Thursday, May 29, 2008

More Philosophy Ph.D. Admissions Data from U.C. Riverside

[Due to objections by some members of the UCR department, this post has been removed.]

34 comments:

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

I'm curious about this number:

...we received 187 applications, about 3/4 of which were complete enough to evaluate...

What were the other 25% like? Do you mean that that many applications are just incomplete, and ignored? What are they missing?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"at lower prestige schools, talented students will find it easy to get top grades and it may be rare for them to have their feet held to the fire about their essays, may not get the harsh and detailed criticism necessary to transform those essays into excellent writing samples "

I wonder if this is true and, if so, why?

First, the easy grades suggestion. Perhaps someone who has moved, as an undergrad, from a low to high prestige institution could give relevant experience on this, but my anecdotal evidence based on those I know at different types of institutions is this: the higher the prestige, the less stringent the grading (if you got into this school, you're already entitled to A's). This may not be true, but why should we believe the reverse is true?

The issues of harsh and detailed criticism is a distinct one. What is the correlation between prestige and grading severity or, for that matter between grading severity and comment/critical severity? Indeed, many high prestige institutions have large classes graded by TA's compared to lower prestige colleges with small, prof-graded courses. Aren't the latter possibly more likely to get _any_ substantial feedback on their written work, and more likely helpful, detailed feedback?

The up-to-dateness in the field point sounds perfectly reasonable, but these others suggest to me that this is a case of perpetuating an form of social and economic inequality in opportunity and trying to justify it after the fact.

Margaret Atherton said...

Dear Eric,
Since you earlier suggested to our great distress that UW-M wrote inflated letters of recommendation, do you think you could now tell the world that you did indeed admit some UW-M graduates?

Margaret Atherton

Charles said...

Thanks for posting this! As a recent PhD applicant (not to Riverside), I guess I can't say it's all that helpful for me anymore, but it feels good to know more about what it was like on the other side. Plus I can direct future generations of applicants to your blog.

Jura Pintar said...

To Anon (7:43):

Based on purely anecdotal evidence from close friends who majored in philosophy and cognate fields across a range of prestigious and less prestigious institutions, and from my own experience (both in having been graded and in grading), my guess is that the correlation between grading severity and critical severity in philosophy classes is very weak indeed, and perhaps zero, both within and across schools.

Although what you say of class sizes and in paragraph 4 is probably true of large institutions (and, mind you, not all prestigious institutions are large) in general, it tends to be false of philosophy programmes at those large universities. Intermediate and advanced courses in philosophy tend to be smaller than intermediate and advanced courses in many other fields (this was certainly true of my alternate field, evolutionary biology, although it was not even a particular magnet for students in the way, say, economics might be).

And even if non-introductory philosophy classes at large and prestigious institutions were notably larger than those at small institutions, it would not follow that the feedback dispensed by teaching fellows in such classes would be less critical, not to mention insubstantial. For one, large prestigious institutions tend to recruit the best and brightest philosophy graduate students, many of whom can and do provide detailed and insightful feedback.

Your suggestion that this is a case of privilege-perpetuation in the selection process is, as far as I can see, thoroughly unfounded. After all, Eric was offering his comment on harsh criticism as a possible explanation of why writing samples of applicants from less prestigious institutions tend to be in fact weaker than those of their peers from prestigious ones. Even if the explanation turns out to be wrong, its mere offering is not an ex post facto justification of perpetuating inequality. [Eric could say more, though, about whether and how the initial assessment of the writing samples is kept unbiased. Presumably the admissions committee reads them with a blind?]

My guess is that in a field like philosophy, the bulk of the relevant perpetuation of class privilege (though perhaps not all other kinds of privilege, like gender privilege) is executed well before the graduate application stage. And to the extent that it is not, the problem does not lie in the selection procedures, but in the kind of financial support that can be given to students bent on the fiscally imprudent undertaking of becoming an academic.

Finally, someone who is willing to insinuate that graduate teaching fellows are either incorrigible slackers or incompetents when it comes to teaching, and finds them self-evidently inferior educators to professors, should think a bit more carefully about the various ways in which class privilege can be perpetuated.

Jura Pintar said...

That was meant to say "To Anon (7:34)"

Nathaniel Sharadin said...

Dear Eric,

I'm surprised you don't mention UWM as one of the MA programs from which your admitted students came, considering close to 20% of your 16 admittances (3 students) came from UWM.

Given this, I would second Margaret's request for an explanation of your earlier insistence that

"either the M.A. program at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee is a hotbed of philosophical genius, or their grades and letters are seriously inflated. ... [And] based on the writing samples, I wouldn't entirely rule out the former possibility."

It seems disingenuous to leave something like this in the air without some sort of justification.

Best,
-Nate

Anonymous said...

This seems to speak pretty strongly for the value of MA programs.

Notice that 4 out of 7 post-MA admits had undergrad GPAs of lower than 3.5, while the lowest GPA for a post-BA admit was 3.69.

Rachel McKinney said...

Did you folks happen to keep track of demographic information (gender, race, age, etc) of applicants and accepted applicants? I would be curious to see this.

Timmy said...

Wow! Sounds like the UW-M folks are pretty touchy - wonder why? I seem to remember from an intro logic class I took eons ago that statements of the sort "a or b" meant that either a is the case or b is the case, without prejudice as to which actually is the case.

So, even if we find out that b is the case, I never thought that licensed us to attack people for claiming a or b...

Anonymous said...

For all the talk about transparency in admissions and job placement data, it's refreshing to finally see a respectable department actually do it. Great job, UC-R! Please keep it up!

Anonymous said...

I have taken a philosophy class at a "high-ranked" school and a no-rank school. The grading standards were off-the-chart different, even the assignments were different.

The professor at the no-rank school was just hoping for a "coherent" factually accurate paper. That was enough for an A. With that low standard, the professor had no reason to help a student refine or improve an A essay, especially since he has to focus on the students whose essays were incoherent or completely factually inaccurate.

Better students at no-rank schools who don't realize this situation may think their As mean they are stars, which they may be at their school, but their work may be way below the level of A students at "high-ranked" schools.

Sean said...

I would have thought that one obvious explanation for why graduates of prestigious schools are better represented in the cohort than graduates of less prestigious schools is selection bias: the incoming students at prestigious schools tend to be better students than their peers at less prestigious students, so even if the quality of education across institutions were the same and admissions committees recognized this, it would not be a great mystery if among those who apply to philosophy grad programs, the graduates of the more prestigious schools appeared to be stronger applicants than their peers at less prestigious schools and if admissions committees accepted them at higher rates.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to second the previous (anonymous-4:05) comment, with a perspective from the other side. I've taught at one prestigious private university, one giant state university, and one middle-of-nowhere stage college. I grade relative to my expectations, which differed wildly between those three institutions. An 'A' from me at PPU meant that the student engaged productively with difficult philosophical questions and made a substantive original contribution; an 'A' at GSU means the student demonstrated comprehension of the source material and strung together a series of germane observations in a reasonable package. I'd give an 'A' at MoNSC to anyone who was obviously engaging with the relevant questions, wrote approximately the right number of pages, and employed proper English spelling and grammar.

Possibly the time since has clouded my memory, but as I look back over that experience now, I think that the best 'A' paper I ever received at MoNSC would have gotten something in the 'C' range from me at PPU.

Matt said...

The idea that students at less prestigious schools might have more trouble with a writing sample rings true with me. When I first applied to grad school I was coming out of a program at an undistinguished state school where I got a good education in philosophy but not as much experience in writing serious papers as I needed so my writing sample wasn't that great. I did so-so that year. When I applied again several years later, after having been in grad school for two years and with a writing sample I'd presented at a few conferences and gotten good feed-back on I did much better. (I also had letters from better known people, though, so can't say this is the only difference.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I would be interested in seeing a breakdown of the gender of your applicants and students admitted. Many of us in the profession have noted a marked decrease in the number of female applicants in the past several years.

Margaret Atherton said...

Thanks for indulging us, Eric. And really, you shouldn't be surprised that excellent students from UWM apply to Riverside, you have students from us already who encourage them to do so.

I too would be interested in knowing if you have figures for how many women and minorities applied to you, since I like many others are concerned about what looks like it may be a drop in the percentage of women applying to graduate school in philosophy.

Margaret

Anonymous said...

Taking into account your emphasis on quality of writing sample, I think one explanation of the cluster of lower GRE scores could be that the students with the best writing samples chose to focus on polishing those off rather than cramming for the GRE. Obviously it would be hard to say whether this is actually the case or not. But if it were, it would indeed be a helpful piece of information for future applicants.

Anonymous said...

It's not clear to me why anyone would give much weight to GRE marks.

Unless of course it's the lazy answer: a quantifiable way to distinguish between students of otherwise equal merit. And yet there's little reason to think that the GRE is a good measure of anything, other than the ability to write GRE tests.

Anonymous said...

Anon writes:

"there's little reason to think that the GRE is a good measure of anything, other than the ability to write GRE tests"

One reads this argument a lot- GREs test only for GRE-taking-ability. Since GRE-taking-ability doesn't demonstrate philosophical acumen, it's not worth anything in determining an applicants prowess for academic philosophy.

Is this actually true? I think a lot gets glossed over by the concept of GRE-taking-ability. The idea of the naysayers is simply- GRE-taking-ability is an arbitrary metric and so the GRE isn't useful due to irrelevance of the metric. I don't really think it's an arbitrary metric, though. A person's ability to study hard for a time-sensitive and difficult test is not irrelevant to academic work, regardless of the arbitrariness of the testing concepts.

The question of most importance is obviously what GRE-test-taking skills (GTT) are comprised of. Let's be skeptical and not say GTT measures analytical, quantitative, or verbal ability (whatever those are anyway- I have no idea what being in the 99th percentile of "verbal" could even mean). Let's say GTT-type skills include only the obvious- memory, time-management under pressure, and rule-following. We STILL get a valuable set of indicators under this skeptical version of GTT even ruling out what the test is purportedly measuring.

I do doubt a 1600/6 GRE score is an indicator of any sort for the next Kripke- but surely the 1600 person probably has an easier time quickly understanding Kripke than a 1200/4 person? Getting the gist and getting it quickly is a good thing, I think.

While I'm just a graduate student and so don't admit anybody to anything- I wouldn't consider taking someone with a 'perfect' GRE and an OK writing sample over a 1200-person and a good writing sample. But that's not what's at issue. What's at issue are two applicants that are more or less identical. The GRE naysayers want me to believe that, all things being equal, the GRE still isn't a good enough way to split hairs. I think that that is a totally insane way to think about it- it is a perfectly legitimate way to split hairs.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:09,

Given that your claims on behalf of the GRE are reasonable, I guess the only thing left is that we be sure that GRE scores are primarily used to split hairs when all other things are equal.

If that is, pretty much, how they are currently being used by admissions committees, then I doubt the GRE naysayers have much to complain about, even by their own lights, given how seldom all other things are equal.

Anonymous said...

Still, it amazes me that, in a field driven by discussion (contemplation even!), and often highly technical long-form writing, people would think a multiple choice test done under time constraints would be a good measure of anything particularly relevant.

Most departments I know don't use exams of any sort to grade undergraduate philosophy students after the first or second year. So
it looks a little disingenuous to argue that exam-writing-capability is somehow something worth testing for when your degree is finished.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

This sounds like a valuable research project: how well, if at all, do GRE scores correlate with philosophical aptitude?

A challenge involved in testing it would be that in fact, most low-GRE-score applicants won't get into grad school, or won't get into the best grad schools, so they end up with inferior training. (And the ones who do get into good programs would, presumably be better than their GRE-peers.)

Here's one idea. I'm sure there are more good ones in the area. Do GRE scores correlate with writing sample quality? To test it, we'd need access to anonymized admission materials. If there is a positive correlation, this provides some support to the idea that GRE scores have a place in the admissions process.

(No!, some people will object, if GREs are only valuable because they predict how good someone's writing sample is, then we should throw them out and look at the even better indicator: the writing sample itself! But more data is better data. Consider a possible admissions committee that requires two writing samples. The quality of #2 will almost certainly be correlated with that of #1, but it will provide additional data -- if both are excellent, it's stronger evidence than if only one is. (Maybe it was a fluke.) Of course, reading a second writing sample in detail would be a ton of work for an admissions committee. Maybe considering GRE scores would be a worthwhile second-best.)

Adam said...

One thing Eric said stood out to me. It was the hypothesis that writing samples from students who graduated from top school tended to be better because of their superior training, thanks to the greater resources and better staffs at those schools.

I think that can be informative of how the GRE might be useful as a metric. The playing field with regard to training is clearly not equal. The playing field with regard to the taking the GRE is not equal, either, but it's a heck of a lot closer. A writing sample can be honed by presentation at conferences and feedback from other academics, but the Analytical Writing Assessment puts everyone on equal footing. How well can you quickly and efficiently organize information and present a coherent argument, regardless of whether you have any pre-existing knowledge of the topic? Sure, that isn't how philosophy is conducted, but the GRE is designed to assess the capability one has at being receptive to training, not present academic ability.

Heck, the comparison to the NFL draft combine rings true here as well, and you know what? Sometimes those workout freaks simply had something working against them: the program was a bad match, they didn't take to their coaches, whatever. Whether or not they have a higher flop rate, the combine is held for a reason. The top stars in every league tend to be superior athletes, and pro teams are confident in their staffs abilities to mold raw talent. Presumably, a prestigious university also has confidence in its staff to mold young geniuses that underperformed in the past and might be willing to take a chance here and there.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks! I'm sorry I had to delete the post and my earlier response to comments.

Some of these topics would be excellent topics of discussion, I think on Leiter's blog.

Anonymous said...

i agree about the grading assessment. i transfered from a third tier school to a first tier school before i applied for graduate school and found that at the first tier school it was more of a 'you get an A or you don't' kind of atmosphere. no one did poorly and frankly, at the first tier school most classes were taught by grad students. i'm surprised more ph.d. programs don't take this into account. ultimately i think the 'grades from better institutions are worth more' just tends to reinforce the class system that philosophy programs promote, and leave out most minority and working-class students that can't afford to go to ivy's. philosophy has become fairly well renowned as having some of the least diversity of any field, and while it certainly isn't intentional this one of the reasons that should be examined more closely. the argument ultimately becomes a student's education isn't worth anything unless they go where the rich kids go.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I have to agree with some of the more pessimistic points in the post above... that hirings and admissions policies tend to perpetuate a class system. Doubtless there are exceptions, but overall people from "top-ranked" schools have an advantage over others that's not necessarily related to their intelligence or competence.

For me the big question is why this happens. Is it the old bugbear of "like hires like"? (or admits like as the case may be.) Or is it that there's simply too many people competing for too few places, and "school prestige" is another way of thinning out the pool of candidates? (another way, that, like the GRE, has little study backing it up)

RL said...

As a student of a non-prestigious school (because of geographical, geo-political and economic reasons), I think that ultimately the quality of the education does not matter as much as the minimum standards set for coursework.

Anonymous 5/31, 04:32:00 PM's comments are right on the mark.

Now, whether the low standards in a given non-prestige undergraduate (or post-graduate) program are a function of the abilities and the quality of the supervision that TAs or faculty can in fact provide to their students is still debatable. But it seems reasonable to assume, that anyone capable of doing work at a (pre-)doctoral level can set standards appropriate to an undergraduate program, and in fact judge whether a piece of work meets them or not.

I think the main problem with low prestige schools, is that the bare minimum for an UG degree is determined by intrainstitutional constraints. And so philosophy classes are there to pay lip-service to an institutional agenda, in the form of core requisites for the purpose of legitimizing larger, more important, money-brining, BA degrees through outdated educational rhetoric that the job-market does not care about, and academic institutions only do so, as far as they can afford to. The problem is then that philosophy programs often become the manifestation of an unhappy compromise between the university humanistically conceived and the education market.

Instead of adapting, low-prestige UG programs are happy to keep the status quo, feeling constantly threatened by termination, etc., they end up playing the role assigned to them by their institution and nothing more. It should be no surprise that B.A. programs and degrees become an ornament, excepting cases where they accept them as valid currency, either because of luck or other factors, or again because bad education creates a new market.

I would, with some seriousness, suggest that BA programs should start labeling themselves as terminal programs or preparatory programs. Though in all honesty I would prefer that, if universities can not prepare a student for graduate work, they should not give out BA degrees at all, and, if they insist, they should outsource some of their teaching and develop a joint degree with another institution, or more if need be. (Though, this requires some degree of lucidity, self-honesty, and a proactive attitude and decision-making from those in charge.)

The bare, honest, minimum standards that an UG degree should heed, should be a function of the skills, preparation and knowledge required to begin work at graduate level, and this at a recognized quality institution (and so hopefully a matter of consensus among academic peers in a given field).

Anything less is misrepresentation. It's not solely a matter of getting a better faculty or more funds, or having a respected name, it's about making that bar patent to students. Students should be able to see what serious, actual, academic work consists in. If they can meet those standards is something they have to discover, teachers can only guide the way. Sadly, by establishing low criteria, and failing to engage the texts at an adequate level, they put the student at a serious disadvantage. And further they may deceive themselves by thinking that they are merely facilitators, and that their job is to present a text, an argument, or a point, in a way that is more accessible to a student. This is wrong, else we could do away with our whole system and simply have lectures. Examinations should not be there only to make sure that the lecture was understood, because we don't want to know if the lecture was accessible enough to students, or if they have the sufficient grasp of what was said there to form syntactically adequate constructions with the sole aid of one's mnemonic faculties.

What we really want to know (and help with the student with) is if they can engage the subject matter at an adequate level. Being able to present the material again in a suitable way, when it has already been done so, barring mistakes, at the same level of the lecture (or text-book), and often below it, is not an adequate tool for assessing this. You invariably hurt the student and rob him any further enthusiasm for philosophy if you give the impression that this is what philosophy is all about. After the student says "I get this", doesn't get a say so to the contrary (gets good mark) there is nothing else for him to do. This would be similar to someone contenting himself because he felt that he understood the premises of an argument and has learned all the steps that follow and the conclusion. But an outline of a proof is not a proof, and being able to outline an argument does not mean that you understand it well enough to engage it. If one is not careful, teaching philosophy merely becomes a game of pleasing and being pleased.

Teachers should teach, not how to parse linguistic items so that they please, but how to engage them. The goal should not be mastering the material as taught, though an indispensable part of education and complementary, but to prepare the student to do work in philosophy, as will be expected of him in the job market or in graduate programs. A BA in philosophy is no longer a terminal degree. Students who take it do not intend to teach philosophy in high school. They do it out of personal interest, but those who might have enough interest in philosophy to try to make a profession out of it, or are undecided, should not be misled about and possibly cheated of, the training and preparation needed, both to make the right decision for themselves and to be able to carry it through if they make it. Who knows, perhaps graduate program completion percentages might even improve as a result.

RL

RL said...

The first sentence should read "the quality of the teaching" as in lecture, etc.

RL

Anonymous said...

I had a somewhat different response to anonymous 4:32: I would say that teachers who expect their students to disappoint them often get what they expect.

RL said...

(When I said, it was right on the mark, I meant that that seemed like a very prevalent attitude.)

Oh, I don't doubt this happens. I imagine any teacher can only take so much dissapointment and that this psychological factor can affect their standards. It would seem like a rational option to lower them to avoid being dissapointed, but I doubt that _really_ helps any unless you really start believing in them. That or reason that the good student will do well regardless of circumstances. Another coping strategy would be apathy, or a certain amount of Schadenfreude.

Undoubtedly the quality of the students vary between prestigious schools and non-prestigious ones, largely as a process of self-selection, but until they start churning out better students things won't change for the low-prestige school and its students.

Of course, if there's no administrative desire to climb the ladder, one would hope at least a certain amount of commitment to students.

RL

RL said...

Really, something as simple telling students at, say a community-college, how to write an "A" paper, but accepting a "C" paper, then giving feedback as to why their paper is not an "A" paper would in my mind help a lot.
(And still give the 4.0 QPTS so non-philosophy majors are not unduly penalized. Or even the philosophy majors, in that anything less than 4.0 QPTS from a low-prestige school is deemed unacceptable.)

But if they are told to write a "C" paper, as Anonymous 11:42 PM mentions, it should be no surprise that they get a "C" paper even from their brightest students. I'm just worried that this might end up becoming some sort of self-fullfiling prophecy.

I had the dubious pleasure of attending an UG program with _no_ required writing component. All evaluation was exam-based. While I applaud that Anonymous 4:32 made his or her students write that is only the first step. Of course, it may happen that you do ask for a pretigious school "A" paper and give your students all the tools they need and still only get "C" papers after all is said and done. But at least it can serve as an excercise and I'm sure at least something will rub off.
(It might leave the door, if at least a little bit, more open to suprises as well.)

Basic research, writing, primary and secondary source handling skills, and a basic survey of the relevant literature is a must even at UG level.

Teachers should also be concious of the resources available at the school. It is lovely to give a very comprehensive course syllabus and wonderful list of the relevant literature culled from their personal library, but it helps little if the last purchases made by the university library are decades old, or the books are simply not there, or if they are, there is not sufficient access to them. What is likely to happen is that only the literature relevant for examination is made available to the student. If they want to do more, they have to spend a fair amount of money or learn the hard way how to cope with the limited resources available while keeping their budget.

RL