Thursday, April 14, 2011

SFSU's MA (ranked top 13): Overextended?

  I was  accepted to SFSU's MA program, and recently visited the campus to talk with graduates and faculty about the state of the department. SFSU is ranked as one of the top 13 departments for MAs on the Gourmet Report. I found that SFSU may have overstretched its student to professor ratio with regards to it's MA program.

  In talking to the graduate coordinator, Professor Alice Sowaal, I was shocked to hear that they have 130 graduate students in the philosophy department.  There are only 12 full time professor and an additional 13 part time lecturers. While many of the graduate students are either not enrolled full time, or taking some time off, it was suggested that the active number of students was still around 100. 

[The following are my conclusions based on contact with faculty and graduate students at both SFSU and SJSU. See "6. Disclaimer" for some possible problems with this interpretation]

1. Number of Chaired Thesis for each Professor

Considering one must have 2 full time professors as chairs on one's thesis committee, this means every 2 years, a professor chairs for 16.6 students. Compared to other MA programs this is an astonishing number.

I also visited SJSU which has 12 full time and 10 part time faculty and it was suggested there are around 20-30 active graduate students. This works out to 3.3 - 5 students every 2 years. 

2. Graduate Response

I talked to 13 philosophy graduate students while I was at SFSU. 

- 11 of those 13 suggested that the professors had extremely limited or no time to read over drafts of application writing samples, or give more that 15-30 minuets a week to any one student.  

- 1 suggested that If a student makes appointments more than a week in advance the professors will give the student usually up to an hour, but not on a regular basis.

-1 Suggested that he was getting enough 'one on one' time with the professors he hoped to chair his thesis. He also suggested that  if a professor isn't giving a student enough time, then the professor is not interested in the student's work, and the student should find another professor for his/her chair.

- All 13 suggested that if they had known the student to professor ratio they would have weighed their acceptances differently. 

3. Placement Record Percentage Complication

I also call into question their placement record with regards to the percentage of SFSU's MAs which go on to be accepted into Phd's. They have a good track record as far as comparing the number of MA's which go on to PhD's with other MA programs, but  with regards to percentages, this might be a different story. If 2 students are accepted into top 10 programs from SJSU, thats ~13% of their graduating class, on the other hand if SFSU gets 2 students in that only ~4% of their graduating class. These numbers just serve as an example of how placement records can be misleading when comparing large and small departments. [See disclaimer]

4. Critical Thinking Certification

Another consideration is that although technically it is still on the books, they have stopped offering their critical thinking certification for MA students who are looking to teach community college.

5. Conclusion

In talking with many of the faculty at SFSU, they seemed to care deeply for their students but time and budget constrains made significant one on one attention difficult.

It seemed like 11 out of the 13 Graduate students I talked to, felt they were slipping through the cracks in an over extended system.

The student to professor ratio is having a detrimental effect on the graduate education which MA students are receiving. Applicants should take this into consideration when considering their acceptances.

6. Disclaimer: 

1. These numbers came about by asking questions of the graduate advisors and faculty at SFSU and SJSU. Because of this some what informal nature, I would assume that  these numbers are not exact. It does seem reasonable to believe that they are at least in the correct range.
2. I am unsure of the ratio of graduate students at either university which are PhD/community college directed. If this ratio for SFSU is very different from other MA programs this could greatly effect my interpretation of the numbers.
3. There are most likely many factors which I am not accounting for such as student commitment, drop outs, finals time, and other factors which would effect my conclusions.
4. SFSU hired 2 full time faculty last year, and it was suggested that there may be another full time professor the year after next. 

I am not calling into question the quality or dedication of the faculty at SFSU. I only want to bring to light some of the effects that having such a large student to professor ratio might have on incoming graduate students who hope to go on to PhDs.

I thought this information would be useful for students who did not get a chance to visit the campus and talk with faculty. Those who look forward to working closely with the professors who will chair on their thesis committee would find this information useful.

I would greatly appreciate any feedback on this topic.


  1. I am a graduate student at SFSU. My full response is too long to post as a comment, but can be found on our blog here. I am grateful to William for allowing me to respond on his blog, so that students who find this post will also see my comments. I want to share my own experiences and the reasons why I chose to come to SFSU. I strongly encourage prospective students to read both posts. William and I applied the same year yet made different decisions.

  2. Something here seems to be working well enough!

  3. That is great! Congratulations everyone who got in!