Monday, January 22, 2007

Philosophy Grad School Applications -- Reflections from the Other Side

Update: I've started an expanded series of reflections on this topic here.

I'm on the admissions committee this year for U.C. Riverside's Philosophy graduate program. Since many readers of this blog are aspiring grad students (or recently were) or sometimes advise students applying to philosophy graduate school, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the process.

Letters of recommendation (advice for letter writers): Reading hundreds of letters of recommendation, things become something of a blur. Most letters say "outstanding student" or "I'm delighted to recommend X" or "I'm confident X will succeed in graduate school in philosophy". It would be strange not to say something of this sort, but still -- my eyes start to glaze over. I suspect that trying to detect nuanced differences in such phrases is pointless, since I doubt such nuances closely track applicant quality. More helpful: (1.) Comparative evaluations like: "best philosophy major in this year's graduating class"; or "though only an undergraduate, one of three students, among 9, to earn an 'A' in my graduate seminar"; or "her GPA of 3.87 is second-highest among philosophy majors". (2.) Descriptions of concrete accomplishments: "Won the department's prize in 2005 for best undergraduate essay in philosophy"; or "President of the Philosophy Club".

Regarding those little checkboxes on the cover sheet ("top 5%, top 10%" etc.): My impression is that letter writers vary in their conscientiousness about such numbers and have different comparison groups in mind, so I tend to discount them unless backed up by specific comparison assessments in the letter.

Letters of recommendation (advice for applicants): Three strong letters makes a better impression than three strong letters and one mediocre letter. We can forgive applicants for not having the full three letters in on time, since we know professors are often flaky -- but still a gentle email reminder to your letter-writers around the time of the deadline might help. Also, it's a little strange when a letter-writer's description of your interests diverges from your own. So show your them at least your statement of purpose (preferably your whole application). You might also offer the letter writers a "brag sheet" describing any concrete accomplishments you have or specific hardships you've overcome (though be judicious about the latter).

Lists of awards, resumes, etc.: Long lists of minor accomplishments tend to blur before my eyes. Of course you made honor roll!

GRE scores: UCR requires them. I don't take them that seriously, but some others do. High GRE scores can help applicants win extra fellowship money. We certainly admit some students with mediocre GRE scores. At UCR I'd say below 1250 is a strike against an applicant, above 1400 is a bonus.

Writing sample:
I skim the whole sample of every plausible applicant and try to read a few pages in the middle carefully. First, the sample must be clearly written and show a certain amount of philosophical maturity. (I can't say much about how to achieve these things other than to be a good writer and philosophically mature; I think they're hard to fake.) Second, what I look for in the middle is that the essay gets into the nitty-gritty somehow. In an analytic essay, that might be very detailed analysis of the pros and cons of an argument, or of its non-obvious implications, or of its structure. In a historical essay, that might be a very close reading of a passage or a close look at textual evidence that decides between two competing interpretations. Many otherwise nicely written essays stay largely at the surface, simply summarizing an author's work or presenting fairly obvious criticisms at a relatively superficial level. Applicants should be sure to have at least one professor look over the sample, critiquing it specifically for its suitability in an application.

Transcripts: Overall GPA matters, but even more so one's upper-division grades in philosophy. We like to see mostly A's. A few A-'s or lower grades are okay. It also depends on the institution: A 3.8 average in philosophy from Stanford looks different from a 3.8 average from a Cal State. Unfortunately, master's programs, small liberal arts schools, and foreign universities vary widely in how rigorously they grade, making transcripts hard to assess. Guidance from the letter writers (e.g., this is the highest GPA among graduating seniors) can help considerably here.

Statements of Purpose: These are hard to write well. Many are somewhat, or even painfully, corny: "Ever since I was seven years old, I've puzzled over the timeless problems of philosophy." Others seem phony; others seem arrogant or like a sales pitch. Fortunately for candidates, we're used to it. The best statements, to my mind, simply describe the applicant's areas of interest in philosophy, with perhaps some description of particular sub-issues of special interest. We then ask ourselves: Do the applicant's interests fit with what we can teach?

Personal Contact or Connections: Such things don't help much, I suspect, unless they bring substative new information. If a professor at UCR at some point in the past had a good substantive, philosophical conversation with an applicant and mentions that to us, that might help a bit. But seeking out professors for such purposes could backfire if it seems like brown-nosing, or if the applicant seems immature, arrogant, or not particularly philosophically astute.


Travis Aschemeyer said...

Wow. That was extremely informative. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Yes. As a prospective graduate student, I find this very helpful.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks! (And, yes, I do read comments on old posts!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Since people seem to be coming over here from Leiter's site, let me add a couple of thoughts in response to a few of the things said there.

(1.) Numbers: We received about 200 applications, admitted 24, and are aiming for an entering class of 10-12 (large for us). Generally, admittees with B.A.'s receive 5 years of guaranteed funding, admittees with M.A.'s 4 years. Typically admittees have philosophy upper-division GPAs in the 3.8-ish or higher range (more or less, depending on institution and other aspects of the application).

(2.) Programs vary considerably in how they look at applicants from terminal MA programs. At UCR, someone with a thin or mediocre undergraduate record who does very well in a demanding MA program does have a good chance of admission.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful points, thanks! (Especially what you said about the GREs and fellowship money :)

peter kirwan said...

very helpful, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Is it detrimental to have more letters show up than asked for? Our philosophy graduate school requires only three, yet because Profs can indeed be flaky, I contacted six. If all six write letters, is that going to either make me look too eager or perhaps indicate that I cannot follow directions? The three additional persons are tenured profs, but one is also the Director of the Undergraduate Core Curriculum with whom I had a history class, one is the Interim Dean of the Psychology Department whom I know personally, professionally and extra-curricularly, and the third is the Associate Dean of the Library with whom I have worked on interdepartmental projects over several years. I am a 46-year old, non-traditional, female student employed in our University’s IT department, scheduled to graduate with a BA in philosophy in May and have a 4.0 GPA.

Anonymous said...
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Eric Schwitzgebel said...

More letters is fine and not uncommon. If there's a tepid one in there though, that's not as good as if you have fewer, all glowing.

Anonymous said...

What I found lacking was information for the non-traditional potential student. My undergrad major was finance and I've been out of school for a few years now.

From recommendation letters to the statement of purpose based on intensive knowledge of various fields of phil, I almost got the sense that a master's in philosophy is just not for me.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dear Anon: Students in your position will often do an M.A. program first, to establish more of a background in philosophy before going on to the Ph.D. As I don't know much about the admissions process for M.A. programs, my advice is designed primarily for students whose creditials give them a shot at admission directly to Ph.D. programs. In most cases, this will require several A's in recent upper-division or graduate-level philosophy courses.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this information. Do you have any advice for someone in my position (very high GPA's in undergrad Philosophy and Graduate Philosophy---I earned an M.A. from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee with a 3.9, but it was eight years ago!). I would like to return to Philosophy in a PhD program, but don't have letters at this point. Any advice?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Mar 19: A 3.9 from Milwaukee's M.A. program is pretty solid. You could try on the basis of former professors (with updated letters), old sample, etc. It might work, depending on the letters and the background story. Probably better if you can get back in it in some way, by auditing or taking more recent courses.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your advice and tips for graduate school applications.

I had a quick question about retaking the GRE exam.

Currently, I'm a senior philosophy major at a small, 1200-student liberal arts school, and I'm in the process of applying to graduate programs.

My GPA is 3.97 total with a 4.0 in philosophy classes. I am set up to receive good letters of recommendation, and I think my sample paper is also very decent.

A few weeks ago I took the GRE and scored 1410 on the combined verbal+quantitative but a sad 4.5/6 on the essays.

My question is whether I should consider retaking the GRE to improve at least my essay scores. In your experience, do those scores carry much weight when you evaluate students?

Thanks for any advice!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry I missed this in October. In my experience, schools do not put much weight at all on the GRE essay scores.

Anonymous said...

I found this very helpful, and I was wondering if you could answer a question I had:

I am currently compiling the average GRE scores for PhD applicants in recent years based on programs in Leiter's Philosophical Gourmet report. I am choosing programs based primarily on their faculty and areas of specialty, but I suspect that, because I am using the averages of all PhD entrants, the averages will be skewed for programs like Cornell, which might have higher general averages, but whose philosophy programs are not as highly ranked as, say, UNC Chapel Hill. I suppose my question is, should I allow the nature of the programs and the quality of faculty to guide which schools I apply to, or should I refrain from applying to programs whose average PhD entrant scores might be higher than mine due simply to their 'status'? My fear is applying to too many higher-level schools and not getting GRE scores that fall within the entrant averages, even though their program is not ranked as high as other schools.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Mar 14: In my experience, attitudes toward GRE vary widely from committee to committee and year to year depending on committee membership and administration policies. I wouldn't focus on GRE very much.

But do be sure to apply to at least two "fallback" schools that you feel confident you can be admitted to (unless, of course, your attitude is great-school-or-nothing).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your quick reply! I am Anon Mar. 14th, and your response leads me to another question:

If entrant GRE averages are deceptive in program rankings, on what grounds can I evaluate which programs are "fall-backs" and which are "long shots" in my particular case?

I am in a similar position as an earlier poster: I am graduating from a SLAC with approx. 2500 students, a 3.95 CGPA and slightly higher GPA in both Philosophy and Political Science (I am looking at political philosophy programs). I will be getting pretty good letters, and I expect that my sample is at the least average, and hopefully fairly strong. I have a number of extras (philosophy club president, presented a paper at a conference, external reviewer for an undergrad journal, etc.) but I have heard these will not help much.

My SLAC is not prestigious although I do not think it is unknown. Several students in a related program (religion)at my school were accepted last year to Harvard Divinity and Berkeley. One of my letters will be from the head of the department who also gave letters to these students, and I know my GPA is higher than those who got into Berkely, and only slightly lower than the Harvard entrant (who was 4.0).

Even given the Gourmet report I am still unsure of where to rank myself in terms of what programs are realistic to expect based on my application package. What advice would you have for evaluating programs?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon March 15: Gourmet Report rankings are probably a better proxy for difficulty of admission than are GRE scores.

Your profile sounds like you have a decent shot at getting into a mid-ranked PhD program (like UCR), and a small but real chance of admission to a top program. However, my experience is that even the very most sterling students from Cal-State-ish type universities sometimes fail to be admitted to any mid-tier-or-better PhD programs (to the immense frustration of their enthusiastic letter writers) so you'll probably want to apply to some low-ranked programs or even unranked programs or MA programs as fallbacks.

Anonymous said...

What is your advice for students of philosophy who not only attended a small liberal arts college but also, though quite capable of making exceptionally good grades,allowed their gpa to drop rather drastically (3.0). Is there any way, conventionally or unconventionally, to combat something like this? I know that it would behoove someone in this situation for their professors to make note of their real potential in the letters of recommendation-- but coming from a small liberal arts school with relatively unknown professors, it seems that this wouldn't help in a substantial way.
We often hear of writers who failed out of college and went on to "prove themselves" in some other way-- earning the recognition and support they needed to succeed in the field (the parallel here would be entrance into a top tier program). Is there any room for this in the field of philosophy where it often seems that ones success is directly proportional to the ranking of the graduate program he/she attended?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

An MA is the most straightforward option. Some good MA programs are pretty flexible about admitting promising students with uneven records.

Anonymous said...

As a terminal MA degree or applying as a PHD student and then trying to transfer?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Terminal MA.

Aseem said...

Dear Eric,

I am an engineering graduate from India (graduated in B.Tech from IIT Guwahati in 2008) and working with a power sector company since 3 years. But my natural inclination is towards philosophy (Indian philosophy to be specific) and I want to live my life studying Indian philosophy. So,I want to do a phd in Indian philosophy and then join as a professor in some univ. in USA or UK( since in India there's no much research in philosophy). How can I do this? would I have to do a post graduate degree first? Am I eligible for that considering my engineering background? Please help!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's a difficult jump to make, both across countries and disciplines, especially given that there aren't many grad programs in the US with professors knowledgeable about Indian philosophy. You'll probably need some high level coursework in philosophy to start making your case.

Anonymous said...

I can't comment on managing the jump from engineer to philosopher, but as to location, could NUS in Singapore could be a place to try? It's closer, at least as good a place to study philosophy as all but the best in the US or UK and seems to have people interested in Indian philosophy. Probably tough to get into, though.

Colten W. said...


If you were to take a guess, what percentage of applicants admitted to your graduate program contacted a member of the department before or during the admissions process (that you know of)? Do you often rely on what a particular person in your department knows about an applicant (beyond the application)?

Really, I suppose I'm asking if you believe it to be a good idea to contact members of the department before or during the application process. Is there some advantage to doing so?

A history professor of mine claims that it was critical for his admission to history PhD programs that he had contacted faculty and influenced the admission decisions.

If it is a good idea to contact faculty, what sort of things are appropriate / inappropriate for that communication?

Thank you for the wonderful blog.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Colten: In an applicant pool of 200, we'll hear comments from professors about maybe two or three applicants, in the years I've been on the committee. In my experience, the committee isn't very much swayed by casual remarks that don't rise to the level of formal letters of reference. Our reasoning is that the professor hasn't seen the full pool of applications and so doesn't know how strong the competition is. There may be a small influence if the professor says something positive. If the professor says something negative, the applicant will usually be tossed.

Alex Rausch said...


I've talked with some philosophy professors and many of them have advised that I look into faculty research, maybe even reach out to them with questions/comments on their papers and works, and include somewhere in the application an intent to work on these or similar problems.

Good advice or not?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Reading up on faculty research is good, but contacting them is a mixed thing. You don't want to come across as brown-nosing or poorly informed.