Monday, September 24, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Progams, Part II: Grades and Classes

(Part I is here.)

It's awfully hard to be admitted to top Ph.D. programs in philosophy, as I mentioned in Part I. Today: What do admissions committees look for in transcripts? In other posts I'll talk about other aspects of the application.

GPA, Overall and in Philosophy

You must have excellent grades to have a reasonable prospect of being admitted to a top-50 philosophy Ph.D. program, unless there's something very unusual about your application. At U.C. Riverside, ranked 31st in the Gourmet Report, admitted students typically have GPAs of 3.8 or more, with students coming directly from undergraduate having basically straight A's in philosophy their senior year. (Think about it: Ph.D.'s in philosophy become college professors. Doesn't it make sense that the people teaching your college classes should be people who were at the top of their own classes as undergraduates? Would you want the guy chewing gum in the back?) Even a 4.0 from a top university is no guarantee of admission to a top Ph.D. program.

Current graduate students (whether in M.A. programs or other Ph.D. programs) are evaluated a little differently, since good graduate programs may be very demanding. Depending on the admission committee's sense of how demanding the program is, a substantial number of A-minuses in philosophy, or even some B+'s, may be acceptable for admission to a mid-ranked department, if the letters and writing sample are excellent.

I went back and looked at the GPAs of the UCR entering class this year. We admitted 24 students and 11 accepted. Presumably the 13 who declined admission were at least as good, on average, since they chose to go to other similarly ranked or better ranked programs.

Here is the distribution of GPAs from the students' most recent institutions (with undergraduate GPA in parentheses if the student did graduate work):

[This information has been removed due to concerns about confidentiality. In summary form, there were several perfect 4.0s and the median was 3.89.]

Transcripts are evaluated holistically. Not all 3.8 GPAs are equal. What matters most are grades in upper-division philosophy courses. A "C" in chemistry your first year won't sink your application! Even a significantly lower GPA may be okay, if the low grades are early in your study and outside philosophy. Conversely, a 3.9 that includes a lot of A-minuses in undergraduate philosophy courses doesn't look so good. Also, of course, a transcript from Princeton will be evaluated differently than a transcript from a large state school with low admissions standards -- which raises the question of...

Institution of Origin

At UCR, probably a bit more than half of our students come straight from undergrad, with no prior graduate training. (They get their M.A. here, along the way to the Ph.D.) As I mentioned in Part I, I suspect UCR admits more students from M.A. programs than most similarly ranked departments -- though 8 of 11 entering this year with prior graduate work is high even for us.

I also mentioned in Part I the difficulty of being admitted to a top ten Ph.D. program from a non-prestigious school. At UCR, in contrast, colleges represented among our students run the spectrum. This year's entering class includes students from Fordham, Boston College (M.A.), Kansas State, Georgia State (M.A.), Missouri-Columbia (transfer from Ph.D. program), and Azusa Pacific, among others.

It can be difficult for admissions commitees to evaluate transcripts from small liberal arts schools, foreign schools, and M.A. programs, since grading standards vary widely. It helps if students from such schools have at least one of their letter writers address this point with concrete comparisons. For example, a letter writer might say: "Jill's GPA of 3.91 is the best GPA for a graduating senior in Philosophy in the last five years, among 80 graduates." Now the admissions committee knows better what that 3.91 means! If the writing sample is excellent, that also confirms the meaningfulness of the GPA.

Students who have attended multiple universities must submit transcripts from all their universities. We occasionally admit students who did poorly early in their education then seem to have "shaped up" with consistently excellent performance later on, though we had no such admissions in this year's class.

Types of Courses

You needn't be a philosophy major to apply to graduate school in philosophy, though you do need to have a track record of excellent upper-division or graduate work in philosophy. Occasionally neuroscientists or physicists or whatever decide they want to become philosophers instead. Admissions committees aren't hostile to the idea -- it shows the good sense of recognizing the superiority of our field, after all! -- especially if the student excelled in her original discipline. But without some sort of track record it can be hard to know if the student's skills would transfer well to philosophy, or even if the applicant really knows what she's getting into.

If you have an opportunity to take graduate courses in philosophy, especially if you're at a school with a Ph.D. program, by all means do so. If you can earn an A or two in graduate-level courses in philosophy, that can really solidify the case that you're ready for graduate school -- especially if one of your letter writers compares you favorably with her current graduate students! Unfortunately, applications generally have to be sent in in early winter, so make sure you do that graduate work by fall term of the year you apply.

Honors Thesis

For some reason, we don't get many applicants who have written honors theses, nor do many philosophy students at UCR write them (I can only recall one in ten years!). However, if your school offers this option, I'd recommend strongly considering it, especially if you're able to complete the thesis by the time of application. It establishes that you can do long-term, independent, self-directed work, and also it gives you a taste of such work so you can think about whether it's really for you; it's likely to be your best piece of work and a natural candidate for a writing sample; it deepens your relationship with a potential letter writer; and on top of all that, it's an intrinsically worthwhile experience!

Timing Graduation

Oddly, students completing their studies in a spring term, as is traditional, are at a bit of a disadvantage in applying compared to students who finish in the fall. If you take 4 years to graduate and apply at the beginning of your fourth year, 1/2 or 2/3 of your senior year won't show in your transcripts, you'll have fewer essays to draw on as potential writing samples, and you'll have had less exposure to potential letter writers then if you take 4 1/2 years to graduate and apply at the beginning of your fifth year.

I myself took an extra quarter at Stanford and applied in the fall quarter of my 5th year -- and I know my application was much better than it would have been had I applied in the fall quarter of my 4th year. I then had fun for nine months, doing other things (hanging out in Humboldt County in far northern California), holding a temporary job I didn't much care about, and I had plenty of time to travel to the schools that admitted me -- a very positive experience I'll discuss in a future post.

Another possibility is to graduate your 4th year, then apply the year after. However, this potentially doesn't look as good to admissions committees. Why didn't you go straight to graduate school, the committee might wonder. What are you doing now? Such questions don't doom your application by any means (especially if you're just fresh out of your B.A.), but it's preferable if they don't arise. So if you're not ready to apply in fall of your fourth year, it's better to postpone graduation until fall of your fifth year, if you can bear the wait! (Besides, that's all the more philosophy, right?)

Update, October 3:

This last section seems to have caused panic and consternation among some readers. Let me stress that it's a minor issue at most, if you're applying less than a year after graduating! Don't feel you have to stay enrolled through fall if you were planning to graduate in spring. And a strong application after graduation, with good letters, good writing sample, etc., is much better than a weak application submitted early one's senior year, if one isn't really fully ready.

See the comments section for advice to students who are several years past their B.A.

Part III: Letters of Recommendation


Charles said...

Thanks so much for proving your thoughts and data on this matter, Eric!

I have a few questions about this section of your guide:

"Why didn't you go straight to graduate school, the committee might wonder. What are you doing now? Did you only decide to apply to graduate school after a bad taste of the corporate world, suggesting that your commitment might not be deep and long-standing enough to carry you through a grueling Ph.D. program?"

(1) Might not work outside of academia be evidence that an applicant is making a more reflective and informed decision than applying straight out of undergrad? I can't immediately think of any compelling reason why MORE experience in the world would make your decision to go to graduate school LESS credible.

(2) Might a student not apply to graduate school a year or more later because she was denied entry on the first run? Wouldn't their continued application be evidence of greater commitment to become part of the field? You might contest along these lines: doesn't their being denied admission constitute grounds for their simply being inferior candidates?

That line of reasoning strikes me as seriously flawed for a variety of reasons, not least because it assumes that 1150 or so applicants are simply unqualified for graduate study (a fact belied by their having secured recommendations in the first place!).

Perhaps a student applied to only a handful of programs in order to be closer to his or her spouse or significant other, thereby hindering their chances (one of my program's top graduates found himself in just this situation). Perhaps an excellent student from a lower-tier school applied to only top-ranked programs because of dubious(or non-existent) counseling from his or her advisers. Perhaps a program would have otherwise loved to take an applicant, but had people with overlapping areas of specialization that were already overburdened with graduate students (if only she had applied last year/next year!).

One of my undergrad advisers (at a quite highly ranked but not top-10 graduate program according to the PGR) told me that they have consistently rejected candidates whose qualifications "would make you weep" simply because the applicant pool is so stellar (contrary to what the above line of thinking suggests). Surely SOME of these rejected applicants just got unlucky this year? (A number of people have referred to the application process with terms like "crap shoot".)

(3) Given your reservations about older applicants, how do you suggest older applicants overcome such reservations? ("Older" being a rough and ready term describing people applying a year or more after graduating.) I would initially assume that explanations of one's decision to apply after graduating would go in the personal statement. Is it better to explain your situation to your letter writers and have them address the question? Both? Advice on this matter would be greatly appreciated, not least because it applies to my personal situation!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Let me first say that I'm more confident that those are likely reactions, or *some* people's reactions, than that I myself endorse those views. However:

Regarding (1): You have a point, but I don't know that it outweighs the point that an early and consistent commitment to academia is a good sign.

Regarding (2): That possibility, that the student was rejected the year before, will occur to some committee members. Re-applying may show continued commitment, but it's human nature to want what other people want and not to want what they've rejected. (Unfortunately, this is true in the job market also.)

Let me emphasize that already having a B.A. in hand doesn't doom your application. It just raises questions that it would be nice not to have raised! We do admit students even with fairly stale B.A.'s to UCR from time to time. I also recall at least one student at Berkeley who got in long after having completed his last formal degree program. Also if you're really just fresh out of your B.A., the question doesn't arise as acutely as if you've been out for a few years. Some committee members won't even notice.

If you already have a B.A. and are not enrolled in graduate study, I recommend continuing to take philosophy classes. You can do this formally through extension programs at some universities, or you can even simply ask a professor permission to unofficially audit (though this isn't as good as officially taking the course and having the transcript). If you do audit, try to do all the work of the enrolled students, including essays and tests. The professor may even agree to assign you an unofficial grade based on your performance.

It helps if you can convince a professor at a university with a Ph.D. program to let you enroll in a graduate course. That's tough, though! Most professors really only want graduate students (or possibly very advanced undergraduates) in their grad courses. It might help if you prove yourself in undergraduate courses first.

A's in graduate courses and letters saying that you compare well with current Ph.D. students in good Ph.D. programs are great assets in an application. The student I'm thinking of who got into Berkeley had managed to take several graduate courses from Berkeley faculty part time, while waiting tables in San Francisco. He then got letters from those faculty recommending admission.

dan haybron said...

Hey man, *I* was that guy chewing gum in the back! A wonderful pair of posts, Eric, which should be added to the list of "must-reads" for prospective grad students (is there a web site tracking this stuff?).

I haven't served on a grad admissions committee yet, but the trends you discuss give me some concern about the future of the profession: if you need straight A's or close to it, then a lot of the best minds won't have a chance to get into a decent grad program. While any selection process will make errors, there's good reason to think that philosophical talent doesn't always correlate with good grades.

Of course truly brilliant people often do get stellar grades in school--you're not so shabby yourself!--but I suspect that a fair number of the most creative thinkers don't do so, precisely because of the nature of their talents: their ways of thinking don't fit the mold, or they simply have their own intellectual agendas and can't bring themselves to put much effort trying to satisfy their teachers' demands.

It would be interesting to do a study of influential thinkers to see how many of them didn't get good grades in school. (Unfortunately, schools have always penalized certain forms of creativity, so this measure would still be skewed in favor of good student-ship.) Those who didn't would apparently be weeded out by the current system, which seems to me a shame.

I don't know that any of this is really a criticism of the system, since I can't say what I'd do differently: if you're swamped with equally amazing applications, you've got to narrow it somehow. And there's an excellent reason for caution about applicants with iffy grades, however brilliant: they are probably more likely not to succeed in grad school, to take forever to finish, etc. How do you know which unruly genius will actually be productive and which is just lazy or unfocused?

So I don't know anyone's to blame--but I do worry that the profession may end up with less originality and creativity as a result.

I'll close with a rankly self-serving example (sorry!): I'm no genius, but I was a congenitally mediocre B-student, right through grad school, basically because I almost never cared as much about my classes as the other things that interested me. (Eg, I often cut school as a kid to read my own books.) And whatever philosophical ability I do have, I think, has a lot to do with my being a rotten student. This certainly isnt the only or even best way to be a decent philosopher, but I think it is one way. It's a bummer to think the profession may no longer have room for people like that. Please tell me I'm wrong!

dan haybron said...

A quick clarification: my point above was that *one* of several ways to be a good philosopher involves getting not-so-good grades, and that people of *that* sort may be getting shut out.

I certainly don't think good grades count *against* being a good philosopher, and I'd guess most top philosophers got excellent grades--and not necessarily by being model students. One of the smartest people I've known got A's and graduated a year early despite doing zero work most of the semester, smoking weed until the last few days then doing all the reading and writing his papers. Bastard!

Charles said...

"You have a point, but I don't know that it outweighs the point that an early and consistent commitment to academia is a good sign."

When 50% of admitted students quit before finishing? I doubt the ones quitting are all the ones who took some time off (particularly if they are rarely admitted in the first place!).

What if she had student loans to pay off? What if she did Teach for America and was contractually bound to do something besides academic work? What if she wanted to simply raise some extra money to alleviate
the financial stress of graduate school? What if she wanted to pursue for some time some other interest that is markedly less feasible when you're a 30
something (or more) with a spouse and/or job market concerns?

"Re-applying may show continued commitment, but it's human nature to want what other people want and not to want what they've rejected."

Even if they rejected it on the basis of what amounted to a roll of a die? It's also human nature to reason according to selection biases and demonstrably inaccurate heuristics; that doesn't make it OK to do so.

I appreciate your point about raising a question that would not have otherwise been raised, but the
appropriate response to such a question is to try to answer it, while you seem to be suggesting that most reviewers already have a stock answer. Looking for an excuse to toss someone's application is light years away from fabricating a just-so story about some kind of loyalty that stretches over and above a student's willingness to dedicate four years of undergraduate plus a plan to commit five or more. Just what kind of loyalty is that, and how does it serve to benefit the profession?

Your point about continuing one's studies is probably good advice. However, if an individual is not waiting tables or working retail, it can be hard if not impossible to structure one's work day around a class, 99+% of which (around here, anyway) fall between normal work hours. Is there no other way?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, great comment, Dan! I find myself, because of the nature of the posts, being a spokesman for The System (e.g., in my exchange with Charles here), but I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable in that role, so I'm glad folks are challenging me on this stuff!

I agree that the system disadvantages a certain sort of independent-minded genius -- the kind with little tolerance for jumping through the hoops. But somehow you got through, and I doubt the system has changed much since you applied to grad school (in the early or mid 90's, I'm guessing). Departments will sometimes take a risk on student with uneven grades if the writing sample and/or letters are brilliant.

And I suspect you're overstating your case, if you got into Rutgers' Ph.D. program. Surely at some point -- in your senior year, or in a master's program? -- you impressed some professors and showed you could consistently earn top grades? I don't want students to have unrealistic hopes based on your description of your case.

I would advise applicants even without a flawless GPA to take a crack at a couple top programs, just in case their application has something in it that an admissions committee really likes. But the fact is that even many really *fantastic* students aren't admitted to top programs. As I mentioned in Part I, we've produced some truly excellent students at UCR and never cracked the top 15.

Although unruly geniuses are disadvantaged by the system, I do suspect that some of them eventually succeed. Wittgenstein, for example, was about as close as only can get to the unruly genius archetype. He didn't apply to Cambridge in the standard way (as I recall, he just kind of visited Russell and impressed him) and didn't jump through the hoops to complete his degree. Kripke published his first work in high school and reportedly started teaching graduate courses as a sophomore. I don't see why such things couldn't happen today -- for the Kripkes and Wittgensteins out there! Or on a smaller scale for the not-quite-Kripkes and not-quite-Wittgensteins.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm ambivalent about defending the system, Charles, as I mentioned in my reply to Dan. Yet....

It would be interesting to look at the completion rates of students who took time off first vs. those who did not. I'd predict that we'd find lower completion rates for those who took time off first, but I'm by no means sure of this. Student loans will ordinarily be deferred while you are in graduate school.

If you're contractually obligated to the army or some other institution, that is of course a special case, and you can mention this is your statement of purpose.

I appreciate that it's difficult to take courses in philosophy while holding down a day job. But if you've been out several years and you aren't working seriously on philosophy in some way that can be evaluated by letter-writers or by the committee, it's simply an unavoidable fact that committees will wonder about those intervening years.

Doubts and questions about the interval between taking your degree and applying for graduate school are defeasible and answerable. You can address them in your statement -- though be careful about striking too defensive a tone or writing too corny a narrative ("the veil fell from my eyes..."). Even better, you can have your letter writers address the issue.

Let me re-emphasize that applications of this sort are not necessarily doomed! I'd say it's a small- to medium-sized negative (depending on situation) that can be outweighed by other things -- excellent letters, excellent writing sample, excellent grades.

dan haybron said...

Thanks, Eric! I agree with everything you said here, including the important point that my grades weren't *bad* (and perhaps they were better than I remember); save for a c+ in a sophomore phil class (which I'm sure did hurt my applications), my philosophy grades were decent, though not great.

Since prospectives may find this info useful, I should add that the first time I applied to grad school I only got accepted at one place (Ohio State), and one rejection letter, from a prominent philosopher, said that "you are certainly a promising candidate for study in some field, but not philosophy as we do it!" What really hurt me was having letters from religious studies faculty vs philosophers and using a writing sample someone described as "post-posty"--ie, decidedly not analytic philosophy.

So... I worked 2 years in the software industry and tried again, using more philosophers for references and what I thought was a boring and dry writing sample from my undergrad thesis--but which was probably the most "analytic" piece I could produce. Luckily, admissions folks liked it pretty well, and I got a whopping 2 acceptances: one at uc irvine and one at rutgers. I got close at one or two others and was rejected by many lesser departments.

So: it is true (or was then) that sometimes a dept will take a chance on someone who doesn't fit the normal criteria, and the process is very hard to predict. So perhaps I exaggerated the problem (though I still wonder if my chances would've been worse in today's climate).

I'd also like to note that despite its somewhat grim reputation, rutgers did take a chance in this case, and subsequently allowed me to go off the reservation and pursue an oddball dissertation topic that I suspect few departments would have supported(basically b/c it was in a "fringe" area which no one in the dept, or just about anywhere else, really knew anything about).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Dan. That's useful and encouraging! It sounds like someone fell in love with your writing sample (despite your modest description of it) or believed the raves of one or more of your letter writers. Probably both. (I'm glad they did!)

It does happen. I'll mention another case in my post on writing samples. That's why I'd never advise a good student not to bother shooting for a top department.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

One more thought about Dan's case. If you think your file is uneven or may be difficult to evaluate, it might be worth applying to more than the 6-8 schools that most students seem to apply to, since it will be more of a crap shoot.

Stewart said...

Eric, thanks for the fun blog. Do departments ever admit people clearly not aiming for a career, but who love philosophy? I'm doing a second B.A in philosophy at a middle-of-the-top-fifty-gourmet-report school, 20+ years after a degree in computer science from Pretentious Ivy League U with middling grades. If I can swing it financially (sell the kids, get adopted by Warren Buffet, etc.) I'd like to go to grad school. But I'll be around 50 when I start, and applying for tenure-track jobs at 57 seems like a foolhardy retirement strategy. I can support myself consulting in the tech world rather than TAing, and I wouldn't need any support from the grad school.

GRE and second BA GPA are in the same league as yours. Letters of rec were apparently enthusiastically written.

Am I doomed as a hobbyist philosopher to a B.A. and no more?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

No, no! Apply. (Don't *say*, though, that you don't plan to teach philosophy. Remain silent on that point. And who knows, you may change your mind.) At least at UCR, I haven't noticed any age discrimination in admissions decisions, as long as the person has recently been doing good work in philosophy. We have some students over 50 in our program, including the eminent clinical psychologist Robert Stolorow.

Alex said...

(In case you're still checking this post...)

Thank you so much for your thoughts and advice. This is really helpful! My question is how much "give" there is in terms of GPA for students from colleges known to have tough grading standards. Here I'm thinking of places like the University of Chicago, Reed and Swarthmore. Do you expect straight-A's from students applying from these schools, or do you give leeway for a mix of A's and A-'s?

A related question I have is how much "give" there is for students majoring in fields other than philosophy that are known to have tough grading standards. For example, if an English major and a physics major apply to philosophy graduate school, how much leeway does the physics major get on the GPA, given that it's (on average) harder to get A's in physics than it is in English?

Thanks very much for your help!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Applicants from tough, elite schools (including all the schools you mention) are definitely viewed differently from students from big, non-elite state schools where the standards are seen as being lower. I'm not as sure about the difference between majors, though. I suspect different committee members will see that issue differently.

The process is definitely holistic and non-formulaic.

Jordan said...

This series is so helpful, thank you for taking the time. Some questions...

1. Do you see the board accepting a student who got an 'F' in an upper division philosophy class, who later retook the class and got an 'A'? Would that show that the 'F' was due to other issues and not cabability in the classroom? other thing.

2. I am concerned becuase I attended two community colleges and two universities (first university was Mills College, left for personal reasons and did some time at John F. Kennedy to stay involved in academics- then returned to Mills to finish up). I know it sounds shaky but I learned invaluable lessons in my odd road to the B.A. finishline. My two dream schools are UC Berkeley and Stanford. University of Oregon a distant third becuase it means moving. My GPA's range from
3.7 - 3.9. I have not taken the GRE yet.

3. How much does being a woman help? I don't mean that I want to get favoritism becuase I would not want to be accepted over a better male applicant just becuase I am a woman. But I have heard that since the field is quite lacking in women that it might help.

Jordan said...

First sorry about that little typo on my first post.

I just wanted to restate that I understand that you are not in the business of giving advice to each and every one of our (us neurotic hopefuls) individual circumstances. With that said I appreciate any general advice on the issues I asked about.

I am thinking a lot about your advice on the writing sample. I am actually going to end up with two B.A.'s in philosophy. I will be applying as a grad from Mills College since it is mid-ranked. But my senior paper from JFKU (a no-name small school) will be done and is a 6 month investment of 27 pages on neuroplasticity and existentialism and I think it will be strong for the writing sample.
So thanks again for all of your tips!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

There's lots of variability on how committees see all these issues, I think. 3.7-3.9 GPA is credible but not stellar. A lot will hang on the sample and letters!

Berkeley and Stanford are tough places to get in. They get a fair number of 3.9+ GPA applicants from elite universities, so something in your application will have to make you stand out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this forum back to the front. It is is extremely helpful.
I have two quick questions that I don't beleive have been covered. The first concerns taking garduate classes once out of school. I have just finished an MA from a very good Australian university and moved to the US. I cannot apply this year for Ph.D programs as I have a little one on the way and would like to be in a slightly better financial position than I am now. Over the next year I would like to take some classes as you have recommended. What I am wondering is how to approach professors about this.

It’s interesting for me because our universities are considered public in a way that (seems to) differ greatly from the US. What I mean is that students rarely pay for postgraduate degrees in the humanities, and hence professors tend to allow anyone with an interest to sit in on seminars, lectures etc. It is thus very common for a class or seminar to have several people who have graduated (maybe many years ago) or have some interest to sit in. This brings up an issue of public benefit that makes me nervous in approaching professors about auditing their courses. It just seems awkward to me to ask schools that are private and run on a business model for a free class. I would imagine that while individual profs would allow a qualified student to sit in, on a middle management-type level if it was found out, there would be a cease and desist memo instantaneously issued. Hence my question about how to approach a professor about this.

The second concerns a writing sample. If I work on a writing sample over the next year or so, how realistic is it for me to send it to a professor of whom I’m not a student for comments? My first reaction would be that it would vary considerably between individuals, but considering that people such as yourself maintain blogs and respond in reasonable depth to peoples posts on academic matters should I be optimistic? I say this because (like others) I would like to put forth the best possible writing sample I can, so seeking out some extra opinions seems like a good idea.

Well, thanks again for all your help. Sorry to ask two small things in so many words. Perhaps I do have what it takes to be a philosopher!

Thanks Blake

aeolist said...


I don't think whether a professor welcomes non-registered participants into her class has much to do with whether the university is private or public. I suspect it depends more on the professor's preferences. I went to a private university as an undergrad and in several classes (including some graduate seminars) there were obvious non-students sitting in. In some cases, they may have sneaked in without asking, but the professors explicitly sanctioned their presence in other cases.

I don't think you have to worry about middle management at all. There is very little chance that they will find out or even care unless other students in the class complain about your presence. If you do not disrupt the class or otherwise have a negative impact on the learning experiences of others, there is no reason for the university to dictate to the professor who should or should not be allowed in her class.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Blake, I agree with Aeolist. Let me add that professors vary enormously in how welcoming they are of non-students in their classes. However, I would guess that the modal attitude is to welcome any sincere non-student into an undergraduate class unless that class is overfull and turning away students, but to be much more cautious about allowing non-students into graduate seminars. (One student can ruin the whole dynamic of a seminar if that student is both vocal and unprepared.) Normally, professors will not read papers unless they have a prior relationship with you -- through your auditing a class, say, and making good contributions to the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric and Aeolist
Thanks for your responses. Let's hope someone will let me audit a class or two while I'm here in Boston. Realistically though the sheer number of classes offered in the area should make it possible. I'd really like to take graduate level classes so I will take your earlier advice Eric about stating my desire to do all the work up front, something I do genuinely wish to do. I have also taught undergrads back home so I know what a talkative unprepared student with delusions of grandeur can do to a class.
Thanks again for your help, it is much appreciated.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Good luck, Blake!

Sean said...

Hi Eric - as many others have said, this series is extremely useful in knowing what to focus on. I do have one question, myself:

Regarding the back-and-forth with Charles - what if you took time off to do a Master's program in another field? In my case, I was unsure of whether I wanted to do some form of international relations related to development, or whether I wanted to do philosophy, so I went for the Masters in development because it was a smaller potential mistake (2 years vs. 5-7). Should I attempt to explain, perhaps by connecting to interests? For example, if I have an interest in metaethics, practical reason, and political philosophy (e.g. distributive justice and informational bases of theories) - should I attempt to draw the connection between a desire to explore the empirical and policy-focused side of these things (through a IR program) vs. the desire to explore the theoretical issues (through a philosophy program)? I've only been out of undergrad for one year (two when I actually begin the program) so it may not be a huge issue, but...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sean, if you can connect your Masters outside of philosophy with your philosophical interests, most (probably not all) admissions committees will see the Masters as an asset. I'd recommend making those connections explicit in your personal statement, assuming that you can do so honestly and that the programs you're applying to have faculty with related interests.

Sean said...

Thanks a bunch Eric - that's good news. It certainly isn't forcing it to say that distributive justice remains one of my interests, and I might even have an example based on my thesis. Until you said that, I had been a little worried that it would be taken as indicating a lesser commitment to philosophy - though my reading was that it made the application to PhDs a more informed decision because I had worked out the indecision.

applicant said...

Hi Eric,

I'm a recent grad of a top 20 liberal arts school, and my numbers are as follows: overall GPA 3.3, philosophy GPA 3.4, and GRE 1210. I suspect that analytical writing got at least a 5. I don't have time to retest prior to submitting applications, but I've read that I should retest this spring and send the improved (yet averaged) scores to schools as a sort of application "update." Would you recommend this, or any other kind of update?

I've asked professors at the following schools whether my GPA/GRE will get me an automatic rejection: Brown, Tufts, Georgetown, Maryland, Boston U, Arizona State, UW-Milwaukee, Georgia State, UC-Boulder, Northwestern, Emory, UW-Seattle, and CUNY. Surprisingly, I only received outright discouragements from Seattle & Boulder - and I received the most encouraging emails from Brown, Georgetown, and Maryland! Do you have any thoughts on why Seattle & Boulder have presented themselves as more selective than the higher-ranked Brown & Maryland?

Is it possible that certain professors are being intentionally or unintentionally dishonest with me about my actual chances of admission? Should I favor the optimistic ones and apply to their programs? Considering the difficulty of gaining admission to top 50 philosophy PhD programs, I had not expected positive words from places such as Brown.

I've read that students with my profile (low GPA/GRE, but good undergrad school, letters, & writing sample) should apply to 10-12 schools. But I am considering cutting my long list down to 3 terminal MA programs and 1-2 PhD programs (esp. since time's running out): Tufts, UW-Milwaukee, Georgia State, Brown, and Georgetown. And no safety schools. Is this a bad idea? I'm thinking that if I do not get into a good program this year, then I will polish my application and reapply next year...

This post is very long, and I thank you in advance for any insights you can offer!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Applicant: On the face of it your application seems to be a longshot for a top-50 Ph.D. program, much less a selective one, though with a brilliant sample and considerable luck anything is possible. I suspect professors would rather err on the side of encouraging applicants than discouraging them, which might explain Brown's reply.

You seem a good candidate for an M.A. program. Tufts, Milwaukee, and Georgia State are all leading M.A. programs. Unfortunately, I don't know much about their admissions standards. If you are determined to do graduate study in philosophy, I would consider a safety school unless you think your application will be considerably better in a year.

If you are admitted to a ranked Ph.D. program, I would greatly appreciate it if you would let me know so that I can give more encouraging advice in the future!

Anonymous said...

I have two unrelated questions:

1. In reading the information that you have kindly provided, I noticed several occasions in which you allude to A-minus grades in philosophy courses being seen unfavorably by admissions committees. I was somewhat surprised by this, since even getting an A- in some of the upper-level philosophy courses at my school is not an easy matter. Perhaps this reflects the strength of my undergraduate department (U. Pittsburgh)-- I even had one professor state that he does not give anything above an A- on the first paper of a course. In general, then, is an A- in a strong department perceived differently than an A- in a less prominent philosophy department? To provide context, my philosophy grades have so far consisted of a roughly 3:2 ratio of A:A-.

2. Regarding GRE scores, I am curious how admissions committees will respond to this anomoly: I took the GRE twice. On the first test I received 800-Q and 720-V, and skipped the analytical writing. On the second test I received 800-Q and 690-Q, but a whopping 4.0 (37th %ile) on the analytical writing section. I can offer no explanation for this low score -- on several occasions philosophy professors have explicitly commented on the quality of my prose. When I told one of my former professors about this, he told me not to worry. Do you concur?

Thanks for your many advices.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jan. 23: For students from the very top programs, there seems to be more tolerance of A-minuses. Much will depend on other aspects of your file, but if you aren't admitted to a decent Ph.D. program, I don't think it will be because of your grades.

On the writing section of the GRE: I have never encountered an admissions committee member who took it seriously. It's possible that there are a few out there somewhere though.

Anonymous said...

Dear Eric,

Thank you for the information, it is truly invaluable and I believe that there should be more openness about admissions across the board.

I have a good question regarding the evaluation of grades from students who transferred from community colleges:

I am currently getting an MA from a terminal program with a fair placement record. If I can keep up my pace, I will graduate with a 4.0, or something quite close.

Futhermore, in undergrad, I graduated with highest honors with a 3.9 GPA

The problem: I was a transfer student, and my undergrad institution, like most schools, does not calculate grades from community college courses, in which my GPA came out to a 3.6, with one F that was retaken for an A and and one C, both in non-philosophy general prereqs.

1. Given that schools generally require transcripts from ALL institutions, how do you think admissions commitees would evaluate my "official" undergrad GPA (as stated on the transcript)?

2. Will they put more weight into my graduate or undergraduate GPA?

3. However far I have come since my city college transgressions, are these grades going to pose a considerable problem for my admissions chances?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind comment, Anon.

My take is that the community college record in the case you describe will be only a slight drag on your application, perhaps even no drag at all, since you now have a very substantial track record of excellence. "Official GPA" is not nearly as relevant as performance in upper-division philosophy classes in cases like this.

I suspect admissions committees will take more seriously the GPA from the institution whose judgment they respect better: The MA program if it's seen as a good, competitive one; the undergrad program if it's seen as the better school. There are definitely some concerns about grade inflation in MA programs, so the MA grades won't necessarily carry the day.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for info eric. Like many of your readers, if im fortunate enough to land a phd offer, it will be due in no small part to the guidance you have offered here.

One question I had after your last comment regards the assessment of MA programs, specifically those not graced by the Leiter reports.

Everyone knows that programs like Tufts are well regarded. Not so clear are those terminal programs that claim to have strong placement records but have no ranked status (i.e. state school MA's i.e. CSULB and small private school MA's i.e. Loyola Marymount)

What details could you provide to prospective MA students about the assessment of inflation and overall quality at MA programs? For instance:

What MA programs has your department looked favorably upon, as indicated by matriculation? And what schools are notorious as having inflated grades and/or being of low quality?

How is such a school identified? Do you expect MA level grades to be lower than what you often receive? If so, does that mean that a student coming from a solid program with A-minus grades is a competitive applicant?

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, thanks a lot for the blog it was really helpful.
I have a question concerning GPAs. Throughout this section, are the GPAs you're reffering to on a 4.3 scale? (i.e. including A+s?) I'm from McGill and have a 3.51 on a 4.0 scale, how would this be viewed by an application commitee?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Some schools count an A+ as a 4.33, while others count an A+ as 4.0, just like an A. When I made my remarks, I was assuming the latter case. Institutions and professors vary considerably in their willingness to give A+'s, and committee members may differ in how seriously they take them. I myself do take them seriously.

McGill is a respected school, but a 3.5 is still on the low end. I'd think that GPA would be tend to be a negative factor in your application unless the lower grades were primarily early or outside of philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply.

Since I come from a Quebec Cegep, my BA only took me 3 years and my final year GPA is a 3.88 with pretty much straight A's in my 400 and one 500 (graduate) level class (only one A- in a 400 level class). I got into an MA program (Concordia university), how much of a damper would my undergraduate record be on my application toward a PhD program, say at UWO or U of T if I do well in the MA program?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That final year will count more, especially if you can maintain that consistent quality through the M.A. I do not think your undergrad GPA would be much of a drag on your application any longer, except perhaps at some of the most elite schools.

Bear in mind that most people in MA programs have less than ideal undergrad transcripts; so you're probably coming into the program a little better-looking than average. There's no reason, then, to think that their placement record would not reflect your chances of success.

Anonymous said...

Hi eric,

I already asked this question, but I thought I'd give it another shot just in case you missed it: Any details on the assessment of MA programs and grade inflation?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't have much more to say about this other than that it's a mess and hard to evaluate from the perspective of an admissions committee, and I suspect schools, committee, and committee members vary considerably in their assessments. I wish I had more info to share!

MA applicant said...

Hi Eric,

Many thanks for your informative posts on admissions.

Here's hoping you're still reading these posts:

I'm currently in a Leiter-ranked MA program and will be applying to PhD programs this fall. My philosophy undergrad GPA is decent (slightly above 3.9). My MA GPA is solid, mostly A's with one B+. My GREs are decent, but unremarkable (high 1300s combined). So, given that (1) I've gotten mostly A's in philosophy as a grad and an undergrad and (2) that I have a GRE score that isn't terrible, should I feel confident that my sample will get a good look? Does it look bad that my MA GPA is lower (though just barely) compared to my undergrad philosophy GPA? Am I obsessing over my GPA for no reason?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

MA Applicant: You sound like a plausible applicant for a mid-ranked program, so your sample should get a look. MA program grades are hard to evaluate, but given that it's not unusual for MA applicants to have stronger GPAs than yours, your GPA might put you at a bit of a disadvantage relative to the competition (unless, perhaps, you're at Tufts, which some committee members seem to treat as a class apart). Your letters will matter a lot.

Anonymous said...

MA applicant:

When you say mostly A's and one B+, do you mean a) all A's save for one B+, or do you mean mostly A's, some A-'s, a one B+.

If (a) then I think you stand a negligible drag on your app, but if (b), I think it all depends upon how many A-'s you have. Im not an admissions expert, but from what ive gathered, I'd say that the single B+ isnt going to be a huge deal by itself. But, if the B+ is coupled with a few A-'s, such that your A to non-A ratio is close to a draw, I would think you were at a bit of a disadvantage, though not enough to prevent you from being a plausible applicant.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks Anon 11:16. I was assuming the latter, given that her overall GPA was below 3.9; but I guess it could still be the former case if the total number of classes is few. You're right that it makes a big difference which.

jjj777 said...

I love your blog. Very helpful!

I'd appreciate some advice if you're willing:

I did 3 years at Miami (OH) University and then completed my BA in Psychology from The Ohio State University in 2007 with an overall GPA of 3.5. I only took 3 philosophy courses (the first at Miami, second two at Ohio State):
Theories of Human Nature: A-
Logic: A
Asian philosophies: A

I was accepted into an MA in Philosophy of Religion with an entrance deficiency (requiring 3 hrs of undergrad philosophy in addition to my grad work).

I took 2 years off and now I am full time in the MA as a re-admit.

My GRE: 800 Q, 720 V
MAT: 92nd percentile

What hope do I have for PhD programs in light of my philosophically weak undergrad record and relatively low overall undergrad GPA? (if I do well in the MA, get good recommendations and write a good sample)

Will my undergrad transfer be a problem? What about the MA postponement?

Another concern: if things go as planned, I will finish the MA on Dec. 17, 2010. To begin a PhD in Fall 2011, should I apply early on the basis of my completed courses + what it lists as registered? Or should I wait until after grad to apply to the schools with deadlines after Dec. 17th?

jjj777 said...

Also, a question for a friend with a lower GRE... not sure his break-down but he said 1300 combined. Should he re-take it? How do PhD admissions evaluate multiple GRE scores? What if he scores much higher, much lower or about the same?

And please know how much we appreciate all of your help. These are questions that matter deeply to us, and your posts and answers go a long way in sorting it all out and relieving our (justified) anxieties. Thanks!

jjj777 said...

One last message, I promise:

My MA is in Philosophy... of Religion. That will remain one of my interests, I'm sure, but I hope to not be pinned down by it. Will it be a hindrance to a program primarily devoted to other interests?

The university allows MA's to take one free undergrad course per semester. I could temper it with some more undergrad work in another branch of philosophy. Say, a semester in Symbolic logic and a semester in a philosopher study? Would that be enough?

Considering the entirety of my posts, should I consider pushing back my graduation date to May 2012 and doing more Masters work than my degree requires?

P.S. I hope my slew of questions is not too presumptuous. Thanks again for anything you can offer.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

In your experience, how do adcoms view M.A. students that are attempting to apply out of their programs before receiving the M.A. degree? My M.A. program has encouraged me to try to apply out in the first year. Then, if unsuccessful, complete the M.A. and apply again. I did not apply broadly when coming out of my B.A. (only applied to 1 M.A. and 1 PhD -- accepted to both) due to not having taken the GRE. I have since completed the GRE and am now in a position to apply more broadly. Do adcoms frown on this sort of behavior?

Thanks for the excellent blog!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon sept 2: I don't think committees see it as problematic to apply before completing th MA -- not in my experience at least.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

jjj777: my impression is that schools differ considerably in how much weight they put on undergrad records for applicants with MAs, but surely some will see excellent MA work as sufficient evidence of dedication and ability. So also, I think, will there be variability in perception of retaking the GRE -- though surely a 1300 and a 1370 look better than a 1300 alone.

The philosophy of religion focus could be an issue at secular schools if your program is not seen as focusing on mainstream academic philosophy. Probably the more you can to to get a broad background beyond just philosophy of religion the better, from the perspective of those programs.

Anonymous said...

If you're still checking this...?

Thanks for any advice you could offer. My undergrad GPA is pretty low (a 3.3) at a top-ranked department. My philosophy GPA is a 3.7, with the following caveat: that GPA includes four graduate level Philosophy of Religion classes I took at the Divinity School here (also top-ranked), and only one graduate philosophy seminar. In undergrad philosophy classes, I have a 3.6 average. My GREs are excellent, my writing sample is an A paper from one of the graduate seminars, and my letters should be good as well. I have a couple questions:

1)Will the fact that I took many graduate seminars be a positive thing, given that all but one of them were outside the philosophy department (though very clearly philosophical in nature)? Should I be counting these classes in a calculation of my Philosophy GPA?

2) My final year, the relevant classes I took were solely graduate seminars, barring one class. I have a 4.0 at that level. Will that do anything to offset my comparably low GPA?

3) Should I be shooting for mid-level to top-level programs? My thought is, given that the other factors of my application are excellent, the nature of my transcript shows I have learned in four years of undergrad to work at a graduate level, despite having a low GPA. On the other hand, that only really became evident in my final year and a half. Am I fooling myself?

Thanks for any response, it is much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

(Same person as above)

Having read some of the comments, I should clarify that the school I attend would be seen as secular, across departments.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Oct 13: Likely your case will be seen very differently by different committees and different members of different committees. Being from a sterling department, especially if you can get good letters from well-known philosophers, can do a lot to compensate for what is in this context a mediocre GPA; and as you say recent performance and graduate performance in philosophy also carries extra weight.

Graduate performance outside of philosophy, even if the topic is philosophical, doesn't count for nearly as much, I'm afraid, and shouldn't be treated as part of a philosophy GPA.

not-so-great-student said...

I have a question about applying to PhD programs that are NOT highly ranked, in order to (a) get a PhD in philosophy because I would enjoy that; and (b) teach community college, with no hope of ever teaching at a university.

My undergrad major was philosophy, but that was more than 10 years ago at a decent school (UW-Seattle) and my overall GPA and philosophy GPA were not great. I got plenty of A's in philosophy, but I got, for instance, a 2.0 in one upper-level course that I know knocks me out of the running in most programs. Subsequently, I obtained a law degree magna cum laude from a not so highly regarded school (Seattle University). I held a clerkship and practiced law for the next 7 years. I haven't taken the GRE yet. I know that at least one well-regarded professor from undergrad remembers me because I made a big impression on him in a couple of classes and he would write me a letter.

Would someone like me have a hope at getting into a "lousy" PhD program, and aspiring to no more than a low-ranking position at a community college? Should I try for a MA first, or am I just a hopeless case?

Thanks in advance... this is all making me wish I'd done much better as an undergrad.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Not-so-great: I don't know much about admissions at unranked PhD programs. I do know that even very good students from UC Riverside (3.8 philosophy GPA) sometimes are not admitted to any PhD programs, even if they have a couple applications to low Leiter-ranked programs. I also don't know much about placement from unranked PhD programs. Hopefully, they'd have info on their websites. Community college philosophy teaching jobs can be very competitive, so I wouldn't assume that it would be a straightforward matter to land one. Since CCs often hire locally, my guess is that there would be a lot of variation depending on the geographical region: The higher the ratio of CCs to PhD programs, the better the shot from an unranked program. But that's just a guess.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking this must have been discussed on Leiter or some other blog, but what about students who are already in Ph.D. programs but are interested in transferring? Do other programs look down on this? If the first year or two can be used to improve one's writing sample, gain higher quality references, and maybe get an inside look at the application process in general, it seems like an easy way to move up the rankings.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Oct 19: Sideways and downward are more common moves between PhD programs, and generally require a good explanation in the statement of purpose, supported by at least one letter from faculty at the present institution. Good explanations would be things like: One's advisor died or moved away; or one has to follow one's spouse to a new location; or (for a downward transfer for a failing/struggling student) a couple letter-writers saying the student has great potential and deserves a second chance, plus a good writing sample. It does sometimes happen that students transfer up simply based on ability and ambition, but it's relatively uncommon and I wouldn't recommend putting much weight on that possibility in one's plans.

Jeremy said...

Hi Eric,

Thank you so much for this series of posts--they are extremely helpful! If you get a chance, I was wondering if you might answer a GRE question.

I ran out of time during the GRE writing section and only got a 5 as a result. I'm happy with my other scores (800M, 710V), but I'm applying to top programs and was wondering whether the low writing score might hurt my chances. Do admissions committees care about the writing section? If so, do they care enough that it would make sense for me to retake the GRE?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jeremy, I've never been on a committee where anyone took the GRE writing score seriously. I think few places do.

Jeremy said...

Thanks so much for the quick reply!

Anonymous said...

Hi eric,

Very quick question:

I have a W on my community college transcript.

How will this be treated?

If it is a problem, is it worth trying to give a non-medically verifiable explanation (missed too many classes for family issues and was auto-dropped)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'd like a single W slide by unexplained. It's unlikely to have much effect on your application unless it was very recent and in an upper-division philosophy course.

Anonymous said...


I am currently a student at NYU planning on applying to PhD programs. I currently have a 3.8 overall GPA and a 3.74 GPA in philosophy. I am a Presidential Honors Scholar at NYU and plan on graduating with departmental honors in philosophy and completing an honors thesis. However, I began in a liberal arts program at NYU and so am just completing my philosophy major with one class above the major req of 10 classes. My grades so far are as follows:

Ethics B+ (soph. year)
History of Modern Philo A-
Consciousness A
Logic A
Junior Honors Proseminar A-

This year I am taking:
Senior Honors Seminar
Kant (Longuenesse)
Indpndt Study: Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty

Existentialism and Phenomenology
Topics in the History of Philosophy

I was wondering if it would be a good idea to wait a year to apply so that I can have my completed honors thesis as my writing sample and the grades from the high-level classes of the Spring semester posted. Actually, I am mostly wondering if that will hurt my chances... I wanted a year off to study German and a few different philosophers before continuing into a graduate program.

Thanks so much... your site is a great resource!

Michael said...

This may be slightly related to the Anonymous NYU student's concern, but what do departments think about students taking time of to do things like volunteer work? I ask because, while I plan on apply and, hopefully, going to graduate school, but have always dreamed of doing the Peace Corps (or even Americorps) after college. From some comments I've read on this blog it seems like many programs may look at time doing non-academic work as time waisted and that just seems unfortunate to me. So should I plan on going abroad after grad school?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Mon 23: My guess is that you're better off waiting a year -- but your letter writers will know more about your particular situation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael -- Certainly something like the Peace Corps is better than working a run-of-the-mill job. If you can connect it with your philosophical interests it may even be an asset. I suspect different admissions committees will react differently.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this incredibly helpful post.

Quick question:

I took an incomplete my spring semester for personal reasons, so my degree will show up for summer 2010 instead of spring. Is this kind of thing a problem (i.e. look "bad")? I thought about staying on for a fifth semester (per your suggestion) to round it out anyways, but I couldn't afford it. I know that many people apply before their requirements are even done, so I'm not exactly sure how it could matter when your degree actually posts. Still, I'm not sure how it will look to adcoms, or if they'd even take note of it at all if everything else is in order. Any thoughts? I feel confident about my application other than this, and I would hate to seem defensive or draw needless attention to it by trying to address it in my personal statement.

Your comments are much appreciated!



Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jens: I don't think that sort of thing is an issue at all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I could really use your advice on whether and how to address early grade issues in the absence of some extenuating circumstance (illness, loss etc)

I had a few spotty semesters at a community college very early on in my education - before I transferred and became seriously dedicated to my studies. After transferring, I maintained nearly uniform excellence: straight A's at my second community college, nearly straight A's at my BA granting institution (3.9), and then all A's and one A-for my MA.

I'm trying to decide if I should ask one of my letter writers whether they might feel it worth mentioning and addressing the issue, perhaps by simply highlighting it as an aberration that is not reflective of my current caliber.

Im confronting two conflicting thoughts here:

1. On the one hand, without recourse to any excuse, I can see how this might do little other than state the obvious wish to have one's blemishes stricken from the record. The Adcoms will be able to see my full transcripts, and perhaps by addressing it I will be drawing more attention to the issue.

2. On the other hand, it might be worse to leave the disparity unexplained and not mention the issue at all. And perhaps in at least addressing the issue, there is the potential to soften some of the emphasis that might otherwise be placed on these early grades. It might seem defensive and obvious, but it might be a sensitive enough issue to be worth defending, and it may help to have someone who knows my work to do so on my behalf.

I would really appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

My inclination is not to comment on it. Committees see this sort of thing fairly often and either forgive it or see it as a blemish. Commenting on it won't really add information, and unless it is done well, it might come across as defensive.

traumatiziert said...

I decided to go abroad to take some philosophy courses, and maybe get a master's degree before reapplying to US PhD programs. I'm at a university in France (the Sorbonne), where I'm finishing my first semester. I'm doing the final year of the undergraduate degree, because I thought that would give me time to adjust to a different system.

My earlier undergraduate record is sort of a mess because I got incompletes I didn't finish (though not in philosophy), and I only took four philosophy courses (with a 4.0 average in them), so I thought an MA or even some coursework might help me. However, I had a bad first semester, and am expecting to either fail or barely pass one of my classes. This is much more common in France, as there is basically no grade inflation, at least that is one way of putting it. The scale is 0 to 20, but a 16 is an A. I am wondering how much it will hurt me to have done badly in one or two of my classes the first semester if I do very well subsequently. I got a 20 on one of my papers so I know I can do it. I'm also wondering if a foreign degree is a lot less useful than an MA from a US university would be. It seems to me that since my main interest is in Continental philosophy and the school I am at is good in that area and has something of an international reputation, that an MA here, or some coursework here, is not necessarily inferior to one that I might get in the US. At least I can't see why it should be.

It also seems obvious to me that because admissions committee mostly review applications carefully (and they will review mine when they see my GRE scores), that GPA is less important than the subjective picture that they form in their minds based on all the factors and based, as far as grades are concerned, not so much on a single raw number as on what the picture as a whole looks like. I am, however, hoping to get into one of the top 20 or schools. I don't have anywhere near the near 4.0 (except in philosophy classes) that you suggest one needs to get into one of the top FIFTY schools, but there are other reasons to think I might be a strong applicant. I got admitted to two MA programs in the US, including one at the University of Chicago, and I didn't go because of money. Do you think my intuitions are correct: 1) that since some of the better PhD programs typically only admit people with fairly extensive coursework in philosophy, the foreign degree should help if I do well (even if it may be very hard for me to get into one of the very best programs)? and 2) that doing badly the first semester is probably not going to kill my applications, if I do very well subsequently? I've even considered skipping the final in this one class, in which case I get "absent" on my transcript instead of a grade, which is what happens when you drop a class. But I don't want to do that because I would have to take an extra course next fall to make up for it (my year long program turned out to be two years because I'm working).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Traumatiziert: The Sorbonne is respected, and in my experience foreign applications in general are viewed more holistically than U.S. applications. Poor grades in one term will definitely put you at a disadvantage, but they aren't necessarily an application-killer if they overall picture is very positive.

Josh said...

Thanks for all the great information Eric!
It is quite helpful to be able to ask questions of a professor completely removed from our own situations, it provides a different perspective, and you know us Philosophy geeks love that.

Anyways here are my questions:

1.) Will the moderate glow of UW Milwaukee's M.A. program reflect onto their undergraduate program at all? It is really geographical happenstance that I find myself at a lesser known state school that happens to have a fairly well respected M.A. program in Philosophy. This makes me feel (ever so slightly) better about the lack of prestige of UWM writ large. Please disabuse me of this hopeful notion if need be.

2.) How much of an impact do early academic transgressions have on admission? I'm finishing my sophomore year, and my GPA will be 3.83 to begin my Junior year, and 4.0 in 15 credits of Philosophy. Here, however, is the kicker, I failed and had to retake a Philosophy class! I won't delve deeply into the issue, but it involves social anxiety disorder. It was an intro level class my freshman year that I retook the following semester and received an A in. I've accepted the fact that what happened happened, but will graduate schools?

3.) Is attending a prestigious school as a guest student worth the possible $$$. The University of Chicago has a student at large program that I could possibly get into, and believe me I would love testing the waters at such a University; however, although I don't care about money, I do care about eating! It would cause significant financial strain. I know I would love the experience, but I don't know if I can justify the expense (assuming I could even get in).

Thanks again, and take as long as you need in responding, though preferably before I've matriculated into grad school. :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Josh: On 1: Probably a bit, especially for admissions committee members who have been through a few rounds and thus seen the quality of the UWM MA applicants. It may also strengthen your letters if your professors compare you favorably with UWM MA's admitted to prestigious PhD programs.

On 2: It will be seen as an imperfection, but consistent straight-A's later on is more important, suggesting it was an early aberration, not part of a pattern.

On 3: If you can make the most of it, attending an elite private school might be worth a lot. To make the most of it, you want to enroll in the highest-level classes you can (ideally, graduate seminars), kick butt, earn a letter or two from famous faculty comparing you favorably with other students, and generate a beautiful writing sample under the guidance of an elite faculty member. With that, plus top undergraduate grades, admission to an elite PhD program would be much more likely than if you are simply a top undergraduate from UWM. Matriculation toward a degree is much less important than having the grades on a transcript, having the letters, and having the writing sample.

Josh said...

Thanks for the response Eric.

I think you're absolutely right about the possible value of a stint at an elite university. Taking graduate level courses at an elite university could, at the very least, separate one from similar applicants without such experience.

A couple other quick questions: is it at all benefical to pick up a relevant minor? For example would an admissions committee like seeing that someone with an avowed interest in the Philosophy of language had a minor in linguistics? Or would simply taking relevant linguistics classes (that don't fulfill requirements completely) suffice? Do they primarily take into account Philosophy classes, and then simply expect a variety of upper-level non-Phil classes with good marks?

Thanks again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Josh: I don't think formally having the minor matters much, as opposed to taking relevant courses. Mostly it's about top performance in philosophy classes and excellent performance overall in whatever other classes you take.

Chris said...

Hello, you talked about GPAs with regard to admissions and that early grades (especially one's from non-philosophy courses) aren't that much of a drag on an undergrads application to grad school. Does that apply to both MA and Ph.D applications?

Does the list of top schools change given the specific area you want to specialize in? For example, are the top 20 schools the same for both philosophy of law (my university just held a large conference for) and say 20th century continental? And if the top schools in the area you want to study are outside of the general list of top schools does one's chance of admission increase?

How much does one having published undergraduate works count when applying to grad school, if at all?

As a general remark, I find it odd that admission to philosophy programs has become so standardized especially considering the fact that the mark of a truly great philosophy is not necessarily their grades but the work they produce. I understand the practical need to have a way to distinguish between candidates' abilities and to do so efficiently, it just seems a little too establishment for a discipline that requires rationality and critical thinking. But then again I am probably only complaining because my first year was terrible and it will take me the next two years of my honours degree to get to a 3.8-4.0 GPA (I should have started in philosophy).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...


* Yes, both PhD and elite MA. (Non-elite MA is sometimes more formulaic, I think.)

* It doesn't matter *too* much, though it may make some difference.

* Publishing in undergraduate journals doesn't count for much.

* Count me among the believers in grades. In my judgment, there is no better predictor of success in a PhD program than the consistent ability to earn A's in upper-division undergraduate work in the discipline. However, borderline grades can to some extent be overcome by a great sample and letters. Some potentially terrific philosophers will be missed by the system; but an admissions committee has to play the odds.

Chris said...

I realize this post is quite old but on the off chance you see this....

I recently graduated from Rutgers undergrad. I majored in accounting and minored in philosophy. I actually completed the minor in my last year as it was only than that I discovered how much I enjoy it.

My GPA is rather abismal due to the accounting major.. I have a 3.43 cumulative with C's in upper level accounting classes.

I have straight A's in philosophy courses and haven taken courses with revered philosophers from whom I can get strong recommendations from. Also, even though I only minored in philosophy I took several upper level courses and am actually continuing to take courses in the department post-grad. (I will actually, though unofficially, complete all the requirements for a major.)

My GRE scores are 750M and 740V.

What are the chances that I will get into any MA programs?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Pretty good for most MA programs, I think.

Anonymous said...

Hello Eric,

I have a question concerning transcripts. I took a certification course at a community college and another miscellaneous course. These courses had absolutely nothing to do with my bachelor's of philosophy degree which I received at a 4 year University. So is it necessary to send the transcripts for these two courses?

Furthermore, if I do not send the transcripts of these two courses will any schools find out? Thank you mucho for all this information!!!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You might look at the language of the application to see if it's technically required. I doubt that it would be noticed, in most cases, if missing. Nor is it likely to count for much either way, especially if old.

Zeno said...

Eric thank you so much for this informative, extremely thoughtful discussion! This post series has been really enlightening, but I have a few questions.

To provide a quick picture of my background. I'm a senior at a school not very known for grade inflation. I think it's a fairly strong school though (has been in the top 20 every year pretty much judging from USNWR). However, it does not give A+s; As are the highest grade. My strongest area of interest is ancient philosophy, and I'm a double major in philosophy and classics so I can pursue it more deeply. I've taken 400 and 500-level (graduate) classes almost every semester since Freshman year. I also spent a year at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where I studied Classics (a course which includes a large philosophy element). Based off of this info, I have a few questions.

1: My school's philosophy department is very strong in continental, but it does not offer as many ancient philosophy courses. Because of this, I have had to go to the Classics department a lot for courses. This leads me to my question: When calculating my major GPA, should I include my classics classes? They are not labeled "Philosophy," but they were all (with the exception of Roman Imperialism) pertinent to my area of interest, namely ancient. For instance, I took Greek prose in Sophomore year, but that class took the form of a complete translation and discussion of Plato's Apology. Classes like that had substantial, direct bearing on my philosophic growth, but would a committee actually look at them since they aren't philosophy classes precisely?

2: Depending on the answer above, my GPA is anything from a 3.65 to a 3.8. Given my time at Oxford and my school, does this range keep me in contention for a top 25 school? With the exception of Princeton, the top US schools for ancient philosophy are not in the top 10, but they are all in the top 50. I'm also applying to Toronto and Oxford. I know Canadian and UK admissions are definitely different, but if you have any thoughts about my chances there that'd be fantastic! My writing sample has to do with Parmenides (I have another prepared on Democritus) and evidently two of my recommenders think it's quite strong, so hopefully that will make up for the GPA.

3: At Oxford I made solid 2:1s and 1sts the whole year. I feel like I did my absolute best work there and I made tremendous growth as a student too (The aura of Oxford has a tendency to rub off on you I think!). However, due to my school's conversion system and Oxford being generally rigorous, most of those came out as A-s with only a few As. Despite this, I believe I did more work for that A- at Oxford than I did for an A at my home school. One of my letters will be coming from Oxford, so hopefully his letter will alleviate that disparity somewhat. Should I in some way point out the nature of my Oxford grades and how they compare to the work I did there, or do you think my recommendation letters would do a better job of that.

Thanks Eric for all your tremendous help!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

1. List only formal phil classes or it will look like fudging.

2. Given strength of school, you will be in contention

3. Don't try to explain. We know about Oxford.

Good luck!

Zeno said...

Thanks so much for the quick response! I was worried about my grades after reading your post, so I just wanted to hear your opinion.

Anonymous said...

I graduated summa cum laude in my major and am in the 99th percentile on the verbal GRE, but I figured there were three problems with my applications to philosophy PhD programs: 1) I didn’t have that much formal background in philosophy, having taken just 4 philosophy courses at UC Berkeley (although I got As in all of those I finished – a 5th I didn’t). 2) As an undergrad, I got a lot of incompletes, some of which I didn’t finish. In that case they give you a failing grade, and I got several of those, which considerably lowered my GPA and made my transcript look like a mess; 3) I was an undergrad 20 years ago, and all my recommendations were very old, and only one was in philosophy. A possible fourth problem is my age – I’m 50.

Last year, I decided to go abroad to study, and I chose the Sorbonne in Paris. I wanted to do a master’s degree, but I decided to start with the third and final year of the undergraduate degree as a prelude to the master’s program, because, I reasoned, working in a different language and with very different norms for academic writing (French academic papers must all follow a very particular organizational format), it would give me a year to adjust. That decision was a mistake, in part because I had to do the third year in 2 years, and because the undergraduate programs here are big on exams instead of papers, and I don’t do nearly as well on exams. I finished the first year with mixed results. France has a totally different grading system and there is no grade inflation. Half the students fail. A paper that would get an A- at Berkeley might get a 12 out of 20 here, which usually is translated into some sort of B. 10 is passing. The first year, I got a 19.5 in one class, an analytical philosophy course, in which I got an unheard of 20 on the paper, and an 18.5 on an independent study. My other grades were 2 10.5s (the first semester), and a 13 and a 14 (second semester). The reason I didn’t do better is, first, I don’t do as well on exams as on papers; secondly, I am still far from having mastered the “methodology” for writing papers and exams in French; thirdly, my French writing is good but my listening skills aren’t and I don’t follow much of what is said in lectures.

I will have 2 new recommendations, from the classes in which I got what is the equivalent of an A+ or an A++. I will also have 10 additional courses in philosophy, and no incompletes. I don’t know how American graduate schools will evaluate my grades. If I pass all my courses, I am eligible to enter the master’s program here, but I don’t think I will be able to swing it financially. I will graduate in July if I pass all my courses. I basically wonder, is my being here serving any purpose? Is it worth it to graduate? Is my experience at the Sorbonne likely to help me at all? And will I have solved the problems that made me not competitive for one of the better PhD programs in philosophy in the US? I suspect that the answer is no because my grades are mixed. Or is this something that could be explained? I’d like to think it was just the first semester and I can show steady improvement thereafter, but that would be optimistic. Maybe my only hope is still to borrow the money to attend a US master’s program. I’d like to get your opinion on all this.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: You sound like an interesting applicant. You will have a shot. Admissions committees know that standards at elite foreign institutions are often very different from US standards, and of course it's difficult to transition to a language and academic culture different from one's own. Committees will look at the application holistically. A lot will turn on your recent letters and sample. I don't think the degree in hand from the Sorbonne will be as significant as your performance in your courses, perhaps especially your performance in those courses in which you were able to flourish, as attested by your letters and sample.

Martin H said...

Great blog, Eric.

A couple of points. One is that I think you are over-emphasizing the GPA as a determinant. It is, obviously, not sufficient to have a high GPA. What with grade inflation (Brown undergraduates had an average of 3.61 in 2007 and 2/3 of the grades give were As) and the fact that poor students don't tend to apply to colleges, GPA is only the crudest of measures.

On the flip side of the coin is the fact that astronomical GPAs are not necessary. There are institutions that are known to resist grade inflation ( We (Simon Fraser University) are one of them, with less than 25% As. As the Philosophy department is one of the toughest grading ones in the university, we often have students applying to PhD programs with GPAs not much higher than 3.5. And they get in.

This brings me to the second point. I was surprised to see that UCR never gets studetns into the top 15 schools. It is a rare year when we don't. Last year, we had one Harvard and one CUNY. (Plus one Brown, two Wisconsin, one Duke, and the person who got into Harvard turned down Columbia and UCLA) We've had two people get Columbia PhD's, two MIT, have three students at CUNY currently, etc.

So a plug for us (and the handful of other progtrams doing the same thing): Most (but not all - we've had undergrads accepted at Princeton, Pittsburgh, Oxford, UNC, etc) of those admissions were from our MA program. If you are talented and dedicated but your record does not reflect this or you are not quite ready (no one knows you well enough to write informed, detailed letters; your writign sample is just some paper your got an A on, but no great shakes), consider an MA.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Martin H: Thanks for that helpful (somewhat) dissenting perspective! MA is of course a different beast than BA, and UCR doesn't have a terminal MA. I'm not sure if Simon Fraser BA would be perceived as more elite than UCR, but my guess is yes, which might explain the greater success you've had even with BAs. Also, if an institution is very stingy with the top grades, letters can address that, especially if they make comparative assessments.

Philothea said...

Professor Schwitzgebel,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful advice. I have several brief questions in relation to my scenario.

Background info:
-I graduated from a small Catholic seminary with a philosophy BA and I'm applying to some "Middle Tier" PhD programs (maybe top 40, no higher: Duquesne, Loyola and Northwestern).

-I scored in the 77th (Verbal), 56th (Quant), and 87th (Analyt.) percentiles on the GRE, and I have a 3.73 Phil GPA; 3.79 overall. I am having a professor assess two 15 page papers which are of decent quality, and she is very dedicating to helping me iron out any problems- your emphasis on having a polished paper is duly noted.

1. I had a professor who "didn't believe in giving As". besides several B's he gave me Freshman year and another during Sophomore year, I earned As in all my philosophy classes... until I had that professor once more, who gave me a B in my thesis class. While I hope this isn't pedantic, lest I sound like I'm whining, but should I mention this professor's stance as a "shortcoming"? Traditionally I'd let it go, but having a B+ in my final phil class, in addition to a poor GRE ranking and a VERY unknown school, how would you assess my combined performance at first glance?

2. Although these things are obviously somewhat subjective, do you think it is worth stressing the uniqueness of my undergrad/seminary background, or is it too commonplace to emphasize in a statement?

3. I am also concerned about lack of school recognition in relation to these graduate programs; as you've pointed out, it can go either way. Nonetheless, what do you have to say about the smallest of the small when it comes to undergrad programs? I feel as if I'm almost doomed to MA programs at this rate.

Pardon my seeming existential angst, and thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Philothea: At first glance, your GPA looks low for an applicant from a non-prestigious school, though not out of the question. If almost all of your non-A's are from a single professor who rarely gives A's to anyone, that would be worth having a supportive letter-writer point out, especially with quantitative evidence of some sort. It would seem defensive for you to point it out; much better to have a letter-writer do so.

I wouldn't emphasize #2.

On #3, my sense is that programs of the ranking that you mention are often very open to students from low-prestige schools as long as those students have excellent grades, letters, and samples.

Anonymous said...


First of all I'd like to echo the posts of appreciation from above. Although it represents only one perspective on the issue, your blog offers at least some comfort for us applicants. I just have a couple of questions with respect to aspects of my application which may be regarded with suspicion.

Let me explain my situation: soon after I graduated high school I attended a local community college. At this point in my life, I was not the most concerned student, and hence I received a low gpa at an institution at which no one should receive such a gpa. During my final semester at this school I came across a history professor who inspired me to do better. In short, he got me interested in interesting things. I never received a low score from this point on.

I transferred from this community college to a small, unheard of liberal arts school called Lee University. At this school I majored in Humanities, and halfway through the semester (after taking a philosophy class) I declared a "philosophy emphasis" within this major--this school had no philosophy department. I received all As this semester, but I realized that if I wanted to continue in philosophy, I needed to attend a school with a full philosophy department.

Hence I transferred to another small liberal arts school (Belmont University in Nashville,TN) with a full philosophy department. I just graduated in December. Within my major (philosophy, of course), I received a 4.0 gpa, but overall I received a 3.74.

So here are my questions:

1. Transferring schools twice could be regarded with suspicion. But because I started at a community college (another aspect that could be regarded with suspicion), transferring once makes sense. The second transfer makes sense because I wanted to continue doing philosophy and the school I was at had no philosophy department. Will application committees take this into consideration? Should I mention this explicitly in my SOP?

2. My overall gpa (3.74) is low considering my university. This is a strike against me. However, it is only that low because of my first year and a half in college (when I was not the most concerned student). Apart from this first year and a half, my gpa is a 3.91, so there is an obvious, rapid upward trend in my grades. Will such a trend and my 4.0 philosophy gpa be sufficient to outweigh my low gpa?

If it helps in your assessment: I scored in the 94th percentile on the verbal section of the GRE, and in the 53rd percentile on the quantitative section. My letters will be strong. My writing sample will, I am told, reflect my strong abilities.

The schools to which I am applying are mostly mid/bottom tier schools on the Leiter scale.

Thanks for the help.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon Dec 24: The two transfers make sense. Briefly describe your reasons in your personal statement. And yes, early-career mediocre grades can be outweighed by consistent straight-As later in upper-division philosophy. If your sample and letters are strong, you have a good chance at mid- to lower-ranked school on the Leiter list.

The sample is always crucial to the file, but in a case like yours it will be the hinge on which the whole file turns. If it reads like a strong graduate seminar paper, that tells one story about you. If it reads like a blithe gloss, that tells another.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I am applying to some of the better programs and working on my statement of purpose. I have one that I used in a previous year. I only got into a couple of MA programs and a literature program, but there may be other reasons for that. What I'm wondering is this: A friend advised me that it's a good idea in your statement to describe a possible dissertation project, so I did that. I came up with a project on Hegel and Alain Badiou, a contemporary Continental philosopher who isn't exactly popular in many philosophy departments. I also said I'm interested in a number of contemporary Continental philosophers since Heidegger. This reflects my interests, but it may, I suspect, keep me out of the programs that I want to apply to. I'd be happy to work on Hegel or Heidegger, I just can't think of a dissertation topic on either of them. What would you advise me to do? Perhaps I should leave out the dissertation proposal and take out my statement about contemporary Continental philosophers.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: You posted this elsewhere on my blog, too. I have replied there. Good luck! said...


The dedication you show in responding to these posts is genuinely saintly.

But the world is big, mysterious and beautiful. Why don't why don't you find a different hobby?

Anonymous said...

Dear Eric,

I posted here a couple of weeks ago, but my comment seems not to have appeared. I am writing to you as a Scandinavian female student with a BSc and MSc in Philosophy and IR from a Scandinavian University, and am pursuing a PhD/DPhil in an English language top-PG university (Phil Gourmet). I would appreciate if you could offer a foreign applicant like me some tips and opinions!
- My Master's philosophy coursework GPA is 4.0, but due to my heavy load at work last year, my Master's thesis (20 000 words) was graded only Upper Second Honors (5/7) in my university. My BSc thesis was graded First Class.
- My IR coursework is only 4/5, or 3.3 GPA.
- I have several international and national philosophical achievements, and have won competitive scholarships that in my country are considered exceptional
- However, my university is not elite: it is a public Scandinavian university
- I have done two exchanges, the second of which was to a top English language university with a competitive scholarship
- I have a varied work experience in NGOs, as a freelance writer, a research institute and international organizations. I have been active in policy-level work, as well as possess several years of volunteer experience in positions of responsibility. However, I have no mentionable academic publications... yet!

Now for the questions:
-I have been told that while my grades might be OK to grant me an offer in a top university, my biggest obstacle would be funding. Perhaps this applies more to the UK, but do you think this will be a problem in the US or Canada as well?
-Do PhD programmes in the US prefer young applicants (since they might have a longer tenure track)? I'm 30.
-Would you say that Scandinavian universities are valued in the US system?
-In my application, should I, in your opinion, explain why my Master's thesis was less than my earlier GPA, and why I underperformed with my thesis?
-In my letter of motivation, should I tell everything about my non-academic life (all the positions of resp I've possessed, the intl. jobs I've had, countries I've lived, etc...)? Is it usually considered a good thing, or can it reduce my academic credibility?

I would really appreciate your honest opinion, even if it brings me down a bit... I know it is difficult to make a judgement based on the above, but could you give an approximate and general answer?

Your blog has been extremely helpful, even if it caters only for US students. It is also helpful for us foreigners. :) Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Dear Eric,

Thank you for your fantastic blog. A short question for an aspiring PhD applicant: Would you say it is generally a good or a bad thing to mention one's membership in Mensa in the PhD application? Or does it give an arrogant appearance?

Thanks and Regards,


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon Jun 9: It will not be a straightforward application to evaluate. As so often in such applications, much will come down to the sample and letters. In your case, your performance in your exchange studies might also present an opportunity for a more direct comparison with US performance.

* Most US universities will set up funding (through fellowships and TA-ships) for most or all PhD admittees, including international students. But it is true that sometimes international students are at a disadvantage here. They are more likely to be admitted without funding. My guess is that that is still only a minority of cases.

* I would guess that most admissions committees would have a general but vague and uncertain respect for Scandanavian universities.

* I would not attempt to explain your underperformance. That only highlights it and makes it look defensive. Much better to have a letter-writer explain it, if that's possible.

* I wouldn't talk too much about your life outside of academia, except insofar as aspects of it affect your readiness for a PhD program. Try to keep it brief.

* Age 30 is not a problem.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon #2 Jun 9: Skip mentioning Mensa. It brings in little useful information that isn't available from GRE scores and grades, and some people might interpret it as suggesting an unhealthy fetishization of IQ.

Jason said...

Hi Eric, thanks so much for your informative post! I realize that this post is almost 5 years old now and I'm not sure how old most of the other comments are, so hopefully you will notice this comment! I basically have two questions for you. One, how important to graduate philosophy admissions committees is research experience? I just finished my 3rd year in undergraduate philosophy and I have already completed two term-long independent research courses (supervised by professors of course) and will be completing another two to four research courses in my upcoming final year. Also, I am currently doing independent research through a summer-long research scholarship that I won through my university. In total, I will therefore have done four to six research courses along with a research scholarship by the time I graduate, whereas most undergraduate students in philosophy that I know of will only have done one or maybe two research courses. So do you think this research experience that I have will make me more noticeable to admissions committees?
Also, I would ideally like to attend a top 20 graduate school for philosophy after this year, so I'm wondering what you think my admissions prospects might be: I am at Queen's University in Canada, which I have been led to believe is one of the top schools in Canada (not necessarily for philosophy though). My overall GPA since first year is 4.01, while my GPA last year (my third year) was about 4.13. Also, I have been the top ranked philosophy student in each of my three years at Queen's so far, and I have taken and received As to A+s in a few graduate courses so far. So just considering these facts and my abundant research experience, what do you think my prospects would be for getting into a top MA-PhD program?

Jason said...

Hi Eric, thanks so much for your informative post! I realize that this post is almost 5 years old now and I'm not sure how old most of the other comments are, so hopefully you will notice this comment! I basically have two questions for you. One, how important to graduate philosophy admissions committees is research experience? I just finished my 3rd year in undergraduate philosophy and I have already completed two term-long independent research courses (supervised by professors of course) and will be completing another two to four research courses in my upcoming final year. Also, I am currently doing independent research through a summer-long research scholarship that I won through my university. In total, I will therefore have done four to six research courses along with a research scholarship by the time I graduate, whereas most undergraduate students in philosophy that I know of will only have done one or maybe two research courses. So do you think this research experience that I have will make me more noticeable to admissions committees?
Also, I would ideally like to attend a top 20 graduate school for philosophy after this year, so I'm wondering what you think my admissions prospects might be: I am at Queen's University in Canada, which I have been led to believe is one of the top schools in Canada (not necessarily for philosophy though). My overall GPA since first year is 4.01, while my GPA last year (my third year) was about 4.13. Also, I have been the top ranked philosophy student in each of my three years at Queen's so far, and I have taken and received As to A+s in a few graduate courses so far. So just considering these facts and my abundant research experience, what do you think my prospects would be for getting into a top MA-PhD program?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jason --

The fact that you have done independent research won't count for too much directly, but it might count for a lot indirectly by virtue of its impact on your letters and perceived writing sample quality.

Based on your self-description, I think you would be given a serious look at top-20 schools.

Justin said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for providing such a comprehensive guide to the application process for philosophy grad programs! I have one question on the matter of taking off time before graduate school:

I'm currently a rising senior, and I'm committed to pursuing a philosophy PhD after I finish my undergrad degree. However, I am also very interested in volunteering abroad for a couple years before settling into a program. I'm somewhat torn - on the one hand, I feel driven by personal (and philosophical!) reasons to take some time off and work in the developing world, but on the other, I fear the possible negative implications such a delay might have on my future academic career. What do you think? Do such fears lack grounding? Or could my time abroad actually enrich my application?

Thanks again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

My inclination is to think that there is a slight prejudice against students who have delayed applying. However, most members of application committees seem to deny they have such a prejudice and my sense is that it is small if the delay is only a year or two. Furthermore, it can be offset if the reason for delay is meritorious and/or connected to your philosophical interests.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Schwitzgebel,

Thanks for all the information you share.

Because of economic problems, I have been working in full-time and part-time irrelevant jobs. Thus I could not achieve a great GPA. As a senior student, I have a GPA around 3.2. However, my grades in upper level philosophy courses are straight A's. And also, I became senior one semester earlier than usual and took master's classes.

Do you think that I could be ever admitted to a PhD program with such a low GPA? Or would my application directly get thrown into the trash bin?

Thanks again.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

If your application has straight A's in philosophy, then I do think you could contend for a PhD admission in a ranked program, depending on other features of your application. Most admission committees take a holistic look at the file.

Anonymous said...


I'm a grad prospective for Fall '13. I've received a very disappointing B+ in a grad seminar this semester. (I've received an A in the other grad seminar, and am using a revised version of that seminar paper as my writing sample.) How debilitating is this to my overall chances, even in assuming that the other elements of my application are quite good? A B+ in grad-level work may surely signify that I'm not ready for PhD-level work, so I think I'm rightly concerned about this. I should say it's the only B I've received in philosophy, but even so, because it is a grad seminar, I feel its negative effects are tremendous. Indeed, I think it's high risk/high reward taking these grad classes as an UG.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Dec 26: It is surely a negative compared to not having taken the seminar and having straight A's. I wouldn't be inclined to say it's a defeater, especially if you can get a shining letter from the instructor from your other grad seminar. But you're right that there is a risk in taking grad seminars -- maybe something I should have more explicitly said in the original post. One of these days I'm going to revise and update this series of posts, and probably tweak accordingly.

Alexis Rendón said...


I am Alex. thank you so much for your blog - it's is as helpful as the leiter reports. Here is my situation and I am wondering if people could advise here.

I am international student form Ecuador and I graduated with a BA in Philosophy from Bates College in the US.

I have been accepted for an MSc at Edinburgh (cog. sci.) but I have been firmly rejected by all phd programs I applied to in the US (all ranked, some top).

I feel my sample was good, the letters were good, but my GPA (3.5 over all - 3.7 phil) and my GRE scores were far too low.

I am excited about the MSc but if I plan to apply for the fall of 2014, I would not have a graduate GPA to add to my file (official grades are given out in May). Conceivably, I could improve my writing sample and get recommendations form a more renowned faculty, but I could not get any grades in.

How much does not having a graduate GPA hurt my chances of applying for the fal 2014, right after I finish the MSc (considering the 3.5)? Should I wait another year (after I complete to program) so I can apply with better grades and even better letters (after spending an entire year there)?

Thank you for any advise you can spare,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Alexis, I suspect your best advice on this will come from the Edinburgh folks, who will know what typically happens to students who apply that soon after entering vs. those who wait. Most professors in most philosophy or philosophy-related master's programs would like to see their students get into the best PhD programs they can.

Alexis Rendón said...

Hi Eric,

I would jus like to say thanks for your quick response. I did not know you personally answered every post (I thought it was a free for all like in other blogs) and I think it is very thoughtful of you to answer inquiries like this.

I will definitely contact Edinburgh. I guess my question is more along the lines of - how much does a 3.5 GPA hurt my chances at getting into a mid ranked program and how much of this can be compensated by having a good graduate (MSc) GPA?

Anonymous said...

Hello Eric,
I am a junior philosophy major at a small liberal arts college, and I currently have two upper level courses with a professor who will not be giving out A's. I am considering withdrawing from these two courses in order to preserve my GPA in philosophy. Would it, however, be just as negative a reflection on my transcript, to have 2 Withdraws? I would greatly appreciate your advice on this matter! Thank you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

A little bit, maybe. Not as much if you have a full course load despite the Ws.

Anonymous said...

That is one of my other concerns- I wouldn't for this semester- I would only have two other courses (albeit philosophy courses)- however, I am also taking on an independent research project and an honors thesis project- I'll be getting credit for the honors thesis next spring and the independent research project in the fall- I didn't know if that would compensate or not. If these were B's at an elite school I wouldn't be worried, but coming from a small lib arts school, I feel they would look ghastly. unfortunately this is just one of those professors.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Hopefully, you still check this! I go to a Christian liberal arts school that has sent students to grad programs (both top MAs and Ph.Ds). My overall GPA is 3.91 (4.0 scale), and my philosophy GPA is 3.98 (12 classes total, only one A-. At least 5 are certainly upper division, maybe 8, depending on the definition of 'upper division'). I will be starting my fourth and final undergrad year this fall (2013), and I plan to apply to graduate programs. Right now, my plan is to take three classes in the fall (my lightest course load so far), two of which are philosophy courses (an upper division course, and an independent study). Then, in the spring, I intend to only work on an honors thesis (the independent study in the fall is on the same topic, and is supposed to be preparation for the honors thesis). I have three main reasons for taking a lighter load: 1. I would really like to dig in deep to some more specific topics, rather than spread myself thin across more courses; 2. I want to have plenty of time to research and apply to grad programs; 3. I will likely be traveling more than usual (especially in the spring). My question is this: will it look bad to admissions committees if I take a lighter load than I have in the past, even though I have taken a pretty significant number of philosophy courses already? What's your advice? Should I kick (or shorten) the thesis, and take more classes to continue building a strong base?

- D

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Hopefully, you still check this! I go to a Christian liberal arts school that has sent students to grad programs (both top MAs and Ph.Ds). My overall GPA is 3.91 (4.0 scale), and my philosophy GPA is 3.98 (12 classes total, only one A-. At least 5 are certainly upper division, maybe 8, depending on the definition of 'upper division'). I will be starting my fourth and final undergrad year this fall (2013), and I plan to apply to graduate programs. Right now, my plan is to take three classes in the fall (my lightest course load so far), two of which are philosophy courses (an upper division course, and an independent study). Then, in the spring, I intend to only work on an honors thesis (the independent study in the fall is on the same topic, and is supposed to be preparation for the honors thesis). I have three main reasons for taking a lighter load: 1. I would really like to dig in deep to some more specific topics, rather than spread myself thin across more courses; 2. I want to have plenty of time to research and apply to grad programs; 3. I will likely be traveling more than usual (especially in the spring). My question is this: will it look bad to admissions committees if I take a lighter load than I have in the past, even though I have taken a pretty significant number of philosophy courses already? What's your advice? Should I kick (or shorten) the thesis, and take more classes to continue building a strong base?

- D

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

No, light load is good! Better to go top-level in a few things than to spread yourself too thin.

AncientGeorgian said...

Eric, thank you for this wonderful series of posts and equally helpful comments! This series seems to have (justly) acquired a near legendary stature across the pond for how informative it is for US admissions.

I just graduated from a UK master's program in philosophy (an MSt) at a school ranked in the top 5 in the UK; the master's is in that department's probably strongest area of research. You mention the quite high importance of GPA (undergrad and MA if applicable) in admissions but recognized that international programs may be more difficult to weigh due to different standards. On that point, my MSt degree results were pretty ok (a 65; a 70 is a distinction and automatic entrance into the DPhil for where I'm at, so I missed it by a bit), but the degree was a very rigorous, one year course culminating in a thesis where any exam result below a 60 (a rough equivalent here would be below A-/high B+ quality work at a good school based off my results and others) would be a fail for the degree. It's not uncommon for people to fail the degree and have to resit a paper (though thankfully nobody did my year that I know of), and it's uncommon for people to get the distinction and go on to the DPhil. I graduated with a 3.75 and magna cum laude (with honors thesis; you're right about how rewarding those are!) in philosophy and classics from a "name brand" university here in the States, but I had never worked so hard intellectually as I did in the MSt.

The scoring scheme is noted on the back of the transcript from this university, and hopefully the reputation of this degree will help a lot as well. However, I am very worried about how my scores will stack up against other master's holders, many of whom seem to have perfect or near perfect GPAs for those accepted into mid and top programs. I can't help but have the sense that when the committee sees the scores from this program they see that my scores are technically only about 5 points or so away from a fail (though granted also only 5 away from distinction and automatic DPhil admission for this particular top-5 university) and that really damaging me. Should I point out in my application the toughness of the degree, or would I be overkilling it and should just take a relaxing walk on the beach instead (one of the benefits of living in FL)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

AncientGeorgian: I wouldn't try to address it yourself. It will come across as defensive and unconvincing. Most US profs recognize that there are some MA programs with serious grade inflation and that some international programs grade in very demanding ways, and they will attempt a fair evaluation in that light. It is the kind of thing, too, that your letter writers might address.

Anonymous said...

Hello Eric, and thank you for the time devoted to providing such invaluable advice on your blog. I know my question is rather redundant of many on the board, but I will attempt to personalize it as much as possible. I am in my senior year, and as of now I have a 3.97 GPA in Philosophy (my major) and overall as well, I will have very strong letters, I am in the midst of writing a departmental honors thesis which I will be using for my writing sample, and upon graduation I will have completed two independent studies. Then comes the GRE- it was abysmal in the fullest extent of the word. The verbal wasn't quite abysmal, just average (158), but I won't even mention the other scores. Standardized testing has always been something that has always given me excessive anxiety, and to be frank I am simply terrible at math. Is there a good chance that my application will not even be looked at at many institutions to which I will apply? Thank you in advance!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Sep 15: Some institutions will do a simple weedout based on GRE, but my impression is that most institutions aren't as formalistic, and that with your terrific GPA you should at least get a look. I wouldn't despair. But I would apply to a greater number of places if you can manage to do so, since you'll want to chance into the places that, that year, happen to mostly have people on the admissions committee who don't care much about GRE scores.

Anonymous said...

Thank you kindly Eric!

Anonymous said...

Dear Eric,

Thank you for this marvelous account of what happens behind the curtains.

I have a question about something that has been causing me much anxiety in regards to my own application, if you wouldn't mind my asking.

I graduated from small liberal-arts U.S. university, double-majoring in philosophy and international relations. In philosophy, especially in my junior/senior years, I got mostly solid A's. Then I went to the UK, where I finished a MA in 'Critical Methodologies' at King's College London. Here's the issue: though the program was essentially about continental philosophy, it was offered by the French department. I did, however, take two modules in the 'official' Philosophy department, in which I performed reasonably well.

So my fear is that my application will appear implausible from the start, given that my MA was not nominally or 'departmentally' in philosophy. I understand it's difficult to speak universally about that, but how do you think I stand? Or rather, would you personally find this problematic?

Let me thank you beforehand for your patience and attention.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Nov 26: I don't think it's a problem at all *if* you can get at least one good letter from a UK philosopher with whom you interacted as an MA student. It could be a strength if you're planning to work on French philosophy in the future. If you can't get a good letter from a philosopher that addresses your performance in the MA, then I do think it might look a bit like indecisiveness and field-jumping, which although not a defeater would probably be a slight negative.