The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Graduate Program Regulations: Addenda


What grades in the UMass Philosophy graduate program mean

According to University policy, faculty members have sole responsibility for the assignment of grades in their classes. They are free to assign grades as they see fit. The Department has not adopted any policy that imposes a precise interpretation on grades.

As stated in Section 23 of the regulations, during their first four semesters in the program, a student must obtain at least two grades per semester in the A range. But a student who is in good standing may receive a few grades in the B range and be thus concerned about the implications of those grades.

Suppose a student has been in the Program for several semesters, and has taken courses with several different faculty members, and has steadily received grades of A and A− in the majority of their courses. Receiving one or two grades in the B range should not, by itself, give the student any cause for concern. If the student were otherwise making good progress, it would be reasonable to be optimistic about their status in the Program.

On the other hand, suppose a student has been in the Program for several semesters, and has received quite a few grades in the B range (B−, B, B+). Then there may be reason for that student to be concerned, even if the student is technically in good standing. Unless there were unusual mitigating factors, such a student would normally be thought to be performing at a below-average level in the Program. It would be important for the student to consult with their Advisor or other faculty members.

In particular, if a student is at risk of being in bad standing—perhaps they’ve received grades in the B range for almost half of the courses they’ve taken in the Department—it might be a good idea for that student to consult more closely with their Advisor or other faculty members. [back]

Procedures for obtaining transfer credit

The procedure for obtaining transfer credit as adopted by the Department of Philosophy, September 2010 is as follows:

If, at any time during their career in the Program, a student is thinking about getting transfer credits for graduate level philosophy courses taken elsewhere, they may consult with the Graduate Program Director. The GPD will explain the Department’s policy (in Item 12 of the PhD Regulations) and procedures for granting transfer credit.

In the case of a new student, the GPD will point out that the Department will consider a request for transfer credit from a student only after the student has completed two semesters in the Program. This delay is intended to give the Department a chance to get to know the student’s strengths better. If the student performs well in classes for two semesters, and in general seems philosophically sophisticated, the Department will be prepared to consider a request for transfer credits.

In the case of a student who requests transfer credit, and who has completed two semesters here at UMass, the GPD will ask the student to submit a document specifying the courses for which they wants transfer credit. The student indicates the title of the course, the college or university where the course was taken, the name of the instructor, the semester in which the course was taken, and the final grade received. In addition, we may ask for a copy of the syllabus for the course as well as a copy of the student’s term paper (if one was required). We check the student’s transcript to confirm the details. The student also is asked to specify what sort of course, seminar, and distribution credit they is seeking.

The Department’s Supervisory Committee then considers the request. When considering the request, the Supervisory Committee takes into account not only the content and difficulty of the courses requested for transfer, but also the student’s performance to date in our Program. If the courses in question are roughly equivalent in content and difficulty to UMass Graduate Philosophy courses, and the student has established a solid record in their courses here, and it appears that they is sufficiently advanced so that there is no need for them to demonstrate proficiency in the area of the course to be transferred, the Supervisory Committee may recommend acceptance of the request.

In a typical case the Supervisory Committee may recommend granting the request for transfer credit, but only on condition that the deadline for completion of the Preliminary Requirement be moved up accordingly. For example, if we give credit for three courses, we may propose to move up the Prelim Requirement date by one semester.

The Supervisory Committee reports its recommendation to the Department at the next Semi Annual Review. In conjunction with a review of the student’s performance in the Program to date, there will be a vote of the faculty. The request may be granted, denied, or granted with some modification of the Supervisory Committee’s recommendation. The student is then informed and appropriate changes are made in the student’s file.

Note that under the Regulations of the PhD Program, a student can get transfer credit for a course only if that course was taken while the student was enrolled in a graduate program. Furthermore, under these Regulations, the maximum number of courses that can be transferred is six in the case of students who come to UMass with an MA in philosophy, and the maximum is three in the case of students who come to UMass without an MA in philosophy. [back]

How good does a Starred Paper have to be?

Graduate students planning to submit Starred Papers often wonder about the criteria of acceptability for their papers. How good does the paper have to be in order to get a grade of PASS? According to the official regulations of the PhD Program a successful Starred Paper “is a substantial work giving solid evidence that its author is able to do the kind of original research and writing required to complete a satisfactory doctoral dissertation in philosophy.” This is suggestive, but obvious questions remain: how substantial does a paper have to be in order to be a “substantial work”? What sort of evidence would show that a student is able to do the kind of research and writing required to complete a satisfactory dissertation? And what sorts of research and writing are required to make a dissertation satisfactory?

Substantiality. A previous version of the PhD Regulations specified that Starred Papers should not exceed 30 pages. The page limit seems somewhat arbitrary. It’s easy to imagine a very substantial paper that is only half that length. And it’s equally easy to imagine a very insubstantial paper that is twice that length. Perhaps a more useful criterion would be this: the paper must make a fairly original contribution to philosophy; the main points must be backed up by persuasive arguments; there must be solid evidence that the author has surveyed the relevant professional literature.

A good term paper for a graduate seminar may be 15–20 pages long. It may be a bit unprofessional in spots. It may be narrowly focused, so that some relevant literature is never discussed. A first-rate Starred Paper would be more substantial than that.

Recent prize-winning papers have been in the 25–30 page range. Precise upper and lower page limits would be arbitrary. Different topics, arguments, writing styles, fields, etc. call for different numbers of pages. But if your paper is much under 25 pages, or much over 30 pages, you might want to give some thought to the question whether there is good reason for your paper to diverge from the norm. If you are still in doubt, show the paper to some faculty members. Ask them if they think the paper is substantial enough.

Originality. A satisfactory PhD Dissertation must be “an original contribution to knowledge”. It cannot consist entirely of mere exposition of the views of other people. It must make some novel point. Since a satisfactory Starred Paper is supposed to show that the author has the skills required to write a dissertation, the Starred Paper must also make some novel point. Perhaps the amount of originality in a Starred Paper would be equal to the amount of originality in one major chapter of a good dissertation.

A good Starred Paper might be original because it defends a novel thesis, but it also might be original because it contains new and interesting arguments against a thesis that has been defended in the literature.

Research. A typical good Starred Paper is based on serious research in the relevant literature. It’s a good idea to attach a bibliography or list of references. It’s also a good idea to demonstrate mastery of some of that literature in the paper. But keep in mind that a mere review of the literature would not, by itself, make for a successful Starred Paper.

Quality of writing. A satisfactory Starred Paper must be written in a clear, literate, and professional style. Standard conventions for use and mention must be employed; spelling should be checked; footnotes and references should conform to some known guidelines. The paper should be written in something like the style one finds in good papers in the leading professional journals.

For further guidance concerning Starred Papers, students are encouraged to take a look at the papers that have won the Heidelberger Prize. These are available in the Main Office. Every one of those papers was judged by the Department to be an outstanding example. Most faculty members are happy to read and comment on a preliminary version of a proposed Starred Paper – especially if you give them plenty of time. [back]

Extensions of milestones and financial aid eligibility

There are many different reasons why a student might seek an extension of the deadline for reaching some milestone in the program. Similarly, there are reasons why a student might seek an extension of eligibility for financial aid beyond the years specified in their original letter of offer. In typical cases, the student needs extra time to complete a Starred Paper, or to pass the Course, Seminar, Starred Paper, or Area Exam requirements.

Prior to each Semi Annual Review, the GPD sends out a memo to all graduate students, inviting them to submit requests for extensions. Students then write back to the GPD, explaining the problem and stating their request. The request is then considered by the Supervisory Committee; the Supervisory Committee then makes a recommendation at the Semi Annual Review. After appropriate discussion, the Department votes to grant, deny, or amend the request and the student is informed of the Department’s decision. A similar situation involves students who seek extensions in order to have time to pursue a certificate or extra course work in areas outside of philosophy that are relevant to their philosophical work. The Department wholeheartedly supports such work where appropriate, and is happy to consider requests from students who seek such extensions. If a student wants to pursue a certificate or other coursework outside of philosophy, then the student meets with their advisor or the GPD. The student then submits a request for an extension; the request contains the rationale for the outside work and an explanation of how the work can be completed by the requested deadlines. The request is then considered by the Supervisory Committee; the Supervisory Committee then makes a recommendation at the next Semi Annual Review. After appropriate discussion, the Department votes to grant, deny, or amend the request and the student is in formed of the Department’s decision. [back]