Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?
Part II: Grades and Classes
Part III: Letters of Recommendation
Part IV: Writing Samples
Part V: Statement of Purpose
Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things
Part VII: After You Hear Back
When You'll Hear and When You'll Have to Decide
There's a general agreement among philosophy Ph.D. programs that applicants have until April 15 to decide whether to accept an offer of admission. This deadline drives the process.
Schools with a hard cap on their admissions offers might be permitted by the administration to admit only eight students, for example, or to offer funding (in the form of T.A.-ships and fellowships) to only eight students. These schools will try to admit those eight students quickly (in February, maybe) and will often pressure those students to make a decision as soon as they can so that if they decline, another student further down the list can be admitted or offered funding.
Other departments will target a certain entering class size and admit approximately twice that many students (or more or less, depending on the "yield" rates in recent years) with the expectation that about half of the admitted students will decline. (For example, UCR was aiming for 10-12 last year. We admitted 24 and got 11.) In principle, these departments could admit all those students early in the process, but in fact things often fall behind. If the number of students accepting offers seems to be falling short of expectations, a few may be admitted at the last minute.
If you're at the top of a department's list, expect (typically, depending on the committee's speed) to hear mid-Februrary to mid-March. Applicants lower down on the list may not hear until April, even April 15th itself! You may not hear good news about funding, in particular, until very near the April 15th deadline, if the department has a hard cap on funding. Be ready on April 15th to make an immediate decision about an offer should one come -- and don't be too far from the phone! It's not unreasonable to ask for an additional day or two to decide, should you hear on April 15th, but the department may or may not comply with such a request.
It's generally in the interest of the applicants, then, to wait on their decisions until April 15. However, it is in the interest of departments to extract decisions from applicants as early as possible. Unfortunate!
Occasionally, if an entering class is looking smaller than expected, a department may admit someone after April 15th. That student may already have committed to another school. Generally speaking, it's good to keep to your commitments, but if the one program is much more appealing than the other, I'd recommend reneging with a heartfelt apology!
Most top-50 ranked Ph.D. programs do not expect students to pay their way through graduate school. They'll offer funding (at poverty levels) in the form of T.A.-ships and fellowships. When comparing funding offers between schools, don't just look at the raw dollar amounts. Some schools inflate their dollar amounts by adding the cost of tuition to their stated funding totals -- money which of course comes right back to them. Make sure, also, that your funding offer includes student medical insurance.
Most departments will guarantee students five years of support (though UCR typically offers only four years to students entering with an M.A.) in some combination of fellowship and T.A.-ship. If you're on fellowship you're paid just for being a student! (Sweet!) A typical offer at a typical department will be for one year of fellowship (your first year, when you aren't really advanced enough a student to be a T.A., anyway, in the eyes of most deparments) and four years of T.A.-ship. Students especially targeted by the department may receive additional fellowship years. (Outstanding GPA and GRE scores help a lot here, since the high-level administrators who often give out those fellowship packages can evaluate those numbers better than they can evaluate writing samples and letters of recommendation.) Although most Ph.D. programs expect most of their students to pay their way through most of their years by T.A.-ing, a few schools -- especially the smaller private schools -- don't expect much T.A.-ing from their students and offer comparatively more fellowship support.
You might also consider how much is expected of a T.A.: Teaching one section of 25 students is much easier than teaching three sections of 25 which in turn is easier (usually) than teaching an entire course on your own. Also consider what happens when your guaranteed years of funding run out, since most students at most schools run out of guaranteed funding before they complete their degrees.
Don't expect too much wiggle room in negotiations about funding. But if a comparable department is offering you a better package than the school that would otherwise be your first choice, it can't hurt to politely mention that fact to the chair of the admissions committee.
Financial offers generally don't include summer funding, though often students can apply for a limited number of summer-school teaching positions. So how are you going to get through the summer?
Unless summer funding is dependable, I recommend considering writing test questions for ETS or a similar organization. Question writing often pays pretty well (by graduate student standards) and since it's piece work, you can do as little or as much of it as you like, on your own time. Such organizations often appreciate the precise turn of mind typical of philosophy students, who as a group do very well on standardized tests. (The organization I worked for, ACT, specifically recruited philosophy Ph.D. students, and the guide to writing questions used philosophical jargon and made reference to Quine!) Unfortunately, it can take several months to get training and certification to write questions, so if you consider this option, plan well in advance. Or -- again, if you're the sort who does well on standardized tests -- you can approach the issue from the other side and teach SAT or GRE prep courses. (Of course teaching philosophy is even better, if you can swing it!)
Letting People Know Where You've Been Admitted
Let your letter writers know where you've been admitted -- or even if you haven't been admitted anywhere -- and ultimately where you decide to go. It's only polite, since they put in work on your behalf. It helps them have a better sense, too, of what to expect for future students. And besides, they might have some helpful advice.
Admissions committee chairs also like to know where you've been admitted and where you decide to go (if not to their school) and why. You needn't share this information if you don't want to, but it helps them in thinking about future admissions. For example, if lots of admittees are going to comparably ranked schools because those schools have better funding offers, admissions committees can make a case for more funding to the college administrators. If admittees are declining mostly for much better-ranked schools, then committees know that their low yield rates are due to having a strong batch of applicants. Etc.
I highly recommend visiting the departments to which you've been admitted -- but only after you've been admitted. Admitted students, whom departments now want and are competing to attract, are treated much differently than students who have merely applied or who are on the "waiting list" (if there is one), who will be seen as petitioners. Unfortunately, then, it won't be possible to properly visit departments that admit you at the last minute.
Some departments have money to help students fly out to visit, others don't. It doesn't hurt to ask politely. In any case, let the admissions committee chair know you intend to visit. Even if funding isn't available, she can help arrange your stay -- for example by mentioning what times would be good or bad and maybe finding a graduate student willing to put you up for a night or two.
There are two main reasons to visit departments: First and obviously, it can help you decide where to go. But second, and less obviously, it is a valuable educational experience in its own right.
The second point first: As I mentioned in Part I, students who spend their whole time in one department often have a provincial view of philosophy. Even visiting another department for a few days can crack that provincialism and give an invigorating and liberating, broader perspective on the field. Also, you will never again be treated as well by eminent professors as you will when you are a prospective (admitted!) graduate student. The country's best-known philosophers will take you out to lunch or coffee for an hour and genuinely listen to your views on philosophical topics. They'll be solicitous of you. They'll value your opinion. I remember one extremely eminent professor spending a full day with me. We toured his campus and another nearby campus; we listened to music late into the night; he shared gossip about the state of the profession. (Spending a full day is highly unusual, though! Don't expect it. Aim for coffee. Interestingly, this particular professor had no idea who I was when I saw him again a few years later.) Graduate students -- who at top schools sometimes soon become influential professors themselves -- will engage you in long discussions about the state of philosophy, and you'll (sometimes) feel a real camraderie. My own graduate school tour, for which I set aside three full weeks (for six campuses) was one the highlights of my philosophical education.
To maximize all this, try to stay at each campus for a few weekdays. Weekends don't really count. If you have to cut classes, cut classes. This is much more important than whether you get an A or a B in Phil 176. Also, I'd recommend emailing in advance the professors you'd like to meet and asking them if they're willing to go out for coffee with you.
When you visit a school, the department will generally set you up with first- and second-year students to meet. No harm in that, but bear in mind that first- and second-year students are often still in the glow of having been admitted and they haven't yet started the most difficult part of their education, their dissertation. Insist on meeting students in their 5th year and beyond, especially students working with advisors you imagine you might be working with. In my experience, such students will generally be brutally honest. Unlike new graduate students and unlike professors they don't really care whether you come to their school or not, so they have little motive to draw a rosy picture. And often they're just itching to have someone to grouse to.
Meet the professors, but don't expect their solicitious treatment to continue after you've enrolled. The advanced students' opinions about the professors are probably a better gauge of how you'll actually be treated. Nonetheless, if you talk substance with professors on philosophical topics you care about, you can get a sense of whether you're likely to see eye-to-eye philosophically.
The Summer Before
Students often seem to be shy about showing their faces around the department to which they've been admitted until either classes start or there's some formal introductory event. No need for this. Move in early. Meet some professors and ask them for some reading suggestions pertinent to your shared interests or classes you'll be taking with them in the fall. Get a running start. Professors are often quite interested in meeting the new students -- until the inevitable disappointment of discovering that on average they're only average! But if you get a running start, maybe that's a sign that you'll be an unusually good student...?
Monday, October 22, 2007
Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?