Monday, October 22, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part VII: After You Hear Back

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part IV: Writing Samples

Part V: Statement of Purpose

Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

Part VII: After You Hear Back

When You'll Hear and When You'll Have to Decide

There's a general agreement among philosophy Ph.D. programs that applicants have until April 15 to decide whether to accept an offer of admission. This deadline drives the process.

Schools with a hard cap on their admissions offers might be permitted by the administration to admit only eight students, for example, or to offer funding (in the form of T.A.-ships and fellowships) to only eight students. These schools will try to admit those eight students quickly (in February, maybe) and will often pressure those students to make a decision as soon as they can so that if they decline, another student further down the list can be admitted or offered funding.

Other departments will target a certain entering class size and admit approximately twice that many students (or more or less, depending on the "yield" rates in recent years) with the expectation that about half of the admitted students will decline. (For example, UCR was aiming for 10-12 last year. We admitted 24 and got 11.) In principle, these departments could admit all those students early in the process, but in fact things often fall behind. If the number of students accepting offers seems to be falling short of expectations, a few may be admitted at the last minute.

If you're at the top of a department's list, expect (typically, depending on the committee's speed) to hear mid-Februrary to mid-March. Applicants lower down on the list may not hear until April, even April 15th itself! You may not hear good news about funding, in particular, until very near the April 15th deadline, if the department has a hard cap on funding. Be ready on April 15th to make an immediate decision about an offer should one come -- and don't be too far from the phone! It's not unreasonable to ask for an additional day or two to decide, should you hear on April 15th, but the department may or may not comply with such a request.

It's generally in the interest of the applicants, then, to wait on their decisions until April 15. However, it is in the interest of departments to extract decisions from applicants as early as possible. Unfortunate!

Occasionally, if an entering class is looking smaller than expected, a department may admit someone after April 15th. That student may already have committed to another school. Generally speaking, it's good to keep to your commitments, but if the one program is much more appealing than the other, I'd recommend reneging with a heartfelt apology!

Funding Offers

Most top-50 ranked Ph.D. programs do not expect students to pay their way through graduate school. They'll offer funding (at poverty levels) in the form of T.A.-ships and fellowships. When comparing funding offers between schools, don't just look at the raw dollar amounts. Some schools inflate their dollar amounts by adding the cost of tuition to their stated funding totals -- money which of course comes right back to them. Make sure, also, that your funding offer includes student medical insurance.

Most departments will guarantee students five years of support (though UCR typically offers only four years to students entering with an M.A.) in some combination of fellowship and T.A.-ship. If you're on fellowship you're paid just for being a student! (Sweet!) A typical offer at a typical department will be for one year of fellowship (your first year, when you aren't really advanced enough a student to be a T.A., anyway, in the eyes of most deparments) and four years of T.A.-ship. Students especially targeted by the department may receive additional fellowship years. (Outstanding GPA and GRE scores help a lot here, since the high-level administrators who often give out those fellowship packages can evaluate those numbers better than they can evaluate writing samples and letters of recommendation.) Although most Ph.D. programs expect most of their students to pay their way through most of their years by T.A.-ing, a few schools -- especially the smaller private schools -- don't expect much T.A.-ing from their students and offer comparatively more fellowship support.

You might also consider how much is expected of a T.A.: Teaching one section of 25 students is much easier than teaching three sections of 25 which in turn is easier (usually) than teaching an entire course on your own. Also consider what happens when your guaranteed years of funding run out, since most students at most schools run out of guaranteed funding before they complete their degrees.

Don't expect too much wiggle room in negotiations about funding. But if a comparable department is offering you a better package than the school that would otherwise be your first choice, it can't hurt to politely mention that fact to the chair of the admissions committee.

Financial offers generally don't include summer funding, though often students can apply for a limited number of summer-school teaching positions. So how are you going to get through the summer?

Unless summer funding is dependable, I recommend considering writing test questions for ETS or a similar organization. Question writing often pays pretty well (by graduate student standards) and since it's piece work, you can do as little or as much of it as you like, on your own time. Such organizations often appreciate the precise turn of mind typical of philosophy students, who as a group do very well on standardized tests. (The organization I worked for, ACT, specifically recruited philosophy Ph.D. students, and the guide to writing questions used philosophical jargon and made reference to Quine!) Unfortunately, it can take several months to get training and certification to write questions, so if you consider this option, plan well in advance. Or -- again, if you're the sort who does well on standardized tests -- you can approach the issue from the other side and teach SAT or GRE prep courses. (Of course teaching philosophy is even better, if you can swing it!)

Letting People Know Where You've Been Admitted

Let your letter writers know where you've been admitted -- or even if you haven't been admitted anywhere -- and ultimately where you decide to go. It's only polite, since they put in work on your behalf. It helps them have a better sense, too, of what to expect for future students. And besides, they might have some helpful advice.

Admissions committee chairs also like to know where you've been admitted and where you decide to go (if not to their school) and why. You needn't share this information if you don't want to, but it helps them in thinking about future admissions. For example, if lots of admittees are going to comparably ranked schools because those schools have better funding offers, admissions committees can make a case for more funding to the college administrators. If admittees are declining mostly for much better-ranked schools, then committees know that their low yield rates are due to having a strong batch of applicants. Etc.

Visiting Departments

I highly recommend visiting the departments to which you've been admitted -- but only after you've been admitted. Admitted students, whom departments now want and are competing to attract, are treated much differently than students who have merely applied or who are on the "waiting list" (if there is one), who will be seen as petitioners. Unfortunately, then, it won't be possible to properly visit departments that admit you at the last minute.

Some departments have money to help students fly out to visit, others don't. It doesn't hurt to ask politely. In any case, let the admissions committee chair know you intend to visit. Even if funding isn't available, she can help arrange your stay -- for example by mentioning what times would be good or bad and maybe finding a graduate student willing to put you up for a night or two.

There are two main reasons to visit departments: First and obviously, it can help you decide where to go. But second, and less obviously, it is a valuable educational experience in its own right.

The second point first: As I mentioned in Part I, students who spend their whole time in one department often have a provincial view of philosophy. Even visiting another department for a few days can crack that provincialism and give an invigorating and liberating, broader perspective on the field. Also, you will never again be treated as well by eminent professors as you will when you are a prospective (admitted!) graduate student. The country's best-known philosophers will take you out to lunch or coffee for an hour and genuinely listen to your views on philosophical topics. They'll be solicitous of you. They'll value your opinion. I remember one extremely eminent professor spending a full day with me. We toured his campus and another nearby campus; we listened to music late into the night; he shared gossip about the state of the profession. (Spending a full day is highly unusual, though! Don't expect it. Aim for coffee. Interestingly, this particular professor had no idea who I was when I saw him again a few years later.) Graduate students -- who at top schools sometimes soon become influential professors themselves -- will engage you in long discussions about the state of philosophy, and you'll (sometimes) feel a real camraderie. My own graduate school tour, for which I set aside three full weeks (for six campuses) was one the highlights of my philosophical education.

To maximize all this, try to stay at each campus for a few weekdays. Weekends don't really count. If you have to cut classes, cut classes. This is much more important than whether you get an A or a B in Phil 176. Also, I'd recommend emailing in advance the professors you'd like to meet and asking them if they're willing to go out for coffee with you.

When you visit a school, the department will generally set you up with first- and second-year students to meet. No harm in that, but bear in mind that first- and second-year students are often still in the glow of having been admitted and they haven't yet started the most difficult part of their education, their dissertation. Insist on meeting students in their 5th year and beyond, especially students working with advisors you imagine you might be working with. In my experience, such students will generally be brutally honest. Unlike new graduate students and unlike professors they don't really care whether you come to their school or not, so they have little motive to draw a rosy picture. And often they're just itching to have someone to grouse to.

Meet the professors, but don't expect their solicitious treatment to continue after you've enrolled. The advanced students' opinions about the professors are probably a better gauge of how you'll actually be treated. Nonetheless, if you talk substance with professors on philosophical topics you care about, you can get a sense of whether you're likely to see eye-to-eye philosophically.

The Summer Before

Students often seem to be shy about showing their faces around the department to which they've been admitted until either classes start or there's some formal introductory event. No need for this. Move in early. Meet some professors and ask them for some reading suggestions pertinent to your shared interests or classes you'll be taking with them in the fall. Get a running start. Professors are often quite interested in meeting the new students -- until the inevitable disappointment of discovering that on average they're only average! But if you get a running start, maybe that's a sign that you'll be an unusually good student...?


Unknown said...

Eric, thanks again for all your hard work on this wonderful guide to philosophy grad school applications.

I have a slightly relevant question about which I'm curious: Do you think the applications have been increasingly competitive in recent years, and if so, is this a sign of increasing interest in philosophy or of something else?

I've heard some comments to the effect that many schools last year received the highest number of applications ever. Are enrollments up in undergrad philosophy classes, or is something else driving the numbers?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Applications have been getting more competitive at UCR over the last 10 years, but I don't know if that reflects a general increase of quality of applications across all philosophy Ph.D. programs or whether it reflects UCR's increasing strength as a department!

Muhammad said...

These posts on applying to philosophy grad schools has been very enlightening and helpful.
I'm a student from Canada, are we considered international students in the U.S. and since our institutions are not as well known, does this count against a Canadian applicant? Also, are U.S. schools aware that the procedure for getting a PHD in Canada is to do an MA first then apply to a PHD? If they don't, should I hilight this fact? Thanks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Myhamismad!

American professors certainly know leading Canadian institutions like Toronto, UBC, Simon Fraser, McGill, etc. I agree that from a lesser-known Canadian university you might be at a slight disadvantage, just because of the university name-recognition factor, as well as a lower chance of committee members knowing your letter writers. But the same thing may be true within the U.S. across regions: Californians know California universities and philosophers better than they know New York universities and philosophers, and vice versa.

I wouldn't mention the master's thing. It will come off a little defensive and as though you're telling the committee how to evaluate your application. I don't think having an M.A. is likely to hurt your application! It's just that, at some universities, it might not do as much as one might hope to make up for a less-than-sterling undergraduate record.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to get offers and money for visits. Is it okay to fly between schools instead of coming home each time? I figure I could just have the cost of the intermediate flights split between the schools involved. It would save me time, and them money. Is this impolite?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

No, it's not impolite. We expect that the people we offer admission to will be looking at other places, too. (Of course, in the end, you'll see that we're the best!) So yes, by all means go straight from one to the other.

Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Schwitzgebel,

I have a question I was hoping you could answer. You write: "Occasionally, if an entering class is looking smaller than expected, a department may admit someone after April 15th. That student may already have committed to another school. Generally speaking, it's good to keep to your commitments, but if the one program is much more appealing than the other, I'd recommend reneging with a heartfelt apology!"

However, I've read elsewhere that when you commit to a school it's a binding legal agreement, and that while you can ask for a release and they will generally oblige, that written release is necessary in order to be able to take up an offer at another school.

Thanks very much. (It's incredible having someone in the know to put such questions to).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, anon, my understanding is that it's a legal commitment. I've heard of people being grumpy about letting students out of it, but generally you can be released if you insist. I'm not sure about schools requiring a written release from other commitments before formally admitting you. I've never been involved in the paperwork on such matters. At the graduate level (unlike the undergraduate level at many large schools) things are handled personally, not by anonymous administrators. The main thing is to figure out what's right; the paperwork can sort itself out later. (Perhaps I diverge from official APA policy in saying this!)

My own view is that you have a moral duty to adhere to the commitment unless there's a clear and compelling prudential reason to beg off it (for example, if the school is very much better ranked and a good fit for your interests); and then it's the moral duty of the committee to allow you to renege with no hard feelings.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your postings on this topic! By what I am reading, it sounds like there is no chance for someone with a degree in another field to get admitted in a Ph.D. program in philosophy. My case is that I have a M.Phil (and my partner a Ph.D.) in maths and we would like to apply for a Ph.D. program in philosophy. Would people like us stand a chance?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You don't need a major in philosophy, but it's pretty hard to get in if you don't have at least some track record of upper-division or graduate work in philosophy. It needn't be a *lot* of classes -- just enough to make an admissions committee feel comfortable that your talents will transfer over into philosophy and that you know what you're getting into! Different committees will have different attitudes about exactly how much work to expect; and it also depends on the rest of the application. It's not formulaic.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about graduate financial aid that would presumably be of utmost importance to many prospective graduate students, regardless of discipline. In essence, I wish to compare undergraduate/graduate loan eligibility along the following lines:

As an undergraduate, financial aid departments have a simple formula that they apply to determine a student's eligibility for both federal and private loans: Loan Eligibility = COA - Other Aid Received.

My first question, then, is: (A) Do financial aid departments use the same general formula for graduate students? And if so, then I have these additional two questions: (B) Are graduate assistantships, fellowships, etc. categorized as 'Other Aid Received'? (C) Do financial aid departments use the same COA-dollar-amount for graduate students as they do for undergraduate students?

I realize this line of questioning may at first seem misguided, but it is motivated by what I take to be quite natural considerations/observations:

1. I am a 29, will be entering graduate school next fall (although I do not know where this will be, I have been accepted by at least one program thus far), and am entirely financially independent. By which I mean that, unlike many "financially independent" 22-year-olds, I am not on my parents' car/health insurance policies, and I can't call my mother if I need new shoes. (I do not mean to over-generalize here; clearly, I am simply extrapolating from my own past experiences as a "self-reliant" 22-y.o.).

2. As far as undergraduate financial aid is concerned, the "living expenses" portion of the COA figure that FA departments concoct often has no basis in reality. Moreover, it appears that the disparity between FA-calculated "living expenses" and actual living expenses is even greater for schools that are located in expensive cities. E.g., I started off my undergrad career at Baylor in Waco, TX -- one of the few schools whose COA calculation is accurate. After maxing out my loan eligibility, I usually got a refund of about $7K per semester, which allowed me to not have constant financial anxiety, since very nice 1BR apartments cost around $500/mo. in Waco. I then transferred to U. Pittsburgh, where a similar 1BR apartment runs about $1000/mo., where car insurance is significantly higher, and where I spend anywhere between $50-$100/mo. for parking on campus -- and Pitt won't even let me take as much loan money as Baylor did, because their calculated COA is so inaccurate. From what I can find on the web, Pitt's FA practice of drastically underestimating COA is commonplace (e.g., the UCal System and schools in Chicago, NYC, Boston, etc. appear to be even more unrealistic than Pitt). My hunch is that there are "institutional pressures" for FA offices to do this -- i.e., there are unethical and self-serving reasons for this (e.g., it allows schools to present themselves as much cheaper than they actually are in periodicals that publish COA data, such as USNews).

The upshot of these circumstances is that if the answers to questions (A),(B), and (C) are all 'yes', then I don't know how anyone could possibly afford to attend, e.g. UCBerkeley, unless she rented an attic or crawl-space in the rough parts of Oakland.

At any rate, what I am HOPING to be able to do is to take out an extra $5K-$15K/year in federal loans to supplement whatever GA/TA/Fellowship money I end up receiving. If I won't be able to do this, then I believe I could afford only 3 of the 8 schools that I applied to, since the other 5 are in CA and the east coast.

Any insight that you can supply would be very much appreciated!


Ponder Stibbons said...


Most programs offer graduate students a living stipend commensurate with living costs in the region (this is in addition to covering tuition and miscellaneous school fees). There shouldn't be any need to take out loans.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ponder is right: Most programs do offer some combination of TA-ship and fellowship that is supposed to cover living expenses. Some programs do admit some of their students without such support, however, and some students who do receive support do not find the support sufficient to meet their living expenses. Unfortunately, I don't know the details about loans.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ponder Stibbons and Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I am the "anon." who wrote the previous post, and I realize now that I should have been more explicit...

I am aware of the fact that reputable PhD programs award stipends via fellowships/assistantships, and that in principle one should not have to take out any loan money. However, a brief inspection of the cost of rental real estate in certain locations leads me to doubt that one can financially survive without additional funding, i.e., funding beyond the stipend amount.

Although I do not know what the precise stipend amounts are at each of the schools to which I have applied, my understanding is that solid programs generally offer somewhere between $18k and $22k per year. However, a brief inspection of the cost of rental real estate in CA and east-coast cities suggests that this stipend range falls several thousand dollars short of what would truly be required to live in these places.

To give a clear-cut example, decent rental units in Irvine, CA appear to run approximately $1500/month, which is $18k/year just for rent. Even assuming one lives frugally, I suspect that another $1000/month would be needed for gas/electric, car payment/insurance/gasoline, and food. This brings the actual cost of living to $28,000/year. On top of this, it is not unreasonable to hope to be able to visit family during the holiday season (in the midwestern US), which could easily add another $1000/year.

I realize that there may be a LITTLE wiggle room in the above figures, but I trust it is obvious that a stipend in the $18-22k/yr range is not even close to what is needed to survive in a place like Irvine. And it is for this reason that I am interested to know whether one would be able to borrow additional funds through the Stafford Loan program for graduate students.

I hope that these additional remarks adequately clarify what I am asking.

Thank you.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I know that graduate students sometimes get government-subsidized student loans, but I'm afraid I don't know the details. I've never been much involved in that end of things! It's unsurprising that some students especially in high-rent areas might not be able to make ends meet on departmental support alone.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I applied to eight schools (all top-25) this year. I received notification of acceptance from two schools surprisingly early (during the first week of February), and have not heard anything from the other six.

My question: Do philosophy departments also notify applicants that they have not been accepted? If so, when might I reasonably expect to receive such "rejection letters"? If not, does this mean I must simply wait until April 15, at which point silence is to be interpreted as non-acceptance?

Thanks so much for taking the time to provide immeasurably helpful insight into an otherwise inscrutable process!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

In my experience, many departments do not send out timely rejection letters. Often, one is simply left to interpret silence until April 15 as rejection.

Applicants do sometimes contact departments to ask about the status of their applications. I'm hesitant to recommend this as a blanket approach since if you contact the graduate secretary you are unlikely to get much helpful information (she will generally not know which applicants are still under serious consideration), and if every unnotified applicant contacted the chair of the admissions committee, things would probably get out of hand. However, maybe this would be a reasonable policy: Suppose School A has accepted you and School B has been silent. You distinctly prefer School B, and it is ranked the same as or lower than School A in the Gourmet Report. You are on the cusp of making a decision for which knowledge of the status of your application at School B would be important. Under those conditions, it seems reasonable to me to politely inquire with the admissions committee about the status of your application, perhaps letting them know what your specific reason is for inquiring.

(If any Ph.D. admissions committee members are reading this far down the comments thread, please let me know if you would give different advice.)

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I am the most recent anonymous poster on this page. I thought it might be worthwhile to relay to you that I have since received one official rejection letter, as well as a letter from another department notifying me that I am presently on their wait-list.

As a neophyte, I timidly offer the following comment to any appropriately placed admissions committee members:

Although I was of course not happy to receive a rejection letter, I am nevertheless highly appreciative that I was promptly notified of their decision. It strikes me as a rather conscientious gesture; moreover, it seems to be a relatively effortless way to extend courtesy to applicants who have spent $50-100 per application.

Perhaps this may seem an insignificant issue, but I must confess feelings of sympathy for those applicants who have spent perhaps $1,000 on graduate applications, who not only do not get any offers, but who are also left in suspense until April 15th. I suspect this experience is rather common, and it seems to be an unnecessarily cruel way for someone to learn that their ambitions have been thwarted.

Again, thanks for all your work on this wonderful site.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, anon. It's good for admissions committee members to get a reminder once in a while of how things look from the other side!

Anonymous said...

I have a specific question, and I'm hoping you might be able to give me insight. I have been accepted by two programs that are in the 20-30 PGR range, and am on the wait-list of a top-5 program.

If I get into the top-5, I would definitely go there; but if I do not get in, then I am curious whether you think it would be insane to wait another year and reapply (and I would likely sit in on philosophy classes during this time, as well as prepare a better writing sample).

To give a brief background for this question, I should mention that the two programs to which I have been accepted each have an excellent scholar within one of the areas in which I'm interested; but I have a couple other areas of interest, and I do not believe I would be able to pursue them at these places. The top-5 program, on the other hand, has people that work within every area that I can imagine wanting to pursue for my dissertation.

If you think it would be lunacy to turn down offers at the two lower ranked programs, then would you advise me to entertain the idea of transferring at some point during graduate school (a situation I would very much like to avoid)?

I suppose I don't need to state my obvious cognitive dilemma: If I did not get wait-listed, but simply got rejected at the top-5 school, then I would be happy to go on to one of the other programs. But the fact that I made it onto a wait-list indicates that I almost "made the cut", so that it would be a potential thorn in my side should I have to accept an offer from a less prestigious program, especially given the radically different career paths that people from top-5 programs enjoy when compared to their counterparts at lower ranked institutions.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Obviously I don't know very much about the details of your situation, Lauren, but my inclination would be to nudge you gently toward the bird in hand. Here are two reasons to suspect you may not do better by waiting: (1.) Presumably, you applied to other programs ranked above 20 and were not admitted, so the encouraging words from the one top-5 program seem likely to be an outlier on which it would be risky to build expectations. And (2.) "wait lists" are often ill-defined. Unless you've heard something concrete like "You're #2 on the wait list, so if it looks like fewer than N students will accept, you'll be offered admission", saying you're on the wait list *might* just be a way of saying that they considered your application seriously, and didn't discard it immediately. It's hard to know.

I don't have much personal experience with admissions in top-tier programs (except from what I saw indirectly when I was at Berkeley), but my impression is that few students make the leap from a mid-ranked program to a top-ranked one by applying as active grad students, so I wouldn't have great expectations for that course.

If you have positive reason to think your application will look considerably better in a year, and if you're patient, then of course you may want to wait a year. But if your letters, grades, sample, and institutional affiliation will still be more or less the same, the outcome may well be similar, plus or minus the ever-present random crapshoot element.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I left the anonymous postings from Feb. 8th and 9th. Although this information is too late to be of help to applicants for the present year, I thought it may prove helpful to relay this information to you, in the event that you receive a similar inquiry in future years.

One of the schools that accepted me and that I was particularly interested in happens to be located in a rather expensive area. As I was nervous about precisely the issue of how much money I would be eligible to borrow through the Stafford program (i.e., in addition to the fellowship/TA-ship/etc.), while I was still in the decision-making process, I asked a departmental representative to put me in contact with someone in the Financial Aid office who specializes in such matters as they pertain to graduate students.

When I contacted said FA officer, I submitted a THOROUGH itemization of my projected costs for relocation, as well as for my monthly living expenses. I pointed out that with regard to the latter, there was a significant shortage (~$5,000/yr) with respect to the Cost of Attendance (COA) figures published by the university. I asked whether my borrowing eligibility could be increased to reflect this discrepancy, as well as whether I could borrow to cover the cost of relocating cross-country.

The upshot is that the officer promptly notified me that they would indeed adjust my COA, and in turn my Federal loan eligibility, in keeping with the budgetary figures that I sent to him. Needless to say, I will be attending this school in the fall.

Of course, this is only the experience of a particular student at a particular university. Still, this should be encouraging news for those future would-be applicants to west/east coast schools who are concerned about this issue. My reason for including so much detail is so that my strategy could perhaps serve as a helpful blueprint for others.

Dashiell said...

This whole guide has been immensely helpful for both my own and my girlfriend's application process, and I'm very grateful. My girlfriend (who is not applying to philosophy, but still used a lot of the advice) got into a few spectacular programs in her field. I, on the other hand, have not done quite so well. I cast a wide net, but the only ones I've heard from were safety schools that, in hindsight, I really ought not to have applied to. I'm waitlisted at a few schools I'd consider, but I'm starting to think about working on improving my application (it could definitely look better) and taking the year off. If I decide to do so, I could probably manage to teach intro classes at a community college or public university in an area near a couple schools I would love to attend. A couple questions: A) Would you recommend that I try to sit in on classes at these schools? B) In your experience, is teaching experience like what I'm considering looked at positively in the admissions process? I'd appreciate any feedback, and thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I used this series of blogs as a guide to applying to graduate schools this year. It was very helpful. But now I've got a quite unexpected problem. I've been accepted to an Ivy with full funding and very little teaching responsibilities. They have vast intellectual an institutional resources, despite the small size of the department. And the grad students, from first through fifth year, seem to have enjoyed their academic experience and education there. But here's the problem: the town where the school is located is quite literally the worst place I've ever been. The weather is terrible, the town is dismally small with absolutely nothing to do and it's a geographical oddity in that it's over 4 hours away from anywhere. When I visited, the time spent in the philosophy department was rewarding. But the time spent everywhere else was so depressing as to be debilitating. I'm an extremely dedicated philosophy student, and as such I know that much of my life will be spent in the department. But then again, when I'm not doing philosophy, I enjoy museums, art, music, etc. In short, I need some degree of culture. I feel as though moving to a place that has nothing more than a trivia night at a local dive bar for five to six years would be absolute death. I've also been accepted to a few master's programs, one of which is in my city (NYC). How crazy is it to consider turning down this offer in favor of one of the master's programs, and then reapplying to PhD programs in 2012 with a Master's under my belt and a better understanding of where NOT to apply? Most everyone tells me I'm nuts to consider turning down this offer. Please advise.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Apr 3: Tough call. People do sometimes chose one good PhD program over another slightly better one for reasons of locale, but to give up a top program for an MA program -- that would be a pretty uncommon move. You might get into an equally good program after the MA or you might not -- and starting with an MA doesn't give you too much of an edge, once admitted, over those straight from BA; you virtually have to start over.

I don't know what university you have in mind, but where there's a big university with faculty and grad students there is usually some sort of interesting culture to be found, including an arts and music community. You might just have to look a little harder to find it. One possibility would be to inquire with faculty or grad students who are interested in the arts to see what they think. I guess part of the question is: Do you need a New York / Paris type arts community to be happy, or will involvement with local arts satisfy you well enough to get through grad school? In my experience, local arts are often pretty fun and funky (consider: Humboldt State's kinetic sculpture race).

Mark said...


This blog was a big help in my applications last year. I wonder if you can help me on one last point.

I will be reapplying to a number of universities that I applied to last year. Will they compare my new application to my old one, and do you think it will hurt my lastest application if it is similar to the last? For example, my writing sample will be on the same topic (although revised) and my personal statement will highlight the same possible area of research.

Not sure if you still look at the comments here. If you do, thanks once more!


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Mark: Admissions committees typically change from year to year, so some members of the committee may have no idea you applied (unless another member recalls and mentions it). If you were a "close call" the previous year, those who remember that fact may be more than happy to see your application again -- especially anyone who had been advocating admission for you. If you were not a close call, there's a fair chance your application will not be remembered.

The downside to applying during your first year of grad school is not comparison to past applications but rather suspicion about why you are applying. Are you already disgruntled with your new department? (And does that mean you are generally a malcontent?) And if the department you are currently in is substantially lower ranked, the committee will probably see that as a signal that when you applied last year, you didn't do well enough to get into programs of comparable rank to theirs -- and groupthink being what it is, that's a substantial hurdle to overcome.

Mark said...

Wow that was quick. Thanks Eric! I went for a Masters instead of going straight into the PhD, so I will have completed my course by the start of the courses I will apply to.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for all the extremely helpful information. I've been admitted to 8 programs already (and rejected by three) of the 19 I applied to and will begin my visits tomorrow. (I'm visiting CUNY and Sunday through Tuesday Stanford.) What are some question you think one should ask during visits? Also, should I leave unmentioned which programs have admitted me? For instance, should I mention I've been admitted to my prima facie top choice, MIT?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi, Anon: Be sure to talk to *advanced* grad students in your potential areas of interest. That's the most important thing. Ask them general questions about their experience in the program.

Feel free to mention other programs you have been admitted to. There's no harm in it, and people are often curious. It also probably gives you a bit of a halo. There is one risk, I suppose: If the program you mention is far more prestigious than the one you are currently visiting, people may start to tune you out assuming that you won't come to their own program.

J.Vlasits said...

Dear Professor Schwitzgebel,
I (Anon Mon May 31 on Part I) just want to thank you so much for this series of posts. It really paid off--I'm very excited to be heading to your old stomping grounds, UC Berkeley, in the fall! Your posts were all extremely helpful as I was working on applications.

Good luck in Canberra.

Justin Vlasits

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks and congratulations!

Anonymous said...

I am a first year Ph.D. student in a philosophy and religion program. Although I did not receive funding I decided to go with it as I couldn't see myself doing anything else. At least I don't have any debt from my undergraduate years. Is it likely that I will receive a TAship or fellowship in later years, possibly even next year, if I show academic promise this first year? I am at a large public university (50,000 students) so I'm told TAs are more common than fellowships.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That sounds about right. Keep an eye on what has happened to the previous couple years' worth of students in your situation. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

One question - in general, how likely are schools to consider granting a deferral? I have reasons that, while extremely compelling to me, may or may not seem so to a professor or DGS.

So actually, a few questions:
1. is there any chance at all they'd give it?
2. Is there any cause that they're particularly likely to give it for? Obviously one does not lie, but there are multiple ways that facts can be packaged or different facets that can be emphasized.
3. Is asking for a deferral risking them thinking I'm not serious about philosophy?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Feb 20: Schools have very different policies about deferral. If you're already admitted and want to do it, it can't really hurt to ask. They're not going to revoke their offer!

If a school says that you'll have to reapply but makes encouraging noises about the likelihood of being admitted again, take that pretty skeptically. Most schools have a new committee every year and a new committee might see your application differently.

Anonymous said...

I read your comment that choosing to get your PhD at your undergraduate institution can cause your philosophical views to remain provincial, but how does it look when trying to get jobs after graduating? Does it give a bad impression to your abilities?

The reason I would consider attending my undergrad institution is because it is prestigious and matches my interests very well, not out of convenience or familiarity. Is it worth going to a less strong school just for the shift in perspective?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: I don't think hiring committees will take too much notice of that fact on the c.v. There is a bit of a risk that if one does in fact have, at the end of one's education, a somewhat provincial view, that will be reflected in various ways in one's writing and interview responses.

I continue to think that one should think carefully about attending one's undergrad institution for the PhD, for the reasons mentioned. If the considerations on the other side are strong enough, though, those reasons could be outweighed.

Anonymous said...

I am the anon that asked about attending my undergrad institution for PhD. I should add two things that may help your answer, if you don't mind responding again. First, my school has both a philosophy department and a great books honors program. I actually had most of my philosophy in the honors program and only has a few courses in the philosophy department. The professors do not cross over. Thus I have not taken classes from every professor I am interested in, nor even close to the full roster.

Second, my school is in a rather large network of universities (Boston) and I can take classes at more than half a dozen excellent schools.

Given these things, what's your impression of how it would bode on my education/career? Obviously it depends on my own effort, but just wanted a sense from you.

Thanks again for this excellent blog and for continuing to respond to questions! Its been enormously helpful in this process and eased the stress a good deal.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: To the extent you're reaching out to different circles of professors, that mitigates the concern substantially. Partly also, the concern is about taking courses from the same batch of professors. And partly, it's about taking courses from professors who have their impressions of the field -- especially outside their area of specialization -- to a substantial extent shaped in conversations with each other. For example, if a department has only one professor in political philosophy, and if that professor is a strong personality in the department, that might substantially color other professors' views of the subfield. That can matter even if you don't specialize in political philosophy, given how surprisingly many connections there are between subfields of philosophy. (Case in point: Kitcher's work in philosophy of science.)

The Mighty Blog said...

Dear Dr. Schwitzgebel, your blog is very helpful. I was just accepted into the University of Hawa'ii's PhD program. The letter came from the Director of Graduate Admissions. I'm waiting for his reply about whether or not I would be guaranteed a TA-ship and waived tuition (which will make all the difference if I accept or not because my wife and I are not ready to take on more student loan debt). If enough time goes by without a reply, do you recommend asking department faculty directly about TA-ships? Does the faculty usually know about these things? Thanks a lot!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Mighty Blog: Stick with the admissions director. That's the person who knows. Exact packages and promises can vary from applicant to applicant and from year to year.

James said...

Thank you for all your great advice!

Anonymous said...

First of all, I want to express how grateful I am for your website. I have had more success with graduate application than I thought I would, the only reason being that I followed your advise to obsessively focus on my writing sample and not on my personal statement (as I would have done had your website not indicated that the personal statement is perhaps the least important part of one's application).

I wanted to ask you a question about doing a PhD in the UK versus in the US. Specifically, how do hiring committees in the US view UK philosophy PhDs? As with US PhDs, obviously it matters where one obtained one's PhD, so for the sake of argument let's say I am talking about Oxford, Cambridge, or the London School of Economics. On other sites (for example, Leiter's), some have said that the lack of coursework in UK programs is a definite knock against applicants when applying for jobs. However, some schools, such as the LSE, now require students to do at least one year of coursework (perhaps for this reason).


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 05:07: I think most U.S. departments would be delighted to hire a good student from an elite UK program. Still, many philosophers will tend to be a bit biased overall toward programs closer to home. Also, possibly there are social network differences, differences in how the training affects the student's dissertation and her self-presentation in interviews, etc. I haven't really thought carefully about such matters, but I'd be surprised if top Oxford students didn't have approximately as good a shot at good U.S. jobs as did students from the top U.S. departments.

Anonymous said...


Count me among those who have found your blog particularly helpful!
I know you briefly address this in your post, but how bad an idea would it be to visit a department for which you are wait-listed? I had excellent results this season, as I was admitted to 4 universities in the top 20 (1 top ten), but I am wait-listed at a department where I like the work of a lot of people (also a top 10). Other students have told me that visiting another department is CRUCIAL, to learn about the atmosphere, students, personality of the faculty, etc., all of which could be more important than whether you admire the faculty's work. So wouldn't it be wise to visit this school anyway?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Mar 7: If you come to a department where you are wait-listed, you will probably be seen as angling to get in, which could produce a negative reaction, especially among faculty, since the last thing they want is to encourage a culture in which large numbers of hopeful students are setting up meetings with them, etc. So it's a definite risk! Now, since you have been admitted to some top places, that will help undercut the perception that you're just some kook with no chance. If you do visit, I'd recommend being sure that you mention the most prestigious places you've been admitted to right up front (getting the right tone will be important though). Also be clear with everyone that you have *not* been admitted, so they don't feel misled.

You might also consult first with the admissions chair. Sometimes "waitlist" means very little -- just that you weren't straight out rejected. Sometimes it means something very specific. If, for example, the admissions chair says that you are #1 or #2 on the waitlist with a substantial chance of admission, that's a situation in which it might be worth your while to visit. But if the chair is vague, your odds of admission are probably slim.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your quick and helpful reply, and again, for the blog. I will send an e-mail to the grad-admissions chair about this to see what he says about this.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your wonderful postings on grad school applications. Your advice has helped me tremendously, and I now face the (rather pleasant) task of choosing between two schools, both of which are great for my research interests and whose respective social and academic environments I very much enjoy.

One is a top school in the UK and the other is a Leiter top-25 school in the United States. Of course, given that I referred to the U.S. school as "top-25" indicates that its ranking is between 20 and 25, not higher. The UK school has a top philosophy department and overall is very prestigious (it is one of Cambridge, Oxford, or LSE).

I was wondering if you have any advice on how to choose? As I indicated, I would love to be at either the UK school or the U.S. school -- and I am confident that research-wise and also in terms of getting along with faculty and other students both would be wonderful environments. The funding from both schools is absolutely comparable and virtually identical once the living costs of each respective town is taken into account.

One point is worth noting: The lay reputation of the UK school is better than the U.S. school, though the U.S. school is most definitely well known and well regarded -- certainly at least to philosophers. But the "halo effect" of the UK school is probably better in general.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Mar 27: Congratulations! My advice is to default to the higher-prestige "halo" school. You're likely to have a more selective group of peers and your job prospects in the end are likely to be better (though there are also locality effects). But that default can be overridden by area strength and by your sense of how well the most advanced students in your area are doing, in terms of advising, happiness, and placement. Talk to students who are deep into their dissertation phase!

Unknown said...

Eric, thanks for the guide.

Frankly, it's disappointing to hear how the process of getting a PhD seems to depend so much on one's ability to schmooze. I love philosophy, and will be studying it the rest of my life, whether or not I decide to acquire a PhD, but I am also pretty darn introverted. When I hear you mention things like contacting a professor to ask him/her to join you for a cup of coffee, etc., -- I cringe. I don't have any problem with public speaking, it's the social situations that are my undoing. I have been known to go to great lengths avoiding them.

I understand that in any field in order to be successful you have to know the right people. But, I'm hoping that there is perhaps some other way to frame what success might entail here, at least for those of us who haven't the desire/ability to play the game.

I don't want to be influential, or well-known, I just want to be where the stuff I'm interested in is studied in excruciating detail. So, here's my question: is there a place for someone like me in a philosophy department somewhere, perhaps in a backwater department on someone's "gourmet bottom 50" (which is fine by me), or do I need to accept that this is what being a philosophy graduate student entails and that I'd be better off staying at home with my books?

Ultimately, what I'm worried about most is getting into a program and being horribly handicapped by my unwillingness to engage any of my professors socially outside of the class room, as you seem to describe as the norm. Is it possible to be successful in graduate level philosophy just by focusing entirely on the subject matter and letting one's work do all the talking?

Thanks for your time, sir.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Aaron --

There are a lot of introverted philosophers! As in any human endeavor, one benefits from a certain capacity to connect with people in the way extraverts are often good at. But it is by no means necessary to do anything other than read and think well and write good philosophy in consequence.

Leo said...

Thanks for the advice, as ever. I'm curious about the process for applying to write questions for ETS or like organisations: how would I go about applying? How far in advance would I need to begin? I've checked the ETS website, but to no avail.

Cheers! :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Not sure, Leo. It has been over a decade. Good luck, though!

Anonymous said...

Professor Schwitzgebel,

I have a question about the ethics of prospective student visits. Suppose that a prospective student is accepted to two programs, a top choice and a lower choice. If the student is relatively confident that he/she will accept the former offer rather than the latter, would it violate some professional standard to visit the latter school anyway? On the one hand, something about accepting travel money from a school that one is fairly confident one won't attend seems disingenuous. On the other hand, it would still be a great experience (meeting and talking to more professional philosophers and students, getting a sense of the culture of different departments, etc.).

Of course, one could visit the lower choice department and fall in love (or visit the top choice and find out that the professors aren't particularly attentive to graduate students, or hate the location of the top choice, or...), but let's leave such considerations aside to isolate the issue.

Is there some accepted standard here?

Thanks for these posts! I know that prospective students are still benefitting a great deal from them.

(And sorry if someone else asked this question somewhere)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Feb 9: That is an interesting question!

My inclination is to think it’s fine to accept the travel money and hospitality if you are approach the school with an openness to being convinced, even if you think it’s only a fairly small chance. However if your attitude is that your are clearly settled against the school in advance and *only* visiting to have the chance to meet some professors and students you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet, I’m inclined to think it’s a little disingenuous.

Sarah said...

Hello; I'm looking for some input about the importance of graduate school ranking.

I applied and was accepted to two JD/Ph.D programs where the law schools are second tier, and the Philosophy programs unranked (as far as Philosophical Gourmet is concerned).

In contrast, I was accepted to a different Top 50 Law School and wait-listed (but ultimately rejected) from their Top 25 Philosophy Ph.D. program.

Do you think it would be just as worthwhile to attend one of the schools with the lower-ranked philosophy programs, or attend the better school and apply again next year?

Sorry to pose such a personalized question…I could just really some advice!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sarah, I really don't know the philosophy of law scene at all. My sense with unranked PhD programs in philosophy is that they're a bit of a risk but sometimes can be appropriate choices. You want to look carefully at their completion rates, their placement record, and their level of graduate financial support -- and also you will want to make sure that they have sufficient faculty strength in the areas you plan to work in.

Robert said...

Hi Eric, thank you so much for this guide. It has been a lifesaver! I have a couple of questions regarding choosing between offers of admission.

1. I have been offered admission to a couple of PGR ranked programs, and waitlisted at a few more. My question regards choosing between a 25ish program where I am waitlisted (assuming I get in) and a top 40ish program to which I have already been offered admission. The difficulty is that the 40ish program is a nearly perfect fit for my interests, while the 25ish program is a less perfect, but still good fit. I guess my question is this: how should I weigh program fit against ranking?

2. One of the programs where I have been waitlisted has taken a significant dip in the PGR in recent years. It was around 30 a few years ago, and is now closer to 40. I'd guess that most people would see this as a red flag, since it represents an alarming downward trend. My thoughts, however, are that a program which has traditionally been regarded significantly better than it currently is will probably still be considered stronger than a similarly ranked program whose ranking has been steady. Do you have any insights?

Thanks in advance for your help!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Robert --

I could see people making different calls about these sorts of issues. It's not straightforward. My sense, though, is that fluctuations/differences of 10 or so in rank, once you're outside the top 20, are common due to noise and due to inevitable hires and losses, so the universities might well flip back around by the time you have your degree (unless there's really a serious problem at one of them so that it's bleeding away good faculty). For that reason, fit and broad strength in your area would seem to me to be more important than exact rank.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Does it sometimes happen either that (i) an applicant will mention in their application that they could make do with less funding (e.g., no stipend) to lower the hurdle of being admitted? or the reverse, (ii) a department offers a non-standard funding package (again e.g., tuition waiver but no stipend) if they would like to accept a student but have already allocated their budget to applicants the department is pursuing more aggressively?

How do such situations play out?

Thank you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

In my experience (i) is unlikely and could even leave the wrong impression. Some universities sometimes do (ii), though most, I think, prefer to have a small class of fully-funded students.

Unknown said...

I've been making heavy use of your blog of late and I am very grateful you took the time to put all of this together. It has been very helpful. I was reading this part of it and I saw your suggestion to do question writing for a company like ETS and that sounded like a really good idea to me. I went searching for how I might start doing this but I couldn't dig anything up. Could you provide a link or something which might help me find out how I might start doing this?

Thanks again

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm glad you've found it helpful! It has been a long time since I did this, so I have no special insight into ETS. ETS was the hardest to break into in my day, and I worked for either LSAC or ACT on the LSAT.