New Philosophical Gourmet Report
Well, a new edition of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR for short) came out yesterday with the University of Warwick making a very respectable—if slightly lacklustre—joint ninth in the UK rankings. As expected, Oxford, along with St Andrews, Cambridge and the various London colleges, continue to dominate the top slots with the overall ordering being very similar to the 2006 rankings.
Although I must admit to being rather sceptical about the utility of such global rankings, there’s no doubt that they provide an interesting reflection of the way that various departments are regarded within the profession. When it comes to postgraduate study, I suspect that it’s as important to choose the department—and in particular the supervisor—that is most suited towards one’s intended area, rather than going to the institution with the highest overall ranking. The PGR’s subject specific rankings are quite useful in this regard since they reflect the perception of each department’s strengths on a subject by subject basis, although this can again be a bit hit and miss since the PGR is based upon peer evaluation rather than a direct attempt to measure the quality of the relevant research, as per the UK RAE rankings, for example.
Having said that, I was surprised to see Warwick rated only marginally higher than my previous university of St Andrews for philosophy of mind. In practice, I would consider the research currently being carried out at Warwick in this area to be far superior, both in terms of quantity and quality, although still not at the level of many of the higher ranking US universities. I guess that the relative weakness of St Andrews in this area was bolstered by the contribution of the University of Stirling, with which it runs a joint graduate programme (SASP), although the former does undoubtedly outperform Warwick in other areas, including epistemology, philosophy of language and history of analytic philosophy. Warwick, on the other hand, is traditionally known for its strength in continental philosophy, in which it ranks the highest in the UK (group 2).
As with any performance metric, every ranking method has own particular quirks and foibles. The PGR, for example, asks participants to evaluate the strength of philosophy departments as a whole, rather than individual faculty members, since the latter would take far too long. As a result, universities that have a large number of part-time or visiting professors (including St Andrews and Stirling!) tend to do rather well, even though this may not always have a huge effect on the quality of teaching or supervision that is available to the majority graduate students. (St Andrews is somewhat unusual in that most part-time faculty members are associated with the Arché research centre, which is relatively self-contained as compared to the main philosophy departments, of which there are officially two: the Department of Moral Philosophy and the Department of Logic and Metaphysics.)
Conversely, in the RAE, the contributions of part-time faculty are adjusted on a pro rata basis, which seems more sensible, although I understand that individual departments do not always submit research from more junior faculty members, which can skew the results in their favour by yielding a higher percentage of four and three star research even though their total research output is lower. Indeed, it is debatable whether research quality should be averaged according to the size of the faculty at all since a straightforward summation of the results yields a ranking that gives a better reflection of the raw research power of each department than a mere average.
It turns out that Warwick does rather well on the latter method (number 6, rather than a very disappointing 19!), and St Andrews slightly less well, although still within the top 5 (adding in the contribution of the University of Stirling would, however, push it back up to third place). Without wishing it to sound like sour grapes given that I turned down the offer of a place at St Andrews to study philosophy of mind at Warwick, I suspect that raw research power is actually a more accurate measure of quality than either the PGR or averaged RAE rankings, although this isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits to working within a smaller, more friendly department.
In the end, I suspect that it’s best to take all such rankings with a pinch of salt and to consider them as one factor amongst many (student experience, supervision arrangements, placement record, etc.) in making a decision where to apply, rather than seeing them as the be all and end all of university choice. After all, if you write a good thesis under a supervisor who is well known in their field and manage to rack up some publications in good quality journals then you probably have about as much chance as anybody of getting an academic job afterwards (with the possible exception of Oxford and St Andrews graduates, whose departments have an enviable placement record). You pays your money and takes your choice!