Last January I posted some thoughts on applying to graduate school in philosophy. Many people seem to have found that post helpful, and now that people are thinking about applications for next academic year (yes, it's time to get cracking!) I'm finding myself beseiged with questions, so I thought I'd expand and update my reflections in a series of posts. The current post will address the issue of deciding whether to apply at all, and where.
Warning: This might be depressing!
It's Extremely Competitive
At U.C. Riverside (ranked 31 in the Philosophical Gourmet Report), we received about 200 applications last year, of which we admitted 24 (more than usual for us) for an entering class of 11. Students we admitted typically had GPAs of 3.8 or more, and most of them had virtually straight A's (that is, almost no A-minuses) in their upper-division philosophy classes by senior year, if they were applying as undergraduates. Of our entering class of 11 students, four had perfect 4.0 GPAs in their last enrolled institution (whether undergrad or MA).
To get into the top-ranked philosophy departments is considerably more difficult than to get into UCR. To my knowledge no UCR undergraduate has ever been admitted to a top-15 philosophy Ph.D. program (certainly not in the 10 years I've been here), though we've had some students with straight A's, very strong letters, and excellent writing samples. When I was a student at Berkeley, it seemed that almost all my classmates were from top universities (Harvard, Princeton) or renowned liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Swarthmore). The few who weren't from such name-brand institutions seemed to have done time at such colleges (a classmate from Northeastern, for example, had spent a year at Oxford and had letters from professors there). I don't want to suggest that it's impossible for a student from a middle-tier school to get into a top Ph.D. program, but the odds appear to be long even if you're valedictorian.
When I applied to graduate school in 1991, I had literally straight-A's from Stanford (except for an A- and a B+ my very first term and one A- later) with a liberal sprinking of A+'s (one semester I took four courses and received four A+'s), very strong GREs (800/790/750, back when it had three sections), what seems to me now in retrospect to be a good writing sample, and letters from leading philosophers (Fred Dretske, John Dupre, and P.J. Ivanhoe) one of whom later invited me to contribute to an anthology based on one of my undergraduate essays (and so presumably wrote a strong letter). I was not admitted to Harvard.
For comparison, here are the admissions data from the Harvard Law School admissions site:
Applicants accepted: 12.2%
Number of 2006 applicants: 6,810
Number of 2006 matriculants: 558
LSAT range (25 to 75 percentile): 169 to 175
GPA range (25 to 75 percentile): 3.95 to 3.72
and Harvard Medical:
Applicants accepted: 4.9%
Average MCAT: 11.7
Average GPA (4.0 scale): 3.79
It seems a safe bet that it's considerably harder to get into Harvard Philosophy than Harvard Law or Medical.
The best 1-2 majors at U.C. Riverside every year have GPAs around 3.9. Those who apply to graduate schools typically land in schools ranked in the 25-40 range.
Prospects After Admission
Although I haven't seen data on this, my impression is that most philosophy Ph.D. programs have completion rates of 50% or less; that most of the people who do finish take longer than advertised, often 7-9 years (though Stanford and Princeton have reputations for being quick); and that most of the people who drop out do so during the dissertation phase, after already having completed several years of study. I also suspect that women complete at substantially lower rates than men. (Why that should be is an interesting question!)
Those students who do complete their degrees don't always find tenure-track teaching jobs -- and those who do find tenure-track jobs often have to apply for several years, be willing to move anywhere in the country, and settle for schools they've never heard of. (If you're in a large metropolitan area and willing to teach at the community college level, and if you're patient about piecing together temporary "freeway flier" jobs for a few years, you may be able to stay local after graduation.) Students completing their degrees at top ten universities have a better chance of finding a job at a school they've heard of before, but are often not taken seriously as applicants at lower prestige schools.
Here's what happened to my entering class of eight at U.C. Berkeley (ranked about #3 or 4 nationally at the time were were admitted): One dropped out after the first year, two dropped out after 7-9 years, two completed their degrees after 7-9 years but never found permanent teaching positions, one ended up at a respectable but not renowned liberal arts college (Marquette) after about 12 years of study, one went to SUNY Albany after 6 years of study (then later moved to U.T. Austin), and one (I myself) went to U.C. Riverside after 6 years of study, though for methodological reasons it may be distortive to include myself in these data.
Coming out of U.C. Riverside, my impression is that about half of our successful students end up teaching community college (some never complete their degree and don't show up on the official "placement" lists). Those who land at four-year schools (often after a couple years of looking) are generally (but not universally!) at lower prestige colleges. Here's our placement record. Bear in mind that many two-year schools do not have "community college" in their name.
I advise students not to consider graduate school in philosophy unless (1.) they'd be happy teaching philosophy at a low prestige college and are willing to move almost anywhere in the country, and (2.) even if they never finished the degree they would have found the process of studying philosophy at the graduate level intrinsically worthwhile.
My sense is that the last criterion is key to completing the degree. Students who are extrinsically motivated in their education are unlikely to complete a dissertation in philosophy. There are no real deadlines, no structure imposed by your advisor. You simply have to sit down and think and read and write about the same topic, without much outside help or direction, for a few years. At the same time, you're in a very anxiety-producing situation: Your whole career depends on how good your dissertation is, and the power your dissertation chair has over you -- in the form of approving or not approving your dissertation chapters and in writing a good or a weak letter for you at the end of the process -- is enormous. This is not a situation in which people who are not powerfully intrinsically motivated to do philosophy are likely to succeed.
On the bright side: It's delightful to be able to spend your time surrounded by others as nerdy about philosophy as you are -- peer-to-peer interactions are one of the most rewarding aspects of graduate school -- and you have great liberty to explore almost any topic you want in seminars, independent studies, reading groups, and later your dissertation. Also, unlike law school or medical school, almost all ranked philosophy Ph.D. programs will give you some combination of fellowship and teaching support so that if you live frugally you needn't borrow money or hold down jobs outside of philosophy in order to get through school.
Choosing Where to Apply
If all this hasn't soured you on the prospects of graduate school in philosophy, then you're just the sort of maniac who might succeed! The Philosophical Gourmet Report is the natural starting place for thinking about where to apply, along with with advice from your professors. Once you have a sense of about where you might expect to land in prestige level based on the features of your application, you might select about four schools at that level, two more prestigious schools as longshots, and two fallback schools. Look at faculty profiles (on each department's web page) and at the Gourmet's specialty rankings to see what schools have strengths in the areas or points of view that appeal to you. If you find that geography is a major factor for you, you might consider whether you'll be ready to be geographically flexible in your job search later; if not, bear in mind that community college teaching is the most likely outcome.
Should You Apply to an M.A. Program First?
If you're determined to get into a Ph.D. program in philosophy and you don't have the application for it straight out of undergraduate, an M.A. can be a springboard to a Ph.D. program. Generally speaking, however, if you can get into at least a mid-ranked Ph.D. program straight out of undergraduate, it's advisable to do so. The very top-ranked programs seem mostly to prefer stellar undergraduate applicants over applicants with stellar grades in M.A. programs and only nearly stellar undergraduate records. (There are exceptions, though, so if you wouldn't be happy with any but a top ten department and are only admitted to mid-ranked departements, you might consider a good M.A. program; but the odds are low and you might actually end up worse off in the end! Here, for example, is Houston's placement record, and here is Milwaukee's. Bear in mind that students who do not complete the program, which may be a substantial percentage, are not included on such lists.)
About half of U.C. Riverside's Ph.D. students enter with M.A.'s. Most of those students also did fairly well as undergraduates (3.5-3.8-ish undergraduate GPA). I'd guess that the proportion of students entering with an M.A. is higher at U.C.R. than at most peer instititions, but I'm not sure.
Although technically most community colleges only require their professors to have an M.A., most people who find permanent community college teaching positions nowadays either have a Ph.D. in hand or nearly finished.
Update on Ph.D. Placement (Sept. 20)
A reader advised me to look at SUNY Stony Brook's placement record. Although they are not ranked in the Gourmet report, this year they placed students in several good tenure track positions including Emory and Colorado-Boulder, and they have also placed well in the past. I suspect their track record is unusual in this respect, and may have to do with the sense some people have that the Gourmet Report is unfair to a network of schools including Stony Brook, Penn State, and Vanderbilt. Those schools may, then, have better placement records than their unranked status suggests. This could be the case regardless of whether the Gourmet ranking is fair (about which I mean to take no stand): The point is that some people will see those schools as very good and view their Ph.D.'s favorably.
But also, even from schools about which there is general consensus that they're at the middle of the pack, people do occasionally land jobs at ranked Ph.D.-granting departments or at prestigious liberal arts schools. In 1997, U.C. Riverside placed a student at Wisconsin-Madison, and a student of ours from the early 90's, after moving a few times, was recently hired at Washington-Seattle. Also, last year UCR hired a Ph.D. from Georgetown to a tenure-track position. For a fuller perspective on placement, look at departments' websites.
My point is not that such things are impossible -- or that it's impossible to get into Princeton's Ph.D. program from Cal State San Bernardino -- but that such events are relatively rare.
Update: Applying to Your Own Department (Sept. 21)
Undergraduates at schools with Ph.D. programs will be tempted to apply to their own programs. Presumably, they're having a positive experience and enjoying the good opinion of their professors, if they're considering graduate school in philosophy. They will receive good advice against this from their letter writers.
Every department has a character. Certain philosophers and issues will be taken as core, others not much discussed. How seriously is Davidson taken? Wittgenstein? Heidegger? Modal realism? Contemporary English philosophy of perception? Different approaches will be valued -- keeping up with the journals or emphasizing the classics, valuing the empirical or the a priori, applied ethics or metaethics, etc. Of course, faculty will have diverse opinions on these issues, but that doesn't prevent the shock and surprise -- or simply the breath of fresh air -- that students feel going to a department where things are viewed very differently on the whole!
Students who spend their whole careers in a single department thus risk a stunted and provincial view of philosophy. It's also difficult for them to gain an accurate sense of how their advisors are perceived by the field as a whole. They will learn less from taking classes from the same professors again than they would from a new crop of professors. They may also find it's very different being a star undergraduate than an average graduate student; the tone of their relations with their mentors will change.
When I have served on admissions committees I have argued that we should have a higher bar for our own students than for others. Still, it can be difficult to reject a student when your colleague down the hall insists that she deserves admission!
Update (Sept. 25): Some helpful discussion of community college placement here.
Update (Sept. 28): Should You Despair?
Okay, you're at Cal State Whatever or Southern Iowa Christian, and you would love to be an Ivy League professor of philosophy someday. Is there simply no hope? I would hate to counsel despair. At every step, there are a small number of people who do the unlikely: Get into a top-ranked Ph.D. program from a non-elite school, get an elite starting job from a middle-ranked Ph.D. program, move from a non-elite university to an elite one later in their career.
Great students from non-elite schools do sometimes make an impression on a "top ten" admissions committee. Maybe our best UCR students have been a bit unlucky. There's certainly some degree of chance in the process. Is your glowing letter from someone that someone on the admissions committee happens to really respect? (It's a small world!) Does your writing sample really resonate with someone?
It can also help to be pro-active. For example, can you drive across town, or apply to an exchange program, or take some time off, to take or audit courses at an elite university (as my friend from Northeastern did)? Can you attend talks, colloquia, conferences around town and out of town, and possibly make some connections or at least give your letter writers fodder for backing up their claims never to have seen so energetic and dedicated a student?
But most importantly: Polish, polish, polish that writing sample! (And do so under the guidance of at least one professor.) If a committee member reads a polished, professional sample she feel she has learned something from, in prose that compares favorably with the typical journal article (not through being flowery or technical but through being elegant and precise), that's an applicant she'll want to admit, more so than the Harvard student with the 3.95 GPA who has a so-so sample. But very few undergraduates can write such samples. Which is why, of course, they're so precious.
All that said, bear in mind that for anyone an Ivy-League career is a longshot. (Well, maybe Kripke was destined.) I would not advise pursuing a career in philosophy if you wouldn't be happy teaching at a non-elite school.
Update: Oct. 29, 2008:
David Brink at UCSD has posted some general reflections for prospective graduate students here. I agree with most of his remarks, except:
(1.) If you're aiming for a job in a research-oriented department, you should probably aim for a graduate department more elite than just the top 25 (though a small percentage of people from mid-ranked departments (roughly 20-40) do find research-oriented jobs).
(2.) To say that "Anything below a 3.5 [GPA] at UCSD is going to be problematic at top programs" seems to me to substantially understate the importance of GPA, unless UCSD students are doing vastly better than UCR students in gaining admission to top programs and unless UCR is more selective about GPA than top programs in philosophy.
(3.) In my experience, GRE doesn't pay much of a role in making the "first cut" among applications, though I do suspect this varies substantially from department to department, depending on institutional factors and the views of particular committee members about the importance of such measures.
Part II of this series (Grades and Classes): is here.