one-on-one work with one’s advisor(s); and (2) collective learning experiences in courses, colloquia, readings groups, etc. The programs ranked in the PGR medieval specialty rankings vary quite dramatically in the number and kinds of activities of the second kind which they offer regarding medieval philosophy. So, I thought it would be worthwhile to describe some of these differences for prospective students.
In addition to faculty, here are some differences regarding educational opportunities which prospective medieval students may want to consider when discerning which program is the best fit for him or her:
- Range and frequency of course offerings in medieval philosophy.
The departments listed in the PGR specialty rankings differ dramatically in the number and kinds of courses they offer in medieval philosophy. CUA, for example, is offering six graduate level courses on medieval philosophy this academic year (in addition to further undergraduate course offerings); while other ranked programs have no graduate level courses on offer in medieval this year. Some programs regularly offer very specialized courses in medieval (e.g. ‘Ockham on Mind and Cognition’ is a course recently offered at SLU.), while others only offer a general history of medieval philosophy course. It should be noted that a department’s frequency of course offerings in medieval philosophy does not always correspond to the number of medievalists on the faculty since each program has its own practices about how frequently professors can offer graduate courses, required enrollment numbers, etc. Most departments list current and past courses online, so students can look up specific departments to get an idea of their course offerings in medieval.
- Extra-curricular activities for medieval students.
Some of the ranked programs (and some omitted programs like Marquette and UST-Houston) regularly host colloquia, workshops, and invited lectures on medieval philosophy. These provide opportunities for students to meet and learn from others in the field and to broaden their range of knowledge. Many of the programs mentioned in the specialty rankings do not have such activities pertaining to medieval philosophy. For many of these programs, their strength in medieval philosophy is not their “main attraction.” When organizing colloquia, workshops, etc., they are dividing time and resources between several areas of strength and medieval is typically a lower priority.
- Number of other students in the program studying medieval philosophy.
Students learn much in grad school from other students. This happens through informal discussions, sharing written works in progress and in student-led discussion/reading groups. The programs listed in the PGR specialty rankings vary in the numbers of enrolled students you’ll find at any given time studying medieval philosophy. In some of the ranked programs, one faculty member and his or her lone student may be the only current department members with serious interests in medieval philosophy. There are other programs which admit multiple students each year with interests in medieval; so at any given time there will be a good sized cohort of students in these programs with interests in medieval. For some idea of the numbers of students studying medieval philosophy in various departments, see Bob’s post last year on PhD’s in progress in North America. Many departmental websites also list current students and their areas of interest.
- Opportunities and support required to achieve language proficiency and other non-philosophical skills needed for research in medieval philosophy.
Several programs listed in the PGR medieval specialty rankings do not have stringent language requirements for the PhD since many of their students are specializing in fields where languages are not needed for research. Given that medieval students will likely want to do more language work than what is built into many programs (e.g. Latin, French, German, and perhaps Arabic) students should check on what kind of financial support and flexibility is built into specific programs for language study beyond the official requirement. Regarding finances, some programs offer funding to do intensive language courses abroad and at other universities, while some do not. (I’d imagine that there may even be places where students could face limitations in the number of tuition waivers they can receive to take language courses internally at their own university.) Students who are interested in doing certain kinds of historical work should also consider whether their university offers the chance to study paleography and/or text editing. There are summer programs where one can learn these skills if courses are not available at one’s home university. However, funding and time are needed to take advantage of such external opportunities.
My purpose is not to suggest that these are the only or even the most important factors to consider when choosing between graduate programs in medieval philosophy. I merely want to suggest that these are important differences between the programs mentioned in the PGR medieval specialty rankings. How a student weighs these considerations against other factors will largely depend on the background which he or she brings to graduate studies and his or her goals in undertaking a PhD in medieval philosophy.
This post features some remarks by Russell Friedman. Russ seems to me well-positioned to address the subject. He’s an American, with a PhD from the University of Iowa, whose career has been entirely in Europe. He is now professor of philosophy at the De Wulf-Mansion Centre for Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy at KU-Leuven.
One thing I like about the Leiter rankings of graduate programs in philosophy is Brian Leiter’s clear descriptions of the manner in which the ranking is compiled; these make the compilation process and its results relatively transparent. For my purposes here, probably the most important fact that is communicated about the compiling of the 2012 report is:
“The survey [sent to the prospective evaluators] presented 88 faculty lists, from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia and New Zealand”.
The rankings, then, concern departments in the “English-speaking world”, defined here more specifically as the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Leiter even explains in a parenthetical statement why the rankings are focused in this way:
“Lack of reliable information leads me to exclude the non-English-speaking world, though there are thriving philosophical communities in, e.g., the Scandinavian countries, Israel, Germany, parts of Asia, etc., but they are beyond the scope of this Report.”
Fair enough. One can’t complain about false advertising, since it’s clear not only that this is a ranking of departments in the English-speaking world but also what that means in practice. And yet, in a real sense this may be misleading to prospective graduate students in at least (although not uniquely) medieval philosophy. The fact is that there are a lot of graduate programs in what Leiter is defining as the “non-English-speaking world” where someone whose only spoken language is English can get a PhD in medieval philosophy; there are even quite a few places where such a student can obtain an MA and sometimes even a BA.
Let me start with what I know best: philosophy at the University of Leuven. This isn’t meant to be an advertisement, but just to give a first impression of some of the possibilities that a student looking just at the Leiter rankings might find surprising. In Leuven, located in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, a philosophy student, able to speak nothing but English, can obtain a 3-year BA degree (that’s standard in Europe), a 1-year initial MA, a 1-year Research MA (= MPhil), and/or a PhD. In fact, the Research MA is only offered in English (not in Dutch), most curricular and extra-curricular research-related activities (e.g., lectures, conferences) are conducted in English, and there are more doctoral dissertations written and defended in English than in Dutch. In short, there’s a thriving English-language philosophy program here.
And it’s not only in Leuven. Since the range of degrees offered in philosophy vary from institution to institution – some institutions, e.g., don’t offer the BA or the MA in English – I’ll concentrate on opportunities for English-speaking-only students to pursue a PhD in (medieval) philosophy in the “non-English-speaking world”. In general, wherever a PhD in medieval philosophy is a possibility in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden), in Germany, in Benelux, and in Switzerland, a student from the English-speaking world would encounter in her or his professional life no linguistic barriers to speak of. In France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, I think it’s fair to say that, although professors would be comfortable with supervising in English, the type of full integration just mentioned is less likely, although with every passing year this becomes less of an issue as facility in spoken English in these countries improves. (I’m going to plead ignorance about the situation outside of Western Europe, although I suspect that similar statements can be made about studying (medieval) philosophy at some universities in, e.g. Eastern Europe, Israel, and parts of Asia). Of course, there are lots of local differences when it comes to cost, length of program, admission and completion requirements, and possibility of financial aid; all of that would have to be investigated by the student on a case-by-case basis. But the fact is that, speaking only English, you can successfully obtain a PhD at quite a number of philosophy departments outside of the English-speaking world. And it is often the case that in these philosophy departments there are specialists in medieval philosophy, often with strong research teams around them, working as part of fine overall faculties of philosophy (here’s where rankings might be helpful!) And once that’s been realized, it becomes much more a question of what you (the student) are interested in and who is best suited to help you with that interest in an appropriate philosophical environment, than it is a question of English-speaking world vs. non-English-speaking world. Thinking about things that way might well benefit the student.
There’s something else that a prospective student of (medieval) philosophy might be missing if she were unaware of the fact that English is not really a barrier to pursuing doctoral education in much of continental Europe. This may go beyond the Leiter rankings as such, but I think it’s worth touching on nonetheless. For some prospective students of medieval philosophy, moving to continental Europe for three or four years to do a PhD just might not be in the cards. But it might work during doctoral studies to travel to Europe for a month or a semester or even a year to work with a particular professor or as part of a particular research group. In doing this the student would gain international contacts, extra input on her research, the use of different library resources, and the possibility to, e.g., consult manuscripts at European libraries. I’ll mention, as examples only, just a couple of programs that come immediately to mind as places doctoral students might consider visiting during their studies (this is not meant as any sort of ranking, but off-the-cuff illustrations). If your interest is in medieval natural philosophy, then Nijmegen (the Netherlands) is a truly important research center. If medieval logic is your thing, then look into a stay in Copenhagen or Helsinki (albeit neither of them at philosophy departments), Gothenburg (Sweden), or Groningen (Netherlands). Medieval Arabic philosophy? How about Munich or Paris (OK, Paris is good for just about everything) or Pisa? And, if you’re simply looking for fabulous library resources with solid research teams in medieval philosophy, then Cologne or (yes) Leuven might be for you. Again: those are just examples. But the point is that, even if you aren’t interested in going outside of the English-speaking world for your PhD, you should know that the English language isn’t going to get in the way of your having a fruitful research stay at many philosophy programs on the continent. All that really matters is your finding a fit between the work you’re doing and the expertise and resources of the team in the place you’re thinking of visiting. And keep in mind that there are often competitive funding opportunities associated precisely with study in continental Europe (the Fulbright, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the American-Scandinavian Foundation, the Belgian-American Education Foundation, etc).
So, I admire the diligence with which Leiter and his collaborators have constructed their rankings to help the prospective philosophy student to more effectively find a suitable program of study. And, again, there can be no complaint that Leiter is engaging in false advertising when it comes to the issues I’ve raised. But I think that certainly (although not exclusively) the prospective student in medieval philosophy could benefit by being made aware of the available programs in the so-called non-English-speaking world. There’s a lot of English being spoken there, after all.