Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sorry, Cal State Students, No Princeton Grad School for You!

As I remarked several years ago in my series of posts about applying to PhD programs in philosophy, it seems to be extremely difficult to gain admission to an elite PhD program in philosophy if you're not from an elite undergraduate institution. Inspired by a comment on a recent post, I decided to look at this a bit more systematically.

Here's what I did. First, I looked to see which of the top ten Leiter ranked philosophy PhD programs consistently displayed undergraduate institution information for their graduate students. Two did: Princeton and Berkeley. Of the 121 graduate students listed on their websites, 119 had undergraduate institution information listed. Of these, 25 were from foreign universities -- typically elite universities (especially Oxford). Excluding the foreign students leaves a pool of 94 students with US undergraduate university listed (21 also listed some graduate work, typically an MA). I then looked at the US News and World Report rankings of their undergraduate institutions.

Twenty-seven students (29%) come from just eight universities: The US News top 10 National Universities, excluding MIT and CalTech (Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale).

Another seventeen (18%) come from the universities ranked 11-25 (Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, UCLA, USC, and Vanderbilt being represented).

Ten more (11%) come from universities ranked 26-50. And of these ten, seven are from universities with elite graduate programs in philosophy: Three from NYU (Leiter ranked #1 in the U.S.), 1 from Michigan (Leiter ranked #5), 2 from UNC Chapel Hill (Leiter ranked #9), and 1 from Tufts (Leiter ranked as the #1 master's program in the U.S). So, really, these universities are more elite in philosophy than their US News ranking would suggest. Rounding out the mix are Brandeis, UC Santa Barbara, and UW Madison. [Revised 10/28]

Only three universities ranked 51-100 are represented: Two students from Rutgers (whose PhD program is Leiter ranked #2), one from Northeastern (though this student took an MA from Minnesota first), and strikingly four students from Colorado (which has a mid-ranked PhD program: Leiter rank #26).

Many of the remaining students are from elite schools in the US News category "National Liberal Arts Colleges". Eight (9%) are from colleges in the top ten (Amherst, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury, Pomona, Swarthmore, and Williams represented), and seven more from those ranked 11-50 (Bates, Franklin & Marshall, Kenyon, Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, and Wesleyan represented).

Only eighteen students (19%) come from all the remaining universities in the United States combined. And even this number overestimates the number of students with genuinely nonelite backgrounds: Three are from Reed College, which though only ranked #57 among liberal arts colleges has a very strong tradition in philosophy; and at least another nine supplemented their undergraduate work with master's degrees or other work at elite schools or places with strong master's programs. Represented are: Arizona State, Biola, Catholic University, Cincinnati, Florida State, Houghton, Indiana-South Bend, Kalamazoo, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Reed, St John's College Santa Fe, St Vincent, and U Mass Boston.

To help give a sense of how thin a representation this is of nonelite schools, consider that there is not a single student on this list from the two biggest public university systems in the country: the Cal State system (412,000 students) and the SUNY system (468,000 students, but that number includes students in two-year colleges and technical institutes). Even the UC system is poorly represented once we exclude the two most elite universities (Berkeley and UCLA): The remaining campuses (Davis, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz) are represented by only a single student from Santa Barbara.

I don't conclude that admissions committees are being unfair, much less explicitly elitist. Maybe students from Harvard and Columbia really are that much better. Or maybe the epistemic task of discerning the genuinely most promising applicants is so difficult that committees need to play the odds and the odds almost always say that the Harvard student is more likely to succeed than the Cal State student. Or maybe so much turns on the credibility of the letter writers that students whose letter writers aren't well known can't really be fully evaluated. Or, or, or, or.

But regardless how innocent the explanation, it's a shame.

Update, 5:44 pm:

Very interesting discussion in the comments! Let me clarify two points:

First: I interpret these results as applying only to the very most elite PhD programs -- roughly the Leiter top ten. There is plenty of evidence that lower-ranked PhD programs (like UCR, ranked #30) admit a substantial proportion of their students from nonelite schools (though I suspect there still is a large pedigree advantage). However, that fact is less consoling than it might seem if it's the case, as I suspect it is, the top ten PhD programs are vastly more successful than lower-ranked schools in placing their students into the sorts of elite research-oriented jobs and elite liberal-arts-college teaching jobs that many graduate students covet.

Second: I somewhat regret the impression that the title of this post might give that there is simply no chance to be admitted to an elite program from a Cal State or similar. There are a few exceptions, as should be evident from the data included in the post. At least some of the off-list schools are comparable in prestige to the Cal States and SUNYs. Whether these exceptions are frequent enough to constitute any practical chance even for awesome students from such schools, I'm not sure.

Update, October 28:

A reader compiled some data for me from Stanford. This list is not strictly comparable to the Princeton/Berkeley list, since it is list of last institution prior to Stanford, whether undergrad or graduate, but it's still probably somewhat comparable.

To my eye, the results look similar, with 28% (out of 40 total US students) from the top ten universities, and another 48% from the top 11-50 universities and top 1-50 liberal arts colleges. Only one student is from a university ranked 51-100, and that university, Pittsburgh, has an elite PhD program (Leiter ranked #4). 23% of the students (9 total) are from all the remaining universities in the US; and at least three of those are from well-regarded MA programs at those universities (to judge from those universities' MA placement lists: Cal State LA, Georgia State, and Texas Tech), while one more student is from a university that although not generally elite has a very strong PhD program in philosophy (Arizona, Leiter ranked #13). The remaining five students are from Illinois Wesleyan, Nevada-Las Vegas, Northern Arizona, Northern Iowa, and South Florida.

19%-23% representation from nonelite universities might not seem very skewed, but I think that would be a false impression. Many more students graduate from nonelite universities than from elite universities. Their low odds of admission are better seen looking up from the bottom than down from the top, as it were. If we take an arbitrary selection of nonelite schools, say all of the dozens of Cal States and SUNYs, we see not a single undergraduate from these schools in any of these three departments. (Caveat: Stanford has a CSLA MA student, and to judge from the comments section and private emails, at least two or three Cal State students have recently cracked other top ten departments; I haven't yet heard good news about any SUNY students.) Also if we look at the very good / marginally elite universities ranked 51-100 on the US News list -- schools which one might think could contribute substantial numbers of students to elite PhD programs -- we still see only very thin representation: Combining Princeton, Berkeley, and Stanford together, only four of those 50 schools are represented; only two if Rutgers and Pitt are reclassed as elite due to their top-ten rankings in philosophy. In contrast, almost all of the top 25 schools are represented, often multiply represented.

Here's another way of thinking about the distribution: In a typical smallish Princeton-Berkeley-Stanford class of six students, four will be from elite undergrad institutions, one will be from a (probably elite) foreign institution, and only one will be from any of the hundreds of good but nonelite US institutions -- and that one student as likely as not spent some time in some capacity either visiting an elite institution or at one of the top MA programs.

Update, August 7, 2013:

See these reflections by David Holiday on his failure to make the jump from a non-prestigious MA program to a PhD program. Starting a few paragraphs in he makes the case that "the student at the ho-hum department has no way of knowing what she doesn’t know, and what she doesn’t know is evident in her work". I do suspect this is part of the story.


robert gorton said...

It is a shame. Undergraduates may attend a state school not because they lack the smarts to study at an elite institution, but for economic reasons - they, or their families, simply can't afford the fees at the elite school.

John Schwenkler said...

Thanks for this, Eric. I am the Berkeley student who went to Catholic University -- and I benefited from having spent two years as a Ph.D. student at Notre Dame in the interim. (Which raises a question: did you consider how many from students from non-elite schools had attended M.A. programs?) Two things:

1. It would be interesting to look at a fuller range of schools. For example, at least when I was at Notre Dame (now just outside the "top ten", I guess), they took a considerable number of students from less-well-known (often religious) institutions. It is claimed by some that this is no longer the case, but I don't have any numbers to back that up. But it is possible, though maybe not likely, that Berkeley and Princeton will be far to one extreme even among top programs.

2. All of this makes it extremely difficult to advise would-be graduate students at small, non-elite schools. Size is a problem because it leaves us without much of a past history that will let us know what our students can reasonably hope for. But more generally, it is extremely frustrating that something as chancy as your choice (if indeed you got to make one) of an undergraduate institution (students come here for *all sorts* of reasons, the good ones very often because of scholarships) can have such a huge effect on your professional prospects. And then of course there are questions of class, race, etc. I don't mean to be complaining -- it's not clear to me how any of this could be avoided, even in principle -- but yeah, it is a shame, and it makes the profession worse for *everyone*, not just the students who didn't get in.

Michael Cholbi said...


One of my former students is at USC, so I know there's at least one Cal State student at a top program!

But there's definitely something amiss here. Suppose we ask the average grad admissions committee member whether it should matter where a student went to high school, what a student's parents income is, or whether a student took an SAT prep course. Those are factors that significantly influence undergrad admissions. A shame they appear (in effect) to influence graduate admissions too!

John Schwenkler said...

Oh, and P.S. to my comment: Yes, there are terminal Master's programs that students from these other schools can get into. They are also too expensive for first-generation college graduates who are also carrying loads of debt.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of John Perry's joke that he "got into Stanford" the only way he could - by teaching there, since they'd have never admitted him as an undergraduate or graduate student (he went to Doane College in Nebraska). He was joking, but after seeing this, you can tell he has a point. How good a job are we doing of finding the next John Perry's?

It would be nice to see data from other top 10-ish schools. At our school (a top 50ish on Leiter scale) we seem to succeed in getting about one undergraduate per year into a top 10 or top 20 philosophy program. So there is at least some hope for our students at a large public University.

Brad said...

I suspect that most admissions committees could do more to control for any halo effects that might be generated by the credibility of institutions and letter writers—for example, they could blind the writing samples, or at least read them in advance of the other materials. I would be interested to hear whether any departments have implemented these sorts of measures.

dr said...

This rings true to my experience. I attended Kansas State University, a land grant college without a graduate program in philosophy. I received an excellent education, by the way. When it came time to take the GRE got a 780 in math and a 750 in verbal, as well as an 800 on the logic portion. And I had a good writing sample and enthusiastic recommendations.

The rejection notice I got from one top school was a checklist. The committee started to fill out the checklist but stopped after the third item, "Quality of the faculty with which you have worked." I didn't rate, so I was rejected. Among the items not considered was my writing sample.

Incidentally, when I did finally get into a grad school it was a mid-level program that promptly collapsed around me. And they put me on academic probation for the first year -- had I not gotten straight As, I would have been kicked out.

Why? Because I went to a state school.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

@ Robert and Michael: I agree.

@ John: 21 of the 94 had some graduate education listed; 9 of those 21 were from among the 18 off-list schools. My sense from my experience at UCR, both on admissions and in seeing how our own students do, is that students from nonelite undergraduate schools do have a realistic shot at mid-ranked (approx. rank 20-40) Leiter PhD programs, if they are all-around top-notch. There is also a path via MA programs, though only very few seem to manage that path.

@ Brad: Terrific suggestion!

@ DR: I'd hope that most elite PhD programs would at least have given your application a cursory look if your GPA and GRE were plausible. The pedigree effect is very strong but it is not completely exceptionless.

Errol Lord said...

As a student in a top department (Princeton) with not much pedigree (Arizona State for undergrad; MA at Nebraska), I know first hand how hard it is to get into top places without proper pedigree. Indeed, most of the schools that accepted me during my second round of applications rejected me the first time. I did a tremendous amount of work--some of it pure jockeying--to put myself in a good position the second time around. I'd be happy to talk about the types of things I did via email--especially with students in a similar position to the one I was in (you should be able to get my email by clicking on my name here).

The main point I want to make, however, is not particularly relevant to the main discussion. I wanted to point out that not only does Colorado have a surprising amount of alumni in top programs (indeed, I think all 4 of the Colorado students are here at Princeton; they are all very good), but so does Nebraska. Currently there are Nebraska alumni at NYU, Princeton, Brown, and UW-Madison (this person does phil of bio). In addition, Nebraska alumnus Nate Charlow was at Michigan; he just graduated and took up an assistant professorship at the University of Toronto. I'm confident that there are students with the type of potential that warrants admission to top departments at most public universities. What I want to stress is that the faculty at Nebraska do a great job convincing people that their students have that potential. I highly doubt I would be where I am without the care they took in marketing me to top departments. I am, obviously, extremely grateful for their help and support.

In short, Go Big Red!

HK Andersen said...

There may be common causes behind this trend, though. Coming from a family with a certain degree of socioeconomic privilege is really helpful for getting into (and staying in) good grad programs, and is helpful for even considering grad school as a career path. Those factors also facilitate going to a more prestigious undergraduate institution. Still an unfortunate trend, but it would require somewhat different approaches to alleviating it.

I went to a land grant state school, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it was two fairly short, and in one case very offhand, comments that happened to be crucial for my going to a good PhD program and eventually landing a job.

MJ said...

I have what is perhaps an odd case from the other side (where my pedigree has helped me in what might seem like undeserved ways). I did extremely well in high school and got into a university with a top 25 program in philosophy. I did not go to this university to do philosophy, but rather changed majors later. I quite literally lucked into a top 25 program thanks to the school also being good at what I thought I wanted to do with my life at age 17.

When I changed my major, my parents took all financial support away. I could not take any GRE prep courses, and did not do as well as any of my current colleagues as a result. I did well, but my results were not outstanding. This was definitely a problem for me, and it kept me out of all the top 10 programs. The strength of my letters, however, was enough to overcome this entirely due to who wrote them--that is, because they came from people in a top 25 program. Things would not have worked out the same if they had come from someone else, and I have verbal confirmation of this fact (though not, of course, in those terms).

Michael said...

My department, at the University of Chicago, is currently ranked 21 by PGR (I don't know if we'll move in the new rankings, though with many new hires I would hope so). Our grad students come from a much wider range of schools than indicated in Eric's study of Princeton and Berkeley. See here:

Our students do get jobs (see our placement page -- we think we are doing pretty well in the current market) so there is hope for students who come from lesser-known schools.

Michael Kremer

Anonymous said...

In response to the last paragraph of the post: Why can't we draw from this data the obvious conclusion of elitism? Why do we have to bend over backwards to try to offer excusing explanations for this garbage? The same trend continues when one applies for jobs, and it is shameful, deeply unjust elitism, through and through. Let's call it what it is instead of looking for all kinds of justifying reasons for it. Those who perpetuate this trend deserve to be shamed.

Margaret said...

@John--I cannot speak for all MA programs but at the one at my university, UWM, by and large the students we accept get support, mostly in the form of TA-ships. While I have to confess that the support that we have available is considerably less than many of the get subsequently in top-ranked PhD programs, still I don't think that it is appropriate to describe our program as "too expensive." I don't think that our program is unique either. We do lose students to better funded MA programs.

Alex said...

Here at Yale, we have current or recent graduate students who are alumni of Missouri (x2), UMass-Boston, Calgary (x2), UC-Davis, Arizona State, Denver, Rhodes and UCSD.

Given that our graduate intake is quite a bit smaller than other comparably ranked programs (4-5 per year) and more international than other comparably ranked programs (probably about a third of students from abroad), the alumni of the above make up almost half of our American graduate population.

Alex said...

ps, sorry, of course Calgary is not an American institution. Let me revise that to our 'North American graduate population'.

Anonymous said...

Also of interest would be a comparison of where non-American students came from, and whether those institutions correlate with the 'elite' universities in their home countries (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL for the UK, Mount Allison, Simon Fraser, McGill, and Queen's for Canada, and so on). And then turning around and having a look at which American institutions are represented at the top graduate level abroad.

If I had to guess, my guess would be that it's the institutions with strong international research profiles that will see themselves over-represented internationally, while elite SLACs and the like enjoy more prominence at home. But who knows?

Bennett Gilbert said...

In mentioning Reed as no. 57 in these "rankings," it should be noted that Reed does not participate in any rankings project and opposes them as a matter of policy. The publishers of rankings usually either leave Reed out of their lists entirely or give it a low rank as a punishment. In fact, Reed is among the top 10 or 20 liberal arts colleges in this country. The successes of Reed philosophy graduates in getting into grad school is mirrored by the successes of Reed grads from virtually all its departments, humanities and sciences, in getting into PhD programs. In this statistic Reed ranks very near the top in per capita success.

John Schwenkler said...

@Margaret: Thanks for your insight into how things are done at UWM. My experience so far is that in very many cases students at MA programs have only partial tuition remission, and their (non-guaranteed) living stipends aren't necessarily enough to make ends meet. It is true enough that this doesn't make such programs "too expensive" simpliciter, but it does make them a big risk to take for students from poorer families who are already carrying tens of thousands of debt from their time in college.

Anonymous said...

I attended a non-elite private school because they offered a generous scholarship, had a good department in political science, which I thought I would major in, and I thought small classes would be valuable. The philosophy department, as it turned out, just wasn't supported to the same extent, and although I had very good professors, they weren't well-known, and the department was so small that my course options were very limited. Although my school was respected regionally, I just didn't realize at the time that pedigree mattered for grad school (at the time, I thought I was doing the responsible thing by not taking out student loans for a humanities degree). I suspect I'm not the only one out there like that.

Michael said...

Anonymous at 12:04

I don't really understand this list: "Mount Allison, Simon Fraser, McGill, and Queen's for Canada"

Why not Toronto and UBC? (Ranked #2 and 3 after McGill by Maclean's among "medical doctoral universities" ahead of Queen's at #4)? Simon Fraser and Mount Allison are ranked #1 by Maclean's in "comprehensive universities" and "primarily undergraduate," but how are you comparing them to Toronto and UBC?

(Note that in the THE, QS World, and ARWU Rankings, the top three in Canada are consistently McGill, Toronto and UBC, with only the order shifting, and with Queen's several notches below these three in all three rankings.)

Anonymous said...

I had the grades and test scores to be a competitive applicant at Ivy undergraduate programs but chose a less-expensive school so that I could graduate without any debt. Now I've finished my BA and have no debt, but I probably have no chance at admission to top-ranked philosophy PhD programs.

Of course, taking a philosophy PhD in this job climate with a six-figure undergraduate loan to pay off doesn't sound too nice, either.

Manyul Im said...

On the other hand, look at the placement success of the Cal State L.A. master's degree program!

I'm guessing even the out of state tuition for it is far less than that of Tufts, say.

The Anonymous Taxonomizer said...

Thanks to Professor Schwitzgebel for extending my very cursory analysis on the earlier thread.

Anon 12:43 writes "the department was so small that my course options were very limited."

This seems like a huge issue. How many students not at universities with strong graduate programs or at the major LACs will be able to take enough philosophy coursework to be ready for graduate study? Or will be able to get to know three philosophers well enough to get letters from them? The best of these students ought to be able to attend funded MA programs, but these scarcely exist.

I do not see why top PhD-granting programs in the US do not also offer funded MAs. For one, it is clear that these programs are producing too many PhDs, so it's no argument to say that this would take resources away from those students. (After all funding 1 PhD student for five years is nearly equivalent to funding 3 MA students for two years, and departments often extend more than five years of support in some form to their PhDs.) And the best of those MA students could quite reasonably be poached for the department's own PhD program.

I am told that similar problems exist in other prestige-dominated fields like economics, where large numbers of the students at the top PhD programs have taken unfunded MAs abroad (often in the UK) in order to bolster their applications. This is of course virtually impossible for lower-income students to contemplate.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the students who ended up at Princeton (by way of another PhD program) with no undergraduate pedigree.

Just to add my few cents to the discussion: I do think that elitism is a problem in PhD admissions, but I also think we need to take more seriously the common cause explanation. It seems pretty clear to me that socioeconomic privilege does make a huge difference to one's ability to get into/stay in grad school, for various reasons. And other things, like: I bet that if we could compile data about the educational backgrounds of the parents of people in philosophy grad school, we would find that overwhelmingly they tend to have graduate degrees. I bet we would be extremely hard-pressed to find first-generation college students (I am the only one I've ever met, at least out of the people it has come up with), and nearly as hard-pressed to find first-generation graduate students. And I think that not just the socioeconomic status of the families of students, but also their educational backgrounds, probably makes a huge difference in determining what kind of schools students end up in as undergraduates. Of course, all this is speculative, but it rings true to my experience in two different PhD programs and in general in the philosophical community.

Also, though I'm not saying this diminishes the conclusion that there is a lot of gross elitism going on here, I think we should be mindful of rejecting out of hand the idea that there is simply a lot more preparation and support that goes on at the schools where the majority of grads in these programs come from. I compare myself with the other students in my year at Princeton, and, though I now feel I can compete with them, the fact is that had I come here straight out of undergrad, I would be woefully unprepared in comparison to them. I would never have made it in a top ten program then, would have surely dropped out, and, quite frankly, am grateful that none of them accepted me, because it would have been a constant uphill battle due not to my lack of pedigree but to my lack of preparation and familiarity with philosophy. (There is one other student from my undergrad institution in a top ten program, and he may feel quite differently.)

Karen M Nielsen said...

These figures surprise me. I received my undergraduate degree and a master's from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in the 90's, and was admitted to Cornell as an international student in 2000. NTNU is certainly no Oxford or Sorbonne! My alma mater, for all its lack of prestige, was not a bad place to prepare for a PhD. It was the local university in my home town, large, prepared to admit almost anyone who applied, especially in cheap areas in the humanities and social sciences, and chronically underfunded. I paid an activity fee of $20 each term, otherwise no tuition. One thing being a student in Scandinavia taught me was to be self-motivated and not expect much in terms of hands-on mentoring. We had an active philosophical community, with lots of international visitors and a friendly social scene. And I had some excellent advisors who published in top-notch journals form time to time. But it was up to us to do our work. One of the things that struck me about graduates from top-ranked US institutions was how dependent many were on active supervision to finish their work. There's no such thing as an incomplete in the Scandinavian university system. If you don't finish your work on time you fail. If you are sick on the day of the exam, you wait half a year to the next time the exam is offered. This is not to recommend such a model, but for what it is worth it seems that graduating from a mass university gives one some survival skills that elite institutions don't provide precisely because they lavish their students with resources, prestige and attention.

There were other students from similar backgrounds pursuing a PhD at Cornell at the same time as me, so maybe things have changed or Cornell just happens to do admissions differently.

prasad said...

This post makes me uneasy. Either these places are frickin' awesome, in which case it stands to reason that they'd attract the best students and then give them the best teaching and broadest exposure to the best thinking. Such students then have a greater chance at attending other elite institutions. Or they're elitist old boy clubs that incestuously draw from amongst themselves, and are interested only in perpetuating their name and social standing.

No doubt there's some truth to both, but it still seems like this post wants to have it both ways. It implicitly says that the best programs are the top ranked colleges when picking out the places undergraduates should want to go to. But it also wants to fault those colleges for applying the same standard in reverse to decide whom to pick. The comments all decry the pattern of Princeton rejecting candidates from Utah State. Well, if US is so wonderful, why pine after Princeton?

Tim O'Keefe said...

I'll add Georgia State as another terminal program that offers 2 years of funding (with full tuition remission) to all incoming students--although (unfortunately) our standard 1st-year stipend isn't enough on its own to live on. But I am happy to report we take lots of good people from non-prestigious places and help many of them ameliorate the pedigree problem. (I also hope we teach them well and don't *just* credential them.) Here are the schools where our most recent cohort hail from:

University of Bucharest
Univ Of Al In Huntsville
Univ Of N Carolina At Asheville
Swarthmore College
Georgia State University
Wagner College
Merrimack College
The Chinese Uni of Hong Kong
Otterbein College
Brandeis University
Colgate University
Houghton College
Connecticut College
University Of Chicago
Emory University
Univ Of Tennessee - Knoxville
University Of Evansville
University of Arizona

Tim O'Keefe said...

err: that should be "I'll add Georgia State as another terminal M.A. program..." etc.

Anonymous said...

I taught for many years at one of the 5 Cal States with terminal MAs and we have an excellent placement record in top PhD programs (as do our sister schools). I can think of four who went on to USC with full support and finished their PhDs, several who went to UCI, UCSD, UCR with full support. Others have gone on to Minnesota, Hopkins, Maryland, Boston College, etc. Apparently our MA programs are recognized as good preparation for well-ranked PhD programs.

Let me add that our undergrad majors have been admitted at many top law schools: 2 admitted to Harvard, many to Boalt and USC.

Many of our undergrads were admitted to much more elite schools (including several to UCLA and Berkeley), but when they look at the debt load they would take on first as undergrads and later in law school, they opt for Cal State. In view of the brutal debt loads so many students take on, I think they were smart to do that.

Anonymous said...

1. At most you could conclude is that Princeton and Berkeley only accept PhD students from elite schools. There is absolutely no data suggesting these two schools are good sample of all elite philosophy departments.

2. Since you are referring to the Cal State system, can you at least do some basic fact finding from these schools?

This is Cal State L.A. Philosophy department's list of student placement: Notice that they placed one BA student into U Mich PhD in 2011

Let me teach you a better research methodology: Go to each school's philosophy website. You will be able to find academic background of most faculty members. Then you can test your hypothesis.

I fully expect a professor in philosophy can do better than this.

A Non Philosophy PhD

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I'm a grad student at princeton that (1) came from a non-elite undergrad, (2) didn't do philosophy as an undergrad (I did business and then started grad work in philosophy at a state school), and (3) neither of my parents have college educations.

Undergrad at SUNY Binghamton said...

This is why I decided against a career in philosophy and instead am working extremely hard to succeed in math, which I am worse at. When I asked a professor what I would need to do to get into a top program, he informed me that I would need a) stellar GRE's b) stellar grades c) stellar letters and d) a publishable (preferably published) senior thesis. Given all that , it was still not worth my while to consider a program in the top 10, as in his words, "barring some sort of miracle", admission to those programs was simply impossible. Now I know better than anyone else how weak our department is; indeed, I've found exactly 2 professors whose work I can take seriously at all. But why should I be penalized because I wasn't interested in paying $200k for an undergraduate degree? Was I supposed to be aware that I would want to be a philosopher when I was applying to college, and research the grad-school prospects of Binghamton University in high school? Why should I have to suffer through an M.A. program for yet another 2 years just to have a chance at a life in this field, when I know that all I'm missing is the name of some other (unnecessarily more expensive) name on my degree? Better to fight to succeed in a discipline in which I possess less talent and which answers questions I am less interested in, where at least there is a semblance of a meritocracy at work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, undergrad at SUNY-B. I'm in the same situation. I have convincing evidence (my professors) to believe that I can have a successful career in philosophy, but coming from a small department with no graduate program in philosophy, I'm afraid I will not even be admitted to a top thirty school. I'm giving the applications a go one year and if I'm shut out then I'll choose another career. Best of luck with the maths!

Anonymous said...

Part I


It’s 12.04. I think the reason you don't understand the list is that you didn't understand that those were examples of 'elite' institutions in those countries, not an exhaustive list of them. You asked why I didn't include UBC or Toronto. Quite simply, because the list was not exhaustive.

Even if it was, I don't think that Toronto qualifies as 'elite' by most metrics relevant to this discussion. Since the American discussion meant to include SLACs, I take it that we were using 'elite' in the comprehensive and primarily undergraduate senses. Accordingly, the 'elite' institutions (in an undergrad rather than discipline-specific context) in a country are those with long-standing reputations for the quality of the educations that they provide, as well as the quality of their students, their endowments per capita, exclusiveness of admissions, and so on. It's neither an objective nor a fair exercise, and it doesn't actually mean that the quality of the actual students there, or of their instruction, is any better than at many other institutions in those countries.

So, the rankings that matter most for Canada are the Maclean's and Globe and Mail rankings under those two headings. The THE, QS World, and ARWU rankings, unless I'm mistaken, operate with very different criteria (placing a great deal of weight on faculties of medicine, law, and engineering, and the *research* done there, rather than on *teaching*, student-faculty ratio and contact, satisfaction, awards and achievement, library holdings, etc.). It comes as no surprise, then, that Canada's liberal arts universities don't fare well by those criteria, but consistently come out on top otherwise. And if we're talking about exclusivity, there's no doubt when it comes to our LAUs: they're way more expensive than their larger and research-intensive counterparts, and the average grades for their entering classes (data that Maclean's publishes in every university issue) are also generally higher.

All things being equal, there are only one or two handfuls of Canadian universities with that kind of aura. UBC and Victoria may well be among them; Toronto, I'm afraid, probably isn't, simply because it is so huge and not at all focused on undergraduate education. That list is usually comprised of a pile of small Maritime liberal-arts universities, and a couple in BC, and McGill. Unfortunately, Toronto just doesn't have the same kind of historical aura bolstering it. That doesn't mean it's justified; it's just the way things are. Now, if what you want to call 'elite' in this discussion are just universities with fantastic philosophy departments (from the research, graduate, and undergraduate perspectives), then that's a different story and a different list, since most of Canada's universities aren't particularly notable for their philosophy departments. The top medical schools are irrelevant unless we're talking about elite medical schools, which we're not.

Again, none of that means that there aren't other excellent universities in Canada. But if you're asking about those universities that are the national equivalent (or as close as we come) to the Ivy League and SuperSLACs in the US (for undergraduates), then that's a very small and different list, and you're not likely to find many research-intensive institutions on it. It's a very different list if the emphasis is placed on graduate and research activity, and even more different if the focus is just on one department. But I didn't take that to be the case here.

Anonymous said...

Part II
As I said, I expect that Canada's LAU fare poorly internationally in terms of name-recognition, just as the US's probably do (I for one have never heard of Swarthmore or the others). If there's a bias, I would expect it to operate in favour of departments with name-recognition. Internationally, that means those with strong research profiles, especially in the discipline under question. Thus, I'd expect the Toronto undergrad to do much better on the American grad school circuit than the Mount Allison undergrad. Within Canada, I would expect those roles to be reversed. Similarly, I expect that Swarthmore and company place better within the US than outside it, while the Ivy Leagues and perhaps the very top PGR programmes probably dominate wherever they apply for philosophy. The reasoning here is quite simple: if people are taking provenance into account, then they're looking for name recognition. Accordingly, institutions that they're familiar with because they are big in the field or because they have fancy reputations in the evaluator's home country are likely to loom largest.

Hope that wall of text made sense.

Joe Reich said...

When I was applying to PhD programs, I looked at just this sort of information for every place I was considering. (It was the only smidgen of data there was to suggest how likely I was to get in at a particular place!)

I didn't look at them systematically, but my impression was that there was a major drop-off in percentage of students with great pedigrees around PGR 5-7. Above that range, it seemed like nearly everyone had gone to Harvard, etc., and below that, there was at least a fair chance of having gone somewhere else.

So it would be interesting to see if this is borne out by a difference even between Princeton and Berkeley. (As well as if it holds more widely.)

Also, if my impression is correct, it might be wise for students coming from non-super-elite schools to avoid blowing $100 a pop on applying to the top few PhD programs.

Anonymous said...

What's particularly depressing about this result is how it seems to suggest that one's ultimate fate in philosophy can be sealed by one's performance in HS.

Suppose you're a very bright student in HS. But the thing is, you just can't motivate yourself to do a bunch of academic tasks that seem kinda dumb. Or maybe you're just rebelling against what you see as the rather arbitrary demands of teachers who themselves seem kinda dumb and/or authoritarian.

Then, it seems, forget any kind of real career in philosophy.

Because you're going to get some low grades in a number of your HS courses. Those low grades are going to keep you out of any kind of elite college or university, as we all know. You go instead to some very middle range college/university. Perhaps you get your act together and do outstandingly well.

But no top notch philosophy program will touch you, because of your mediocre school. And even if you get into a good but not first rate phil program, you are very unlikely to get a job as a professor, and especially unlikely to get such a job at a school with itself any kind of name.

And so no one takes your papers seriously -- especially at the better journals. Your career never takes off.

And all because of an unfocussed/rebellious year or two in HS.

I think it's pretty fair to say, given how all this works out, that virtually all the better known philosophers of today bowed down pretty well to the conventional expectations of HS.

Now I don't have much of a problem with some or even most of the better known philosophers being of this sort - but virtually all of them? That doesn't seem healthy. And it particularly doesn't seem so for a discipline like philosophy that at least pretends to encourage unconventional thinking and attitudes.

Ian said...

It seems particularly relevant to me that Rutgers and NYU undergrads might do better on grad school admissions than do undergrads at comparable institutions with less prominent philosophy faculty.

I don't believe it would be prejudicial against the NYU faculty to doubt that they do more to make their undergrads learn philosophy than the William & Mary or U Rochester faculty do. Same story for Rutgers faculty vs. Clemson and Minnesota. So why do their students do better in grad school admissions (if indeed they do) if not for admissions elitism?

Possibility: kids who want to be philosophy majors go to Rutgers because they read that it has a great philosophy department. I sure wasn't dialed in like that when I was 18, but, of course, I didn't end up at an elite PhD program!

Anonymous said...

I am willing to bet that most Philosophy Department websites do not list where faculty members took their undergraduate degree. (I did a quick search and found none that does.)

Jeff Glick said...

Not that it adds much data to the sample, but I went to Cal State Northridge as an undergrad and then to Rutgers for grad school.

I believe it helped considerably that Jim Tomberlin wrote my letter of rec on Nous letterhead.

Marta Layton said...

Reading this, I wonder how I fit into the picture. I did a B.S. at one of the satellite schools in the NC system (in math) and was accepted into Syracuse's MA program (whose doctorate is ranked #34 by Leiter) and into several MA-only programs. I ultimately went on to do a terminal M.A. at Cleveland State and applied to several doctorate programs. I was accepted by three Leiter-ranked programs (UO-Norman, Leeds, and St. Andrews), two additional well-regarded programs in my sub-specialty that are not ranked by Leiter, and of course into where I am currently studying, which is inserted into the Leiter rankings but not quantitatively ranked.

I fully realize that anecdotal evidence will not go very far, but did think I would put myself forth as an example of someone who went to an academically perfectly adequate but certainly not prestigious undergraduate institution, topped it off with an MA from a school in the same category, and ended up at a school that does have a good pedigree, certainly within my specialty.

My hypothesis - and I have nothing to back this up - is that schools that display their students' BA/MA programs may be a bit pedigree-conscious to begin with. So the kind of school that would choose to display such information may value it more to begin with, than is the case for other schools that themselves are highly-regarded but that don't put such an emphasis on things.

Hugh Manaty said...

I agree it is a shame.

I wanted to thank you for doing this bit of research. I hope someone will follow up and look at these issues in more detail.

It doesn't surprise me at all. I remember in my grad program there were very few students from state schools and even fewer from non-elite state schools. It certainly was not the case that the non-elite state school students were not as good. Some of the most brilliant students were from non-elite state universities.

The reason the non-elite state school students were admitted had everything to do with who wrote their letters.

Thanks so much for doing this research and I truly hope that something comes of it. Diversifying the types of institutions grad programs take seriously could also play a role in diversifying the field in terms of class, race and gender since the universities that seem to be left out, like SUNY and Cal-State have many more working class students. It would be a good thing if more people from diverse backgrounds had shots at becoming professional philosophers.

John Schwenkler said...

However problematic this situation is, it's not nearly as bad as Anonymous at 03:44 makes it out to be. There are *very* many cases of philosophers who went to less-than-stellar undergraduate institutions and have had productive, and in many cases outright distinguished, careers in philosophy. (It should go without saying that even the undistinguished career in philosophy is a pretty good deal!) Some of these folks found their way into elite Ph.D. institutions, while others attended less elite schools throughout and prevailed through the quality of their work. (One very distinguished philosopher who comes to mind is Ted Sider: B.A. at Gordon College, Ph.D. at U-Mass, first job at Syracuse, you know the rest.) This post highlights a huge, and very important and worrisome respect in which the profession is not very meritocratic, but it seems to me that after this point things get much better.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments! A few responses:

Several mentioned their nonelite pedigrees and elite graduate school admissions. It seems to me that you very much beat the odds! But some people will, since the trend is strong but not exceptionless. It's interesting to know that at least two Cal State students have made it to elite programs (CSUN to Rutgers, CSLA to Michigan [per CSLA's website, which Manyul referred me to). I was beginning to fear there might be none from the whole vast system!

Michael and Alex: Your data are somewhat heartening. In the 2009 PGR, Yale is even ranked #8, but Yale's rise to such elite ranks in philosophy was fairly recent, so I wonder if some of the listed students predate that rise. It would also be interesting to see the data a bit more systematically.

Anon 2:04: I have been using top 10 ranking as the cutoff for "elite" PhD program (there are about 50 ranked programs). So your data really show evidence of what I should have been more clear about (and which I will now revise in the post): That I don't think these remarks don't generalize to programs outside the top 10 or 15 -- or maybe (if Joe Reich is correct) the top 5-7 (though Berkeley is currently in a four-way tie for #9).

Anonymous said...

"There are *very* many cases of philosophers who went to less-than-stellar undergraduate institutions and have had productive, and in many cases outright distinguished, careers in philosophy."

I really don't think you're thinking statistically here.

Sure, there always have been and always will be cases in which genuinely capable people will recover from a poor starting position. But that hardly makes the case that such people don't in general confront tremendous obstacles -- obstacles that only rarely will be overcome. Perhaps some of them simply don't even get a job in the profession. Perhaps some of them, who do get positions somewhere, and who would be quite productive if given due recognition fairly early on, simply give up when they are denied that recognition. Human nature being what it is, that's pretty much what one would expect. The cases in which a person manages to transcend their poor start, despite the insidious credentialism of the profession, are, one would expect, viewed statistically, unusual. Perhaps such people are particularly persistent; perhaps they are lucky in their choice of topics or mentors. But there are, very likely, any number of people of equal potential with similarly undistinguished starts who simply won't achieve what they might.

To riff on the story from Francis Bacon, yes, you've presented a nice picture of those who have survived this credentialism. But where's the picture of those who haven't?

Your argument strikes me as akin to the argument that, however poor one's background, and however wretched one's educational opportunities might be, none of it matters, because we can point to Mr. or Ms. Splendid Success who suffered through an equally deprived background and rose to the very top.

I don't think such excuses work in society, and I don't think like excuses work in philosophy.

Owen Flanagan said...

Hypothesis: I think the bias exists and I have a hunch as to it's proximate cause. Some of my colleagues act as if letters by well known philosophers, ones they know, count much more than those by philosophers they don't know. There are many mistakes in thinking this, but studying logic and epistemology is not adequate protection from this bias.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 2:08: Thanks for the link to CSLA; that's interesting to see. Despite your remarks, it seems to me that the best methodology is to start from the outcome and work backwards, since for two schools (Princeton and Berkeley) there are near-complete data. Very partial data gathered from diverse sites are likely to create a misleading picture, I think. I would have gladly used other top 10 schools in addition, if their data were systematically available, and I would be happy to revise my analysis and announce the good news if I find such data and the picture it paints is materially different.

Marta: That seems possible.

John 5:29: This is another dimension of the situation. What proportion of faculty at ranked PhD programs come from elite PhD institutions of the sort it's very hard to get into from nonelite schools. The large majority, I'm inclined to think. But not all. At every stage, though the trends are strong, there are exceptions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Owen: I would love to see the following study: Have admissions committees rate applicants on several specific criteria including: strength of transcript, institutional pedigree, strength of writing sample, strength of letter contents, prestige of letter writers, GRE. Come back ten years later and see which factors best predicted student outcomes.

Ari K said...

I went to MIT for grad school coming out of UC Davis. A girl that was a year behind me at Davis went to NYU (and got in everywhere else), although I heard that she eventually dropped out.

As Eric's post mentions, Davis is not one of the elite UC schools, although there were several excellent, and prominent, philosophers there at the time (2000-2004), which I'm sure helped both of us a lot.

One thing that I think deserves to be mentioned in this context, which has not really been touched on yet, is the way in which one's undergraduate education can play a role in one's future success as a philosopher, even if one does manage to make it into an elite graduate program.

When I came to MIT, I did not know anything about 2-dimensionalism, Formal Epistemology, Sleeping Beauty, Disjunctivism, etc., although I did know about Boethius, the Stoics, and the Pre-Socratics.

Being up to date on the most recent philosophical debates and puzzles is important, because the closer one's understanding is to the cutting edge, the sooner one can contribute, and hence publish. To be up to date on those things by the time one arrives at grad school, however, one has to be taught by top researchers as an undergrad, which means that one has to be at an elite undergrad institution---or at least elite, as far as philosophy is concerned.

So even if one manages to make it to an elite grad program from a non-elite undergrad institution, the education that one received as an undergrad still plays an important role, I think, in determining the shape of one's career going forward.

hoping for a miracle said...

I'm applying for PhD programs this fall, entrance 2012. I'm coming out of a decent undergraduate program but my pedigree and the identities of my letter-writers will carry little weight. Should I just skip the top ten and choose a handful of others to apply to? It seems like a waste of money to apply to top places, in light of all these posts.

Anonymous said...

As someone who got into one of the aforementioned programs (Princeton/Berkeley) from one of the unranked schools Eric listed, I would say that you should apply to "top" schools if you think your application is strong enough.

Of course, this is about useless, since if you knew whether or not your application was strong enough, you wouldn't need to ask. Still, that's the best that can be done. It's certainly not a lost a cause to apply. If you have a very good application (including, most of all, a good writing sample) you will be competitive just about everywhere.

But of course one of the primary difficulties of coming from a less-than-elite school is knowing where you stand. And there the best you can do is ask your advisors, ideally those who seem most up to date on the discipline. If they don't seem enthusiastic about your chances, or if they do seem enthusiastic but you suspect they might not have reason to be (e.g. they might not have any idea what it actually takes to get into NYU), be prepared to hedge your bets when applying. Even if they give your unadulturated praise, you should probably still hedge your bets somewhat.

If you have the money, apply to ~20 schools. This isn't a batting average. Apply to some MA programs. Apply to mid-ranked schools. Apply to top schools. Apply to lots of schools.

One way to go about this would be to apply to several MA schools (3 or 4) as a backup, then only apply to schools in or around the Leiter top 30. This is only a rough guide, as there are some excellent schools (in terms of placement) that don't happen to be in the top 30, e.g. Georgetown and Northwestern, but serves as a rough proxy of programs that place well (Note: some schools IN the top 30 place poorly. Check the programs out for yourself. Caveat emptor.) If you get admitted to a PhD program, you'll be at a decent place, and if you don't, your chances of getting into a good MA program are high.

That, at least, seems to be the ideal strategy for an applicant coming from a less-than-elite background.

Anonymous said...

I hate to "call out" CSU, but the following claim, based upon data on the CSU website,

"It's interesting to know that at least two Cal State students have made it to elite programs (CSUN to Rutgers, CSLA to Michigan [per CSLA's website, which Manyul referred me to)"

is misleading. I would rather not make specific allegations, but at least one of the two "placements" is far less direct than is suggested by their website.

Anonymous said...

Apropos the last comment, it is public information that the student from CSLA now at Michigan was an undergraduate at Tufts and Oxford in between. I am sure that you didn't intend to cast doubt on the honesty of Jeff Glick's post above, but that was the effect.

Anonymous said...

"it is public information that the student from CSLA now at Michigan was an undergraduate at Tufts and Oxford in between"

Ohh? Public in what sense? It's certainly not on the CSULA website.

Anyhow, if a student went to BOTH Tufts and Oxford "in between" going to CSULA and Michigan, it stretches nearly beyond recognition the sense in which CSULA "placed" that student at Michigan.

Anonymous said...

I tend to think the problem exists with the non-elite (so to speak) undergrads rather than with grad admissions at Princeton or Yale.

Here's what I mean. As an undergrad, I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (A brief disclaimer: I harbor no delusion regarding my talent for philosophy. I was an average student who was mature in some of my writing and (very) immature in some of my writing. What's more, I consider my time with the outstanding (!) faculty at UNL to be most valuable. My overall impression of that faculty is one of committed philosophers who take their research and teaching seriously, and who cared deeply for my education.)

During my three years at UNL there was no emphasis or mention (ever by anyone, including my adviser with whom I get along quite well) about how I might get into philosophy grad school. This point needs significant clarification, but I'll say here that one can't imagine a pre-med student to whom a specific order of classes would not be advised, or to whom the competitive nature of med school admissions would not be mentioned, or to whom med school would never be mentioned at all during four years pre-med. But that was analogous to my undergrad philosophy experience (except for the four years).

I did literally all of the road work to grad school myself and, after reading blogs like "Splintered Mind", LR and others, decided it was in my best interest to pursue another career (btw I think that was the right decision, given my circumstances).

I confirmed this experience with several other philosophy majors who would be considered *excellent* students, or at least much much better than I was (one went on to an "elite" physics program, another is a med student at UNMC).

So, I think this is part of the problem (a big part). At the "non-elite" undergrad schools, there is not the assumption or emphasis that people will go on in philosophy, much less go on at an elite level. And so the faculty puts little effort toward sending even the best students to grad programs, much less elite grad programs.

And FWIW I don't think this is awful of the faculty at UNL or other non-elites. It is just a practical way of thinking about what young people can accomplish given certain (ie being from UNL, the current job market in philosophy) circumstances. But I also think it is a big reason for the distribution in Dr. Schwitzgebel's post, and I think if faculties at lower ranked schools placed medical-school like emphasis (whatever that means) on philosophy undergrads we would see more state colleges represented at Princeton and Yale.


Mark Lance said...

Some of this has been said, but I'm going to reiterate. Please don't assume that the only way into the profession is through a top ten school. Until the last two years of total economic collapse, Georgetown placed every single student who finished - and who applied broadly; we had one or two who decided they had to live in x city and only got temporary jobs - in a tenure track job. Even those out in the last two years have almost all found employment. We don't place in the top ten, but have the top 20 and certainly at many great liberal arts colleges. And some of that is, frankly, a self-fulfilling function of who applies. If the very best students apply to the top ten, then the top ten will generally graduate better job candidates even if their training and placement work is no better than some others.

And of course we admit students from all over the map. We are not unique in any of this. There are lots of other mid-ranked departments where you can get a great graduate education and have a good shot at a job.

Anonymous said...

Much like Anon 12:43 I had the option of mounds of debt or a full ride (partial athletic/partial academic). At the time it seemed like an easy choice-especially considering I'm from abroad, and we don't go into much debt for a degree. But in the end I know it hurt me, but not just the name. The course offerings hurt, being around unmotivated students hurt, my professors were unknown, I was by far the best philosophy major but what did that mean?

When I did graduate and took some graduate classes with students from a genuinely elite university I realized how poorly prepared I was. The really disappointing thing was that I could do work at that level, but at a small school my teachers never pushed me-why would they?

There was a very spirited discussion once at Leiter about the GRE, and all the admissions folk said it's ok if it's low, it can be balanced out by the rest of the application etc. But pedigree casts a long shadow over the WHOLE application, which it is hard to recover from.

In my case I feel it was justified, but considering just how pointy Eric has shown things to be maybe there is genuine problem.

As an idea for those in a similar situation, if you can't get into a program you want to attend, go somewhere with a good grad program and take a few grad level classes. You can work, cutting down on debt, and see if you both want it and can really can handle it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, everyone, for the continuing comments!

@ Mark: I'm inclined to think that Georgetown might be exceptional in this respect (as Anon 09:15 also suggested). If so, I wonder what the explanation is.

@ Hoping: I usually advise students to apply to two "longshot" schools, two fallback schools, and four at about the ranking level that they believe they have a decent shot at -- though more than that could be useful if you have the money for it. Contra Anon 09:15 I wouldn't advise avoiding schools ranked 30-50, though you may want to look carefully at their placement records.

Anonymous said...

How about this as an hypothesis? Georgetown is an exception to the rule because it's Catholic. There are certainly a number of jobs to be had at Catholic colleges. (I taught at a 2,000 person Catholic college with 11 full-time philosophers.) I don't know if this hypothesis is true but it can be tested by comparing how other Catholic grad programs, such as Marquette and Boston College, fare in finding jobs.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to Anglo-Saxonia, where meritocracy is largely a fig leaf over plutocracy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 09:28: I'm sorry to have deleted your well-intentioned comment, but I would want that individual's permission before singling her out in that way. Feel free to repost with a more abstract description of the situation.

Anonymous said...

(A bit of disclosure: I teach in the CSU. I went to a top-10 PhD school, so I know that world, too.)

Suppose you're poor. You grow up in a poor area. The high school you go to is likely to be a poor high school. Suppose you manage to make it through that high school and go to college; you're likely to wind up at a place like a Cal State. Suppose you manage to get into a PhD program out of that school. It's likely not to be a top PhD program. As a result, (if you get a job) you're likely to wind up in a job with very heavy teaching requirements that is hard to publish out of.

I suspect where you wind up in academia is in no small part a function of your socioeconomic background as a child.

I'd like to see some rigorous research on this. But I'd not at all be surprised to see that most of the grad students at Berkeley and Princeton came from backgrounds radically different than those of most of my students in the CSU.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the Princeton/Berkeley students coming from what Eric has labelled an "elite" background. Both my undergraduate and MA institutions are considered "elite" by his lights.

It's worth sharing, I think, that my undergraduate program crippled me in my early efforts to get into philosophy. I applied to 10 PhD programs during my senior year, and I was rejected from all of them. I reapplied to PhD programs at the end of my MA program (this time I applied to only 5) and was successful. My MA degree is not a philosophy degree. Additionally, only one of my parents has a college degree, neither has a graduate degree.

How much did my acceptance into my PhD program depend on my "elite" background? I can hardly say. I at least think that this background can be construed as "elite" in only a narrow (and perhaps mistaken) sense.

I'm inclined to think that this study would be more interesting if it took into account the percentage of elite-background students are applying as compared with the percentage of non-elites. Since Eric wants to confer "elite" status upon so many schools (all of the top 100? nearly all liberal arts schools represented? all the crappy undergrad institutions which have managed somehow to create great philosophy departments?) I wonder how many applicants are applying from non-elite schools at all. Instead of asking whether or not students at Harvard and Columbia really are that much smarter, I'm asking whether or not students at Harvard and Columbia are more interested in philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to the bag of experiences. I am one of the PhDs from Princeton. I came from a foreign, very non-elite program that nobody ever heard of.

However, I got lucky as a student and won a scholarship to spend 2 semesters as an exchange student at what turned out to be an elite philosophy school in US (one that I never heard of before). It was a year that made me realize that 1) one could do philosophy as a profession at a level that is intellectually satisfying and 2) it takes a lot of extra work to get into an elite or even decent philosophy program. I then worked hard for the next 2 years to make it happen, esp. on my philosophical education, incl. 3 semesters of work on my writing sample. I received support (rec. letters) from 2 well-known professors from Europe. One happened to be spending the very semester at the elite school that I visited, and one from a professor in Germany with whom I went to work for a semester at my own cost. I applied to 10 schools, was admitted to 3, all in top 20 of Leiter Report. Still, despite all this work, I came not quite prepared for the program itself. It took me a year or two to feel comfortable there. I remember that I was pretty astonished at how far ahead of me some people were (a few of Harvard and Columbia people come to mind).

So - was there a bias? Maybe - I really can't tell from my own experience, and stats numbers are just numbers - interpreting them is a difficult task, esp. when it is unclear what everything is relevant information. But I am sure that pedigree matters to some extent, and perhaps often not in relevant ways. Was it impossible to get in? No. Did it took extra effort? Yes. But the effort was needed for good reasons.

Now I spent some time at one US philosophy department (one who used to be ranked in top 50 by Leiter) as a professor. It has a very strong undergraduate program (at least so they say). Each year, we would get 1-3 people interested in applying for grad school (approx. 160 majors). They were not always the best philosophy majors of their year. Some of the best people, people I thought could get into top programs, decided after some deliberation to not go into philosophy (often going into law, classics, etc., or even not pursuing further education). Sometimes students who really were not ready for grad school decided to apply, and did not succeed. In a few cases we had the best student/s making a decision for philosophy grad school and in many of those cases they in fact did get into decent or even top 3, 10 or 20 programs.

One more thought: It is hard not to attach significance to the fact that someone who is coming from Harvard is coming from a excellent department that is ranked as such, by US professors themselves in Leiter report: ranked as being excellent for the study of philosophy. Why are we then making these rankings? After all, it is not just tool for deciding where to apply - it is used in some places in decisions about whom to admit or hire, or where to take up a job.

From my own experience I agree with someone here who said that what matters is the way the departments care for their undergrads: in my case it took 2, to me foreign, professors who got interested in me and helped me. If I were to rely on my own institution, which taught me next to nothing, I would never even formed the idea of going to grad school, and I wouldn't now be contributing to this blog.

Jason Stanley said...

I graduated with SUNY Stony Brook in 1990. I had a 4.0 GPA (albeit with weak GREs), and was Valedictorian of the university. My writing sample was on the Grundgesetze der Arithmetik. I had substantial graduate work in linguistics, and had spent a year in Germany studying Kant and Hegel. I had just won a Fulbright scholarship to study Frege in Germany. I applied to almost 20 philosophy departments, and a couple of linguistics departments. I was flat out rejected at every single philosophy department except for MIT. I didn't even make a single waitlist. I was accepted at MIT because George Boolos really liked my writing sample, and he got to read it because Richard Larson, who had left a position in semantics at MIT the previous year to go to Stony Brook, spoke extremely highly of me, presumably saving me from first round rejection. Looks like nothing has changed.

Anonymous said...

I do think doing an M.A. is the way to go (perhaps the only way to go) for people with non-elite backgrounds. My M.A. program had folks from Erskine, Roanoke, Wheaton (MA), Montana State, and a number of other not-quite-Ivies, but we placed pretty well (all of those four are in PGR top 25 schools, three in top 15, two top 10).

Anonymous said...

The majority of the students at elite colleges and universities (and that includes small, elite liberal arts colleges) come from upper-class or upper-middle class backgrounds. Very few of those students come from working class or poor backgrounds. So when the elite PhD programs in philosophy select only students from those elite colleges and universities, they guarantee that their entire population of students will be upper or upper-middle class. That is unfortunate, and for lots of reasons. Not only are there concerns of justice here, but also concerns about how this affects the practice of philosophy. I would not be surprised if it affected the discipline in all sorts of ways, from the choice of research topics to the positions taken on various issues. It certainly creates a subculture that is socio-economically homogeneous. And that homogeneous subculture reproduces itself, as such subcultures usually do. The victims of this whole process are the good students who go to small state colleges, and some of whom are actually very good. That's why it is so heartening to hear someone like Jason Stanley tell his own story so honestly. This bias needs to be acknowledged and resisted as much as possible.

KP said...

@Anon 9:16, The thing is, a number of folks go to non-elite schools for financial reasons, and doing an MA is difficult in those circumstances. I applied to, and was accepted to Tufts, but there was absolutely no way I could afford it. Even going to a place like UWM, which offers full tuition remission and a stipend, would have been far more financially difficult than going to some of the PhD programs I was admitted to that are near the bottom of Leiter's 50 (or unranked).

I saw a couple places in the comment thread where someone suggested that students with financial concerns will be less inclined toward graduate school because of the costs, and perhaps that's why there are less students from non-elite schools in the top ten programs, but for what it's worth, some of the stipends with health insurance provisions offer, at least for folks with serious financial concerns, actually quite a bit of short-term financial security. Of course in the long run, philosophy is not fiscally advantageous in the way other careers are, but I find it difficult to believe that this is an adequate explanation for why there are so few students from non-elite undergrads in elite PhD programs.

Anonymous said...

Here's an explanation that I like and think is plausible. I didn't see it in a cursory read of the comments earlier today but it might have come up.

1. Applying and getting in to a top philosophy graduate program requires viewing a career in philosophy as a serious possibility.

(This should be pretty self-explanatory.)

2. Most people are much less likely to view a career in academic philosophy unless they think (if only deep down and not in a way they would endorse upon reflection) that they're really special.

(Philosophy is really hard. To feel you can make a go of it, you basically need to think that you will have something worthwhile to say about incredibly vexed questions that have been debated in incredible detail by incredibly smart people for incredibly long times. To believe this, you need to believe (again, if only deep down and not necessarily in a way you would endorse upon reflection) that you're pretty damn special.)

3. Graduates of elite schools are much more likely than other people to think they're really special in the relevant sense.

(Elite schools tell students they're really special all the time, in all kinds of different ways. Indeed, they have powerful structural incentives to continue to do this. (I imagine this is much of the reason I will continue to send money to my beloved elite SLAC alma mater.) This is not true of other schools, or in any case not true to anything close to the same extent. Moreover, students at elite schools are also disproportionately likely to have been told they're really special to similar extents throughout their whole lives.)

4. So graduates of elite schools are much more likely to apply and get in to top philosophy graduate programs.

laura.g said...

my contribution, in sum: any phd program with a solid MA component should be able to smooth over a lot of the unevenness of philosophical background which would, it's true, result from admitting more students from non-elite backgrounds. i'm talking about a rigorous first- and possibly second-year seminar that provides decent exposure of some of the central questions in the field, a serious set of course requirements (in history particularly) that includes the chance to take upper-division undergraduate courses, and a strong advising system.

this would not only make it easier to admit students who come from non-elite institutions, but also talented students coming in from other disciplines from elite and non-elite institutions alike-- the exclusion of whom from the discipline i also find disturbing, and for very similar reasons (i.e. you'd better know exactly what your about by the time you're nineteen, or forget about it).

i myself have made it to a top ten program from a non-elite (and how!) undergraduate institution by way of tufts, so this is a subject near to my heart, and i thank you for addressing it. i would just remind everyone that the issue isn't only one of fairness or social justice, but of the gross squandering of an enormous pool of talent.

just this week one of my professors, an undisputed leader in his field, mentioned that he hadn't taken a single undergraduate philosophy class, and that no one in his circumstances would ever be admitted to a phd program now.

i totally get that there are already more people than jobs, and that now, more than ever, we need to get people graduated in fewer years, not more, and i'm not arguing for either more admits or more years. i'm also extremely sympathetic to the task that admissions committees face, and do assume that where most departments think they've found a case of raw or under-appreciated talent, they'd be inclined to make a grab for it (why not?) but, still-- there's something nuts about a set of criteria that excludes in the particular sort of way that the current system seems to by requiring that one already be a sort of pre-professional.

Nicole Wyatt said...

Outside of the US it is very very rare that a student goes straight from an undergraduate degree into a PhD program. A 2 year MA is the norm, not the exception for Canadian students, for example.

I suspect that one advantage to this is to mitigate the prestige factor in undergraduate education, albeit by transferring things to the MA granting institution. This is less pernicious however in as far as students who are applying to MA programs are in a better position to understand what is relevant than 18 year olds who likely don't expect to major in philosophy at all.

Anonymous said...

Eric, this is Anon 09:28. Sorry about posting the link. I had second thoughts as soon as it appeared. Just to clear things up for those who are confused: the information is public in the sense that it is easily discoverable if you know how to use a search engine.

(There's an interesting issue here about what privacy amounts to, right?)

Anonymous said...

I went from a Brooklyn College (CUNY) to the University of Michigan but that was in 1993 and even then I was certainly the only one in the entire program with that sort of background.

Anonymous said...

When I was applying to grad schools from Oberlin, I corresponded with some professors who I might be interested in working with, and one at Michigan told me that Oberlin wasn't quite the caliber of school they usually drew their students from.

Anonymous said...

"Elite schools tell students they're really special all the time, in all kinds of different ways. Indeed, they have powerful structural incentives to continue to do this."

Indeed. I'm sick to death of all the BS around "a Harvard education." This is just internal marketing. The problem is that so many buy into this self-important drivel and they take great pains to let everyone know they've got the right brand of education. New England is filled with cars sporting school stickers. It's not just college stickers. Lots of people find it important to let the world know what private school their child is in. Drive through Providence, for instance. You see this all over the place. It's repulsive.

A Harvard education is a great networking opportunity, no doubt. But there is no magic. It's not as if they have the secret solutions to all philosophical problems locked away in a special member's only reading room.

If you have competent professors, who know a lot about their specialization, teaching serious classes, then you can get a great undergraduate education. A serious student at a decent state school is likely to get a far better education than most people get at Ivy U. Spending four years with a bunch of privileged jerks is very unhealthy. It's intellectually retarding and soul corroding. Have you been on an Ivy campus lately?

My proposal: admissions committees should consider an elite education a mark against any applicant. That will help ease the halo effect and correct the injustice in rewarding privilege. My procedure is to knock a letter grade off every student applying from an Ivy or an expensive SLAC.

shane said...

So, what is the correlation between going to one of these top ten schools and being "successful" in philosophy?

If someone is a good thinker/philosopher they will be good wherever they go and wherever they teach, right?

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Schwitzgebel,

thank you very much for your blog, which is very enlightening. It's a shame that I discover your blog only after I have submitted several applications. I have a few questions concerning my remaining applications, and hope that you might give me some advice.

I am an international student. I received by BA in Hong Kong; and received my master degree in philosophy from a joint program by three different Universities in different European countries ("Erasmus Mundus"). Since the three Universities have different system of grading, I was worried that having three systems of evaluation on one transcript would make the transcript so obscure that would affect my chance of admission. So, I attached a brief explanation to my application, explaining what's going on with my strange transcript, what the marks and grades means, etc. Do you think I have made a terrible mistake by attaching it (I guess so...)? Should I take it away from the rest of my applications? Or, what would you suggest me do?

My second question: actually, I am a PhD student already, studying with DAAD full scholarship in Bonn. I am applying for Universities in the States because my interest in philosophy changed from German Idealism to problem of vague object. Since this is my first year in my doctoral program in Germany, would the admission committee interpret my intention to quit the program in my first year negatively?

Thirdly, after reading your previous posts (in 2007), I found I have committed to several mistakes you mentioned there. For example, I have been too vague and unspecific about my interests in my personal statement. I just gave some general remarks on my interest (nothing more specific than I have written in this comment). Although I have not talked about my interests in detail, I have submitted a sample paper on the topic. Could this compensate the problem of my personal statement? Actually it is the working on the paper that convert me to my new interest; should I highlight this in my personal statement as well?

Furthermore, do teaching experience (as TA in Univerisities and as instructors in adult education center) and competence in foreign languages help a lot in my application?

Finally, since, if admitted, I will be quitting both the PhD program and the DAAD scholarship, no professors who wrote recommendations for my PhD program and DAAD scholarship are going to write for me again for another program. So, my letters will be extremely weak (I even have to find a friend who has never taught me but has become an assistant professor to write for me). Will the committee understand that there is a special reason here for my weak letters? Or should I mention it in my personal statement?

Thanks so much for your patience in reading my comment. I apologize the length of my comment. And I hope you could give me some advice about them. Thank you very much.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I should have posted my comment to a more relevant post.


Caleb said...

I certainly don’t dispute the overall trend, but there are in fact students who are admitted to Princeton without a pedigreed background. I was accepted straight out of Thomas Aquinas College, ranked by the US News in the 50-100 group of liberal arts colleges. Although this college has a strong focus on philosophy, it doesn’t have any contemporary philosophy in its curriculum (it’s a Great Books school) and discourages its professors from publishing.

Princeton was the only school out of the eight to which I applied that accepted me. In retrospect, I’m much more surprised by my admission to Princeton than by my failure to get in elsewhere. Although my GPA and GREs were excellent and I’m confident my recommendations were strongly positive, these recommendations came from professors who had not published a lot and who did not have connections with any of the programs I was applying to or their faculty. I imagine that this made it hard for my file to look as good as that of someone with a strong recommendation from a leading scholar in the field or from someone with a personal connection to one of the programs.

As a prospective student I was impressed by how much weight the Princeton admissions committee ultimately gave the writing sample. Although they were initially uncertain whether I would be admitted due to the number of strong candidates that year in my area of specialization, they ultimately admitted me on the basis of my writing sample and an additional writing sample I submitted. Throughout the process I was impressed by how carefully they looked at the writing I gave them. I’m not claiming, of course, that they looked carefully at the writing samples of every candidate, but all students under consideration in the final round did seem to be evaluated mostly on their writing sample.

Caleb said...

I would also note that it is much less likely that I would have been admitted in the most recent years coming after the market crash. When there are fewer spots, it’s not surprising that admissions committees would pick candidates who have strong recommendations from top scholars in addition to strong writing samples etc. rather than “take a risk” on candidates with excellent writing samples but with recommendations from unfamiliar or less prestigious faculty. This is especially true at the level of graduate admissions where writing samples often show philosophical promise more than completed mastery.

Caleb said...

I also think that we should separate (and discuss separately) two distinct claims that some take this data to suggest:

1) (top-ranked) graduate admissions committees tend to be biased towards more elite schools/philosophy programs such that they will admit evidently less qualified candidates from such programs over better candidates from weaker programs.

2) undergraduate students who attend more elite schools/philosophy programs tend to be better prepared to successfully apply to grad programs (in terms of recommendations, courses taken, institutional support etc.) than similar students who went to less elite programs, making the students at elite programs more likely to successfully apply to graduate programs, particularly highly-ranked ones.

My own sense is that there’s a good deal of evidence for 2), based on this data and other similar information, but that the evidence is much less clear evidence with respect to 1). We’d need to know more about how many students are applying from the different sorts of schools and what their respective measures are in the various components of the application. Data looking at the correlation over the long term of various application components with various kinds of professional success (of the kind Eric expressed a desire for) would be helpful in assessing whether recommendations or pedigree are overvalued as markers of potential for success, but we don’t have that data. I think it would be particularly difficult with pedigree given that you’d either have to make some fairly crude grouping of philosophy departments/schools or be left with sample sizes that are too small.

Caleb said...

Here’s my positive suggestion: admissions committees should make sure that there are always several students with non-pedigreed backgrounds considered in the final round of admissions. I’ve never served on or observed such committees, so I don’t know exactly how they work or whether some schools do something like this already, but my suggestion is that the committee would check to make sure that at least, say, 5 students out of the 25 or 30 whose files and writing samples will be looked at very closely in the final round are from non-pedigreed backgrounds. If there aren’t enough included initially, the committee would go back to earlier rounds and see whether any otherwise promising candidates from non-pedigreed backgrounds were ruled out. Each year there would be a significant number of non-pedigreed candidates whose work received careful attention. Consciously engaging in this practice might also make those involved in the final round concentrate on trying to judge the philosophical aptitude and promise displayed in a writing sample more than its polish or its name checking of hot contemporary authors and topics.

Anonymous said...


I'd be really curious to have more info on how this maps onto the continental-analytic divide.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting continuing discussion, folks! I can't respond to everything but a few thoughts:

@ Anon 10/28 8:03. Maybe I should have three categories instead of two: (1) Roughly top 25 universities and liberal arts colleges vs. (2) roughly 26-50 liberal arts colleges and 26-100 universities vs. (3) all the rest. And then let having a vastly more prestigious graduate program jump a university one category up (applied to Rutgers, Pitt, Arizona, Reed, and a few others -- and I believe informed readers will find these examples antecedently compelling, not generated post hoc to fit a hypothesis). You can see from the data that once one gets into category (2) and especially down below 50, representation at those three top 10 PhD programs gets quite thin.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon 10/29 01:45: That seems unlikely to be typical, based on these data and based on my own experience at UCR, where we have never to my knowledge placed a student into a PhD program ranked in the top 15 at the time of application. I wonder what you were doing right -- maybe the same thing Colorado is doing right?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Caleb: I like the idea of encouraging admissions committees to be sure that there are some non-pedigreed students in their pool of approximately 30 students being most seriously considered for admission.

@ Anon 10/31 05:50: I don't know. Since no "Continental"-oriented departments are in the Leiter top 10, these data don't really pertain to them.

Anonymous said...

I went to a Leiter top ten undergrad and grad program. While I am sure that there are plenty of great students who do not go to elite undergrad institutions, I found that the undergraduates at the university where I went to grad school were completely brilliant and on a completely different level than those at my own undergraduate institution (a pretty prestigious school). I am sure that had I gone to that elite school as an undergraduate, I would have never considered myself to be very good at philosophy. There is a huge divergence in talent between elite and even semi-elite undergraduate institutions. There are surely some very smart people who deserve to get into great programs, and do, but considering the amount of sheer talent I encountered at an elite university, I cannot be surprised by this data nor think that it may only be explained by some sort of pedigree bias, justified or not.

Anonymous said...

Mon Oct 31, 11:49:00 PM PDT

I call bullshit on this one. You've been drinking the coolade. If you said something like this in front of me, I'd drag you outside by your ear. It's total crap.

I've dealt with students and graduates of dozens and dozens of schools. I've talked to people from dozens of schools. I've worked with people from dozens of schools. I've interviewed people from dozens of schools. And I've seen nothing like this.

There might be fewer duds at super competitive places, but the good students at State U are as good as those at any Ivy. They may not have had an expensive SAT tutor, but I've seen no discernible difference in intellectual horse power.

Anonymous said...

This is a discussion both fascinating and disturbing in turns.

It should be reiterated that coming from a lower income, non-academically-inclined background is a very limiting factor, if one has not been lucky enough to have encountered those special individuals that often serve as catalysts to illuminate that light bulb above an academic illiterate's head.

I went to a small regional state school as an undergrad, and was woefully ignorant about the importance of academic pedigree on my future prospects, both academic and economic. Quite a few of my professors came from very well-regarded schools. Luckily, some up-and-coming young academics serve out a couple of years in the bush leagues as visiting profs while polishing their laurels before moving up into more lucrative positions that are also more impressive on their face/brand, if not in fact. But there were also a number of equally impressive (to me) profs from less well know institutions. At the time, I didn't realize I was supposed to be making these fine distinctions. All of those who were willing to engage imparted priceless training in critical thinking to me, regardless of pedigree.

I was lucky. While my analytical abilities were never that impressive, as opposed to a better functioning intuitive side, I gained as much as a person with my level of ability and history could expect. Certainly much more that I could have gained at a more "respectable" state flagship school.

Only later did I understand that by not choosing to attend the flagship, I was dooming my prospects for both sustained employment and graduate school opportunities. I think it stems significantly from being raised/educated in an environment that disdains all that are not evidently self-directed rigorous types and/or gifted/semi-gifted.

I sometimes think that my particular milieu was in itself directing my expectations and outcomes.

However, it's a pleasure to read the discussion. I get a little bit more informed each time I peruse discussions such as this. Thank you!

~ Some Librarian Guy

Anonymous said...

It's simply amazing that on this entire thread, only ONE person mentioned that this data is useless, in the absence of applicant pool data, at indicating admissions bias. Surely some of the trend is baked into the applicant pool. I'm not suggesting that there isn't any bias in the admissions process, but these data are woefully inadequate in telling us the extent of that bias. It's a classic mistake to make in evaluating statistics, but frankly I'm shocked that only one person has mentioned it so far.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon Nov 1 10:30: That would be interesting data to have. One possibility is that very few Cal State or SUNY students apply to Princeton, Berkeley, or Stanford. However, it's unclear what lesson it would be appropriate to draw from that fact, if it is a fact. I disagree that there's no point in noticing their lack of representation in elite schools.

Please notice that I, at least, have not drawn to conclusion that admissions committees are problematically biased. In my mind, it is a very live possibility that underrepresentation is driven by structural issues having to do with the nature of college education in the U.S. and/or the difficulty of making admissions decisions.

Anonymous said...

Of course they are biased. It would be super-human of them otherwise. The admissions committee has been fed the self-serving crap. They likely come from the Ivy League and were fed on this bs. For years they were told that Ivy U was giving them a special education, one worth the 50k a year and worth preserving through alumni donations. As the Brown dating service says: "You've got the education, now find the life partner", or something like that. Good lord. This is complete nonsense. Please, please tell me what kind of magic goes on in the Ivy classroom. If you haven't been in one, watch the videos. Kagan's class at Yale is great, but not because the students are so clever. Far from it. He's a great teacher. This is a happy accident for Yale. They didn’t higher Kagan for his teaching ability. There is no Ivy magic.

Anonymous said...

I'll say one other thing that should be evidence for my (admittedly unqualified) view that the problem usually exists with the *non-elite* undergrads and not with grad admissions at Princeton or Yale (or other).

That is to say, as Anon Oct.31 11:49 and Caleb suggest, the quality of the undergrad body as a whole is lower at the non-elites.

At "State U", undergrad courses are taught at the level of those with the lowest ability, which is quite low. And this is not evil, it's a necessary result of relatively low admission standards and the never-ending push from administration to increase "retention" (ie give easy grades).

At my undergrad, this problem was made worse by the fact that most philosophy students are NOT philosophy majors. They are business majors (or other) who need to meet a humanities requirement. And the business college at State U is (strikingly) even less prepared for writing and discussion than the rest of the undergrads.

So, I suspect this is another reason (maybe even the decisive reason) that undergrads from the Ivy League are /better/. Our abilities are highly dependent on the abilities of those by whom we're surrounded (would anyone disagree?). And the surroundings at "State U" just aren't the same as somewhere with rigorous undergrad admission standards.

This problem can be circumvented to some degree by attending graduate colloquium (where an undergrad will be surrounded by those of higher ability). But, as one cannot be immersed entirely in the grad culture, it is still no substitute for a competitive undergrad experience IMO.


Anonymous said...

David, it's not my experience that classes are dumbed down for the weakest students. I teach at a state school and I certainly don't do this. I give extra help to some, but the weakest students don’t belong in hard classes. Typically, the dummies don't take upper-level philosophy, or at least not many. It's not major for slackers.

The lowest common denominator argument doesn't work for popular art, and it doesn't work for the philosophy class room. If the classes were taught at a level meeting the lowest common denominator, the better students would flee. But State U's don't have reputations as pools of dummies. . . . Perhaps they do among delusional New Englanders, but the reputation is clearly false.

Quit the self-serving bs.

Anonymous said...

There are tons of talented people teaching all over the place. As you might know, the job market is very competitive. And it is not a perfect meritocracy. Hence, you should expect to find people as good, if not better, at a variety of schools. You should expect to find scholars on the level of people at the Ivy's at State U's. And, you know what? You do.

Even if you assume that the job market is a perfect meritocracy, you have to admit that the difference between candidates is often minor. It's not the kind of difference that is going to radically affect the quality of an undergraduate education.

The faculty quality concern is a non-starter.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:35 November 3,

I was a philosophy major and agree philosophy is not for slackers (which I stated clearly if you read the whole thread, which you obviously did not). I'm a science grad student and feel my experience in philosophy was valuable and challenging.

Hard to believe you're a professional philosopher as you resorted to such an obvious fallacy (arguing against your false speculation over what I feel about philosophy majors). I clearly specified the lack of majors as part of the problem. What's more, I work in a field involving admissions to a large state college. I have first hand experience with the sort of students who get in or don't get in. People are right to be worried about admission doesn't follow that those people think the whole college is a "pool of dummies" as you so erroneously inferred. My point was that admission standards affect the whole college. Doesn't sound so bad?

Nice anonymous post, btw. But I guess calling students at your college "dummies" wouldn't turn out great for you.

-David Russell Logan, Lincoln NE, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,

Anonymous said...

BTW I ought to write that failing to meet admission requirements and being unprepared for college are hardly faults of students.

They are faults of public education, which in turn means they are faults of social and economic problems too many and too complex to name here.

So the roots of this problem are much deeper than university admissions (at least by my view, on which lax undergrad admissions are a big part of the problem). Who gets into grad school at Princeton is just a middle-class/upper-middle-class manifestation of a much larger social problem, namely education inequity in the US and elsewhere (which is caused, again, by much more complicated social forces, policies, etc.)

Anonymous said...

No David. I committed no fallacy. You presented a silly lowest common denominator argument. I simply showed that it was wrong. In your reply, you changed your conclusion. You watered it down to something with no interesting implications. I'm not going to keep swatting at a moving target.

Back to your original, stupid argument. There are reason to think that the same would apply to the Ivy's. There are dummies there. They get in because they have rich alumni parents. Do you think that the Ivy classes are taught at the level of these lowest students? If so, State U and Ivy U would be in the same boat.

If the lowest common denominator conclusion held, it would implicate the Ivy's as well. Happily, it's not the case the classes are taught at the level of the worst students.

Jeanne said...

Of course, the study fails to consider one thing: students who attended non-elite colleges (as well as elite colleges) and majored in Philosophy, but opted to forgo further education OR opted for a different graduate pathway.

In this instance, the data is skewed, as it only looks at the demographics of students who actually applied to and were admitted to Philosophy graduate programs.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Jeanne: Yes, I agree that the picture would be clearer if we could know the rates of application. One caveat, though, is that rates of application might be substantially depressed by the feeling that the odds are low, so we should be cautious about taking them at face value as a measure of interest in philosophy grad school at an elite institution.

At UCR there are a couple of top-notch philosophy majors every year who would love to go on to an elite grad school if they could get in. I'm comfortable generalizing this to other schools in the rank 50-100 national universities category. Although that group of universities is poorly represented in elite philosophy PhD programs, that underrepresentation is not due to a lack of students interested in such programs. (Note: I'm not saying that such students are good enough to deserve to get in. That's a separate question. Here I'm just addressing the application-rate issue.)

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add, as a MA student currently in a Cal State terminal MA, that fellow grad. students here have already had offers of acceptance from UNC, Duke and the University of Chicago. I know these are not Harvard or Princeton, but other offers also, will likely come.

This not only gives me hope, as a graduate from a non-elite BS in philosophy, but what is also interesting is that most of our MA students come from Cal State undergraduate programs as well. Maybe it's just a good year?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm glad to hear it, Anon Jan 30! I hope that the data above from Princeton, Berkeley, and Stanford are not representative.

shane said...

This is interesting. I remember prof Graham telling me that when he applied to Stanford during the dot com boom there were only about 100 applicants. I applied to stanford in 09 and my rejection letter said that they had over 800 applicants. Maybe some of the low acceptance rates from Cal State schools is really an artifact of the economy.

Anonymous said...

Too many promising students.

@ DR c'est la vie

@ MJ blame yourself

I believe the key to success is inside of us. Sure, great essay, SoP, elite school background, grades are important for admission. But something what makes you philosopher is impossible to get in elite/nonelite grad school.

Anonymous said...

After reading the original post and comments, I realized that applying as an international student(also anon-native english speaker) is much advantageous than I thought. If your from eastern european or middle eastern countries like Russia, Turkey etc,to be graduated from #1 institution doesn't mean much. It is likely that your application would be rejection at an early stage. My aim is not to blame anyone, in a sense, it's inevitable, when you consider the ratio of positions/applicants. No one wants to risk their 4 or 5 funded PhD positions. Even to get in a non-elite PhD programs is very compelling for us. At least one or two parts of your application must be extraordinary. Having said that, there are many friends of mine who made their way into some prestigious programs like Uni of Chicago, UCLA, DePaul.

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece of reading.

I actually applied to Princeton's Graduate School in EE, just to see what it is like. Have over 2.5 years of R&D experience in wireless standards in Europe and have some pretty strong recommendations from fellow peers who are well-known in their field of research.

Princeton didn't even look through my experience and I got a standard rejection mail. The fact is that if you want to get into Graduate school, human randomness is the single biggest obstacle to overcome. And if the excuse is that they're looking for potential to do research, then I don't understand how R&D experience can be discarded so easily but apparently there's nothing wrong with that.

The best way to get their is purely if a professor takes interest in you and removes the obstacles himself, otherwise you're in for a tough ride.

Mason B said...

An idea generated from a (longer) previous comment:

The correlation between ability and university prestige is probably inflated by the fact that expectations of greatness rarely extend beyond prestigious universities.

Douglas Anthony Cooper said...

Not sure why I'm commenting here. Random umbrage, I suppose. I tripped over your site while researching graduate programs for a friend. Your dismissal of Toronto is, um, disturbing. And demonstrably incorrect.

The site you link to -- which is pretty much the most rigorous -- ranks it first in philosophy programs in Canada, and 11th in the English-speaking world: tied with Columbia, Berkeley, and UCLA. Ahead of MIT, Cambridge, Cornell, and Chicago.

The department has enjoyed this reputation for decades. (I was there in the eighties.) The better students have never had any difficulty entering the top programs in the US or the UK.

(I'm not genuinely offended. Amused, more than anything, that I feel it necessary to post something patriotic.)

Anonymous said...

Well duh. There are 23 California State Universities and the majority of the people who go there are not interested in graduate school. The main purpose of UCs is to lead students into graduate school and CSUs is to lead students into the workforce. Expecting CSU students to be more successful than UC students is just pathetic, which is what this article basically says.

I am sure there are some students who chose a CSU because they want to save money, play the safe way or/and want a piece of the "CSU" experience as well as the UC experience for graduate school. Hands-on experience is important as well, and that is not focused at UCs.

The majority of the top students from high schools get attracted by UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles, hence those two universities getting a lot of students into graduate school. Whereas students commuting to East Bay State and Dominguez Hills State not being interested in graduate school or just undecided.

Also this article is blatantly ignorant.

Anonymous said...