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.


Gregory Recco said...

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.

It's not clear just what you're saying here. Are you claiming that people hire graduates from such programs not because of the quality of the people being hired but because the hiring departments seek to redress a perceived wrong?

Anonymous said...


Does the data you have present not scream at you that something, somewhere, is going horribly wrong? It almost knocked me down.

If philosophy graduate programs were genuine competitive businesses, they would go down in flames -- imagine a skill-intensive company where 50% of its new hires quit before they finished training, or before they finished their first big project. It seems to me that the company would quickly go bankrupt or else have a huge incentive to quickly change its practices.

We could go on about how a lack of accountability harms graduate programs, but there are other interesting issues, too.

Why are philosophy graduate programs fail so many of their students? There are a number of possibilities (tell me if I missed any!):
(1) Students these days are simply bad. No matter who was admitted, there are simply not enough good students;
(2) The job market is so poor that once students fully grasp this fact they simply make a cold economic decision to not continue;
(3) Phil undergrad programs are teaching the wrong skills;
(4) Phil undergrad programs are teaching the right skills, but spending their time encouraging the wrong students to go to grad school;
(5) Phil grad programs are admitting the wrong students;
(6) The culture/structure of phil grad programs is so poor that it actively drives away its students.

Now, (1) might be the case. Maybe philosophy is simply so hard that it's impossible to have a good retention rate. (2) might be true as well, though I think that information is readily available enough that I doubt it's the leading factor.

Notice that (3)-(6) all constitute indictments of the management structure of philosophy graduate programs, if one or any of them is true. From what you and others have written, it sounds as if (6) might be the place to start. Your remark on how anxiety-producing the dissertation stage is underwrites this intuition.

Is anyone at your institution – or any institution – interested in these questions? If not, doesn’t that constitute a serious failure of leadership?

Is there an incentive for grad programs to address their hemorrhaging of admitted students? If not, doesn’t that constitute another serious failure? One could say “the cream rises to the top”, except that it looks as if as many as 90% of potentially qualified students never get a decent shot, thanks to the structure of graduate study.

Graduate study is one of the only fields I can think of that actively discourages talented people from trying to enter the profession. Contrast this with, say, Google, who makes it extremely attractive to want to work there, thereby ensuring that the top talent will want to sign on.

The bottom line is this: admitting and beginning to train students who will end up leaving the program prior to receiving their degree is a waste of your department’s money, a waste of your faculty’s time and skill, and seriously negatively impacts that student’s life and career prospects. That suggests a moral as well as a strong functional argument for actively treating this situation as a genuine problem and working to address it.

I have yet to see any public evidence of concern along these lines from graduate programs themselves.

I'm open to the idea that I'm missing something obvious, or am otherwise horribly off the mark. But I've seen similar data and suggestions before, and they are never placed in a broader, self-inquisitive context.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Gregory: I mean only not to take a stand on whether those departments are treated unfairly or not. I'll revise the post to make that point clearer.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's a great set of issues, Charles! From what I've seen, there is *some* concern about this among faculty -- at UCR and Berkeley and elsewhere -- but the concern is not proportional to the gravity of the problem. I'd like to see some systematic "where are they now" analyses of entering classes, with some sort of diagnosis of what went wrong when students didn't finish. That seems to me a necessary first step.

Anonymous said...


This is a wonderful and really depressing post. I just wanted to quickly comment on the Stony Brook issue, lest your readers get the wrong idea. It is my understanding that Stony Brook receives well above 200 applicants every year for the PhD program of which it takes somewhere around 12. Thus, while Stony Brook may have a high placement record considering it isn't ranked in the PGR top 50, that does not mean prospective applicants should view it as a shortcut to a good job.

Gregory Recco said...

Eric: I appreciate your response and willingness to revise your post. (Also, it's kind of you take your time and provide prospective students with this kind of advice.) It's hard, however, to see how your revision is supposed to help clarify the issue I asked about.

To cut to the point: just what is the subject of the phrase "may have to do with the sense some people have" etc.? It seems to be "[Stony Brook's] track record." Do you see the problem? The sentence seems to offer an explanation of Stony Brook's placement record. And the explanation seems to be some people's sense that Stony Brook and like schools are unfairly unranked. If that's not what you're saying (and I hope you see how offensive a claim that would be), you would need to do more to make it clear.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Colin, for the helpful point. I don't want to pretend to be an expert on the Stony Brook situation!

Gregory, I'm unsure what your concern is. One's institution of origin -- and correlatively the perceived eminence and philosophical judgment of one's letter writers -- is a major factor hiring committees consider when looking at new Ph.D.'s. It seems reasonable to infer that Stony Brook's good placement record reflects the sense of some people on hiring committees that Stony Brook is a better department than their unranked status suggests. And people who think that, in my experience, tend to think that the fact that Stony Brook is unranked has to do with some unfairness in the PGR.

Gregory Recco said...

Eric: Surely, people would think the report is unfair because they thought the department is better than its unranked status would suggest. That is why it seems wrong to claim that the reason its graduates get hired is that people hiring think the ranking is unfair.

Jesse Butler said...

Hey Eric and others,

Thanks very much for this post -- a very interesting a pressing set of issues. I'm curious whether there's a tension in the following two statements:

" impression is that about half of our successful students end up teaching community college ... . Those who land at four-year schools (often after a couple years of looking) are generally (but not universally!) at lower prestige colleges."


"At the same time, you're in a very anxiety-producing situation: Your whole career depends on how good your dissertation is..."

I'm a graduate student at the University of Florida in the final stages of dissertation writing. As a UF graduate, my prospects will probably be among small four-year liberal arts colleges or community colleges. (At least that's what been the case for the last few crops of UF grads.) When I try to imagine the interview process in which I set across from an interviewer from a small liberal arts college (or community college), it's difficult to picture the interviewer asking much of anything about research (let alone about a specific dissertation topic). It seems to me they'll be much more concerned with how willing I'll be to teach 15 credit hours a semester, serve on committees and engage in the community (or church?) activities, etc. Don't get me wrong: I love to dish out an earful about conventionalist modal semantics, but it just doesn't seem they'll be that interested.

Here at UF there is a constant, low-grade rumble to the effect that one's dissertation must be excellent, or else awful things will happen. And I'm lucky to be intrinsically motivated to think and write about my dissertation topic (else I would be among the 50% that are gone after three years). I'm curious if anyone can give an eye-witness account of what it's like to interview for the less-presitigious jobs at small colleges and community colleges and whether the dissertation is actually that big a deal.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

A fine point of language, that. But what I actually said was:

"may have to do with the sense some people have that the Gourmet Report is unfair.... 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."

I need to introduce the point about unfairness and "having to do with" is weaker than "because". The last sentence then disambiguates, if there was any confusion. So I think it's clear enough. I hope you don't feel that I myself have been unfair.

Anonymous said...

A brief piece of inside information from Milwaukee to add to your otherwise very informative post. While we do have the occasional student who does not complete the program, by far the vast majority of our students do so. I think you have to keep in mind that it is much easier to complete a 2 year master's degree--even when you have decided that a career in philosophy is not for you--then it is a PhD program. So our placement record should be representative, indeed we try to make it as informative as possible.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that info, Margaret. Faculty from some other M.A. programs have told me that their completion rates are rather low. So completion rate is definitely something to look into if you apply to M.A. programs!

Anonymous said...

I am currently enrolled in a PhD program that is ranked in Epistemology. However, my interests are mostly in Ethics (though issues of justification intrigue me somewhat). When I applied, the professor profiles indicated that the faculty would have more working interest in Ethics than they actually do. I am wanting to transfer. Do you recommend finishing the MA first? Also, when looking to new programs, how do you recommend discussing faculty interests without making it feel like an interview?
Thank you for your time.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't think it matters much whether you finish the M.A. first.

I'm not sure I fully understand the concern behind your last question. (It *is* an interview, of sorts.) Once you've been admitted, you can chat with basically any faculty you like, if you contact them first to find a time that's convenient for them. There's nothing like "So, what are you currently working on?" (followed by, if necessary, "Oh, that's interesting, tell me more") to get a faculty member going!

KateNorlock said...

Greetings, and although this thread is more or less dead, I'm linking the whole thing to my own page advising my undergraduates; thanks for writing this!

Regarding an earlier post, just in case the author checks back, I wanted to respond to something Jesse said: "I'm curious if anyone can give an eye-witness account of what it's like to interview for the less-presitigious jobs at small colleges and community colleges and whether the dissertation is actually that big a deal."

Bear in mind two important points: (1) Liberal-arts colleges, in my experience so far, as still quite interested in having excellent scholars in our employ, and the quality of our faculty do figure into things like the U.S. News & World Report rankings of liberal arts colleges. (2) As Eric points out in his initial post above, all the more prestigious schools' graduates are ALSO competing for our 'less presitigious' jobs, so from my side of the interviewing table, it's clear to me that I am swimming in a wealth of quality dissertations! I don't need to set aside the importance of a good dissertation or writing sample because I am looking at 500 good dissertations. Do you take my meaning? In other words, I'm saying this, and I apologize to Eric for repeating what I think he's already said quite well: The labor pool is so unbelievably crowded that I have my pick of quality scholars, so to deprioritize the quality of the dissertation is misguided.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, BigK!

I have a comments feed for the whole blog, so not a comment slips by -- not even on these "dead" posts!

I do hope people will continue to comment and post here, since I regard this series on applying to Ph.D. programs as more or less a continuing service (as long as the quantity of comments doesn't become unmanageable). I plan to update the posts next fall and I may incorporate ideas from some of the more helpful comments.

Anonymous said...

I found this an extremely informative and thought-provoking essay. Breaking into academia is very hard indeed! I am quite a bit older than Professor S., did my Ph.D. at the same university as he did (in another field), did the British equivalent of a postdoc, published my dissertation as a book, and couldn't get even a nibble in the tenure-track market in the USA. I would note that I did not go to a famous college and our college at that time did not have grades, meaning I had no GPA, but I had had a pertinent internship, wrote a senior thesis, and had letters of recommendation personally known to many big wigs, saying I was the best student they ever had. The thing is that after my post-doc and being untrained for the so-called real world outside academia, I had to figure out what I would do. Getting to the end of the story first, I am a librarian on the tenure track and soon to come up for tenure at a community college in my home town of New York. I took some personality tests like the Strong Interest Inventory which said I'd be well suited to be a librarian. I took the plunge and had a graduate assistantship. It was an incredibly humbling experience for a guy who was probably the same age at Professor S., who is an associate professor at a UC school. Library school was a cinch, I had several jobs which I will not bore the reader with, and finally I am on track, but have not had the kind of success I have envisioned. Students, what you face will be based to the vicissitudes of the market and demography, but clearly most of the job market has shifted to adjuncts, people don't have to retire at 65 or even 75 and may never be replaced, there are still discriminatory affirmative action policies, mandates, attitudes or whatever you want to call them that will be used to rationalize not hiring you, and there are loads of people at all ages and who went to graduate schools at all times who have trained themselves to be academics and who are applying for the same jobs you are, and more and more universities you wouldn't expect have been creating and putting through students in their own Ph.D. programs, so there are not just the 30 to 50 Ph.D. programs you think there were. It's a rough world out there, and the goal is a tenure track job that will enable you to concentrate at least some of the time on intellectual questions and keep you in a world of communicating with people interested in the same kinds of questions you are. And because of the segmentation of intellectual questions into smaller and smaller subdomains, you will be working in a college where no one will be able to relate to what you are working on. This is what you will face. You must realize this now. This, and the fact that academia is not respected as it was during the post-World War II period of 1946-1989. Good luck to all.

panties in a upraor said...

My question is pretty specific to my situation but may be of some interest to some.

Would you say it is a bad idea to take time off between M.A. work and applying to Ph.D. programs? Would this look odd to programs?

Obviously, many students do the terminal M.A. thing in order to bolster their application and so don't apply until after having their M.A. conferred. But would taking further time off raise any unwanted questions in the minds of application committee members?

Also, were I to take such extra time off (2 academic years) would it be to my advantage to audit graduate classes? Part of me feels like this would further such undesirable questions because they may just think, "Hey, he has a graduate degree, why didn't he just apply right away if he was actually able to audit classes?"

Thanks for all the info! It's helpful, though I won't be applying to schools for 1.5 years.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jay: Thanks for your comment. People do need to realize it's incredibly competitive -- not as competitive as professional sports, probably, but less different than you might think. For this reason, I re-emphasize that it's absolutely crucial to be intrinsically motivated.

Panties: I suspect there's a lot of variation between individuals and between committees on how time off is seen, so I'd say it adds a wild card into the process that may make the outcome less predictable. It depends partly on what you're taking time off to do. If you are able to audit graduate classes in the intervening time, that looks good. (I don't know about your particular situation, but most professors are very reluctant to allow auditors in their graduate courses unless they have a prior relationship with that person.) Even better if you can actually enroll in some of those classes for a grade. One compromise, if the professor agrees, is to officially audit but also to do all the work including writing an essay for the professor, having the professor tell you at the end what grade you would have earned. It won't show up in any transcript, but if the professor writes you a letter of recommendation later, she can mention such a "virtual grade".

There's nothing that says that a person will succeed in graduate school like strong performance in graduate courses at a school with a good Ph.D. program.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

P.S. -- If you do audit, throw your heart into it. If you come off half-assed, there's no way you'll get a good letter.

Anonymous said...

Hello Professor Schwitzgebel,

Thanks a bunch for your *honest* words regarding grad school. I don't understand how some readers were upset at you for telling us something that we *all* should hear (even if it ain't pretty).

I just wanted to ask you why is it that a fine school like UCR isn't able to send it's top Philosophy students to top grad schools, as you've said? Is it an issue of name bias, etc? It's a sad fact because some students at UCR (like at ANY school) are really darn passionate and good @ what they do.

I was also wondering how much you think that "talent" in Philosophy is gained or just "innate." What are you insights?

All the best,


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Rishi! I suspect that UCR's less-than-stellar track record is due to several factors, including perceived institution quality, the disadvantage of the quarter system for writing really good philosophy essays that can be used as writing samples, and just plain old bad luck. Not much to be done about the first of these; to address the second, I recommend doing an independent study or honor's thesis where you can explore an issue in more depth; and to address the third, students might consider applying to a large number of schools to reduce the effects of chance.

As to whether philosophers are made or born, I'm inclined to think that only a small proportion of people find in themselves the interests and instincts of a philosopher -- which generally reveal themselves around age 13, I think, when a few of us start to find it engaging to think about questions like "what if the world doesn't exist behind that door?" while the rest of our peers just say "dude, you're nuts". But without rigorous academic training, the philosophical instinct is unlikely to result in philosophy that other people will find worth reading.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the useful (if somewhat depressing) information. I would like to apply to some programmes for the 2009 term, but have some questions. I know you've said that it's difficult to be accepted to a well ranked university from a small university - I studied philosophy in Ireland, where I took a BA and MA. Also, it seems to look bad on the application if you have taken some time off from academia. If I am accepted to a programme, I will have been out of acadamia for three years at that time. What I would like to ask is, do you think that these things are equally disadvantageous when applying to other departments, for example political science. My interest is political theory, and so I feel that I can do the same work in a political science department with a strong interest in theory as a philosophy department with a strong interest in political theory. Do you think that this is true?
Also, since academia seems to be next to impossible to break into, as far as getting a teaching job goes, might I be giving myself more options with a phd in political science than in philosophy? For example, would someone with a phd in political science, with a focus on political theory, not have the opportunity to work in philosophy departments, political science departments, as well as for governments, NGOs, etc (assuming the person is able to carry out empirical and statistical research as well)?
Thanks for your help!
All the best.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon, June 22: I don't know anything about political science admissions standards. Although there are a few exceptions, generally a Ph.D. in philosophy, and not some related field like political science, is necessary to find a job teaching philosophy at the university level.

The three-year wait after completing your M.A. isn't a big deal, though maybe not ideal if you haven't been doing something related to your research interests. Being from a university that isn't widely known or respected is, I think, a substantial disadvantage, but not necessarily a fatal one, depending on the rest of your application.

Unknown said...

This has been an interesting read, and towards the end there has been some discussion of gaps between MAs and Ph.D applications.

For me it is a more extreme gap. My MA was completed in 2003, so for me it has been a good while! During that time I have been teaching Philosophy to 16-17 year olds (A levels in the UK).

I got a 1st in my BA from University of York (UK), and a distinction in my MA (also at York), but didn't feel ready at that stage to continue.

I have been considering for some time completing a Ph.D and have the intrinsic desire that you spoke of, though I would still want to try for a top school if possible.

I suppose my question is: would these factors mean that an application to a top-15 US university would be pointless for me? And if so, or if not, is there anything I could do in particular to improve my chances?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Rodders, I think the fact that you've been involved in philosophy continuously since your M.A. would mitigate any concerns about your time off, and perhaps even make your application stronger than that of someone coming straight out of a Master's. I see no reason not to aim high, especially if you have the grades, sample, and letters for it. But it's always good to apply to a spectrum of differently selective schools.

Unknown said...

Hi Eric,

I'm applying to grad school for the 2009 term, but am confused as to which schools are within my reach. It's difficult to discern from ranked lists exactly where someone like me might fall. I also can't decide whether to apply to MA or PhD programs.

Some background: I graduated from Oberlin this past May with a philosophy GPA of 3.4 (I was a slacker, but intend to reform myself). I've been told repeatedly that I have a great skill for writing that is beyond the capabilities of most of my peers (I mention this only in regard to the importance of the writing sample). I intend to get a PhD in philosophy because I love it and can't imagine studying anything else; I'm also hoping to use it as a background for law study.

Since my GPA is lackluster, I had hoped to do well as an MA student, then try for a PhD/JD at a prestigious institution. But your post suggests that this might not be the best course of action...

Do you have any suggestions for me based on my background and objectives - in regard to how to use ranked lists and decide between PhD and MA programs?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Competitiveness for admission and position in the rankings do tend to correlate, though of course not perfectly. Oberlin is a respected school, but a 3.4 in philosophy will make it difficult to be admitted to an elite program unless there's something exceptional about your application (such as knock-your-socks-off letters and sample).

I don't want to seem too pessimistic about Ph.D. prospects from good M.A. programs. Check out placement records (I know Houston and Milwaukee have theirs up online). Some students from such programs do get into the top-ten schools, and a substantial proportion get into mid-ranked schools.

One thing I don't know very well, though, is how competitive it is to get into the more prestigious M.A. programs. Tufts is pretty competitive, I've heard. There are also some decent but less prestigious M.A. programs (with weaker placement records) that are not very competitive at all.

I'd also inquire carefully into graduation rates. Some programs admit almost everybody but graduate few.

Unknown said...

Eric, thanks so much for your quick reply! This is a great blog.

CriticalIdealism said...

First off, I can't begin to tell you how valuable I find your comments on the philosophy grad school admission process. Thank you!
I have a quick question. At my college there is a cap on the number of philosophy courses I can take. (60 credits.) Luckily, a lot of our courses are cross listed with other departments. What this means is that when I sign up for the course, I have the option of taking the exact same course under one of two different departments. (For example, Phil. Language is cross listed with linguistics, Ancient and Medieval is cross listed with Classics, Phil Religion w/ religious studies, etc.) So, although all the cross listed courses are still taught by the philosophy department, my transcript lists the examples I gave as courses taught in departments other than philosophy. Unfortunately, I cannot change this due to the aforementioned cap on philosophy courses. Will this be a problem or should I not worry about this? Should I have one of my letter writers point this out in her/his letter?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I think this is something you might have a letter-writer point out. Not a big deal, but taking so many classes in philosophy (and doing well in them) seems to show a deeper commitment to and interest in philosophy than an otherwise similar application with fewer courses in philosophy.

In saying this, though, I don't want to create the impression that lots of classes in philosophy is a prerequisite for a Ph.D. program in philosophy. Strong students with short but excellent track records in upper-division philosophy are definitely still taken very seriously as applicants in my experience.

A Thinker... said...

If it is not too late to ask, what is better to do in an MA program? Write a thesis or test?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'd recommend the thesis, from which a writing sample could spring, which may help you develop a better relationship with a letter writer, and which is more like the kind of thing one will be doing in Ph.D. programs.

claudia said...

Dear Eric,

Thank you for your informative blog post. I graduated from MIT in 2007 with a B.S. in political science and a 3.4 GPA. I took only three philosophy classes at MIT, but went on to TA one of them for three semesters. However, I did all of this with just one professor, so my other recommendations will have to come from other departments.

I think I want to get a PhD in philosophy in order to study political theory, but I am deliberating over whether I should apply to MA programs first, since I majored in political science. Do you have any thoughts?

Thank you,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Claudia, I'm inclined to think that an M.A. program is the most likely avenue in your sort of case. However, I'm reluctant to discourage students from taking a shot at Ph.D. programs straightaway, since you never know what might happen with a great sample and letters, and of course I can't evaluate such things in your case. You probably should consult with the philosophy professor you've TA-ed with.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the helpful post, Eric! I'm finishing up my first year at an MA program. I had a good overall GPA as an undergrad in philosophy, and a 4.0 major-specific GPA, but I went to a small state college and figured it would be good to have an MA and a thesis before applying to PhD programs. My question is this: I have pluralistic interests, but I lean toward the continental end of things (Heidegger, Levinas). I have a great background in symbolic logic and analytic metaphysics, but I doubt they'll ever be my AOS. The Leiter Report glosses over most of the schools that my undergrad and grad professors think I should look at, and I'm inclined to stick with my passions rather than my hiring potential. Assuming I get into a PhD program at one of these colleges, do you think this will work against me getting a job AT ALL? I'm not aiming for a top-ten/elite university, just a college that will let me teach what I love, at a grad or undergrad level. I guess I'm wondering if what you've said in your post applies to all colleges, or if you're talking most about colleges in the top x%?

Also, several PhD programs I'm looking at are at Jesuit universities, which typically have more continental-focused programs (e.g. Fordham, Duquesne). They look great, but are secular institutions suspicious of Jesuit colleges? Would I risk being less likely getting a job at a secular institute and being trapped in the Catholic/Christian job market?

Thanks for any advice!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Graham, I'm not especially knowledgeable about such matters, so I'm reluctant to give advice. I would inquire carefully about the schools' past placement records (while bearing in mind that 1999-2007 were boom years in the philosophy job market, unlikely to be replicated soon). If they have done a good job placing their Ph.D.s in jobs of the sort you'd like, that should be encouraging.

Anonymous said...

I am an undergrad student going to transfer to finish my undergrad work, this comment you made interests me:

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).

As one that wishes to get into a graduate program eventually, which schools would you suggest I should transfer to so I can get into a good graduate program later on?

Anonymous said...

I have one other question (related directly to grad school now) how important is it to get into a top 15/20 school if my goal is not job placement?

My goal in philosophy is not a big paying job (I would be happy at a small community college, getting just $40k per year), but more to contribute important ideas to the philosophical community.

Will philosophers tend to ignore people who did not receive a PHD from a top 15 school? If so, is this because most graduate schools don't train their students very well, or simply a bias among philosophers, or is it hard to stay up-to-date if one is not teaching at a top university?

Either way I will pursue philosophy to the PHD level, I'm just wondering how much harder things will be for me if I'm unable to get into a top 15/20 school.

Anonymous said...

Professor Schwitzgebel,

Would you say students are better off starting at a well-regarded (and funded) MA program and reapplying to doctoral programs following its completion instead of attending a lower-ranked (lower than 40 or so) PhD program? I've been accepted to both types of program and I'm not sure which to attend. There's obviously more funding at the PhD program, but I can't help but wonder if I can get into a higher-ranked program down the line (because I have strong GREs, undergrad GPA, etc., and I strongly suspect that my biggest problem with admissions has been my coming from a little-known undergrad department).

Thanks for your very helpful info!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 6:53: I don't have much first-hand knowledge of this. I would recommend looking carefully at (1.)the M.A. program's Ph.D. program placement record *and* graduation rates and (2.) the Ph.D. program's job placement record (bearing in mind that the 1990s are probably closer to historically average than the booming 2000s), compared to that of the somewhat better ranked programs you'll get into if you do better than your peers in the M.A. program. Then think about whether the likely difference in outcome is worth the additional time and effort.

Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Schwitzgebel,

I will be applying to grad school for fall 2010. My concerns are these: (1) I transferred to my home university after spending 2.5 years at my previous institution due to the intense depression and feelings of isolation I was experiencing there. Mentally and emotionally, I am in a completely different, much healthier and more stable place. You mention that reasons for transferring, especially if it is not to a more prestigious institution, should be briefly addressed in the SoP. I am wondering: will this past depression & transfer hurt my application in any way, or raise unwanted questions about my ability to perform in grad school? If yes, do you have any thoughts about how to proceed?

(2) The school I am currently at is known mostly for its strength in Asian/Comparative PHL, and is ranked accordingly on the PGR under CHN PHL. I have a fairly broad foundation in Western (Continental) philosophy from my old school (I took 12 PHL classes there), and have taken 6 more classes on Western and Asian PHL at my current school—almost all of the18 are upper-division. My question is whether I should apply to a MA or a PhD program, seeing that I am not coming from a non-traditional department, which might hurt me? but otherwise have a pretty decent background in philosophy.

Some background: I have a 3.77 cumulative GPA and a 3.91 major GPA. I haven’t taken the GRE yet, but I have a strong writing sample on Spinoza (for which I won best undergraduate PHL paper last year and presented at an undergraduate conference) and strong recommendations. I will be doing a senior honors project next year and am helping one of my professors (a well-respected Chinese PHL scholar) write an introductory book on Chinese PHL for advanced students (still in progress and probably wont be published by the time I graduate). I think I have the intrinsic motivation you deem necessary for graduate study; my professors have often told I that I have “a natural philosophical talent”; and, despite all the drawbacks mentioned, I really just can’t see having a satisfied and rewarding life doing anything else.

Based on your experience and knowledge, what do you think my chances are at getting into a top program? Like others on this blog-series, I am unsure what level of prestige is realistic for me. Is there anything more I can do to improve my chances at a top program?

A thousand thanks for writing this blog! It has been very helpful and informative, if not humbling. Thank you for your time.

Anonymous said...

How would having a published article in a journal like Ethics/Philosophy and Public Affairs/Mind about Ethics affect a gard school application?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 7:59: It is *very* impressive for a student to publish in a top venue like that. So impressive and improbable, in fact, that it would be something that would have to be clarified and addressed in the letters. However, if it's clear that the applicant has indeed done such a thing, that would be a major boost to the application.

If it's co-authored with a professor, most committees will assume (regardless of order of authorship) that the professor is responsible for its being of journal quality.

Publications in student journals and the like are not, in my experience, given much weight in considering grad applications.

Kat said...

Hello Eric,

Thanks for these posts! I've found them very helpful in thinking about my grad school search. I particularly appreciate your straightforwardness.

I've got a few questions for you if you're still answering these. I'm interested in your opinion since I'd ideally like to study in roughly the same area that you do your work.

I'm currently enrolled in an interdisciplinary cog sci program at my undergrad institution [I'm also double-majoring in philosophy proper]. Since my strong suit really is philosophy, I don't think I'll be applying in cognitive psychology, but I have been considering some of the interdisciplinary or dual phil/cog sci programs out there.

I suppose my questions are as follows:
1. Are there any real differences to applying to these programs than to straightforward philosophy programs? I know that at some institutions you have to first apply to a "home" program or department [which in my case would be philosophy]. How does this change things? For example, is applying to these programs more/less/equally as competitive as regular philosophy programs?

2. Should I even be applying to these programs? I've heard conflicting information about them. About a year ago at a conference I was told by a not-unknown philosopher [who does interdisciplinary work in philosophy of science/mind] that I "ought to pick a side" to study in and that persons coming out of interdisciplinary Ph.D programs can be seen as wishy-washy. However, two of my professors [currently situated in the psychology department] came from such programs, seem to be doing fine, and are pointing me towards a similar path. I'm wondering if there really are dangers to applying to interdisciplinary programs. Would graduating from one negatively affect my future job prospects? Are they really seen as less rigorous or somehow oddball compared to a traditional program in philosophy? How do the best cog sci programs compare to the top-ranked philosophy programs in phil mind?

3. As a quick third question, if these cog sci programs are a good idea, are there any resources like the PGR to use as a basic comparison? I know the PGR has rankings for philosophy of cognitive science and phil mind, but not all of the schools mentioned have the corresponding kind of psychology department that I'm interested in. Is there anywhere online I can get an idea of where these programs stand relative to each other?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kat, I'm afraid my answers to your questions won't be as helpful as I'd like.

On 1: I don't really know. I think you'd have to ask institution-by-institution.

On 2: People's opinions vary, which means hiring committee's opinions will vary. It's very hard to find a position in philosophy, though, without one's primary training being from people in a philosophy department or one of a the rare closely related departments (usually with "Philosophy" in the title, like Pitt's Department of History and Philosophy of Science). Again, I'd look at the track records at the individual institutions -- bearing in mind that 1998-2007 was an unusually good period for seeking a job in philosophy.

On 3: I'm not aware of any ranking system specifically of such programs. If you're thinking about a philosophy appointment at the end and if you'll be mostly trained by philosophers, you might use the PGR's overall and specialty rankings.

Think about this: Most philosophers of psychology will be appointed by a committee of philosophers who are not themselves philosophers of psychology. The way they evaluate candidates will be the usual way that philosophers evaluate candidates. A letter from a prominent philosopher will mean more to them than a letter from a prominent psychologist. When they think of the quality of a school, they'll think mostly of the quality of the philosophy department and also secondarily of the school's general prestige. They'll know very little if anything about the school's prestige in psychology.

William said...

Prof. Schwitzgebel,

I would like to first thank you for making this guide. It has proved very useful for a prospective graduate student in philosophy like myself; so, I keep it bookmarked.

I do have one concern that you addressed but is not fully addressed anywhere I can look: the two body 'problem'. By the time I plan on applying, I will be married. This raises lots of complications, specially when it comes to money and where to apply. But also, my wife might not be able to get into the same school as I do (for money or academic reasons). This makes me wonder if we would be able to live in the same on-campus housing.

Do you know anything about this? Do any of your students have this problem? Or is there a place that you can direct me to?

Thank you,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, William. I don't know of any particular guides, but it's a common issue. Some campuses (including UCR and UCB) have special "married student housing", available if one partner is a student. As far as being admitted to the same university or to two universities within commuting distance, I know of no easy solution other than to apply as widely as possible and to focus especially on large metropolitan areas with mutliple suitable universities.

William Moore. said...

No problem. IT is good to know that I am not an oddity. But I guess the housing, and the likelihood of me getting into graduate housing with my spouse (who might not go to the same school) depends on the school and vacancy. Hopefully, one the schools I get accepted to (if any) has such vacancy.

Anonymous said...

Eric, I only have a 3.0 GPA from undergrad, but it's from a respected liberal arts college (DePauw University), I have an MBA with a 3.7 GPA, 5 years of banking experience, I believe my recommendations will be good, and I believe my writing sample will be good. Am I insane to pursue a PhD in philosophy? I’m applying to about 10 schools, some that are not ranked and one ranked as high as 15 by Philosophical Gourmet. I am intrinsically motivated to study philosophy, so much so that I'm willing to ditch a successful, financially rewarding career in finance to do what I truly love. I know I will thrive in grad school IF I get accepted, but that is a big IF because of my undergrad GPA. I’m hoping that my knowledge and experience with finance and economics combined with some rigorous training in philosophical analysis will be unique and attractive to PhD programs. I was a classics major in undergrad, but I had six philosophy classes culminating with an A in philosophy of mind.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Mar 12: I would guess it's unlikely, but with the right writing sample and letters, you might have a shot. If you can connect your interests in philosophy with your background in business so as to turn the latter into an asset, that wouldn't hurt. But it is very competitive, so I wouldn't count on admission. If you are determined to make the transition, you might need to go through an MA program first.

Anonymous said...


I'm wondering what advice you might have for someone who is currently in her first year of a very good PhD program, but who is seriously considering applying to other programs.

My reason for wanting to do so is that, while my department is by all accounts "as good as it gets" for the kind of work that they do -- e.g., PGR has them listed at 1,2, or 3 in almost every specialty within the relevant category -- it is almost exclusively devoted to this group of specialties, and is largely uninterested in, and to some extent dismissive of, other research areas and methods.

When I made the decision to come here, I was aware that the intersection of my interests with those of the faculty was smaller than is perhaps ideal. But as I was largely naive to how graduate school works, as well as to how much the philosophical culture can vary from department to department (I came from a very different, and also very good undergraduate department), I chose to come here, to what was by most measures the best program to which I was admitted, thinking that everything would probably work out just fine.

As I approach the end of my first year, however, I've had enough exposure to realize that even though the area in which I will likely write my dissertation is one that, at least "on paper", would be a natural one to pursue at my department, the kind of approach I'd like to take to it, as well as the kinds of philosophical skills that I want to cultivate to this end, are almost certain to meet with firm disapproval (e.g., when I mentioned my interest in studying the work of X (one of the most famous living philosophers) to one of my professors, I was advised to not let this interest be known within the department.

The reason I mention all these vague details is that, beyond the difficult issues that presumably attend any choice to transfer from one program to another, mine is a potentially more uncomfortable situation, given that it as not as straightforward as, say, "I thought I wanted to do M&E, but now I realize that I want to do political philosophy, and nobody does that here." So my question concerns not so much the application/transfer process, but rather, the more political/personal question as to how you think I should approach this with faculty at my current department. I have so far not mentioned anything to anyone, as it strikes me that I should wait until maybe October for this conversation.

(But of course, any thoughts you might have on the issue of transferring would be much appreciated -- I'm sure there are issues I haven't thought of, or to which I'm oblivious!)


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon, April 14: It is certainly possible to transfer. Three factors make it easier: (1.) If you have a good reason you can express to the committee and that at least one letter-writer can also address. (2.) If your grades have been good. (3.) If you're transferring sideways or down in program prestige. Not all three conditions are necessary in every case though.

I advise you to think about someone in your department whom you trust to be your ally in the process. The most important consideration is whether you can trust this person to be supportive of you; it's also best, if possible, if the person thinks well of your work. This person can add a letter to your file explaining the situation and endorsing your move. This person can also advise you about your statement of purpose, which will need to be carefully written, and how much to apply based on your undergraduate record (and letters) vs. your short graduate record.

We all know these things happen, even to the best students. Good luck!

Anonymous said...


This is "Anon, April 14" again. Thanks for your input. If you don't mind, could you briefly elaborate on what you meant by "how much to apply based on your undergraduate record (and letters) vs. your short graduate record"?

Thanks Again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Anon Apr 14: I mean things like what proportion of your letters are from which institution, where your writing sample is drawn from, and what you focus on in your statement.

Finance Dissertation Help said...
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Anonymous said...

Thank you for all of your advice. I was wondering what the amount of graduate coursework that undergraduates usually have when they apply to graduate school. I'm at a top-15 PGR school and have taken graduate lecture courses in philosophy of logic, epistemology, probability theory and mathematical logic and graduate seminars in ancient skepticism, political philosophy, Nietzsche, moral psychology and Kantian ethics. Because of this (I will only have taken three undergraduate lectures while in college), my major GPA is somewhat lower than is common (3.84 with one B+, 3 A-minuses; my overal GPA is 3.91). The professors who are writing my recommendations all gave me As in their classes and I have either taken seminars or done independent work with them. I have also done independent work in epistemology and in ancient philosophy in Greek (and got A+s in all of my Greek language classes). My interests are primarilly in ancient philosophy and contemporary epistemology. However, from all that I have been reading on your blog, it seems unlikely that I will be making any sort of cut for a top-20 PhD program. Will the difficulty of the coursework ameliorate my lower-than-average grades? Will my really good grades in cognate disciplines (A+s in Greek language in the Classics department, A+s in graduate courses in linguistics and psychology) help me out at all? Thanks again for all of your advice.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon May 31: That is a huge amount of graduate coursework! Most applicants have none or just a class or two (unless they are already enrolled in a grad program). Also, being in a top-ranked school is a major bonus. I would think your transcript would stand out as a promising one. If you are already earning A's in graduate courses in a top-15 ranked PGR program, that is a very strong sign that you will continue to do so once formally admitted to a PhD program. If you are not admitted to a top-10 or top-20 grad program, it won't be because of your transcript, I think. Aim high (but be sure to have backups too).

indira said...

Hi Eric,
This was a great post. Thanks a ton for your efforts!
I'm in a, kind of, peculiar situation. I am a Computer Engineer and am doing my graduate studies in Computer Engineering. But I'm greatly interested in Philosophy and I want to pursue it formally. It's more for the *intrinsic* value of it, as you put it. Now, my question is, where do I start? Do you think it's even a good idea to get into it academically?
I don't have any credentials in Philosophy through my undergraduate/graduate program.
How should I start my way towards a graduate program in Philosophy?

Thanks a ton,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Indira: Probably the best approach is to start taking or auditing upper-division and/or graduate-level courses in philosophy at your current school. This will help give you a taste of what it's like. If you start writing papers and earning grades, then you establish a track record and can start earning letters of recommendation.

You probably need on the order of 4-6 graded philosophy courses (ideally, some at the graduate level) to start looking like a plausible candidate for transfer to a PhD program. (Another possibility is to pursue a Master's first, which requires less work up front, but it would probably be more efficient to at least try to build up a case for going straight to a PhD program, with transfer to an MA program as a backup.)

Anonymous said...

First of all: Thanks for an excellent blog post. I spent the past four hours reading it (together with accompanying links and comments).

I don't know if you still answer questions here. Regardless, I'll post this one anyway:

I live and study in Sweden, and have a previous degree in political science. I later switched to philosophy, taking a full second bachelor degree consisting of only philosophy courses.

At the moment I've started preparing for applying to grad school abroad. However, there is a major problem: While I have very good grades in the philosophy courses (expecting to finish with the higher of two possible marks in 97% of my courses), my grades in political science are average at best.

To what extent should I expect my previous degree to damage my chances of being admitted to a graduate program in philosophy?

Thanks again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Simon: My sense at UCR is that we tend to allow that people might have changed their interests and priorities, so mediocre performance in a long-ago degree is not much of a strike against one, if one has a long track record with a new degree in a demanding program. By "long track record" I mean three years or more. For most students, how you did in 2007 still counts for 2010 (though not as much as 2010 counts).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply.

I have been choosing between quickly getting a new bachelor degree in philosophy (in a total of two years time), or taking a year extra to finish more courses.

From your answer I guess that the second alternative is better, as it will, in addition to the extra courses, allow me to put som distance between myself and my previous degree.


Rusty said...

Hello, professor. I'd like to start by thanking you for this in-depth post. I'm still a year or so off from doing this, but it's great to see a professor being so proactive. I'd like to ask for an honest opinion if you have the time, and I know you're very busy.

I currently attend an unremarkable state school with a major in journalism, graduating in May with honors (where my GPA sits is yet to be seen, but with one semester left I'm sitting with a 3.55. I had a fluke C =X). I'm confident however. I've have a 3.75 and a 3.83 since that C and I will continue to do well.

I was bitten by the bug to want to study philosophy as a life's pursuit a little too late in my undergraduate career to declare a second major or a minor in philosophy, and since I transferred to the school I'm currently in, I've only had one elective to fill with a philosophy course.

However, I found what seems to me a good avenue: this September I'll be attending the University of Glasgow for their MLitt conversion in philosophy, which is their MLitt, postgraduate degree for people without any philosophical experience.

Coming from a ho-hum school with solid grades but absolutely zero philosophical experience, how incredible do you think I must be in Glasgow to make an impression at a ranked program as ranked by the PGR?

I love a challenge, do my best work under pressure and by no means have ever made anything easy on myself, but I just feel like my particular situation is slightly more dire that is common, and I was wondering if a completely inexperienced undergrad can do well enough in 60 postgraduate credits at Glasgow to gain admittance to a school of decent reputation and faculty, if at all.

Any thoughts you, or anyone else who frequents this blog would be greatly appreciated, but please don't put yourself out: I'm thankful for any and all responses.

Thank you for reading, professor, and to anyone else who has, and I look forward to hearing from everyone.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Adam: I would ask Glasgow if they can offer information on the placement of their MLitt students into ranked graduate programs. That ought to be a good indicator of the upside potential.

Without knowing about that program in particular, I can nonetheless say that your route isn't entirely unusual. M.A. programs in the U.S. typically aim to admit students whose grades aren't quite PhD-admission level and/or who have too few philosophy courses, and convert them into viable applicants for good PhD programs. You would seem to fit the bill.

Peter said...

Hey Eric (and anyone else who'd like to respond),

Thanks for posting on this stuff.

I graduated in 2010 from a liberal arts college you've said elsewhere has a very well respected philosophy program. I decided to spend a year working in France instead of applying as an undergradutate, so I'm in the middle of applying to graduate schools right now.

I'm facing a couple self-inflicted dilemmas.

(1) So far I have apps out to 5 schools, but I accidentally uploaded an older draft of my writing sample for all of them and I miscalculated my major GPA for two, and not in my favor.

(2) I have an application for Pittsburgh and CUNY left to submit. I've already sent a writing sample off to Pittsburgh, but I recently found a couple interpretational inaccuracies in it that I can't rectify now (too late to make changes). It's a serious paper with good arguments, but it's very wrong about what an article says in several places.

What I'm wondering is, should I press "submit" on the Pittsburgh and CUNY applications now? More specifically, will a checked "already applied" box affect my chances for Pittsburgh if I don't get in this year on account of (2)? And will a checked "already applied" box affect my chances for CUNY if I do get in this year but decide to start the whole process fresh next year on account of (1)?

Thanks so much.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

CUNY and Pitt may be different from UCR in this regard, and individual professors will have different judgments, but my impression is that committees look fresh at the people who have applied in the past. Sometimes, in fact, for borderline non-admits, we are happy to see them again. (Phenomenologically, the feeling is always that there are too many excellent applicants to admit and we always cut away the borderlines somewhat regretfully.)

mbw said...

Hi Eric, thanks for making your experience and advice available to we burgeoning philosophers.

I have a question about referees. I have several applications for Ph.D. programs in the pipeline at the moment and I am eagerly awaiting news. For my referrees, I chose to use two profs from my MA program (I graduated in 2008) and a work supervisor. I've been teaching for the past year and a half as an adjunct at a local community college, and my lead instructor agreed to write on my behalf. He's obviously able to give a slightly different opinion about me, which is based more on my professionalism, aptitude for teaching, and my appeal to students than the opinion offered by my profs. Any opinion on whether this will be smiled upon by the gods of admission? Thanks, mbw

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

mbw: While such a referee by no means hurts an application, admissions committees are really more looking for research potential, so it won't help as much as a strong letter about your terrific abilities as a student. When you start applying for teaching jobs down the road, though, it might be useful to still have that reference handy, especially if you continue to teach there from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Eric. Here's another question:

What, if any, impact will my community college teaching experience have on the application process (I am in my third semester teaching 4 classes)? Obviously, this fact is mentioned in my statement of purpose (and my referee is my supervisor/lead instructor) so the committees are aware of what I'm doing professionally, but I note that out of the 7 schools I've applied to this round, only one application specifically asked about this type of experience. I would think it would put me in a good position regarding teaching fellowships and TAs due to this demonstrated teaching aptitude/ability. Any thoughts? Thanks, mbw

Rusty said...

Hello everyone! I'd like to ask this blogs community's opinion on my current situation, and ask for any sort of feedback.

I don't have an BA in philosophy. However, I was recently admitted to Birkbeck for their one-year, taught MA program in philosophy (BBK ranked 6th in UK and 35 in the English-speaking world by the most recent PGR).

I was wondering what everyone thinks this will do for my future. I know the faculty there is top-notch, but I'd like to know what other people thought about what this might do for my personal development and chances of getting into a PhD program in philosophy, possibly in the UK but more likely here in the states.

Conjecture, ranting, first-thoughts and any and all information that can be given would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to any and all replies.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering why the University of Hawaii at Mano's PhD program doesn't appear in any of the rankings? This seems odd considering they have many top scholars in *so-called* Eastern philosophy (including Roger Ames). Is there a bias in the rankings, or am I simply overestimating their program relative to those that are *actually* ranked? Should their absence in various rankings (such as Leiter's Gourmet Report) be a deterrent towards my selection of a school that is otherwise my top choice?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not an expert on Hawaii, so I'm reluctant to comment on why that particular program remains unranked. However, I can say that it has a long tradition of visibility in Asian philosophy.

Anonymous said...


I have a BA in philosophy from SLU and I'll be attending a top ten law school with a top ten philosophy program as well. I held a 3.8 in the major [a 3.91 without my bombing of game theory, yuck] and a 3.65 overall. I had to transfer schools after my first year because the economy imploded and spent my first two semester at SLU struggling to stay in school while working a 40 hour a week job. My transcript reflects a significant upswing in grades.

I'm trying to decide if I could/should throw myself into academia and want to hear any advice you might have on weaseling my way into the philosophy department at my new school. Should I try to make connections with the professors whose research interests are similar to mine or should I find the most influential members of the department and focus my efforts on them? Should I even bother since I'll be doing law school at the same time? Any other advice you can provide will be greatly appreciated.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jul 23: Congratulations on your accomplishments so far! My recommendation would be to start by asking permission to audit a graduate-level seminar in an area of interest to you. You would do this by contacting the professor by email first (probably setting up a time to meet face-to-face at the professor's convenience). The professor is under no obligation to permit you to do audit a seminar, and different professors have different policies about this, but many philosophy professors would, I think, try to be welcoming of someone in your situation.

If you do audit a seminar, don't take it lightly if you want to make a good impression.

Anonymous said...


My BA is in philosophy and this year I finished an MA in liberal studies. My graduate work was done at St. Johns College in Sante Fe, a "great books" oriented liberal arts school. I have been told that graduates from my program tend to do very well in certain PhD programs - those that share thematic and methodological overlaps with our program (ie: a strong focus on primary sources, a
holistic approach to the humanities, etc.)

However, I am wondering if you have any insights into how applicants from great books MA programs are generally viewed by members of the more mainstream, research-orieneted philosophical community - particularly analytic departments. Thank you. Ben

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ben, I think a lot is going to turn on the sample. Does it look like rigorous philosophy or history of philosophy? Or does it come across as having more of a lit-crit style? Also, do the letters and statement of purpose seem more philosophical or lit-crit?

Anonymous said...


My writing sample is published (solo) in a top theory journal in political science and I was wondering if that would help my app much or would it not matter, since people in philosophy probably don't know the journal anyway.

The paper itself is solidly within the realm of philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It would probably help, especially if you can mention some concrete evidence that the journal is selective (e.g., impact factor).

Pilot Guy said...

While some people see these statistics as indicative of a broken system, I see them as similar to my experience training as a military pilot.
At a military academy (after that selective process itself) 100 people will put up their hands to be Jet pilots. After four years of school and training about 3-4 will become high performance pilots.
So I guess you can look at a Philo PhD like Flight Training!
The process is not broken - just selective

Anonymous said...

Hey Eric. I'm a senior in philosophy at UMass-Amherst and I will be applying for graduate programs for the Fall of 2013 (I graduate in December 2012 so I don't have to explain a year off or anything). I have a couple questions about applying to MA's (particularly at Oxford and Cambridge) and I hope you can help.

1. Is a masters at Oxford or Cambridge more "beneficial" than a masters in the States? I have read mixed opinions about pursuing an MA. It seems that the Oxford program is more research-oriented and the Cambridge program is more of a traditional taught degree.

2. Is it "easy" to transition into each school's PhD program after you complete the B.Phil or the M.Phil? I think I am more inclined to want to attend an American school for the PhD but I don't really know that yet.

Ideally I would get into a top-ranked PhD American university right out of undergrad but I really shouldn't count on that. I will be writing an honors thesis this coming Fall. At the moment my philosophy GPA is 3.96 but I have no graded 500 level courses yet. I'm taking one 500 level this semester and will hopefully be taking three more next semester. With the above in mind, is it worth it to pursue a "pre-PhD" program in England? I'm thinking that doing so will improve my chances for a great university in the States. What do you think?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

With a terrific GPA from UMass Amherst, you will have your application taken seriously anywhere, but depending on letters and sample and fit that's no guarantee of admission to an elite school. If you can add Oxford or Cambridge to your vita, that is of course terrific -- assuming you excel there. I can't really speak about transitioning to PhD programs at Oxford or Cambridge. Usually in the U.S., although a master's from an elite place like that is a positive factor in admissions, you'll still have to cover most or all of the requirements that students who don't enter with MA's have to cover, so it's almost like starting over.

There's always a risk in not taking a mid-ranked offer in hopes of getting an elite offer down the road. Sometimes that works out, but sometimes people lose focus or "life happens" and they find themselves two years down the road with fewer options rather than more. I'm not saying not to do it. Just appreciate the risks.

Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for your blog posts.

I am a graduate from Dartmouth, and will graduate from a decent (but not top 15) law school next year. My grades have not been stellar in either school (I graduated with a 3.4 at Dartmouth, and will probably graduate with the median GPA from law school). Testing has always been an obstacle to me, however, I think I can produce an excellent writing sample.

I am aiming to get into a mid-ranked PhD school (in the 30-40 range according to the Gourmet Report). Applying will be a huge investment, since I will be completing my law degree at the same time. After some soul-searching, there is nothing that I would rather do than study (and pursue a career in philosophy). Do you think my efforts to apply would be futile, given my GPA's?

I don't really fit into the categories of students that should pursue MA's (since I majored in philosophy in undergrad). Would you recommend that I apply nevertheless?

I look forward to your reply.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: With your pedigree, you might have a shot with a really strong sample and letters. I would encourage you to ask your letter-writers for a *frank* assessment of your chances. Even if you didn't get into a PhD program directly, I'd think you'd be a good candidate for a Master's program if you're committed to graduate school in philosophy.

Pete said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel

I am currently a Law Student at a so called "tier 1" school (top 50 ranked institution). I miss the study of philosophy dearly and want to go back to graduate school, though I have no real desire to become a professor. After I graduated with my B.A. I chose to do civil and community service work
for a time and now I am involved in public interest legal services.


1. If I apply to a philosophy program, it will be solely because of my love for philosophy. I literally feel incomplete in my sort of quest to understand and lead a good life, but have no intention or desire to teach or become a professor. I want to continue community and legal work and to "apply" philosophy to my career. Would this mindset count against me during the applications period? And are graduate programs in philosophy so tailored to academia that my journey would not be enjoyable?

2. My grades in law school are nothing to brag about. I am ranked somewhere in the top 35% of my class of 200. Because of the strange way law school grades are assigned (curved from a single information dump test at the end of the semester, with little to no critical thinking) I have chosen to focus on legal experience rather than grades. Are law school grades weighed differently than your typical grading system when an application comes in?

3. Since undergrad I have acquired a rather strange and extensive resume. I have worked for NGOs, have helped organize movements and protests, and have acquired quite a bit of legal experience. Would any of this experience benefit or count towards my application at all, or are academics the only thing really considered since they are measured somewhat more objectively?

Thank you very much,


Eric Schwitzgebel said...


1: I wouldn't mention that in your personal statement, but once you're in, the kind of people it will rub the wrong way are probably the kind of people whose opinion you won't be worrying about too much anyway.

2: Yes. It's a holistic thing, not formulaic.

3: Yes, those things are good, especially if you plan to connect that sort of thing with your philosophical interests.

Anonymous said...

Hi Professor,

Thank you for the informative blog post. I have a couple of questions as I am seriously considering a career in philosophy, academia, and teaching. I was wondering if you could help clarify and or give me some advice. Also I want to compete at a top level program and was wondering how I could start preparing myself to ideally get into a program with funding.

I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2007 with two degrees, one in Chinese and one in Painting (BA, and BFA comb. GPA 3.75). After I undergraduate studies I worked in various odd capacities to support myself as an artist and life engaged with the visual arts (painting). I then matriculated into a terminal MFA degree program in fine arts at Washington University in St. Louis again and graduated in 2011 (3.77 GPA) with a concentration in interdisciplinary arts, painting, and aesthetics. During graduate school I met a unique educator and artist who was responsible for all the theoretical training of my colleagues at the art school. He had advanced philosophical training from New School and worked with some high powered minds in the “continental tradition” but uniquely also had a degree, training, and real world experience in the fine arts. I am now coming to realize that my training in visual arts is is paradoxically drawing me away from making art, but more into thinking about art, and now primarily developing the life of the mind.

I am interested in following my mentor's footsteps (BA, MFA, art MA, PhD philosophy) but often face several obstacles along the way. First, despite a love for reading, thinking, and writing about philosophy, I often get discouraged in the process of applications because I just do not know how I stack up against other candidates. Specifically I feel as if I am coming into philosophy completely out of left field (as “professional” visual artist) and was wondering if you know of anyone else who has done this sort of training and could provide counsel and advice.

Second, how can I prepare myself? I have little coursework and money, but I am around a lot interesting people: divergent and creative thinkers who have and continue to give me a fresh outlook to the plurality of how one can “make” thinking. I have played with the idea of even going to law school and study philosophy at the same time looking at jurisprudence, but maintain an active interest in metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, among other field..

Third, I have seven years of language training in Mandarin Chinese which I am not looking to throw down the drain. But yet I am most pulled towards heading east into the continental tradition. Do you know any thinkers who who do comparative work “east” and “west” as well? Where should I start looking?

Any thoughts, meditations, and responses would be extremely appreciated. Thank you for listening to me and being generous with your blog and I hope to hear back soon.

Best Wishes,
Jonathan M

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jonathan --

It is difficult to jump straight into a PhD program in philosophy without a track record of at least a few upper-division courses in philosophy, but MA programs are often happy to accept excellent students who are looking to make a field change, and excellent performance in an MA program can be stepping stone to a PhD program.

There is a small tradition of good people working in English who compare east and west, for example PJ Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden. (I won't aim for a complete or representative list!) Unfortunately, that approach is poorly represented in Anglophone PhD programs. Ivanhoe has edited several anthologies on classical Chinese philosophy that might be a good starting point.

Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Schwitzgebel,

I'm familiar with PJ Ivanhoe and his mentor Lee Yearley's work as well in comparative religions and virtue ethics. I worked with a professor in religious studies at Wash U who worked had Ivanhoe and Yearley as a dissertation advisers. Thank you for the advice and again for re-directing me to Ivanhoe's work again. My connection to Van Norden, however, is a little more distant, but I will also write him as well.

Best Wishes,
Jonathan M

Anonymous said...

I am facing a choice between two master’s programs, having failed two years straight to get into PhD programs in philosophy. One is the Master’s Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. They let you take any course in the graduate division and I can take 4,5,6,7 courses in philosophy and write my master’s thesis on a philosophical topic if I want. The other program I am thinking about is University of Paris 8. I’ve just spent two years in France at the Sorbonne getting a second undergraduate degree (which I’m not sure served any purpose, although I did take a bunch of courses in philosophy, and did a fair amount of analytical philosophy, actually, and I did very well in some of my courses). Paris 8 has the advantage that they specialize in exactly what I’m most interested in: contemporary French philosophy. The trouble is, that’s all they do, and reports are they are not, objectively speaking, that good. I have to go half time because I work so the master’s degree would take me four years, which is a long time. It doesn’t cost anything; education in France is basically free. Chicago has a department which of course is mostly analytic but does have some good people doing Continental philosophy. It was originally my first choice of philosophy departments. The disadvantage is to go there I would have to borrow $40,000. But I figure it’s the best opportunity I’m likely to get to work my way into a very good PhD program. (My undergraduate degree is in English, and my transcript is a mess because I got a lot of incompletes. And I haven’t succeeded in getting into any PhD programs. ) But it seems to me that if I got an MA at Paris 8 and then wanted to go into a US PhD program, I’d be limited to what I call the “Continental ghetto,” and those schools have interesting courses but they’re nowhere near as good as the mainly analytical departments that do some Continental, and that would handicap me severely when it comes time to go on the job market. I sometimes remind myself that truly creative people do what they’re interested in and don’t waste time trying to follow a conventional path, but it seems to me that from that point of view the best thing to do is to go to Chicago and try to carve out a niche for myself.

The other problem I face is my age: I’m 51. I sometimes wonder if it can make any sense to want to get a PhD, but in the US there’s no mandatory retirement age so I might be able to teach for a while, if I ever get a job. The question is will any PhD program consider taking me when they infer my age from the length of time that has elapsed since my BA, and will I stand any real chance of ever getting an academic job? It probably doesn’t make sense to go to Chicago unless I think it is a way into a very good PhD program. If I thought I was studying only for my own edification, I’d either go to Paris 8 or wouldn’t go to graduate school at all.

Any thoughts?

Lastly, I find your site hard to navigate. The place where you go to post comments is hidden away and I'm not sure if I posted it in the right place.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Your odds of a job in the U.S. are probably better from Chicago. At least, that's my guess. I doubt admissions committees are entirely free of ageism, but I suspect that many would try to avoid it and evaluate candidates on their merits independent of age. UCR has admitted some grad students in their 50s in the past.

Anonymous said...

Follow up to question about ageism. I'm 51 and about to enter a 2-year MA program, after which I plan to apply to PhD programs. Two questions: 1) programs may not consider my age in admitting me, but would they consider it in deciding whether to offer me fellowship or assistantship support? 2) I'll be approaching 60 when I look for my first academic job. Maybe this is crazy. I don't think it is because there is no mandatory retirement age, so I could teach for a while. But realistically, should I expect my age to be an enormous obstacle to being hired? I don't want to get a PhD unless I think I have a decent chance.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

My impression is that ageism works like racism and sexism. The majority of people in the U.S. would deny that age is or should be a relevant factor (though some would say so, contrary to overwhelming current opinion about sex and race), but I suspect that it does have substantial effects under the surface. Few, I think, would *explicitly* exclude people outright on that basis.

In my experience, 15 years of excellent research and teaching (60 to 75) could constitute a fine career.

Anonymous said...

ey, i realize this is about graduate discussion, but do you have any idea how (for transfer from a community college to a philosophy program) a strong writing sample in philosophy might factor into admittance for undergraduates? I was advised to send it, but I am thinking it might not ever end up in the hands of any relevant faculty. apologies for deviating from the thread, but i was just curious as to if you had any thoughts.

if it contextualizes any, i had a professor who went to a top program in philosophy, and who suggested it was a solid sample. thanks for reading.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

At UCR, it would be highly unusual to be asked to evaluate a writing sample from an undergraduate transfer application. I've never heard of doing so. However, maybe some smaller private schools occasionally do such things.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the invaluable and sobering blog. I wanted to get an outside, unbiased perspective on my situation, so feel free to comment with whatever thoughts you may have, especially considering that UCR admits a higher number of students with MA.

I graduated from an insignificant state school with a overall GPA of 3.96. I had 2 B's, a few A-, and a few A+. I took a year off then applied to graduate school. Despite much procrastination, I was accepted at a ranked PhD program. Now here's the rub: the program was ranked, but did not have a very good ranking according to the PGR.

My plan at the time was to improve my work and transfer out. Two years later and it's time to put my plan into action. I'm unsure of my GPA but know that I only have two A-, and the rest are A's. My work has considerably improved - light and day in my mind at least.

When I finally approached my professors for the first about transferring out, all three said that they would write me very strong recommendations. Moreover, my political philosophy professor said that I should apply to the top schools in political philosophy (my area of concentration).

I would like to get some of your impressions on applicants from lower-ranked PhD programs. By the time I would transfer out, I would have three years of coursework under my belt.

1) What are your impressions of graduate students from lower-ranked PhD programs applying to better ones?

2) Is there presumably, a greater degree of scrutiny considering the additional 2.5 years of coursework that I've had as a graduate student?

3) My GPA is pretty solid, but again, it's from a low-ranked PhD program. How much of the institution's stature affect something like that? Similarly, my professors writing my recommendation are all of course, published and at least my political philosophy professor, is to my knowledge, well-respected. How large of an influence, if any, do things like this have?

Am I ultimately marred by the institution and destined to mediocrity?

Forgive the last sentence, it was only a joke. Partly.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the invaluable and sobering blog. I wanted to get an outside, unbiased perspective on my situation, so feel free to comment with whatever thoughts you may have, especially considering that UCR admits a higher number of students with MA.

I graduated from an insignificant state school with a overall GPA of 3.96. I had 2 B's, a few A-, and a few A+. I took a year off then applied to graduate school. Despite much procrastination, I was accepted at a ranked PhD program. Now here's the rub: the program was ranked, but did not have a very good ranking according to the PGR.

My plan at the time was to improve my work and transfer out. Two years later and it's time to put my plan into action. I'm unsure of my GPA but know that I only have two A-, and the rest are A's. My work has considerably improved - light and day in my mind at least.

When I finally approached my professors for the first about transferring out, all three said that they would write me very strong recommendations. Moreover, my political philosophy professor said that I should apply to the top schools in political philosophy (my area of concentration).

I would like to get some of your impressions on applicants from lower-ranked PhD programs. By the time I would transfer out, I would have three years of coursework under my belt.

1) What are your impressions of graduate students from lower-ranked PhD programs applying to better ones?

2) Is there presumably, a greater degree of scrutiny considering the additional 2.5 years of coursework that I've had as a graduate student?

3) My GPA is pretty solid, but again, it's from a low-ranked PhD program. How much of the institution's stature affect something like that? Similarly, my professors writing my recommendation are all of course, published and at least my political philosophy professor, is to my knowledge, well-respected. How large of an influence, if any, do things like this have?

Am I ultimately marred by the institution and destined to mediocrity?

Forgive the last sentence, it was only a joke. Partly.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon: I don't know much about the transfer-in patterns at elite institutions. I don't recall any cases from my days at Berkeley of people transferring in from much lower ranked programs. At UCR, we do sometimes admit transfers from lower-ranked programs, if it seems like what we are doing is stealing away their best! So an application of the sort you describe would be taken very seriously here.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Schwitzgebel,
Thank you for this invaluable resource! I have an MA in philosophy already, but at the end of my MA program my husband and I had our first child. I took time off from graduate school to raise our son, so I've been working as a high school teacher (philosophy and English) for the past 6 years while my husband was going through graduate school (in Education). He's getting ready to defend his dissertation in the spring, and our son will start 1st grade next year, so I'm applying for Fall 2013 admission to Ph.D. programs. My question is, should I explain the time gap in my statement of purpose or not? Thanks for your time.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I would explain it, though without dwelling at length on it. Teaching high school philosophy is especially notable, though I recommend that you be careful to be factual rather than purple or sentimental.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your guidance!

William Parkhurst said...

For those of a continental bent, I would suggest the following resources for choosing a graduate institution:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those helpful links, William!

Anonymous said...

First of all, I want to thank you for this immensely helpful blog. I have consulted it compulsively for the last few months.

Anyway, I was hoping I could get your perspective on my situation. I have fortunately been accepted to a PhD program (with funding) straight from UG. It is a great fit for me. However, it is low-ranked on the PGR, has decidedly mixed job placement, and steep teaching requirements. I have also been accepted to a selective MA program (with funding) with remarkable placement. 75% of their graduates place in the top 20ish, the rest place on the bottom half (where this PhD program is anyway). The 12 graduates who applied to PhD in the last 3 years placed at: Notre Dame x3, CUNY, Chapel Hill, USC,Toronto, Wisconsin-Madison, Rice, Johns Hopkins, Kentucky and UCR. Previous years yielded similar results.I know there is no such thing as a guarantee, but this is really close. Every student that applies has placed at a ranked school. Aside from being set back 2 years, I doubt I'll end up worse off than I am now. Should I take the plunge?

superhamdi said...

NOTE: I attempted to submit a version of this earlier today but my browser shut down, so I'm not sure if this is a duplicate. Forgive me if so.

Hi Prof Schwitzgebel,

Let me just start by saying how grateful I am for this blog! I've consulted it compulsively for the past few months.

I was hoping I could get your perspective on my situation, which I assume is somewhat common. Luckily, I've been admitted to a PhD program right out of undergrad. However, it's near the bottom of the PGR, job placement is decidedly mixed, and teaching responsibilities are steep.

On the other hand, I've also been admitted to a selective MA program at a "Tier 1" school with remarkable placement. I know that 99% of the time it's wiser to go the PhD route, but take a look at the placement. Over the last 3 years, 12 graduates have applied for PhD programs, and here is where they've placed: Notre Dame x3, CUNY, Chapel Hill, Rice, Johns Hopkins, UCR, Wisconsin-Madison, Toronto, USC and Kentucky. Previous years have yielded similar results.

I know most MA programs will have some good placements, but nearly every student from this program places! Of these 12, 8 placed in top 20ish, 3 in the bottom half (where the PhD program is anyway) and 1 at an unranked but reputable program. Other than being set back 2 years, it doesn't seem like I can end up any worse off.

I should add that both programs offer funding AND have a number of faculty in my AOI.

Would it be stupid for me to take the plunge?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

MH: Not necessarily stupid to do so, but bear in mind:

1. Look at the number admitted and % receiving degree. If only half receive the degree, they might place well but a lot of students aren't finding success.

2. Bear in mind that you will have to make two successful location and community transitions instead of just one. In my view, at this level, most students who fail to thrive fail to thrive because of lack of social support, bad teaching or advising, mismatch between their interests and philosophical perspective and those of the people around them, etc. So every transition is a risk.

BUT: It could still make sense. My guess is that if you are willing to take additional years and risk to moderately increase the odds of eventually being hired by a school with a strong academic reputation, going for a strong Master's and then a more prestigious Ph.D. admission could make sense.

MH said...

Prof Schwitzgebel,

Thank you for your prompt response! It's really great that you take the time to respond to all the comments and questions here. I don't want it to look like I posed the question and bailed; I did read it after you posted it, but since I remain ambivalent, I didn't want to clutter the page without anything to report. That said, I still have nothing to report, but I do have another question: Since the PhD program is strong in my AOIs and awards MAs en route, what if I took the offer, completed my MA there and then applied for PhD programs again? Presumably, I would be able able to get a good letter from a prominent prof in my AOI (I have a specific one in mind) Is that horrible of me?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

MH: It's not horrible of you! Grad students should do whatever is in their self-interest in this regard; that trumps any interest of the department or their advisors. Any good advisor should tell you the same in my opinion.

However, it's not easy to jump from one PhD program to another, especially up the ladder. Most admissions committees would rather have top BAs and terminal MAs than students that they will tend to assume are disaffected at lower-ranked PhD programs. That said, some people do jump up the ladder. But it's pretty rare.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I am on the road to completing a B.A. in Classical Languages at a well-respected but not top-tier university. I maintain a 4.0 and read philosophy extensively in my spare time. When I graduate I will be proficient in reading Latin, Attic Greek, and German, but aside from Plato, Lucretius etc. my philosophy education has been unofficial.

Is fluency in these languages enough for a PhD program to give me a chance, if I can demonstrate familiarity with the history of philosophy, logic, etc? Or should I go off to become a vulgar philologist and leave you philosophers in peace?

I await your wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I am on the road to completing a B.A. in Classical Languages at a well-respected but not top-tier university. I maintain a 4.0 and read philosophy extensively in my spare time. When I graduate I will be proficient in reading Latin, Attic Greek, and German, but aside from Plato, Lucretius etc. my philosophy education has been unofficial.

Is fluency in these languages enough for a PhD program to give me a chance, if I can demonstrate familiarity with the history of philosophy, logic, etc? Or should I go off to become a vulgar philologist and leave you philosophers in peace?

I await your wisdom.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon June 13: Philosophy can always use some serious hardcore nerd classicists. You have a shot, especially if you have some ancient philosophy classes in there taught by folks with a philosophy affiliation. You'll want to make sure your sample works as philosophy and not only as literature or philology.

Anonymous said...

Deqr Professor

Thank you for your blog, you are most helpful and generous with your personal advice. I was hoping you may be able to shed some light on my rather obscure situation. I hold a BA from a top Australian university majoring in political philosophy, but this was situated within the political science department, and concurrently earned a rather mediocre LLB, the duration of which prevented me from taking on the task of an honours thesis in pol. phil. After working for a number of years as a senior government advisor, musician and lawyer, I decided to return to my passion, political philosophy (and philosophy more generally), and have just completed with highest honours a masters in political philosophy from a well-respected but non-competitive entrance Dutch university.

The problem lies herein: I would like to take up a PhD in philosophy (internally motivated, my moral luck) but am concerned that I still lack the prerequisites to receive any offers, *anywhere*. The MA program was moved to the political science faculty and changed to an MSc once I'd already commenced and so, at least on face value, it may seem that I am not adequately trained. I am confident that my thesis makes for an excellent writing sample and I currently lecture at Paris 2 university in English and US jurisprudence, while I consider my options.
1. Do you think I will be prejudiced (fairly or unfairly) by my MSc political science 'taint' (more or less how I see things...) and should therefore consider further pre-doctoral philosophical education, or that I should nonetheless persist with applications;
2. I have been invited to apply to the School of Government at the top London university by the Chair, the philosopher whose work I built my masters thesis around and who I will meet in person this week (hopefully he can furnish me with a letter, if I have the courage to ask). This is very promising offer, but do you think my opportunity to further my philosophical training would only further atrophy if I remain caught on the political philosophy/science razor edge?

Thank you kindly for taking the time to read my post, and thanks to all the contributors who've made insightful and pertinent remarks.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

LF: Unusual situations like yours are hard to assess since, of course, I will not have come across many of their like. My impression is that philosophy as a discipline tends to be fairly insular, respecting course work in Philosophy departments much more than coursework elsewhere. I think there is also some difficulty having coursework at non-elite foreign universities considered seriously by US universities. So you start with some disadvantages! But I wouldn't say they are insurmountable. A great writing sample can do wonders! Also, if you have a good track record of classes taught in philosophy departments by philosophy professors, that's enough, especially if some of those philosophy professors can write your letters. Being a philosophy *major* isn't required.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
For starters, your blog has helped me enormously. I've noticed that University of Houston's MA has both an impressive placement record and an unusually high acceptance rate. Do you know why, given their placement is so strong, their acceptance rate is so high? I haven't been able to find anything on their completion rate.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
For starters, your blog has helped me enormously. I've noticed that University of Houston's MA has both an impressive placement record and an unusually high acceptance rate. Do you know why, given their placement is so strong, their acceptance rate is so high? I haven't been able to find anything on their completion rate.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jul 3: sorry, I really have no idea about that. Good people at Houston, though. Maybe word just hasn't fully filtered around yet.

Unknown said...

Although I haven't seen data on this, my impression is that most philosophy Ph.D. programs have completion rates of 50% or less; Personal Injury that most of the people who do finish take longer than advertised,

Anonymous said...

Hi √Čric, if some of the professors consider my writing as have solved some problem since Plato, and I have no difficulties in understanding anybody, and I even can deconstruct everybody, I do not need classes, but certainly do need someone to edit my work, do you think I should go directly to publisher, or get a phd degree, But the problem is i really cannot bear classes anymore, it is so boring. Thank you.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It might be hard for a publisher to take you seriously without credentials -- but you can always try!

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Eric,
I hold a B.Ed. (grade: 8.33/10) and a Bachelor of Philosophy and Social Studies (9.4/10) both from University of Crete. Also, i received a Master in History of Philosophy from the University of Athens (grade:"excellent"). Then i went in Uk and i've graduated from the LSE (Msc Sociology) and from the UCL (MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies). Now i want to continue with a PhD in Philosophy either in a USA's top Uni (1st choice) or in a Uk's Uni (where i've already received some proposals). Would you think that my cv is strong enough for an academic career in the USA? Thanks in advance...

Anonymous said...

This is depressing! Do you that philosophers are *so* prestige orientated that they overlook many fine candidate because they didn't go to 'name' schools?

I am applying this upcoming season and the whole process is so complex and confusing. I took my B.A. at a non-American school, which isn't ranked by the PGR. It is recognized in my country, but not globally. But I had the good fortune to visit a top 25 Leiter department, where I got a 3.9 GPA and took a grad course (grade: A). What are my chances?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jul 4: Chances much improved if you can get a strong letter from a professor at the top-25 Leiter department, esp. if the prof is tenured! Otherwise, for more depressing analysis:

Unknown said...

Hello Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I'm not sure if you're still combing through any of these comments anymore, but I figured I'd try to ask for your opinion here.

First of all, I know this has become repetitive, but thank you for all of the helpful information in your blog. It has been invaluable for my graduate application preparations.

I'm sending my applications in a couple months, and I'm extremely nervous. It took me four years and five major changes before I found philosophy, and Ive been working hard to make this my career.

During those earlier years, I didn't try too hard in school, and my grades suffered. No excuses there. I was aimless, and school seemed pointless to me. My overall GPA at graduation was a 3.16. However, when I started taking philosophy courses, my demeanor completely changed. I found something that, for whatever reason, I wanted to work harder than I ever had before. I graduated with Honors in Philosophy and a 3.88 major GPA.

So, two things concern me: my overall GPA and my average GRE score (315 combined score). I know those things could count against me when my application is evaluated, but I'm curious if you think the rest of my application could outweigh those negatives.

[Disclaimer: I hope none of this comes off as boastful. That is not my intention.]

On top of my high major GPA, I also got an A in a grad level course, and took a position as an undergraduate TA for a semester (unpaid), where I led a discussion section for the class. (One of my letter writers is the professor for that grad course, and I also got an A in two other courses with him.)

The final paper I wrote for that grad course was accepted into two graduate conferences. I also polished up my honors thesis after graduation, and it was accepted to a professional conference in Paris, where it will be published afterwards. One graduate conference has passed, the other is next month, and I fly to Paris in November.

My thesis raises some objections to Ned Blocks theory on consciousness, and he is one of the keynote speakers at the conference. My plan is to use his comments and critiques for final revisions on the paper before both publication and use for my writing sample.

I know that top graduate programs seek individuals that they believe will go on to become professionals. So, I was wondering if you think my application demonstrates this, or if my overall GPA and GRE scores still weigh me down.

I know that it also depends on my letters and writing sample. I'm confident in those, but it's possible that they aren't as good as other applicants. Mostly, I just wanted your opinion on how an admissions committee would perceive me after seeing my accomplishments thus far, and if it's enough to get past the overall GPA and GRE score.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael --

I think you'll have a good chance. A GRE of 315 is good and shouldn't drag you down, though maybe not quite good enough to be a positive help. The overall GPA will be a little bit of a drag, but programs evaluate applications holistically, and it sounds like you've done a great job since choosing philosophy, so that can more than compensate for some early weakness (though of course a similar applicant without that weakness would have an advantage). If your letters and sample are top-notch, I see no reason you couldn't get into a top program -- though since top programs are always longshots and self-evaluation of sample and letters is difficult, I'd be sure to apply to a selection of programs across the whole range.

Anonymous said...


I am an undergraduate with a minor in math and major in philosophy, doing honors next year. My grades in philosophy are straight A's, A+s. My grades in math are scattered, having C's and B+'s. I read a ton of material in my spare time and probably am doing 2-3 times the coursework in my philosophy class teaching myself linguistics and biology, as well as economics and political science. But i failed a couple of my math classes in my last year. I made a bad decision to take the 3 hardest math courses in undergraduate plus a philosophy paper at the same time. Is there any chance in getting into a decent phd program given my very bad gpa for math? I am intrinsically motivated, studying 80 hours per week. i go to a pretty bad university, its ranked about 100.

I also dropped out of high school but have recovered since then, after becoming intrinsically motivated.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes. It's not formulaic. Committees sometimes look past poor grades outside of philosophy if the overall application is strong in other ways. You might ask one of your letter writers to address the issue in a cover letter.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, curious your opinion on my chances. I have an undergraduate in Business (unfortunately 3.4), and am wrapping up a Master of Arts in Theology (3.88). Thus far I've done two conferences (one of which publishes the conference proceedings following edits in it's peer-reviewed journal (Southwest Philosophy Review)). My sample paper is strong, my GRE Verbal is 168/170 (Maths is 149, but am taking again to improve it). I have solid recommendations. I also have TA experience, and I used to teach English in Thailand. I've been working with Amazon for the last 5 years (tech experience) while doing my MAT. I did all of that while my wife was going through Chemo treatment for Leukemia (I only bring this up if this could help my case in any way, though not sure it can).

What else can I do to improve my chances? A publish is a publish, though it isn't a top 25 journal. Masters GPA is solid. GRE Verbal is good, Maths hopefully to be improved. Basically, what should I emphasize, what should I do to improve?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Andy, it's not clear from your description how much upper div / grad philosophy you have taken. That's the crucial bit to add to the equation. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Eric, thank you for continuing to field questions on applying to grad school - your series of posts and the ongoing Q&As are extremely helpful.

I'm hoping you might comment a bit more about choosing where to apply. The Leiter rankings (including the specialty rankings) give a *rough* sense of which schools might be appropriate, but they don't seem to whittle down the field much (unless the applicant is already committed to a narrow specialty). How exactly do you recommend that one "[l]ook at faculty profiles" in a systematic way to choose where to apply? In a perfect world, one would do careful research on each school that passes the appropriate Leiter filter; in the real world, one is applying to many schools - you recommend 8 schools, and it seems that many people apply to well more, say 15 - and presumably one must research at least (say) 3-4x the expected number of applications to make an informed choice of where to apply - but careful research of at least a few hours on 3-4x 8-15 schools amounts to several weeks of full-time research. It seems that the research can't realistically be all that "careful".

So, what's the best way to get a sense of a department? Are there resources beyond the departments' faculty bios that could be useful?

Thanks again.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Tough question! The only real shortcut I know of is chatting with your professors, who might have a general sense of which departments are a better or worse fit given your style and interests.