Friday, September 28, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Good grades alone won't secure admission to a Ph.D. program in philosophy. Writing samples and letters of recommendation are also very important. I believe writing samples should carry more weight than letters (and admissions committees often say they do), but I suspect that in fact letters carry more weight. An applicant needs at least three.

Whom to Ask

If a professor gave you an A (not an A-minus) in an upper-division philosophy course, consider her a candidate to write a letter. You needn't have any special relationship with her, or have visited during office hours, or have taken multiple classes from her -- though all those things can help. Don't be shy about asking, we're used to it!

No matter how friendly they seem, you should be wary of asking for letters from professors who have given you A-minuses or below, since if they have integrity in writing their letters, it will come out that your performance in their class was not quite top-level. If a professor has given you both an A and an A-minus, there might still have to be some restraint in the letter -- though less so if the A is the more recent grade.

Letters from philosophers are distinctly preferable to letters from non-philosophers. Letters from eminent scholars are distinctly preferable to letters from assistant professors. Of course, these factors need to be weighed against the expected quality of the letter.

You may submit more than the stated minumum of letters, but be advised that three strong letters looks considerably better in an application than three strong letters and one mediocre one.

Although it's a delicate matter, you can ask a professor whether she thinks she'll be able to write a strong letter for you.

Should You Waive Your Right to See The Letter?

Most applicants waive the right, and some professors will feel offended or put on the spot if an applicant does not waive the right. However, I must confess that in my own case, I think I might be slightly less likely to say something negative, and I might think more carefully about how the letter will come across, if I think the applicant might view it. On the other hand, for the few very best of my letters, I might also slightly restrain my transports of enthusiasm. (I suspect professors don't really have good self-knowledge about such matters.)

Enabling Your Professors to Write the Best Possible Letters

Think of all those wonderful things you've done that don't show up on your transcript! You audited some philosophy classes at Harvard for fun (and on the sly) for a few weeks one summer. (I did this once, going to every upper-division class on offer for two weeks before Stanford's quarter started in late September; it was a kick!) Or you gave free tutoring to needy high school students. You won the Philosophy Department award for best undergraduate essay. All on your own, you read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason last summer and two commentaries on it. You play piano in nightclubs. You have a blog that gets 1000 hits a week. (But be careful what's on your blog, since the admissions committee might look at it!) You got a perfect 1600 on the SAT.

Your letter writers want to know these things. Such facts come across much better in letters than in your statement of purpose (where listing such things might seem immodest or irrelevant). In letters they can be integrated with other facts to draw a picture of you as an interesting, promising student. So give your letter writers a brag sheet and don't be modest! Sit there while they read it so they have a chance to ask questions. Explain to them that it's just a brag sheet and that you leave it to their judgment how much of that stuff, if any of it, will be useful to them in writing their letter.

Give your professors photocopies of all the essays you've written for them, including if possible their comments on those essays. I don't always remember what my students have written about, especially if it has been a year, even if the essays are excellent. With a copy of the essays in hand, I can briefly describe them -- their topics, what seemed especially good about them -- in a way that adds convincing detail to the letter and gives the impression that I really do know and remember the student's work.

Give your letter writers copies of your statement of purpose. If a letter writer says "Karen has a deep passion for epistemology and hopes to continue to study that in graduate school" and your statement of purpose mentions nothing about epistemology, it looks a bit odd. You want the portraits drawn by your letter writers and your own self-portrait to match. Also, statements of purpose are extremely hard to write well (more on that later!) and it's good to have feedback on them from your letter writers.

Give your letter writers your transcript. They may not know you have excellent grades across the board. Once they know this, they can write a stronger letter and one that more concretely addresses your performance relative to other students at your school. Also, they might be able to comment helpfully to the admissions committee on aberrations in your transcript. ("Prof. Hubelhauser hasn't given a student an A since 1973" or "Although Jill's grades slipped a bit in Fall Quarter 2006, her mother was dying of cancer that term, and her previous and subsequent grades more accurately reflect her abilities". Of course, they can't write the latter unless you tell them.)

Give your letter writers the cover sheets and envelopes for all the schools you are applying to, along with an overall cover sheet designed by you. Envelopes should be addressed but needn't be stamped since they'll be going out in the unversity's mail. The overall cover sheet should list the deadlines for all applications. It should also specifically highlight schools that request online letters and for which, consequently, there is no school-specific cover sheet.

Give your letter writers all this material at least a month before the first application deadline.

Gentle Reminders

Professors are flaky and forgetful. They are hardly ever punished for such behavior, so their laxity is unsurprising. Also, it's part of the charm of being absent-minded and absorbed in deeper things like the fundamental structure of reality!

Consequently, it is advisable to email your letter writers a gentle reminder a week before your first deadline. If you don't receive an email in reply saying that the letters are sent, send another reminder a week after the deadline.

Don't panic if the letters are late. Admissions committees are used to it, and they don't blame the applicant. However, if the letter still isn't in the file by the time the committee gets around to reading your application it will probably never be read. (You may still be admitted if the two letters that did arrive were good ones.)

It's also advisable to call the schools a week or so after the deadline to confirm that your application is all in order. Departmental secretaries sometimes goof things up, too.

Advice to 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 2006 for best undergraduate essay in philosophy"; or "President of the Philosophy Club". It's also nice to hear a little about the applicant's work and what's distinctive of her as a student and person.

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. However, my experience is that other people on the admissions committee often take the checkboxes more seriously.

Most letter writers write the same letter for every school and simply attach it to the cover sheet rather than addressing the specific paragraph-answer questions that some schools include on their cover sheets. However, if you think an applicant is a particularly good fit for one school, a specifically tailored letter that explains why can be helpful.

Part IV: Writing Samples

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Forbidding "Fuck" and "Shit" to Save Them

My eight-year-old son Davy has been exploring bad words. Fortunately, he thinks the "S-word" is "stupid" and the "N-word" is "nincompoop"! But you should hear him swear like a sailor with "stupid"!

I suppose it's an obvious point that the power of "fuck" and "shit" come from their being forbidden. But people don't seem to draw the implications. I as a fan of obscenity (in appropriate contexts) mourn our increasing laxity about these words -- such as in Harry Frankfurt's bestseller On Bullshit. "Fuck" and "shit" risk becoming "sex" and "crap" -- or "scheisse" and "merde". Is there any word as deliciously shocking in German or French as "fuck" is (or used to be) in English? (I set aside the shock of political or ethnic insult, which is quite different.)

Foes of obscenity should rejoice that you can now hear these words on mainstream television. I, however, treasure obscenity's illicit power. I will be shocked and alarmed when my son discovers these words, as a gift to him.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Progams, Part II: Grades and Classes

(Part I is here.)

It's awfully hard to be admitted to top Ph.D. programs in philosophy, as I mentioned in Part I. Today: What do admissions committees look for in transcripts? In other posts I'll talk about other aspects of the application.

GPA, Overall and in Philosophy

You must have excellent grades to have a reasonable prospect of being admitted to a top-50 philosophy Ph.D. program, unless there's something very unusual about your application. At U.C. Riverside, ranked 31st in the Gourmet Report, admitted students typically have GPAs of 3.8 or more, with students coming directly from undergraduate having basically straight A's in philosophy their senior year. (Think about it: Ph.D.'s in philosophy become college professors. Doesn't it make sense that the people teaching your college classes should be people who were at the top of their own classes as undergraduates? Would you want the guy chewing gum in the back?) Even a 4.0 from a top university is no guarantee of admission to a top Ph.D. program.

Current graduate students (whether in M.A. programs or other Ph.D. programs) are evaluated a little differently, since good graduate programs may be very demanding. Depending on the admission committee's sense of how demanding the program is, a substantial number of A-minuses in philosophy, or even some B+'s, may be acceptable for admission to a mid-ranked department, if the letters and writing sample are excellent.

I went back and looked at the GPAs of the UCR entering class this year. We admitted 24 students and 11 accepted. Presumably the 13 who declined admission were at least as good, on average, since they chose to go to other similarly ranked or better ranked programs.

Here is the distribution of GPAs from the students' most recent institutions (with undergraduate GPA in parentheses if the student did graduate work):

[This information has been removed due to concerns about confidentiality. In summary form, there were several perfect 4.0s and the median was 3.89.]

Transcripts are evaluated holistically. Not all 3.8 GPAs are equal. What matters most are grades in upper-division philosophy courses. A "C" in chemistry your first year won't sink your application! Even a significantly lower GPA may be okay, if the low grades are early in your study and outside philosophy. Conversely, a 3.9 that includes a lot of A-minuses in undergraduate philosophy courses doesn't look so good. Also, of course, a transcript from Princeton will be evaluated differently than a transcript from a large state school with low admissions standards -- which raises the question of...

Institution of Origin

At UCR, probably a bit more than half of our students come straight from undergrad, with no prior graduate training. (They get their M.A. here, along the way to the Ph.D.) As I mentioned in Part I, I suspect UCR admits more students from M.A. programs than most similarly ranked departments -- though 8 of 11 entering this year with prior graduate work is high even for us.

I also mentioned in Part I the difficulty of being admitted to a top ten Ph.D. program from a non-prestigious school. At UCR, in contrast, colleges represented among our students run the spectrum. This year's entering class includes students from Fordham, Boston College (M.A.), Kansas State, Georgia State (M.A.), Missouri-Columbia (transfer from Ph.D. program), and Azusa Pacific, among others.

It can be difficult for admissions commitees to evaluate transcripts from small liberal arts schools, foreign schools, and M.A. programs, since grading standards vary widely. It helps if students from such schools have at least one of their letter writers address this point with concrete comparisons. For example, a letter writer might say: "Jill's GPA of 3.91 is the best GPA for a graduating senior in Philosophy in the last five years, among 80 graduates." Now the admissions committee knows better what that 3.91 means! If the writing sample is excellent, that also confirms the meaningfulness of the GPA.

Students who have attended multiple universities must submit transcripts from all their universities. We occasionally admit students who did poorly early in their education then seem to have "shaped up" with consistently excellent performance later on, though we had no such admissions in this year's class.

Types of Courses

You needn't be a philosophy major to apply to graduate school in philosophy, though you do need to have a track record of excellent upper-division or graduate work in philosophy. Occasionally neuroscientists or physicists or whatever decide they want to become philosophers instead. Admissions committees aren't hostile to the idea -- it shows the good sense of recognizing the superiority of our field, after all! -- especially if the student excelled in her original discipline. But without some sort of track record it can be hard to know if the student's skills would transfer well to philosophy, or even if the applicant really knows what she's getting into.

If you have an opportunity to take graduate courses in philosophy, especially if you're at a school with a Ph.D. program, by all means do so. If you can earn an A or two in graduate-level courses in philosophy, that can really solidify the case that you're ready for graduate school -- especially if one of your letter writers compares you favorably with her current graduate students! Unfortunately, applications generally have to be sent in in early winter, so make sure you do that graduate work by fall term of the year you apply.

Honors Thesis

For some reason, we don't get many applicants who have written honors theses, nor do many philosophy students at UCR write them (I can only recall one in ten years!). However, if your school offers this option, I'd recommend strongly considering it, especially if you're able to complete the thesis by the time of application. It establishes that you can do long-term, independent, self-directed work, and also it gives you a taste of such work so you can think about whether it's really for you; it's likely to be your best piece of work and a natural candidate for a writing sample; it deepens your relationship with a potential letter writer; and on top of all that, it's an intrinsically worthwhile experience!

Timing Graduation

Oddly, students completing their studies in a spring term, as is traditional, are at a bit of a disadvantage in applying compared to students who finish in the fall. If you take 4 years to graduate and apply at the beginning of your fourth year, 1/2 or 2/3 of your senior year won't show in your transcripts, you'll have fewer essays to draw on as potential writing samples, and you'll have had less exposure to potential letter writers then if you take 4 1/2 years to graduate and apply at the beginning of your fifth year.

I myself took an extra quarter at Stanford and applied in the fall quarter of my 5th year -- and I know my application was much better than it would have been had I applied in the fall quarter of my 4th year. I then had fun for nine months, doing other things (hanging out in Humboldt County in far northern California), holding a temporary job I didn't much care about, and I had plenty of time to travel to the schools that admitted me -- a very positive experience I'll discuss in a future post.

Another possibility is to graduate your 4th year, then apply the year after. However, this potentially doesn't look as good to admissions committees. Why didn't you go straight to graduate school, the committee might wonder. What are you doing now? Such questions don't doom your application by any means (especially if you're just fresh out of your B.A.), but it's preferable if they don't arise. So if you're not ready to apply in fall of your fourth year, it's better to postpone graduation until fall of your fifth year, if you can bear the wait! (Besides, that's all the more philosophy, right?)

Update, October 3:

This last section seems to have caused panic and consternation among some readers. Let me stress that it's a minor issue at most, if you're applying less than a year after graduating! Don't feel you have to stay enrolled through fall if you were planning to graduate in spring. And a strong application after graduation, with good letters, good writing sample, etc., is much better than a weak application submitted early one's senior year, if one isn't really fully ready.

See the comments section for advice to students who are several years past their B.A.

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Friday, September 21, 2007

Why Are We Conscious?

When I walk across campus, even across ridges and mudpuddles of the sort that frustrate robot designers, I unconsciously adjust my gait and balance to remain perfectly and efficiently balanced on a few dozen square inches of foot. Pretty sophisticated! Is there any pattern of behavior that couldn't be governed entirely by non-conscious processes like this, at least in principle? I can talk in my sleep. I can find myself reacting in sophisticated ways without prior conscious decision, and I can find myself making sophisticated judgments without prior conscious reasoning. Presumably, both the judgment and the reaction could be generated non-consciously one after the next, making conscious awareness a a fifth wheel that at most provides only permission to continue. Sometimes, it seems, this is how my wittiest jokes emerge, with consciousness barely more than an audience.

In designing our minds, natural selection presumably selected not for consciousness per se but only for behavioral tendencies, so how is it that we come to be conscious beings? Searle and others have suggested that consciousness is essential to creativity. But my automatic witticisms seem plenty creative. Dennett and Rosenthal and many others have suggested that consciousness has to do with self-knowledge -- that it's the mind's way of keeping track of itself or reflects the mind's taking itself as the object of its own processing. Yet the mind must keep track of itself in non-conscious ways, too -- for example in updating beliefs, in retrieving memories (and knowing whether to bother to try to retrieve a memory), in delegating tasks to different subsystems, and such processes are not always conscious.

These brief observations can't refute the sophisticated views of the philosophers mentioned, but I do wonder whether the evolutionary pressure generating consciousness (if there is such pressure) has really been adequately explained.

Thus, I found interesting Nick Humphrey's different type of explanation last week at the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology meeting in Oxford. Humphrey suggested that consciousness was selected not because it gives us any particular type of skill or reflects any special type of knowledge about ourselves or the world. Rather, he suggests, consciousness motivates us. It gives us joy in living and reason to exist. It makes death more poignant and life more holy. It imbues every waking second with significance. And for this reason, he says, we do things that we might not otherwise do -- though we could, conceivably, do them without consciousness. It makes us want to do them.

Humphreys suggests that the joie de vivre that comes with consciousness makes us more playful, more fearful of death, more enamored of art and poetry, more driven to explore and discover, than we otherwise would be -- and that evolution might well select for organisms so motivated. If, perhaps, this motivation could in principle come from some other source in non-conscious organisms (exploratory behavior could be genetically selected, for example), in fact in us it is consciousness that does the work.

I am intrigued by Humphrey's idea that consciousness might be selected not because it underwrites an ability but rather because it provides motivation. Yet I wonder if joie de vivre is indeed the normal state of conscious organisms as Humphrey supposes. Think, for example, of the Buddhist maxim that life is suffering (which seems to me overstated on the other side) and their goal of escaping it into the nothingness of nirvana.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Last January I posted some thoughts on applying to graduate school in philosophy. Many people seem to have found that post helpful, and now that people are thinking about applications for next academic year (yes, it's time to get cracking!) I'm finding myself beseiged with questions, so I thought I'd expand and update my reflections in a series of posts. The current post will address the issue of deciding whether to apply at all, and where.

Warning: This might be depressing!

It's Extremely Competitive

At U.C. Riverside (ranked 31 in the Philosophical Gourmet Report), we received about 200 applications last year, of which we admitted 24 (more than usual for us) for an entering class of 11. Students we admitted typically had GPAs of 3.8 or more, and most of them had virtually straight A's (that is, almost no A-minuses) in their upper-division philosophy classes by senior year, if they were applying as undergraduates. Of our entering class of 11 students, four had perfect 4.0 GPAs in their last enrolled institution (whether undergrad or MA).

To get into the top-ranked philosophy departments is considerably more difficult than to get into UCR. To my knowledge no UCR undergraduate has ever been admitted to a top-15 philosophy Ph.D. program (certainly not in the 10 years I've been here), though we've had some students with straight A's, very strong letters, and excellent writing samples. When I was a student at Berkeley, it seemed that almost all my classmates were from top universities (Harvard, Princeton) or renowned liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Swarthmore). The few who weren't from such name-brand institutions seemed to have done time at such colleges (a classmate from Northeastern, for example, had spent a year at Oxford and had letters from professors there). I don't want to suggest that it's impossible for a student from a middle-tier school to get into a top Ph.D. program, but the odds appear to be long even if you're valedictorian.

When I applied to graduate school in 1991, I had literally straight-A's from Stanford (except for an A- and a B+ my very first term and one A- later) with a liberal sprinking of A+'s (one semester I took four courses and received four A+'s), very strong GREs (800/790/750, back when it had three sections), what seems to me now in retrospect to be a good writing sample, and letters from leading philosophers (Fred Dretske, John Dupre, and P.J. Ivanhoe) one of whom later invited me to contribute to an anthology based on one of my undergraduate essays (and so presumably wrote a strong letter). I was not admitted to Harvard.

For comparison, here are the admissions data from the Harvard Law School admissions site:

Admissions Criteria
Applicants accepted: 12.2%
Number of 2006 applicants: 6,810
Number of 2006 matriculants: 558
LSAT range (25 to 75 percentile): 169 to 175
GPA range (25 to 75 percentile): 3.95 to 3.72

and Harvard Medical:
Admissions Criteria
Applicants accepted: 4.9%
Average MCAT: 11.7
Average GPA (4.0 scale): 3.79

It seems a safe bet that it's considerably harder to get into Harvard Philosophy than Harvard Law or Medical.

The best 1-2 majors at U.C. Riverside every year have GPAs around 3.9. Those who apply to graduate schools typically land in schools ranked in the 25-40 range.

Prospects After Admission

Although I haven't seen data on this, my impression is that most philosophy Ph.D. programs have completion rates of 50% or less; that most of the people who do finish take longer than advertised, often 7-9 years (though Stanford and Princeton have reputations for being quick); and that most of the people who drop out do so during the dissertation phase, after already having completed several years of study. I also suspect that women complete at substantially lower rates than men. (Why that should be is an interesting question!)

Those students who do complete their degrees don't always find tenure-track teaching jobs -- and those who do find tenure-track jobs often have to apply for several years, be willing to move anywhere in the country, and settle for schools they've never heard of. (If you're in a large metropolitan area and willing to teach at the community college level, and if you're patient about piecing together temporary "freeway flier" jobs for a few years, you may be able to stay local after graduation.) Students completing their degrees at top ten universities have a better chance of finding a job at a school they've heard of before, but are often not taken seriously as applicants at lower prestige schools.

Here's what happened to my entering class of eight at U.C. Berkeley (ranked about #3 or 4 nationally at the time were were admitted): One dropped out after the first year, two dropped out after 7-9 years, two completed their degrees after 7-9 years but never found permanent teaching positions, one ended up at a respectable but not renowned liberal arts college (Marquette) after about 12 years of study, one went to SUNY Albany after 6 years of study (then later moved to U.T. Austin), and one (I myself) went to U.C. Riverside after 6 years of study, though for methodological reasons it may be distortive to include myself in these data.

Coming out of U.C. Riverside, my impression is that about half of our successful students end up teaching community college (some never complete their degree and don't show up on the official "placement" lists). Those who land at four-year schools (often after a couple years of looking) are generally (but not universally!) at lower prestige colleges. Here's our placement record. Bear in mind that many two-year schools do not have "community college" in their name.

I advise students not to consider graduate school in philosophy unless (1.) they'd be happy teaching philosophy at a low prestige college and are willing to move almost anywhere in the country, and (2.) even if they never finished the degree they would have found the process of studying philosophy at the graduate level intrinsically worthwhile.

My sense is that the last criterion is key to completing the degree. Students who are extrinsically motivated in their education are unlikely to complete a dissertation in philosophy. There are no real deadlines, no structure imposed by your advisor. You simply have to sit down and think and read and write about the same topic, without much outside help or direction, for a few years. At the same time, you're in a very anxiety-producing situation: Your whole career depends on how good your dissertation is, and the power your dissertation chair has over you -- in the form of approving or not approving your dissertation chapters and in writing a good or a weak letter for you at the end of the process -- is enormous. This is not a situation in which people who are not powerfully intrinsically motivated to do philosophy are likely to succeed.

On the bright side: It's delightful to be able to spend your time surrounded by others as nerdy about philosophy as you are -- peer-to-peer interactions are one of the most rewarding aspects of graduate school -- and you have great liberty to explore almost any topic you want in seminars, independent studies, reading groups, and later your dissertation. Also, unlike law school or medical school, almost all ranked philosophy Ph.D. programs will give you some combination of fellowship and teaching support so that if you live frugally you needn't borrow money or hold down jobs outside of philosophy in order to get through school.

Choosing Where to Apply

If all this hasn't soured you on the prospects of graduate school in philosophy, then you're just the sort of maniac who might succeed! The Philosophical Gourmet Report is the natural starting place for thinking about where to apply, along with with advice from your professors. Once you have a sense of about where you might expect to land in prestige level based on the features of your application, you might select about four schools at that level, two more prestigious schools as longshots, and two fallback schools. Look at faculty profiles (on each department's web page) and at the Gourmet's specialty rankings to see what schools have strengths in the areas or points of view that appeal to you. If you find that geography is a major factor for you, you might consider whether you'll be ready to be geographically flexible in your job search later; if not, bear in mind that community college teaching is the most likely outcome.

Should You Apply to an M.A. Program First?

If you're determined to get into a Ph.D. program in philosophy and you don't have the application for it straight out of undergraduate, an M.A. can be a springboard to a Ph.D. program. Generally speaking, however, if you can get into at least a mid-ranked Ph.D. program straight out of undergraduate, it's advisable to do so. The very top-ranked programs seem mostly to prefer stellar undergraduate applicants over applicants with stellar grades in M.A. programs and only nearly stellar undergraduate records. (There are exceptions, though, so if you wouldn't be happy with any but a top ten department and are only admitted to mid-ranked departements, you might consider a good M.A. program; but the odds are low and you might actually end up worse off in the end! Here, for example, is Houston's placement record, and here is Milwaukee's. Bear in mind that students who do not complete the program, which may be a substantial percentage, are not included on such lists.)

About half of U.C. Riverside's Ph.D. students enter with M.A.'s. Most of those students also did fairly well as undergraduates (3.5-3.8-ish undergraduate GPA). I'd guess that the proportion of students entering with an M.A. is higher at U.C.R. than at most peer instititions, but I'm not sure.

Although technically most community colleges only require their professors to have an M.A., most people who find permanent community college teaching positions nowadays either have a Ph.D. in hand or nearly finished.

Update on Ph.D. Placement (Sept. 20)

A reader advised me to look at SUNY Stony Brook's placement record. Although they are not ranked in the Gourmet report, this year they placed students in several good tenure track positions including Emory and Colorado-Boulder, and they have also placed well in the past. I suspect their track record is unusual in this respect, and may have to do with the sense some people have that the Gourmet Report is unfair to a network of schools including Stony Brook, Penn State, and Vanderbilt. Those schools may, then, have better placement records than their unranked status suggests. This could be the case regardless of whether the Gourmet ranking is fair (about which I mean to take no stand): The point is that some people will see those schools as very good and view their Ph.D.'s favorably.

But also, even from schools about which there is general consensus that they're at the middle of the pack, people do occasionally land jobs at ranked Ph.D.-granting departments or at prestigious liberal arts schools. In 1997, U.C. Riverside placed a student at Wisconsin-Madison, and a student of ours from the early 90's, after moving a few times, was recently hired at Washington-Seattle. Also, last year UCR hired a Ph.D. from Georgetown to a tenure-track position. For a fuller perspective on placement, look at departments' websites.

My point is not that such things are impossible -- or that it's impossible to get into Princeton's Ph.D. program from Cal State San Bernardino -- but that such events are relatively rare.

Update: Applying to Your Own Department (Sept. 21)

Undergraduates at schools with Ph.D. programs will be tempted to apply to their own programs. Presumably, they're having a positive experience and enjoying the good opinion of their professors, if they're considering graduate school in philosophy. They will receive good advice against this from their letter writers.

Every department has a character. Certain philosophers and issues will be taken as core, others not much discussed. How seriously is Davidson taken? Wittgenstein? Heidegger? Modal realism? Contemporary English philosophy of perception? Different approaches will be valued -- keeping up with the journals or emphasizing the classics, valuing the empirical or the a priori, applied ethics or metaethics, etc. Of course, faculty will have diverse opinions on these issues, but that doesn't prevent the shock and surprise -- or simply the breath of fresh air -- that students feel going to a department where things are viewed very differently on the whole!

Students who spend their whole careers in a single department thus risk a stunted and provincial view of philosophy. It's also difficult for them to gain an accurate sense of how their advisors are perceived by the field as a whole. They will learn less from taking classes from the same professors again than they would from a new crop of professors. They may also find it's very different being a star undergraduate than an average graduate student; the tone of their relations with their mentors will change.

When I have served on admissions committees I have argued that we should have a higher bar for our own students than for others. Still, it can be difficult to reject a student when your colleague down the hall insists that she deserves admission!

Update (Sept. 25): Some helpful discussion of community college placement here.

Update (Sept. 28): Should You Despair?

Okay, you're at Cal State Whatever or Southern Iowa Christian, and you would love to be an Ivy League professor of philosophy someday. Is there simply no hope? I would hate to counsel despair. At every step, there are a small number of people who do the unlikely: Get into a top-ranked Ph.D. program from a non-elite school, get an elite starting job from a middle-ranked Ph.D. program, move from a non-elite university to an elite one later in their career.

Great students from non-elite schools do sometimes make an impression on a "top ten" admissions committee. Maybe our best UCR students have been a bit unlucky. There's certainly some degree of chance in the process. Is your glowing letter from someone that someone on the admissions committee happens to really respect? (It's a small world!) Does your writing sample really resonate with someone?

It can also help to be pro-active. For example, can you drive across town, or apply to an exchange program, or take some time off, to take or audit courses at an elite university (as my friend from Northeastern did)? Can you attend talks, colloquia, conferences around town and out of town, and possibly make some connections or at least give your letter writers fodder for backing up their claims never to have seen so energetic and dedicated a student?

But most importantly: Polish, polish, polish that writing sample! (And do so under the guidance of at least one professor.) If a committee member reads a polished, professional sample she feel she has learned something from, in prose that compares favorably with the typical journal article (not through being flowery or technical but through being elegant and precise), that's an applicant she'll want to admit, more so than the Harvard student with the 3.95 GPA who has a so-so sample. But very few undergraduates can write such samples. Which is why, of course, they're so precious.

All that said, bear in mind that for anyone an Ivy-League career is a longshot. (Well, maybe Kripke was destined.) I would not advise pursuing a career in philosophy if you wouldn't be happy teaching at a non-elite school.

Update: Oct. 29, 2008:

David Brink at UCSD has posted some general reflections for prospective graduate students here. I agree with most of his remarks, except:

(1.) If you're aiming for a job in a research-oriented department, you should probably aim for a graduate department more elite than just the top 25 (though a small percentage of people from mid-ranked departments (roughly 20-40) do find research-oriented jobs).

(2.) To say that "Anything below a 3.5 [GPA] at UCSD is going to be problematic at top programs" seems to me to substantially understate the importance of GPA, unless UCSD students are doing vastly better than UCR students in gaining admission to top programs and unless UCR is more selective about GPA than top programs in philosophy.

(3.) In my experience, GRE doesn't pay much of a role in making the "first cut" among applications, though I do suspect this varies substantially from department to department, depending on institutional factors and the views of particular committee members about the importance of such measures.

Part II of this series (Grades and Classes): is here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Philosophers Carnival #53 Is...


Situationism, Virtues, and Control

The situationist critique of virtue ethics runs as follows. Recent social psychology has shown that the factors governing human behavior are largely situational rather than characterological. If Robin behaves generously and Sanjay behaves greedily in some particular case, that's more likely to be due to differences in their situation than to differences in their personality. (Maybe Robin has more money, or is in a better mood, or had a different prior interaction with the recipient of her generosity.) For simplicity, we might imagine a radical situationism according to which everyone behaves identically in identical situations, and situation-transcending character or "personal virtue" has no explanatory force at all. We might condemn Osama bin Laden or Paris Hilton (taking examples of different moral gravity!), but any of us, put in the same situation as they (not necessarily from birth, but in some reasonably restricted time-frame), would behave just the same way. Virtue ethics, which stresses the cultivation of personal virtues, would then appear to be based on a psychological impossibility.

Radical situationism is, of course, too extreme. But even if stable cross-situational character plays some role in our behavior, if that role is limited and much more derives from situation than from character, a moral psychology focusing on personal virtue may seem to miss the psychological reality. (John Doris and Gilbert Harman have advanced views of roughly this sort.)

Friends of virtue ethics have tended either to attack situationist psychology -- and, indeed, the empirical issues aren't entirely settled -- or have suggested that even if most people are blown by the winds of situation, the moral ideal can and should be a matter of rising above that sort of weakness of character (as advocated, I'd suggest, by Mengzi in his view of the "unmoved heart" [2A2]).

But I prefer the following response: Suppose even a very radical situationism is true. Suppose, to be concrete, Maria and Mary behave very differently but only due to differences in situation. Maria is a church-going kindergarten teacher who consistently behaves kindly and generously, while Mary is a hard-partying corporate defense attorney who likes to defraud both clients and plaintiffs of all she can; yet, were their situations reversed within weeks each would behave like the other. (Let's set aside the prickly question of whether church-going actually has any positive impact on behavior!)

We can still say this: Maria consistently behaves generously, Mary greedily. But can we truly call Maria "generous" and Mary "greedy" if their behavior is so contingent on situation? Well, supposing the situation is stable, I don't see why not! And moreover, Maria works to keep her situation stable: She chooses to go to church and to be a kindergarten teacher. Maybe she even knows that were she to start hanging around a different crowd or pursue a different career that would poison her character and for that very reason avoids it!

Because she exerts such control, we can hold Maria responsible and praiseworthy for her generosity (and Mary blameworthy for her greed). And the point generalizes. We can acknowledge the situational, even the radical situational, contingency of our character traits without abandoning the moral value of thinking terms of such traits and aiming to achieve such traits ourselves. We need only have enough control over our situation to ground stability and responsibility.

(I take this view to be in the spirit of Maria Merritt, though I'm not sure the point about control comes out quite as sharply as I would like in the written work of hers I've seen.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Three Reasons to Mistrust Reports about Ongoing Conscious Experience

I'm off to Oxford tomorrow for the annual meeting of the Consciousness & Experiential Society Section of the British Psychological Society. Russ Hurlburt and I will be keynote speakers. We'll be talking about our forthcoming book, but for most of our 2 1/2 hours we'll be "beeping" the audience. That is, we'll set a random beeper to sound while we're talking. When the beep occurs, audience members will reflect on their "last undisturbed moment of inner experience" immediately before the beep. Then we'll interview people about their sampled experiences, right there on the spot, Russ as a long-time practitioner of experience sampling methods and I from a more skeptical perspective. (Hopefully, no one will say "I was thinking about how boring and awful your talk is and how ugly you are!")

For the more conventional part of the presentation (so people will have something to think about while waiting for the random beeps to surprise them), I've worked up a fifteen-minute essay on why I'm inclined to mistrust even confident reports about currently ongoing conscious experience. I have three main reasons:

(1.) Historically, even "expert" introspectors have tended to make radically different claims about the ordinary stream of conscious experience. Some of them must be pretty badly wrong, despite their evident expertise and care.

(2.) We don't have much practice thinking or talking about our stream of experience. Our vocabulary and concepts are built for making judgments about the world around us (or non-introspective judgments about ourselves). Yet the stream of experience is plausibly complex and fast-moving.

(3.) Although people often convey confidence in their introspective judgments, that confidence can be undermined and the confident judgments reversed under certain styles of questioning, suggesting that the confidence may not be well founded.

I've posted the full text of the talk in The Underblog.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Eyes Closed Visual Experience -- Subjects 3 and 4

In two previous posts, I described the visual experiences reported by two volunteers who wore random beepers while keeping their eyes closed in various environments for at least two hours a day over the course of 3-4 days. Subject 1 reported sensory visual experience in only 25% of his samples, and of only a fairly uniform black or orange field. In the majority of his samples, he reported no experience whatsoever -- not even of blackness or neutral gray. Subject 2, in contrast, reported visual experiences, often complex and detailed, in every single sample.

Subject 3 (an administrative assistant here at UCR) stood somewhere between Subjects 1 and 2, reporting visual experience in 9 of her 12 samples. When she was in a dark environment (4 samples), she described her experience as slightly differentiated blackness with a little bit of motion in it, like the turbulence of water about to boil. In lighter environments (5 samples), she consistently described her visual experience as like a sea of yellow-white or gray swirls. In one sample, these swirls were accompanied by a dark afterimage of something she had been looking at; in another, by dark and light spots. In those samples where she reported no visual experience whatsoever, she was either very deep in thought (2 samples) or asleep (1 sample).

When I pressed her about the spatial characteristics of her eyes-closed visual field, she resisted attributing it any properties of depth or distance. (Well, at first, she said the distance was something like arm's length, but then she retracted that.) She said the field seemed broader than tall, and to extend about to the range of her ordinary eyes-open peripheral vision.

Subject 4 (a retired economist) reported no sensory visual experience whatsoever, in any sample, not blackness, not gray, not colors or faces, and no visual imagery either -- nothing visual at all, whether he was out in the sun or indoors playing piano or listening to the radio. When he closed his eyes in my office during the subsequent interviews and thought about his visual experience as it was ongoing, he reported some visual experience (of darkness or the like), but he insisted that his eyes-closed consciousness in the sampled moments was not like that. He no more had a sense of darkness when the beep went off than he had a sense of the presence or absence of magnetic fields in the room. He did think he sometimes had visual experience with his eyes closed, during the experiment -- but never in the random moments at which he was beeped.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Wandelnde Nebelstreifen

In 1810, Goethe, in the first book primarily on the subjective phenomena of vision, described "subjective halos" or successive rings or circles seen in nighttime darkness. In 1819, in the next great study of the subjective phenomena of vision, Purkinje gave a detailed description of these wandelnde Nebelstreifen (shifting fog-ribbons), seen in the dark visual field with the eyes closed. He even drew pictures:

Here's his verbal description:

If I keep the eye in darkness without any outside light, then sooner or later weak dawning, delicate, hazy objects begin to move; at first unsteady and formless, then gradually forming into something more definite. The general case is that the forms are spreading, more or less curved ribbons, with black intervals lying between, either as concentric circles moving toward the center of the visual field, and losing themselves there, or as changing curves breaking against themselves and curving together into themselves, or as bent radii that move around in circles. Their movement is slow, so that for me it usually requires eight seconds for such a ribbon to complete its course and fully disappear. Never is the darkness, even in the beginning of the observation, perfectly pure, always there floats a chaos of weak light (1819, p. 74).

The next great scholar of subjective visual phenomena, Johannes Mueller, described something similar:
If one observes the visual field with closed eyes, then one sees not only sometimes a certain degree of illumination in it, but also sometimes brighter glows, sometimes spreading circular waves, which develop in the center and disappear in the periphery. Sometimes the glow appears more cloudlike, foggy, spotted, and rarely repeating itself for me in a certain rhythm (1837, vol. 2, p. 391).

Helmholtz (1856) and Aubert (1865) describe similar phenomena -- but unlike Purkinje and Mueller they do not emphasize the wandelnde Nebelstreifen over other phenomena of the darkened field.

Many other scholars described the darkened visual field in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and there are some later 20th century descriptions I've found, but almost none mention spreading or collapsing rings. The last clear reference I can find that's not merely a report of earlier findings is Scripture (1897). (Ermentrout and Cowan (1979), though, do mathematically predict concentric circles and spirals as one common form of visual hallucination, given their mathematical model of that phenomenon. HT: Gualtiero in his comment here.)

So, where have all the wandelnde Nebelstreifen gone? (Cue the violins, or maybe Dylan.) Did Goethe, Purkinje, Mueller, Helmholtz, and Aubert see something that others experienced but failed to notice? Did people stop experiencing wandelnde Nebelstreifen for some reason? (Maybe Goethe suggested them and then later readers unwittingly created them, until that early work was forgotten?)

Like black and white dreams and the elliptical appearance of obliquely viewed coins, and seeing everything double that's not at the same distance as the visual point of focus, wandelende Nebelstreifen seems to be a culturally specific phenomenon of sensory experience -- or at least sensory experience reportage.

Do you see them?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

What Does a Non-Effect Look Like, Meta-Analytically?

I've recently been reading reviews and meta-analyses of some of the (in my judgment) weaker subareas of psychology: the relation between religiosity and crime, the effectiveness of business ethics courses, the relationship between self-reports about visual imagery and performance on visual imagery tasks, and others. Reviews and meta-analyses in these areas tend to be positive, though a substantial proportion of studies show no effect.

That raises the question: What pattern of results should we expect for a psychological non-effect? Suppose religiosity has no deterrent effect whatsoever on criminal behavior. Should we expect all studies on the matter to show no effect? Of course not!

Several factors conspire to suggest that a substantial proportion of studies will nonetheless show positive results.

First, there is the "experimenter effect" famously studied by my colleague Robert Rosenthal: An experimenter who expects an effect of a certain sort is more likely to find such an effect than another experimenter, using the same method, who does not expect such an effect. For example, Rosenthal found that undergraduate experimenters who were told their rats were "bright" recorded better performance when testing the rats than others who were given "dull" rats (though the rats were from the same population). Experimenter effects can be surprisingly resistant to codification of method -- showing up, for example, even in subjects' reaction times recorded by computer.

Second, there is the well-known "file drawer problem". A study finding a relationship between two variables is substantially more likely to be published than one finding no relationship. This effect probably runs through the entire research process: If a pilot study or an RA's research project yields no results, it will often be dropped. Researchers will often not seek to publish negative results, and those that do seek publication may have difficulty having their essays accepted.

Third, the world is full of spurious correlations of all sorts, often for reasons having nothing to do with the hypothesis under study.

Here, then, is what I'd expect from a psychological literature in which there really is no effect between two variables:
(1.) Some null results, but maybe not even as many as half the published studies.
(2.) Positive results, but not falling into a clearly interpretable pattern.
(3.) Some researchers tending consistently to find positive results, across a variety of methods and subtopics, while others do not.
(4.) A substantial number of methodologically dubious studies driving the apparent effect.
(5.) (Maybe) a higher rate of null effects found in the sophomore years of the research (after the first experiments that generated excitement about the area but before referees start complaining that there have already been a number of null effect studies published).

I see most of these features in the dubious literatures I've mentioned above. Yet such literatures will tend to be reviewed positively because a mathematical meta-analysis will generally yield positive results and because reviewers will find reasons to explain away the null effects (especially by saying that the effect is not seen "in that condition").

Reviews and meta-analyses are typically performed by experts in the subfield. You might think this is good -- and it is, in several ways. But it's worth noting that experts in any subfield are usually committed to the value of research in that subfield, and they are commenting on the work of friends and colleagues they may not want to offend for both personal and self-serving reasons.