Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Graduate School Application Advice

Readers interested in graduate school in philosophy might be interested to see my seven-part series on PhD admissions, collected here. It's time to start thinking about the application process, if you're aiming to begin a PhD program in fall 2012.

For advice on applying to Master's programs, see the guest post by Robert Schwartz of University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

My impression is that admissions are somewhat more competitive in recessions than in boom times, since there are fewer options outside of academia to draw top students out of the applicant pool. Regarding the job market for newly minted philosophy PhDs, we should probably think of the period from about 1999-2007, bruising and competitive though it was, as boom times unlikely to be replicated in the near future. So don't be misled by departments' placement records from that period. On the other hand, the horrible job market of the past two years is probably also an aberration.


Aldo Antonelli said...

Eric, looking back at your posting on admissions it is remarkable how much the whole process is guided by pedigree. Shouldn't we as a profession at least try for some degree of equality in opportunities? (This point towards weighing the writing samples more than other factors, for instance, a point you also seem to make.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree, Aldo. It's especially a shame that the top programs seem to be practically closed to students without elite pedigree, to judge from my limited experience seeing terrific UCR undergrads *never* crack the top 15 and my impressionistic sense of the situation at Berkeley when I was a student there. I am open to empirical evidence to the contrary, if someone at Harvard or Princeton or the like is willing to present a list of institutions of origin of their entering classes and non-elite institutions are reasonably well represented.

I would love to see some systematic research on the predictive validity of overall GPA, philosophy-only GPA, institution strength, GRE, and maybe (if admissions committees were willing to quantify at time of admission) perceived strength of letters and perceived strength of sample.

Anonymous said...

Current Princeton grad students by BA (+MA) institution

Princeton + Oxford
Yale + Cambridge
UPenn + Oxford
Cornell + Oxford

Other US News Top-30
Stanford + Harvard
Stanford + Stanford
Northwestern + Brown
Rice + Houston
Vanderbilt + Arizona
Johns Hopkins

Elite Int'l

Top LACs
Claremont McKenna
Bates College
Mount Holyoke College
Wesleyan + Tufts
Kenyon College
Franklin & Marshall
Reed College
Reed College

Other US public
Northern Arizona + Arizona State
Arizona State + Nebraska
NC State + Virginia Tech
UMass Boston

Other US private
Houghton College + UW, Milwaukee
St. Vincent College
Biola U
Northeastern + Minnesota
St John's College Santa Fe + UChicago + Oxford

Other int'l
Western Australia
Melbourne + Melbourne
Victoria + Victoria
Tel Aviv + Haifa
Buenos Aires

Apologies for the very rough and occasionally misleading categorization. I'm not a Princeton person (I gathered the information from their website), and I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of undergraduate institutions. Even within the more elite categories there aren't many patterns that stand out to me. And Colorado shares the top "placement record" with Stanford!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, that's a terrific list!

Although there are some students from nonelite places, my feeling is that it is disappointingly few, given that the vast majority of students graduate from nonelite places. Not a single SUNY or CalState, for example. The effect might even be more evident if you separated nonelite places into those that are very good or have widely-known philosophy departments, such as Rutgers and Colorado, from the rest.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Schwitzgebel,

I was wondering if you might be able to shed some light on the actual decision making process for PhD admissions from the perspective of an admissions committee. For example, is it literally the case that the applications that school X receives are put into a pile on a large conference table around which are gathered the members of the committee, who one evening after classes go through the pile application by application? Or are the applications divided among the committee members, who then make first round cuts for their specific pile?

The entire process is very opaque to me. How exactly does a particular application go from being under consideration to either being accepted or rejected?

Thank you for your immensely helpful posts!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jan 25: At UCR, there are four committee members. We each get a flash drive with electronic copies of the all the applications. Two committee members focus on the first half of the alphabet and two committee members focus on the second half. Any application that is picked out as promising by any committee member is then reviewed by the whole committee. Then we spend an afternoon face-to-face arguing for our favorites, generating an admissions list plus a list of people as backups and people who still require further evidence or examination before an admissions decision is made. Finally, the admissions offers need to be approved by the higher-level administrators -- including sometimes complicated discussions about scholarships and about funding foreign students.

Sean said...

Prof. Schwitzgebel,

What is it that members of admissions committees think when they pull an application from the pile and find an applicant who has completed an MA, for one reason or another, compared to when they pull an applicant with no MA but a very high undergrad gpa? On your blog you indicate that the latter is the more attractive option. But why exactly? I'm sorry if this question is a bit vague. But, as a student with a mid 3s undergrad gpa, who is currently in a masters program, it is important for me to get inside the heads of the committee members to know where I stand.

Thanks a lot.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sean, I think committee members' judgments on this issue vary a lot. But those who prefer the high GPA undergrad might be thinking that they would rather have someone who has demonstrated a sustained and consistent excellent academic performance over someone whose academic performance has been excellent only recently, even if the latter has more total education.

Another possible issue is how to evaluate the GPA of an MA program. For the lesser-known MA programs, there might be some worry that a 3.8 GPA is easier to achieve than a 3.8 GPA in a good undergrad institution. I'm not saying such worries would generally be merited, but they might nonetheless exist.