Monday, October 08, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part V: Statement of Purpose

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

I've never read a first draft of a statement of purpose (also called a personal statement) that was any good. These things are hard to write, so give yourself plenty of time and seek the feedback of at least two of your letter writers. Plan to rewrite from scratch at least once.

It's hard to know even what a "statement of purpose" is. Your purpose is to go to graduate school, get a Ph.D., and become a professor. Duh! Are you supposed to try to convince the committee that you want to become a professor more than the next guy? That philosophy is written in your genes? That you have some profound vision for the transformation of philosophy or philosophy education?

Some Things Not to Do

Don't let someone in business tell you how to write a statement of purpose. The kind of sales pitch that results will rub professional philosophers the wrong way. Indeed, bad statements of purpose can go wrong in many ways. For example:

Corny: "Ever since I was eight, I've pondered the deep questions of life."

Brown-nosed: "In my opinion, U.C. Riverside is the best philosophy department in the country." (Shh! Don't let out the secret!)

Unrealistic or arrogant: "I plan eventually to teach philosophy at a top ten philosophy department." (Do you already know that you'll be a more eminent philosopher than the people on your admissions committee?)

Self-important: "I will attempt to revive American pragmatism."

Ignorant: "U.C. Riverside suits my interests especially well because of its strengths in the philosophy of artificial intelligence." (No one here works on AI.)

Self-promoting: "I have always been at the top of my classes and active in class discussions."

Obvious (the least of these sins): "I hope to become a philosophy professor and teach philosophy."

A more subtle way in which statements of purpose can go wrong is in endorsing a particular substantive philosophical position. You are probably not far enough in your philosophical education to justifiably feel confident that you know enough about some particular philosophical issue that your mind is immune to change on it. Thus, saying things like "I would like to defend Davidson's view that genuine belief is limited to language-speaking creatures" comes off as a little bit close-minded and if not exactly arrogant at least not as charmingly humble as you might like. Similarly, "I showed in my honors thesis that Davidson's view...". If only, in philosophy, honors theses ever really showed anything! Much better: "My central interests are philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I am particularly interested in the intersection of the two, for example in Davidson's argument that only language-speaking creatures can have beliefs in the full and proper sense of 'belief'."

Don't tout your accomplishments. Let your letter writers do that. It comes off so much better! (Make sure, in advance, that your letter writers know what your accomplishments are. See my discussion of letters in Part III.)

Don't tell the story of how you came to be interested in philosophy. It's not really relevant.

What To Write

So how do you fill up that awful, blank-looking page? With a cool, professional description of your areas of interest. If you have, say, three main areas of interest, devote one short paragraph to each of them -- a few sentences describing what questions or subareas within that larger area you find particularly intriguing or have already thought and written about. For example:

I took a two-term independent study course with Prof. Hoffman on Descartes' theory of the passions and its connection to freedom of the will. I anticipate that the history of modern philosophy will continue to be a central interest of mine, especially early modern philosophers' conceptions of the mind. For example, how is Hume's theory of the passions similar to and different from Descartes'? What is the relationship between mentality and personhood for Locke, Hume, and other philosophers of the era? To what extent was Malebranche's occasionalism about causation a development of views already implicit in Descartes?

A statement of this sort tells the committee two things. First, it tells them that you are knowledgeable about the areas of philosophy you plan to study -- not every undergraduate knows about Hume's theory of the passions and Malebranche's occasionalism! -- and it does so without risk of sounding arrogant or close-minded by making pronouncements about what philosophical views are right or wrong. And second, it gives the committee a sense of whether you would be a good fit for the department. If no one in the department teaches the history of modern philosophy (unlikely, actually, but if my example were different the issue could more plausibly arise) or if the people who do teach early modern really focus only on moral and political philosophy (possible), you won't seem like a good match. On the other hand, if the department has specialist(s) in your area(s) of interest, being a "good fit" can boost the likelihood of acceptance.

Explaining Weaknesses in Your File

Although hopefully this won't be necessary, a statement of purpose can also be an opportunity to explain weaknesses or oddities in your file -- though letter writers can also do this, often more credibly. For example, if one quarter you did badly because your health was poor, you can mention that fact. If you changed undergraduate institutions (not necessarily a weakness if the second school is the more prestigious), you can briefly explain why. If you don't have a letter from your thesis advisor because he died, you can point that out.

Tailoring to Specific Schools

It's not necessary, but you can tailor your applications to individual schools. I'm not sure I'd recommend changing your stated areas of interest to suit the schools, though I see how that might be strategic. (If you change them too much, however, there might be some discord between your statement of purpose and the letters of recommendation in your file.) If there is some particular reason you find a school attractive, there's no harm in mentioning that in a final paragraph. For example, you might mention 2-3 professors whose work especially interests you. (But if you mischaracterize them or they don't match your areas of stated interest, this can backfire, so be careful.)

Some people mention personal reasons for wanting to be in a particular geographical area (near family, etc.). Although this can be good because it can make it seem more likely that you would accept an offer of admission, I'd avoid it since graduating Ph.D.'s generally need to be flexible about location and it might be perceived as indicating that a career in philosophy is not your first priority.

On the bright side: Most statements of purpose are flawed in one or more of the ways described above. Committees are used to it and generally don't hold it much against the applicant. Though you can shoot yourself in the foot by coming across as particularly arrogant or poetical or uninformed, this is the one part of the application where standards are low. Philosophers are not, as a rule, especially talented at self-presentation! (I include myself.) The main thing committees want to see is a match between (most of) your areas of interest and what they can teach.

For further advice, see this discussion on Leiter Reports -- particularly for a discussion between the difference between U.S. and U.K. statements of purpose.

Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

82 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes interests are pretty disparate. Should one attempt to connect them somehow, or just admit that they're all over the map? Also, is a slightly narrower, more systematic scope of interest preferable to one which is wider and less systematic?

Stephen said...

Thanks for yet more helpful advice.

I don't have any questions this time -- I'm just going to follow your suggestions to the letter.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Stephen!

Anonymous: The areas don't need to be connected. I wouldn't strain and stretch to connect things.

For U.S. Ph.D. programs, I don't think one's areas of interest need to have a narrow focus (things may be different in Britain) -- but it is good if you can mention one or a few subareas or particular questions/topics within your general area that especially interest you.

Justin said...

I have a very straightforward statement - a brief discussion about each of my areas of interest. Should I try to sort of "introduce myself" at the beginning (things like my background, education, etc), or just stick to talking about my interests?

Ryan said...

If when applying to a particular school, you know that you would attend that school, if accepted, over any other school to which you are applying, would it be beneficial to mention so in your statement of purpose?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Those are helpful questions, Justin and Ryan.

Justin: I don't think there's any need to "introduce yourself" unless there's something unusual about your background that isn't reflected in your transcripts.

Ryan: I think a statement of that sort might be helpful in some circumstances. However, it could backfire if it isn't obvious from your statement *why* that school would be your first choice. It might seem inauthentic or ignorant. For example, it would be strange for a candidate applying to UCR in straight philosophy of mind to say that UCR would be her top choice (even if you think Siewert and Schwitzgebel are wonderful). However, if you know you want to combine the study of 19th-20th century German philosophy with contemporary analytic philosophy of action, UCR might quite plausibly be your top choice.

There is also some chance, I suppose, that if you say the school would be your top choice the admissions committee will save their more competitive packages (i.e., offers with more years of fellowship) for candidates whose decisions might be more influenced by the specifics of the offer. But I suspect the extent to which committees engage in that kind of market thinking varies widely.

Carl said...

So I take it that areas interests are partly be used to judge how well the candidate fits with program strengths.

The three main interests I plan to outline in my statement are such that few departments will have specialists in all three. Will it disadvantage me if, say, two of my interests are not catered for by a given department even though one is?

Or, to rephrase: will it disadvantage me if one or more of my interests is outside the supervision capabilities of the department? I hope not.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Carl, I do think that if a department serves only one of an applicant's three interests, that applicant might be seen as a poor fit. Two out of three is probably okay, especially if the writing sample is in the area of one of the two.

In such cases, a candidate can always think carefully about how to craft a final paragraph stating why the particular department in question is appealing. I'd be careful, though, about explicitly stating that the department is not really able to serve one of your stated interests, as this could potentially come across as ignorant or insulting if there is a professor there who does work in that area.

Another possible solution is to describe one's interests more broadly. Instead of "philosophy of quantum physics" try "philosophy of science". Instead of "ancient Chinese philosophy" say something about generally being interested in exploring thinkers and traditions outside the standard Western canon.

Emily said...

First off - I can't thank you enough for continuing this series. It has been immensely helpful.
Secondly, I wanted to ask about something that I don't think has come up yet (I apologize if I missed it somewhere): How should one handle/explain time off (time spent doing something non-philosophy-related)? Should this be addressed in a personal statement? I've noticed that some schools have a slot on the application for explaining how you've occupied yourself if you've been out of school for some time, but what about those which don't? Also, should some sort of attempt be made to convince the committee that one is a 'serious candidate' in spite of having spent time doing other things in between undergrad and (hopefully) graduate school?
Thanks!

Anonymous said...

First off - I can't thank you enough for continuing this series. It has been immensely helpful.
Secondly, I wanted to ask about something that I don't think has come up yet (I apologize if I missed it somewhere): How should one handle/explain time off (time spent doing something non-philosophy-related)? Should this be addressed in a personal statement? I've noticed that some schools have a slot on the application for explaining how you've occupied yourself if you've been out of school for some time, but what about those which don't? Also, should some sort of attempt be made to convince the committee that one truly is a 'serious candidate' in spite of having spent time doing other things in between undergrad and (hopefully) graduate school?
Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the words of appreciation!

There's a bit of a discussion of this in the comments on Part II. There's a big difference between time off followed by new coursework showing a renewed interest in philosophy (and continued achievement at high standards) and time off that is not followed by new coursework. My sense is that the latter is probably something of a negative in an application, though it doesn't necessarily doom an application.

Emily said...

It sounds like ideal way to repair damage done by taking time off is to sit in on some courses. I also got this sense from the discussion in section II. But I'm wondering, in terms of strategy for applying this year - how this should be handled (if at all) in one's application. Should there be something in the statement of purpose attempting to explain: "sorry about spending the past 2 years in the Peace Corps. I really am sure I want to do philosophy, and to do it seriously. this was just something I wanted to do in between." ?(obviously it would have to be put more eloquently). Is something like this worth including? Is there any statement along these lines that might really convince the committee not to count this as a strike?
Thanks again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

In my judgment, taking time to serve in the Peace Corps will not be a strike against you, especially if you can tie it in to your areas of interest.

The same goes for spending time abroad to learn a foreign language relevant to your research or serving as an intern in a field relevant to your research and the like.

I wouldn't spend too long on such things (which might highlight them unnecessarily or look defensive). But a brief statement that you spent two years in the Peace Corps (or working for so-and-so's campaign or...) should sufficiently explain the time gap since undergraduate.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Eric:

Thank you for the helpful input, especially the nice examples.

Could you share some thoughts on introduction (first) paragraph? It's very hard to make a good beginning.

BTW, Merry Christmas!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't see any reason not to get immediately to the business of describing your areas of interest. For example: "My current philosophical interests, which I hope to continue to pursue in graduate school, center on...".

Many applicants put somthing obvious in the first paragraph about wanting to earn a Ph.D. or to teach philosophy, or they put in a little personal history. There no harm in that, but it's not really necessary.

Prospective Grad said...

First off, I really appreciate all the terrific advice you've given. It's been tremendously helpful. That said:

Would you recommend including a brief description of your writing sample in the opening paragraph? I know Rutgers explicitly asks for one, and it doesn't seem like a bad idea to include a few sentences on your writing sample, if for no other reason than it may result in a higher probability of your writing sample actually being read by a faculty member who is interested in the topic.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Most of the statements I've seen don't summarize the writing sample, and I don't think it's necessary. There's some possibility that it would be harmful to your application if it gives the false impression that your intended principal area of study is that covered in your sample and/or if it crowds out less redundant information. I generally wouldn't advise dwelling on your writing sample in your statement of purpose unless there's some positive reason to do so.

Your writing sample should have a clear title and introduction that get right to the heart of the matter, so that it's obvious by glancing at the first page what area of philosophy it's in. If you do this, there's no need to use the statement of purpose to signal to the committee the topic of your sample.

leiarollag said...

Hi!

I was wondering what is an appropriate length for a statement of purpose. Please indicate if you mean 1 inch margins, double spaced, etc.

Thank you!

:)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right, good question! I'd say anywhere from 250-500 words is a good length.

Maura said...

This has been very helpful! Thanks so much for your hard work and expertise.

I think I have a somewhat unusual story, but there may be others out there in similar situations. I entered my freshman year as a student athlete and cared about little besides sports. I barely managed a 3.0 GPA. After two years I had a somewhat dramatic experience, switched my major to philosophy, and since then, have received mainly A’s and A+’s. Obviously, my GPA improved, but it is still not nearly up to the par of most applicants. Is there any hope for people like me? Is there a good way to bring this up in my personal statement?

I noticed there have not been any posts for quite a while, so I hope this discussion is still active. If not, I have still learned an incredible amount and express my gratitude once again.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Maura: Admissions committees do understand these things. It would be reasonable to explain your change of attitude in your personal statement (without being too defensive about it). The admissions committee is mainly looking for evidence of sustained interest and capacity in philosophy. This is perfectly consistent with a bad year or two at the beginning.

This isn't to say, of course, that the first year or two don't count at all. Consistent academic excellence is more impressive than recent academic excellence.

Maura said...

Thank you. I just realized how this website works, and I feel silly for saying there have not been recent posts. Anyhow, Thanks again.

Violet said...

I also thank you immensely for this blog! My question regards personal experiences, and if/to what degree they should be included. I understand that the main purpose of the statement is for the committee to determine if your research interests fit well with the department, but should you include anything about your personal history if you think it radically sets you apart from other applicants? Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Violet, my sense is that getting personal in the statement tends to backfire, unless you're very cool, professional, brief, and matter-of-fact. A much better way to make sure the admissions committee knows something about you personally, including any hardships or struggles or signs of unusual capacity or dedication, is through your letter writers. Make sure they know about that personal thing you think makes you stand out (include it in your "brag sheet" if appropriate). Personal details typically come off as corny, self-promotional, or special pleading in statements of purpose, while they can be very compelling in letters.

shaunmiller said...

This site has been very informative.

I applied to various schools last year. I did get accepted to a particular school but without funding. Thus, I deferred.

Now I'm reapplying and I'm wondering how to word my statement of purpose. Should I include my deferment and the reason why I deferred?

shaunmiller said...

This site has been very helpful. I applied to various schools last year. I did get accepted to one, but without funding. Thus, I deferred.

Now that I'm reapplying, I'm wondering how to reword my statement of purpose. Should I mention the deferment and the reason why I deferred?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shaun, you might be better off starting with a clean slate (except for the school that admitted you). You don't want to risk being perceived as someone already found inadmissible by other schools -- even if the reality is that your application is much stronger this year.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts! Thank you so much, this is very helpful. I do have one question, however.

Do you think it is important to talk about pedagogical interests in the SoP? Or is it more appropriate to stick solely to research/philosophical interests.

Thanks!

Best,

Ryan

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Nov. 30: I'd stick with research/philosophical interests. Some committee members might be delighted to see something pedagogical, but it's unusual and more likely to stick out negatively than positively, I'd guess.

Said said...

Thank you for the series. It has been extremely useful.


When I was sixteen, I moved from Dominican Republic to the United States to pursue a career as a philosopher. Do you think I should include this in the personal statement?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Said: I am inclined to think that that is the sort of thing you could mention in your statement of purpose. But your letter writers might be better judges of that matter.

Said said...

Thank you for your answer. I really appreciate it.

Edoardoardo said...

Hi!
Many thanks for all the precious informations.
Regarding the Sop, I would like to ask just a thing. My accademic history is quite bizzare, I am 28 years old, and I am applying in some Universties looking for a PhD.
Since I started University, when i was 19, I work 6/7 days to live. I live alone, and of course I have to get some money to eat, pay the rent, and so forth. Do you think I have to mention this on my Statement? Maybe in a formal way..just to let know the committee that I am not a time waster, I m interested in philosophy but of course i don't have time to study as many of my peers. Thanks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Edouardoardo: It is probably best to have one or more of your letter writers mention this. It probably comes off best if you don't seem to be asking for special treatment or offering up excuses. If your letter writers present the info, the committees will notice and take it into account to whatever degree they find appropriate.

Shawn Miller said...

I have a question about "statements of purpose" vs. "personal statements." The UC schools -- for the most part -- require both and the prompt for the personal statement is, "In an essay, discuss how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include any educational, familial, cultural, economic, or social experiences, challenges, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey; how you might contribute to social or cultural diversity within your chosen field; and/or how you might serve educationally underrepresented segments of society with your degree."

Is this question used to decide need-based fellowships -- that seems to be the case at UCSD -- or does it have some other purpose? I don't want to give a B.S. answer, but if the question is very important in some way, I don't want to neglect it. Any insight?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cover letters are often thrown away or lost. Don't put anything important in them.

Alex said...

My statement of purpose is fairly detailed about specific philosophical topics I wish to explore, even thought they do range a bit. My question is should I somehow show that I am teachable and open to learn and open to change? I don't take hard positions on anything, but term it more like, "I am interested to pursue further..."

In other words, how "figured out" should my interests be?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'd just state your interests without apology.

Anonymous said...

How much should I tailor my statement to each school I apply to?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Not much, if at all.

Matt DeStefano said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel, this post has helped me enormously in preparing to send out graduate school applications. I know it's a few years old, but this is a great way to help prepare.

Thank you so much!

Careless fool said...

I just purely by chance realized that in my already-submitted application to school x I accidentally called it school y. I wrote the statement for school y and then for each other school replaced the school name, the professors whose work I was interested in, and occasionally other very minor tweaks. So the statement is otherwise fine in terms of the names of hte professors and whatnot.

Obviously this probably varies from person to person and maybe school to school, but if you read a statement of purpose where the applicant named the wrong school would you 1) laugh and keep reading, 2) consider it a point against the applicant but still give them a chance to redeem themselves, 3) snarl and throw the file into the incinerator, 4) something else...?

It's pretty disheartening to think that a moment's fatigue might cost me a $75 application fee and any chance of admission...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'd consider it a small sloppy mistake, not a big deal.

Jack Wright said...

Eric, I think you know by now already, but your posts have been extremely useful to many people and I would like to add my appreciation.

I would also like to ask a brief question based on what you said to leiarollag a while ago. You mentioned that an ideal SoP is somewhere between 250-500 words. I'm struggling to cram all my interests into that and was wondering if this reflects a typical length as well, or if it common to have SoP's that are almost 1000 words? And if you were to receive one nearer to 1000 words would your eyes glaze over after 500?

Thanks again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I'm afraid my eyes will start to glaze over. Try to keep it short! We want a statement of the general direction of your interests, not an argumentative essay.

Jack Wright said...

Thanks for the advise. I'll try and cut it down.

Also do you think a brief conclusion style paragraph at the end is useful at all? Or would it be better to simply dive at in the start (as you mentioned to anon a while ago) and just finish with whatever you happen to list as your last interest?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Either way is okay. One possibility is to end with a one-sentence paragraph stating philosophers at the target institution with whom you would be most interested to work. But be careful about that if you decide to do it! If you leave some out who fit your interests or include some who don't, it can backfire. Strictly optional.

Anonymous said...

If you're reapplying to the same program in a subsequent year (in my case, I last applied two years ago but am applying to some of the same places), do you need to come up with a totally different statement of purpose? After all, my interests haven't really changed, and where little has changed I see no point in changing very much to a statement I worked hard on and like. But do admisssions committee members (if they're the same people) remember statements from year to year? Will they say, I've read this before and toss it aside?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Just use the same statement. Committees change. Also, your statement will probably only be remembered if you were an almost-admit. We tend to have positive attitudes toward almost-admits (the pool is so strong!), and we're happy to see them again, especially if the application is a bit stronger.

Anonymous said...

I have an unusual situation (multiple incompletes as an undergraduate that I didn't finish resulting in failing grades) which would normally be adressed in the statement of purpose but the most compelling way I have found to address that is by writing a whole separate "additional" statement and noting that it is an explanation of my transcript. It involves telling a story about my history, and I think the story is compelling. Is this crazy? Will anyone read this additional statement (which I reference in my statement of purpose)? I don't have a good concise explanation of it, I need the narrative, and I wanted to keep my statement of purpose to talk about my intellectual interests, who I'd ilke to work with, etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Breaking it off into a separate additional statement seems like a reasonable approach to me. Good luck!

Daniel said...

Erik, with all due respect, you might consider changing your example. I used that format and got these responses: 1. you should not list the names of the professors you took your courses with, unless you are applying to your own school, and 2. you should not list question after question after question, but simply give a broad overview on a single topic (question) or two. Daniel

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thank you for that feedback, Daniel. I appreciate it! I am on the UCR admissions committee again this year, so I'll have a new chance to gather impressions about how different statements of purpose come across to committee members. I will consider revising in light of your comments.

Sean said...

Eric,
Is there any good reason to include a sort of introductory paragraph in a SOP. Something that briefly states why it is that you are drawn to philosophy or should you really take to heart that whoever is sifting through your application already assumes that philosophy is it for you, otherwise you wouldn't be applying? Thanks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

No need, Sean. But lots of people do. No harm if you keep it simple and matter-of-fact.

Anonymous said...

Professor,

How do you think a student should lay out his or her philosophical interests, especially when they're numerous and/or disparate?

a) tying them together by explaining what new approaches or innovations you hope to bring to the area?
b) distinguishing your core interests from side/niche interests
c) boldly stating you have wide interests

In my case I'm worried about saying "I like political philosophy" and then looking like a lightweight by naming 9 or 10 areas of political thought I'm interested in. How do I organize them?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

See my new sample statements of purpose, posted a few months ago!

Anonymous said...

Cannot find the samples, can you please post the link here?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

http://schwitzsplintersunderblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/sample-statement-of-purpose.html

http://schwitzsplintersunderblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/sample-statement-of-purpose-b.html

http://schwitzsplintersunderblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/sample-statement-of-purpose-c.html

Joel Pinheiro said...

Prof. Eric,

I'm a Brazilian masters student contemplating application for PhD in the US for fall/2013.

In Brazil, professors are not too happy to know that a student is going abroad, as the best leave and might never come back.

I do, however, plan to come back to Brazil after my PhD. Should I mention this in my statement of purpose? Would it be helpful for my application? Or would it decrease my chances?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Joel, I would get that would have a small effect if any. If it does have an effect, it seems to me more likely to be negative than positive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I have what could be an issue. My main interests are in normative ethics, but my philosophical background does not reflect this. I've taken an Intro to Ethics course, but that's about it as far as courses that directly tie into ethics. I have "dabbled" in issues related to normative ethics in various courses, but such issues were not the focal point of the courses. My UG department does not typically offer any UG courses in ethics beyond the 100 level. My general background in philosophy is strong, as I have mostly A's in a range of courses that includes plenty of M & E, ancient philosophy & modern philosophy. I do have some interests in metaphysics as well as ancient philosophy. However, I'm concerned that committees will not take me seriously as someone who intends to do research in normative ethics at their department. I've done a fair amount of independent reading, including Shelly Kagan's "Normative Ethics" as well as his work "The Limits of Morality". But surely that doesn't constitute an adequate background. Thoughts?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Oct 12: My experience is that admissions committees don't look too closely at the relationship between the transcript and the statement of purpose. However, if your SOP is all about ethics and your letters of recommendation and writing sample are not ethics-ish, there will be a bit of a disconnect. In such a case, I advise stating that ethics is one of your areas of interest but also equally mentioning the area in which you are visibly strongest in the remainder of your application.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the very informative and useful blog! I have one question concerning the SOP.

In my SOP, I mention several papers that I've written, and I mention the arguments of these papers in outline. In some of these papers I've argued positions perhaps contrary to some of the professors at some of the schools I'm applying to.

My worry is that the SOP may come off conceited and arrogant, even though, I've never explicitly said anyone or any position was wrong in my SOP. I always restricted my descriptions to simply, "I argued this and that," etc.

I felt it was important to outline the arguments of the papers I've written, especially as being in grad. school for two years now, they may want to see my grasp of the literature.

So do you think it would be fine doing so, but restricting the language and never explicitly saying someone or some position is wrong?

Thanks for the advice!

Anonymous said...

Eric,

I have noticed that UC Riverside requires a SOP as well a statement about "personal history". I'm really unsure of what to write in the latter. Also, I wonder how closely these are read. I don't want to write in anything that could somehow hurt my application. Thanks for any input!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Dec 9: Right! See my update post on statements of purpose, from earlier this year.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Dec 8: I think that's fine, especially since you already have some grad school. As long as you're keenly aware of the issue of avoiding arrogance, you'll probably phrase things in a way that comes across okay.

Kendall said...

Even though this post is 4 years old, it's still extremely helpful. The history of my academic career has been a bit crazy. I'm fairly intelligent, but I did not garner good study skills in high school because school came so easy to me. That carried on into college which brought down my GPA for the first year or so. Furthermore, I was undecided on my major for the first year, was planning on transferring after my second year but decided not to, then I studied abroad the 2nd semester of sophomore year and was unable to finish the semester. It wasn't until my junior year I became interested in philosophy and by then I was unable to complete a major and am ending up with a political science major and philosophy minor. How can I state this without detailing my entire background, yet giving sufficient evidence to my lower GPA and unique background?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kendall, I'm inclined to think that you shouldn't try too hard to explain. It's not uncommon for students to struggle early on and then find philosophy and excel near the end, maybe not even with a philosophy major. It doesn't really need explaining; it's evident from your transcript. Generally, all else being equal, committees will prefer a student with a stronger overall record. But all else is not always equal!

Anonymous said...

First of all, Professor, thank you for your consistent hard work in helping students out. I'm sure you are aware of this, but your website is incredibly helpful!

I was wondering if you might be able to provide a few brief comments about my situation. I am applying to PhD programs in philosophy, but I have no proper background in the subject. I received a BA in mathematics from a university with an internationally prestigious math department and did well (summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, honors). I then started a PhD program in math, but didn't like it, so I withdrew after the first year. (I didn't have any academic problems, it was more a matter of me deciding that if I didn't like it, I should get out sooner rather than later, in addition to not wanting to waste the department's money to fund me when I knew my heart wasn't into it).

I then completed a master's in political theory from a prestigious university in the UK. I did well in this degree (they award degrees according to the following classification scheme: Pass, Merit, Distinction. I received a Distinction; Merit is the average) and believe I should have good letters of recommendations from philosophers or political philosophers (the latter being in the political science department at my university). My master's degree was heavily oriented to ethics and other important philosophical topics, such as philosophy of history (where we read Kant, Hegel and Marx), foundationalism in political theory (where we read works by GA Cohen, Rawls, and Habermas), and philosophy of science (where we read Karl Popper, among other people). The first time I saw anything about citizenship or democratic theory, etc.. was in the last two weeks of the course!

Do I need to address my transition from math to political theory to now wanting to do a PhD in philosophy? Or since my political theory degree was heavily oriented to topics that one might study as a proper philosophy student, should I simply describe my interests in philosophy, maybe say a few words about my background, and hope that my writing sample and letters carry the day? How do I address my lack of a background in metaphysics, for example (or other substantive areas that PhD programs might hope applicants have a background in)? And should I say something about why I am now committed to carrying through with a PhD program? I am afraid that my having withdrawn from one PhD program will raise serious doubts in the eyes of admissions committees.

Thank you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jan 4: You have enough of a background in philosophy to justify applying. No need to discuss your lack of background in metaphysics etc. It might make sense to say a bit about the evolution of your interests over time, highlighting what brought you into philosophy.

Sarah B. said...

Hello, thank you for the helpful post. I am applying to MA programs in Philosophy.

Besides the website descriptions of the programs and course offerings, though, I don't have an extremely in-depth familiarity with the programs or faculty. The reason why is that I'm not too picky as to what school I go to, as long as I know it is a quality institution with a reasonably diverse course offering and faculty. My interests are diverse, I'm not sure what I want my thesis to be on, I merely love philosophy in general. My undergraduate institute focused on Continental philosophy, which I enjoy, but I also see the benefit in going to a more Analytically-focused school to become more well-rounded. Do you think it will reflect negatively on me if I don't have very specific philosophic interests that closely line up with the program I am applying to?

Thank you,
Sarah

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sarah: A "good fit" is an advantage but not a necessity. Many admittees have somewhat vague interests that don't align perfectly with the department. What doesn't work is when you have very specific interests that don't fit with what the department can offer.

Anonymous said...

Let me be another person to thank you for maintaining these pages.

At the moment I'm studying for a second MA, but it looks like I might not complete enough coursework to get the degree. I'd still like to do a doctorate, though, now I've learned some lessons about how I study best. Firstly, how do you think I should discuss the lost year in personal statements and how should I list it (if I list it at all) on my CV?

Secondly, I've learned that I need someone else setting me quite a tight schedule to get stuff done - what is the best way to let the department I'm applying to know that I'd prefer to be supervised more closely than a lot of PhD candidates? (I'm obviously not going to ask for potential supervisors to do more work supervising me, just to do it a bit differently from usual if possible.)

Thirdly, since my first MA didn't have a thesis component and I might not get the chance to submit the thesis for this one, is that going to spook the departments I'm applying to, and if so, what can I do about it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon May 10: My impressions:

1. I wouldn't discuss it much if at all. Confession, angst, or apology doesn't tend to come off well. Be cool, professional, and upbeat.

2. Don't say anything at all about this. The time to explore this is *after* you have been admitted, when you are choosing between programs. The people to ask about this would be advanced students (5th year and beyond).

3. Not really a problem.

Lastanon said...

That was really quick! Thanks for the thoughts.

Anonymous said...

This is an "old boys club" for sure. What everyone does is pander to PhD egos. What is wrong with wanting to teach and mentor young minds? I'll tell you, tenure is based on publishing and research. I don't want to publish and do research, I want to teach. All these statements do is promote those able to BS the best. I guess I'll need to lie to get in, then once I have a PhD work to change this corrupt system from within...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if you still are notified of these comments, but...

One semester I managed to make some fairly not-too-great grades. While there is an explanation (I was dealing with the stress of hospitalisation after attempting suicide), it is *very* personal and might even disincline the readers from admitting me more than the grades! What would be a good solution? Will talk about "health problems" be too vague to take seriously?

Thanks so much for this series of posts!!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

A vague mention of "health problems" seems like the right approach to me. I'm not sure how seriously that will be taken, but if the term is really uncharacteristic, flexibly-minded committee members might take it seriously. I disincline to recommend mentioning the suicide attempt even if you were personally comfortable doing so, since some committee members might have a negative reaction to that.

Anonymous said...

This post is extremely helpful. One question--the example statement B opens with something like a joke. Is it wise to use a joking, lighthearted tone in the statement of purpose, or could it come off unprofessionally?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Well, one wants to be careful and err on the side of caution. Definitely run it by your advisors, and if any one of them thinks it comes off wrong, cut it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Schwitzgebel,

First off, love the blog. In particular, the information and advice about applying to grad school is extremely useful. Thanks!

I'm wondering whether and how I ought to mention in my SOP that I might qualify as part of an underrepresented group in philosophy. (I'm mixed-race.) I don't want it to come off as petitioning or as asking for special treatment in some way. Do you think I should include the info in my SOP, and if so, how do you think I should go about doing it?

By the way, I applied this year, and I'm currently short listed at a Top-15 PGR-ranked department. From what the DGS has told me, things may very well come down to the wire on April 15; sounds like my chances of getting an offer are 50/50-ish. I'm preparing for re-applying in the Fall, tho'.