Thursday, June 20, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

In 2007, I ran a series of posts on applying to PhD programs in philosophy. Over the years, many graduate students have told me they found it useful. After twelve years, it's high time to update the series!

Additional update Oct. 28, 2021:

Excellent advice from Alex Guerrero at Rutgers here.  I mostly agree with what he says, with three caveats.

Caveat 1: Note that Rutgers is one of the top-ranked programs in philosophy, so it is more competitive than mid-ranked programs like U.C. Riverside, where I teach.

Caveat 2: The discussion of writing samples might give the impression that you should write a writing sample from scratch as part of the application process.  More commonly, and usually better, you take an essay you have already written for a class, which received a top grade and praise from the professor, and you work to improve it.

Caveat 3: Guerrero writes:
The personal statement serves a very specific function in the application; it tells those reading the application (a) what topics you want to focus on in graduate school and (b) why we should expect you to flourish if you focus on those topics in our program.
I am not so sure about part (b) here.  This can be difficult to do well.  You probably don't want to say "I'll do great because I got lots of As and my professors say nice things to me."  You can describe some objective accomplishments (e.g., awards received, president of Philosophy Club), but I wouldn't try to hard to plead your awesomeness.  Note that none of the three sample letters included in Part IV of this series have much by way of (b).

Part One: Should You Apply, and Where?

Warning: This might be depressing!

It's Extremely Competitive

At U.C. Riverside (currently ranked 32 in the U.S. in the Philosophical Gourmet Report), we typically receive between a hundred and two hundred applications for a target entering class of six students. Our "yield" rate is usually under 50%, so we typically admit about 15-20 students for those six slots.

Last year, we had 96 applicants, of whom we admitted eleven. Of those eleven, seven accepted, so there was no need for us to make a second round of admissions offers. Although last year was probably atypically low in applicant number and atypically high in yield, a faculty member here who often serves on admissions tells me that there has been a long term trend toward fewer applicants but a higher percentage of applicants who are an excellent "fit" for our program.[1] (More on "fit" in Part V.)

Most applicants have excellent grades both in upper-division undergraduate philosophy courses and overall, and about 50%-75% of admitted applicants also have some graduate level work. Looking at data on eight of our eleven admittees this year (excluding one international applicant whose transcripts aren't comparable and two who quickly declined UCR for higher ranked programs), all but one had GPAs over 3.85 at their most recent institution, with a median GPA of 3.92/4.00. While it's not impossible to be admitted to a mid-ranked PhD program without stellar grades, it is rare. If you are applying as an undergraduate or M.A. student, you want straight As, or very close, in your upper-division philosophy classes. (Graduate students seeking to switch institutions are a more complicated case. In Part II, I'll talk in more detail about grades and transcripts.)

For comparison, the median GPA of admittees to Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School are currently 3.86 and 3.92 respectively.

Higher-ranked PhD programs presumably receive substantially more applicants and presumably have substantially higher yield rates, meaning they can be even more selective than U.C. Riverside. It seems a safe bet that it is considerably more difficult to gain admission to Harvard's Philosophy PhD program than Harvard Law or Medical.

Undergraduate institutional prestige is also a substantial factor in admissions, as I have discussed elsewhere and will discuss in more detail in Part II. It is extremely difficult to gain admittance to the most elite philosophy PhD programs if you aren't from an elite university or liberal arts college. On the other hand, mid-ranked PhD programs like UCR admit students from a wide range of undergraduate institutions.

The top 1-2 philosophy majors at U.C. Riverside every year have GPAs around 3.9. Those who apply to graduate schools typically land in schools ranked in the 25-50 range. In my twenty-two years at UCR, I have never seen a student admitted to a top-ten PhD program in philosophy. Maybe next year!

I might as well mention my own case too. It's dated by now, since I applied in 1990-1991, though my impression is that admissions have become only more competitive since the 1990s. I had basically straight As as an undergraduate from Stanford -- one A- and B+ my first year, then one A- later, plus quite a few A+'s (one quarter I took 4 classes and, kind of amazingly in retrospect, earned four A+'s). I had letters of recommendation from three world-renowned philosophers (Fred Dretske, John Dupre, P.J. Ivanhoe). My writing sample had already earned an A in a graduate seminar, but I also had another paper which was eventually to become my first publication, plus an honors thesis. My GRE scores were 800/790/750 back when the test had three sections on a 200-800 scale. I was admitted to most of the places I applied, but not Harvard.

So... if you're applying to Princeton and NYU, those are some of the types of applicants you'll be competing against. Be realistic.

Prospects After Admission

Although I haven't seen systematic data on this, my impression is that most philosophy PhD programs have completion rates of around 50%; that most of the people who do finish take longer than advertised, often 7-9 years (though Stanford and Princeton have reputations for being quick); and that most of the people who drop out do so during the dissertation phase, after already having completed several years of study.

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

Most philosophy PhD programs now make their job placement data available online. Search for "placement", "philosophy", and the name of the school, and the department's placement record should be among the top hits. Here are the data for U.C. Riverside (which has recently performed unusually well for a department of its rank). Data from most of the PhD programs have also been compiled at the APDA database, and Jonathan Weisberg has done some interesting analyses. Bear in mind that placement lists don't include students who didn't finish their degrees, and departments don't consistently update former students' placement information when they change jobs. Also, one way to get a rough idea of completion rates is to compare the size of the typical entering class at a school with the average number of PhDs listed per year on their placement lists.

My sense is that a typical outcome for a student who completes a PhD at a mid-ranked program like UCR is to bounce around for 2-3 years with temporary jobs (postdocs and/or adjunct professor gigs), often having to move several times, then eventually to land in a tenure-track job at a non-prestigious four-year school or a community college. Sometimes people get jobs right away, of course; but a substantial minority, dispiritingly, never find a permanent teaching position. Those who don't find permanent teaching positions usually either end up in the business world somehow or apply to law school (where they generally do very well).

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

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

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

Choosing Where to Apply

If all this hasn't soured you on the prospects of graduate school in philosophy, then you're just the sort of maniac who might succeed! The Philosophical Gourmet Report is the natural starting place for thinking about where to apply, along with with advice from your professors. Any ranking of PhD programs will be controversial, but my sense is that the Gourmet Report does a good job (a much better job, for example, than the NRC) at capturing perceptions of relative prestige in mainstream Anglophone academic philosophy.

Once you have a sense of about where you might expect to land in prestige level based on the features of your application, you might select 4-8 schools at that level, two more prestigious schools as longshots, and 2-3 fallback schools. Look at faculty profiles (on each department's web page) and at the Gourmet's specialty rankings to see what schools have strengths in the areas or points of view that appeal to you. If you find that geography is a major factor for you, you might consider whether you'll be ready to be geographically flexible in your job search later; if not, bear in mind that community college teaching is the most likely outcome.

ETA June 22: Several people have suggested that it might be desirable to apply to more than the 8-13 schools implied by these remarks, due to the chanciness of the process.

Generally speaking, career prospects are better from ranked (i.e. top 50) than from unranked PhD programs, but in some cases an unranked PhD program could be a good choice, if you fit with one of their areas of strength and if that particular school has an established track record of placing students in good jobs.

If there are features of your application that are unusual -- for example, terrible GRE scores but great everything else, or a quirky set of interests that might or might not map onto faculty strengths, or mediocre grades in your first year of school followed by straight As later, or transcripts that are hard to evaluate because they aren't on the standard U.S. 4-point grading system, you might want to apply to even more schools. Indeed, for everyone, the process is chancy, so there are advantages to rolling the dice multiple times. But the costs in both time and money can be significant.

Speaking of money: Many schools allow you to waive the fee for the PhD application if you can establish that the fee is a financial hardship. They will only do this for a minority of students, but if you might be among that minority, look for the box to tick, or if you can't find such a box, inquire. Unlike with undergraduate applications at some colleges, there is little chance that admission of financial need will harm your chances of admission.

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

If you're determined to get into a PhD program in philosophy and you don't have the application for it straight out of undergraduate, a terminal M.A. program in philosophy can be a springboard to a PhD program. There is a lot of variation in the quality of terminal M.A. programs, the graduation rates of their students, and their success in placing students into PhD programs, but the strong ones do have substantial success. Unfortunately -- unlike PhD programs -- for M.A. programs you often have to pay your way. That can mean a lot of debt to carry into a career that is only moderately lucrative, and success is by no means assured. However, other schools support most or all of their terminal M.A. students. See Geoff Pynn's helpful list of philosophy M.A. funding at U.S. and Canadian institutions (available in a Dropbox from his website).[2]

PhD programs will generally award the M.A. to their students along the way, if they don't already have an M.A. This is very different from programs with a terminal M.A. PhD programs will not usually also admit students just for an M.A.

Usually, if you can get into at least a mid-ranked PhD program straight out of undergraduate, it's advisable to do so. One reason is this: If you did well enough as an undergraduate to gain admission into a mid-ranked PhD degree program, you did great! You might do equally well or better in an M.A. program -- but you might not. It's a life transition; you'll probably be moving to a new city; you'll have new peers and new advisors, who might not harmonize as well with you; stuff happens. Grab the opportunity while it's hot. The other reason is, of course, the time and (unless you have full support) the money. (That said, students will sometimes decline admission to PhD programs to go to an elite M.A. program like Tufts, and some of those students do then succeed in making the leap to an elite PhD program, so it's a possible path, if you really have your sights set on Princeton or NYU.)

Unfortunately, the most competitive terminal M.A. programs are probably not much easier to gain admittance to than are the bottom half of ranked PhD programs.

Application deadlines for some of the most competitive terminal M.A. programs are in the same time range as those for PhD programs (early winter, for admission the following fall), while others have spring deadlines, so that you can wait to apply until after having heard back from PhD programs.

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

Should You Apply to Your Own Department?

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

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

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

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

Should You Despair?

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

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

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

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

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


I welcome comments from faculty who would like to add to my advice or who think I am off-base in some way. I also welcome questions from applicants -- but please read the other relevant parts of the series first to be sure it's not addressed elsewhere.

Also -- lots of interesting comments have started accumulating below, articulating different perspectives or discussing details particular to specific schools or regions. Thanks, folks, and keep them coming!

Full series from 2007.


Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part IV: Writing Sample

Part V: Statement of Purpose

Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

Part VII: After You Hear Back

Old Series from 2007


Note 1: Faculty at other US PhD programs, I'd be curious to hear whether or not you've seen a similar trend among applicants to your departments.

Note 2: This was revised at 8:56 p.m. June 20, after helpful input from Margaret Atherton, Eddy Nahmias, John Schwenkler, and Brandon Warmke.

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Friday, June 14, 2019

Will Philosophy Ever Come to an End?

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with the prominent Chinese science fiction writer Xia Jia, who is visiting UC Riverside for a year. She asked me whether I thought that if we were to create, or become, post- or transhuman superintellects, would all important philosophical questions be answered?

You might think so. If fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, value, meaning, and mentality aren't entirely hopeless -- if we can make some imperfect progress on them, even with our frail human intellects, so badly designed for abstract philosophical theorizing -- then presumably entities who are vastly intellectually superior to us in the right dimensions could make more, maybe vastly more, philosophical progress. Maybe they could resolve deep philosophical questions as easily as we humans can solve two-digit multiplication problems.

Or here's another thought: If all the facts of the universe are ultimately facts about microphysics and larger-level patterns among entities constituted microphysically, then the main block to philosophical understanding might be only the limits of our observational methods and our computational power. Although no superintelligence in the universe could realistically calculate every motion of every particle over all of time, maybe all of the "big picture" general issues at the core of philosophy would prove tractable with much better observational and calculational tools.

And yet...

I want to say no. Philosophy never could be fully "solved", even by a superintelligence. (It might end, of course, in some other way than being fully solved, but that's not the kind of end Xia or I had in mind.)

First reason: Any intelligent system will be unable to fully predict itself. It will thus always remain partly unknown to itself. This lack of self-knowledge will remain an ineradicable seed for new philosophy.

To predict its own behavior a system will require a subsystem or subprocess dedicated to the task of prediction. That subsystem or subprocess could potentially model all of the entity's other subsystems and subprocesses to an arbitrarily high degree of detail. But the subsystem could not model itself in perfect detail without creating a perfect model of its modeling procedures. But then, to fully predict itself, it would need a perfect model of its perfect model of its modeling procedures, and so on, off into a vicious infinite regress.

Furthermore, some calculations are sufficiently complicated that the only way to predict their outcome is to actually do them. For any complex cognitive task, there will (plausibly) be a minimum amount of time required to physically construct and run the process by which it is done. If there is no limit to the complexity of some problems, there will also (plausibly) be no limit to the minimum amount of time even an ideal process would require to perform the cognitive task, even if the cognitive task is completable in principle. Therefore, given any finite amount of time to construct the prediction there will always be some outcomes that a superintelligence will be unable to foresee.

Now even if you grant that no superintelligent system could fully predict itself, it doesn't straightaway follow that philosophical questions will remain. Maybe the only sorts of questions that escape the superintelligence's predictive powers are details insufficiently grand to qualify as philosophical -- like the 10^10^100th digit of pi?

No, realistically, the actual self-predictive power of any practical superintelligence will always fall far, far short of that. As long as it has some challenging tasks and interests, it won't be able to predict exactly how it will cope with them until it actually copes with them. It won't know the outcome of its mega-intelligent processes until it runs them. So it will always remain partly a mystery to itself. It will be left to wonder uncertainly about what to value and prioritize in light of its ignorance about its own future values and priorities. I'd call that philosophy enough.

Second reason: No amount of superintelligence can, I suspect, entirely answer the question of fundamental values. I don't intend this in any especially mysterious way. I'm not appealing to spooky values that somehow escape all empirical inquiry. But it does seem to me that a general-capacity superintelligence ought always be able to question what it cares about most. A superintelligence might calculate with high certainty that the best thing to do next, all things considered, would be A. But it could reopen the question of the value weightings that it brings to that calculation.

Again, we face a kind of regress. Given values A, B, and C, weighted thus-and-so relative to each other, A might be clearly the best choice. But why value A more than C? Well, the intelligence could do further inquiry into the value of A -- but that inquiry too will be based on a set of values that it is at least momentarily holding fixed. It could challenge those values using still other values....

The alternative seems to be the view that there's only one possible overall value system that a superintelligence could arrive at, and that once it has arrived there it need never reflect on its values again. This strikes me as implausible, when I think about the diversity of things that people value and about how expanding capacities and experience increase that diversity rather than shrink it. As new situations, opportunities, and vistas open up for any being, no matter how intelligent, it will have new occasions to reflect on changes to its value system. Maybe it invents whole new forms of math, or art, or pleasure -- novel enough that big questions arise about how to weigh the pursuit of these new endeavors against other pursuits it values, and unpredictable enough in long term outcome that some creativity will be needed to manage the uncertain comparison.

No superintelligence could ever become so intelligent as to put all philosophical questions permanently to rest.


Related: Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain (Oct 9, 2014)

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Friday, June 07, 2019

Why Academic Philosophy Ought to Be One of the Most Demographically Diverse Disciplines, Instead of One of the Least

Academic philosophy in the U.S. remains largely male. In 2017 (the most recent data available), only 27% of PhDs in Philosophy were granted to women, according to the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. This percentage hasn't budged for decades: In the 1990s, 27% of Philosophy PhDs were women. In the 2000s, also 27%. (See here.) Among major field and subfield categories with at least 200 PhDs awarded in 2017, only major fields Engineering and Mathematics had a smaller proportion of women (25%) and some subfields within Engineering, Mathematics, and the Physical Sciences. (Physical Sciences overall had 33% women PhD recipients.) In the humanities, arts, and social sciences, only Economics (34%) and Religious Studies (35%) awarded less than 40% of their PhDs to women.

Philosophy in the U.S. remains largely non-Hispanic white: 86% in the NSF SED data from 2017. Among the 92 major fields and subfields awarding doctorates to at least 200 U.S. citizens or permanent residents who reported their ethnicity, only Ecology was more white (89%). In 2017, only 20/340 (6%) of Philosophy PhD recipients reported being Hispanic or Latino, 11 reported being Asian (3%), 4 reported being Black or African American (1%), 0 (0%) reported being American Indian or Alaska Native, and 8 (2%) reported being mixed race or other. The percentage of Hispanic and Asian Philosophy PhD recipients has very slowly increased over time, but the percentage of Black and Native American Philosophy PhD recipients has remained essentially flat at 1%-2% and 0%-1% respectively since the beginning of the recorded data in the 1970s (see here).

Although systematic demographic data on disability, LBGTQ status, economic disadvantage, and other types of demographic diversity are not as readily available, academic philosophy in the U.S. might not be especially diverse in these respects either. (See, for example, this recent testimonial by a transgender graduate student.)

It is sometimes suggested that even in a fully egalitarian society, equally welcoming of people from all backgrounds, we should not expect an exactly proportional representation of women and of the races in academic philosophy. Some academic fields might be naturally more attractive to men and white folks, others to women and black folks, and with equal opportunity, people in these different demographic categories might sort themselves disproportionately. Little boys disproportionately like monster trucks and little girls disproportionately like cute ponies, even if their parents (supposedly) don't force such preferences upon them. A career in academic philosophy might be like that. Philosophy might be the monster truck of academic disciplines.

While such reasoning might or might not apply to Ecology and Mechanical Engineering, such claims cannot, I think, be true of academic philosophy as properly practiced. Academic philosophy should in fact skew the opposite direction, with unusual demographic backgrounds disproportionately over-represented.

Academic philosophy is not about one thing. It's about everything. It concerns the entire universe and the whole human condition. One gender or one ethnicity may care especially much about monster trucks or black holes, but one gender or one ethnicity should not similarly tend to care more than another about the human condition in general. We all do, or should, care about philosophy. You may have no theory of black holes, but for sure you have philosophical views, at least implicitly -- background ethical positions, background assumptions about the general nature of things, a background sense of the sources of knowledge, opinions about death and the possibility or not of an afterlife, aesthetic opinions, political values. Academic philosophy is, or should be, just the most general academic treatment of issues such as these. It is unlikely that in an egalitarian society, women and non-whites would be less interested in exploring fundamental questions about the world and the human condition than are white men, or less inclined to pursue them given the opportunity.

Maybe something about the highly abstract nature of academic philosophy, or its combativeness, or its roots in the European tradition tends to draw white men and repel others? I am not sure that's right, but even if so, these are accidental features of the field, which we ought to consider reforming. Philosophy can work as well by science fictional narrative [1] or engaged dialogue as by highly abstract argumentation. It needn't, and I think shouldn't, be as combative as it often is. And the ignorance and disrespect U.S. philosophers often display toward non-European traditions is a flaw we should repair, rather than a feature to be taken for granted.

There is one structural feature of academic philosophy that I do think ought to influence its demographic proportions: Its celebration of the presentation of novel views and arguments, minority positions, and challenges to what people ordinarily take for granted. Philosophy is, and should be, to a substantial extent, about considering new ideas, rethinking convention, exploring radical and strange-seeming possibilities. For these reasons, outsiders to the cultural mainstream and people who have lived with the disadvantages of existing cultural structures and worldviews, ought to be especially valued and welcomed in the discipline -- overrepresented rather than underrepresented.


Note 1: If you think that science fiction is mostly white male, you need to update to the 21st century, friend. For example, check out last year's Nebula Award nominees.

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