(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.
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!
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
Monday, September 24, 2007
(Part I is here.)