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.

[image source]


Kate Norlock said...

This is a really helpful overview of the questions to ask oneself as an undergraduate looking at graduate programs in the USA, thanks, Eric! The post is clear, and even so, I think it understates just how massively the deck is stacked against students from the vast majority of undergraduate institutions, as most lack "prestige."

This post also moves me to think that it would be great to have a similarly resourceful person in Canada write about the considerations and chances here in the north, since most of our students go to MA programs first and we do not have a large number of straight-to-PhD programs. Indeed, a number of our PhD-granting institutions tend not to accept their own MA students.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Kate! I agree with both points.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Here's a helpful comment from Duane Long, Jr., from my Facebook page, which I am sharing with his permission:

What you said in your blog post is certainly helpful, but honestly starting at "Prospects after admission" I think it paints too *rosy* a picture.

(1) You rightly pointed out that grad school often takes longer than advertised, but you didn't point out that at many schools, while you can take that extra time, your financial aid package is for a set number of years and when that's up it's up. Potential students should be aware that 6 years' funding sounds great, but if they're not done in 6 years (which is very possible), they'll be staring down the very unpleasant barrel of having to either leave without completing (eating the sunk cost of 6 years' work with basically nothing marketable for it) or paying out of pocket for however much longer it takes them to finish up. The costs for that also vary wildly. I remember that establishing California residency was part of being a grad student at Riverside, but at UT Austin you just received an "out-of-state tuition waiver" for as long as your financial package lasted, but after that you counted as an out-of-state resident for tuition purposes. It was also practically impossible to establish in-state residency: the UT system doesn't let you count employment through the university toward establishing residency, so the only two ways to establish residency are (1) to have a full-time job in Texas other than your TA-ship for 1 year straight while you're also doing grad school or (2) to marry someone with Texas residency. If you can't do one of those two things before your financial package runs out, then you just have to pay out-of-state graduate tuition for the rest of your time at the school, and that can be tens of thousands of dollars.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

[continuing Duane Long, Jr.'s comment:

(2) You suggest that students shouldn't pursue philosophy grad school unless they think they'll find the process intrinsically worthwhile, which is true, but I think you should also address that (a) people who have not started grad school are extremely likely to overestimate how intrinsically rewarding they'll find it, and (b) even for people who find studying philosophy itself intrinsically worthwhile, the pressure of grad school is such that overall the experience is very often a net negative. It wasn't quite as bad at UCR, but at UT I'd estimate that at least 70% of the grad students I interacted with suffered from clinically significant anxiety or depression at some point during grad school. (Ironically, though, one of the things I found best about the philosophy grad school world at both UCR and UT was the complete lack of stigma around seeking mental health care.)

(3) I think you under-estimate how many schools someone should apply to unless they just literally cannot afford the cost of sending out another application. If someone is coming from a non-prestigious undergrad program like I did, they should probably not bother to apply to any top 10 programs except for funsies, but they should apply to at least 8 PhD programs ranked between 11 and 35 and ALL of the "second-tier" terminal MA programs on the PGR, plus any other terminal MAs listed on the PGR that fit their particular interests (ignore Tufts unless you're independently wealthy since it costs so much). If they can't get into a program fitting those criteria, they shouldn't do philosophy grad school. Coming out of Iowa State, I applied to 9 PhD programs and 4 terminal MA programs; I got waitlisted at 3 PhD programs (Arizona, Riverside, and Indiana Bloomington) and got admitted to all 4 MA programs but 2 came with no funding and the other 2 (Northern Illinois and Wisconsin Milwaukee) waitlisted me for funding. Eventually Riverside, Bloomington, Northern Illinois, and Wisconsin Milwaukee came through with funded offers, but all 4 of those resolved between April 13th and April 15th, so all 4 just as easily could have fallen through.

In the end, I would say you should only apply to philosophy grad school if you are either extremely risk-non-averse or economically advantaged enough that you can afford to bet heavy on a real long shot. If you get in you should just assume that you'll spend some non-trivial portion of your time in grad school utterly miserable, and you should be aware going in how much time and energy you'll have to commit before you have any idea of whether there is even the possibility of a positive payout.

AA said...

This is a good post. I applied the Fall 2018 cycle, and was accepted into (and will start) at a top 4 PhD program in the coming Fall with a merit fellowship. So I want to use my application experience to emphasize something you mentioned.

I applied to ~15 schools. Almost every other school rejected me. Of the schools that rejected me, most were lower ranked than the one I got into and will be going to.

I worked very, very, very hard to get here. But there is a certain uncontrollable arbitrariness to the admission process: it is a crap shoot. Your application can be "good enough for a top school" yet still be rejected. One top 4 program literally told me that my app "got pretty far", but that hard decisions had to be made.

The lesson: Philosophical skill and the strength of the app only goes so far; the final decision turns on factors you can't control.

*It should be noted that I am coming out of a non-elite state school in Texas. I have met other successful applicants from prestigious, elite universities who were accepted into many top 15 programs at the same time. So I suspect having an elite background neutralizes some of the arbitrariness of the final decisions.*

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

This is kind of a broader question, but I'm about to apply for a philosophy MA program at a mid-tier school which happens to have a strong specialization in my area of interest. I have a philosophy undergrad degree from 2010. I previously attended an MA program in an unrelated field (architecture) from 2010-2013 and left without completing that MA. I've been working since then. Do I need to submit or discuss my academic record from my previous MA institution in my application since it has no relation to philosophy? I'm uncomfortable about omitting it but there's nothing in the MA application for the program I'm applying to that indicates I need to.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Duane: Thanks for all of that realistic advice!

Duane and AA: I think you are right about its being wise to apply to more than eight if you can, so I have somewhat revised the numbers in the post.

Anon Jun 21 07:38: Schools would generally prefer that you submit *all* of your past transcripts, but you have to decide whether to comply with that request. I could see the value in withholding the transcript if it looks ugly. Schools will also want to know what you've been doing since your B.A., so a brief discussion in your personal statement would be appropriate -- no need to go into a lot of detail, though. As I'll mention in my discussion of personal statements, tone is a big issue and difficult to get right, so if you have doubts, brief and neutral is a good approach.

Chris Stephens said...

Hi Eric:

Thanks for this! Lots of good advice!

Just to follow up on Kate's comment about the Canadian context:

Because it used to be required most places (and is still, as Kate notes, typical) for Canadian students to get an MA first, it means that most of the philosophy PhD programs in Canada have robust MA programs, and most of those are funded. (I think some programs, such as McGill's, only have an MA in applied ethics). Many people who consult the Gourmet report seem to overlook the option of MA programs at Universities that also have PhD programs. So, yes, it is true that SFU, UW Milwaukee, NIU, Georgia State, Tufts, etc. all have good MA programs. There are, however, also good MA programs at Toronto, UBC, Calgary, Alberta, Western, York, etc. Many of these would be good choices (depending on a student's interests) - comparable or in some cases even better than a terminal MA at a program with no PhD.

At least at UBC, it is not unusual for our MA students to continue on here for the PhD (especially if their undergraduate degree was elsewhere). Many go to other PhD programs or chose not to continue in academia, of course. (One of our former MA students is even a PhD student at Riverside!)

At UBC, the stats for MA admissions are similar to the PhD ones (and similar to what Eric reports for UC Riverside) - only about 10% of our MA applicants are accepted (in part because we only admit those we can fund, as with the PhD students).

Tom Hurka said...

At the University of Toronto it's not at all uncommon for MA students to progress to the PhD here if they do well in the MA. And if they do that, their MA coursework gets credited to their PhD, so they end up doing no more work than if they'd been admitted directly to the PhD, as some other students are.

Anonymous said...

TL/DR: There is no easy solace in the community college system for young philosophers.

Long time listener, first time caller. Thanks for this post in particular and for the blog more generally.

I thought I'd chime in with my experiences concerning hiring at community colleges as it was discussed, if only briefly, in the post. This is all anecdotal and only applies to the region in which I was searching. Individual results may vary.

Some background: I received a PhD in philosophy from a top-10 Leiterific department. I hocked my wares on the traditional job market (4 year schools, tt and non-tt) as well as the community college job market (here I only applied for tt jobs, more on this later). I found the community college job market to be just as challenging, probably more so actually, than the 4 year market.

First point: The myth of adjuncting at a place for a few semesters, or years, and then getting hired on as a full time/tt prof is just that.

Second point: As most are aware, being a career long adjunct is not sustainable.

Third point: I haven't done the math, but from the armchair I would be willing to bet there are *significantly* fewer TT jobs at CCs as compared to 4 year places (most CCs have two or three full timers, in many places only one). So the openings are few. There are a ton of adjuncts vying for these positions. Now there is all the spill over from the trashfire that is the 4 year school job market. The competition is utterly fierce. When I graduated I was sure that all of my glowing student evaluations and my love for teaching would mean that community colleges would love to have me as a tt prof. I was quickly disabused of this.

Michaela McSweeney said...

Thanks for this helpful post Eric. While it might have something to do with us hopping off and on the Leiter rankings, I just wanted to report that at BU, I think our # of applications has either increased or stayed roughly the same every year since I started teaching there (three years ago). The number is usually somewhere above 200 but below 250, I think. So I have no idea what the general trend is but our application #s don't seem to have gone down recently.

I also wanted to mention one factor that students might want to consider when thinking about where to apply that you didn't mention: proximity to nearby departments/general philosophical community in the area. Obviously I might seem self-interested here since I want students to apply to BU and there are so many strong philosophy resources in the Boston area, but I actually mention this because one of the reasons that I ended up trying to transfer graduate schools (and ended up at Princeton, where I got my PhD) was that I thought it would be valuable to be nearby other good PhD programs/faculties, and to have the ability to sit in on their seminars, go to events, etc.

This also can make a difference for how good of a "fit" a school is--a school that might look like a slightly less good fit (say, it only has two faculty members instead of four working on what you are interested in), but that is located in a place where there are many other philosophers working on what you are interested in might be worth seriously considering.

Of course, do your homework about how much collaboration/community there really is, and whether there is anything formal in place, but my experience is that most departments are quite welcoming of area grad students who want to sit in on seminars, etc. (You shouldn't expect that a faculty member from another school will work with you, though--they are under no obligation to do that, but of course if you impress them they might want to!)

Duane said...

I'll just chime in to second what Michaela McSweeney said about proximity of other departments. When I was at UC Riverside there was no one to work on Aristotle with, but we had Gavin Lawrence from UCLA out for a colloquium, I talked with him afterwards, and ended up driving out to UCLA weekly to take a seminar with him, and it absolutely changed the trajectory of my graduate interests/work. After transferring to UT Austin, the next closest really good PhD philosophy department was in Houston, 2.5-3 hours drive away, and that obviously was not feasible, so it did feel like much more of an isolated bubble.

Michel said...

Just a small addendum to Chris's comment above: McGill's MA is in biomedical ethics, and is run by a separate department (although students in that program do have to take some courses in philosophy, can have philosopher supervisors, etc.). The philosophy department has considered re-introducing its erstwhile MA program, but AFAIK it's all still just talk.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the very helpful comments, folks! I'm traveling with family and have super glitchy internet, so I won't attempt a detailed reply, but I appreciate these details and the thoughtful alternative perspectives, and I think readers will find these comments useful. Keep them coming!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the very helpful comments, folks! I'm traveling with family and have super glitchy internet, so I won't attempt a detailed reply, but I appreciate these details and the thoughtful alternative perspectives, and I think readers will find these comments useful. Keep them coming!

Jack Samuel said...

Do UCR undergrads tend not to apply to Pitt very often? Off the top of my head I have classmates whose undergrad degrees are from Temple, Wake Forest, Auburn, SUNY Binghampton, Stony Brook, Marquette, Mizzou, and James Madison (I think only one of them did a terminal MA before coming here). Several of those are lower-ranked than UCR (on USNews), lack elite PhD programs (or any graduate program at all) or both. None of this is to suggest that grad admissions are an egalitarian counterweight to the prestige bias and elitism everywhere else in the system. Half of our admits every year are from places like Princeton, Chicago, and Reed. Still, I'm surprised that UCR has *never* gotten a student into a PGR top-10 program! I have no reason to believe that Pitt is unusual in this respect, but perhaps so?

Filippo Contesi said...

“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.”

This insistence on polish and packaging of writing—moreover when required at such an early stage—is a real problem for contemporary philosophy. These packaging rules are to a large extent conventional: culture-, epoch-, tradition- and language-specific. Their being conventional also means they are learned much more easily by those who go to the right schools, were born in the right countries, neighbourhoods etc. This reminds me of what Bill Lycan said, in reference in part to graduate admissions in US philosophy programmes, in his 2017 APA Dewey Eastern address: "I am a great believer in the outsider perspective [...] An outsider to a small subliterature is more likely to make an interesting or even important contribution to it. [...] And the outsider perspective is what we're not getting."

Filippo Contesi said...

PS: This is a real problem, I should be precise, given the emphasis placed on PhD-granting institution in hiring.

Michael Lilly said...

Hi Eric. I am a first year (and part time due to work schedules) M.A. student attending an unranked online Philosophy program from a small Catholic college (well, it's ranked by The Newman Guide of The Cardinal Newman Society, but that probably doesn't hold much water in secular philosophy departments). Your post has definitely lit a fire under me to begin researching potential PhD programs and schools even at this early a stage, which leads me to wonder if seeking to submit and present papers at conferences has any bearing on acceptance rates. Sadly, though, I don't think there are many (if any) top tier programs fromt tgat i can apply to as the American Philosophy scene is dominated by Analytic Philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! Sorry about the slow reply!

Jack: I'm not sure about the application rate to Pitt. Maybe Pitt is different from the programs I've sampled. I'd be happy to add it into the mix if I can get systematic data!

Filippo: Yes, point taken. This also connects with your work on linguistic justice in academia, and the advantage that native English speakers have!

Michael: Unfortunately, I don't think conference presentations are likely to make much of a difference, except insofar as they display your energy and commitment, which might impress letter writers and show in your self-statement or statement of purpose. A professional-quality writing sample and/or making connections with philosophers who regularly publish in academic journals and who can advise you and help with you sample and write letters -- those are probably the most effective ways to enhance your chances.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for updating this! It's really helpful for us applicants.

P.S. - Harvard's 2018 entering class had a 3.9 median GPA. Just for the sake of accuracy. :)

Michael said...

Hey, Eric! First of all, thanks again for your posts on the application process and the graduate student experience more generally. I have found them immensely helpful. I applied to several schools this application season, including some I was fairly certain I would not get into, or that I might get an offer of admission closer to the deadline if enough students offered admission declined. One program I really liked, but they'd already admitted a student from my undergraduate program with similar interests and two other students from the department were also applying there this season. They were also programs that I plan to apply to again if I end up attending a terminal M.A. program, which I believe is fairly likely - I've produced good philosophical work, I have great relationships with my undergraduate advisers, I was a leader in my department, and so on, but I faced a number of life events and obstacles that negatively impacted my GPA and I'm from a very small department outside of the mainstream of the profession.

Before I digress too much, I'd like to ask you if it is appropriate to contact departments that denied me admission. I don't want to come off as resentful or nosy, but if the admissions team could let me know what factors led to their decision, it would be helpful. For example, they might say "you really need to retake the GRE and aim for a score of X, because Y" or "while we liked X about your application, we don't do much work in Y area" or "you show promise, but you don't have a thorough enough background for a doctoral program." Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kinds words, Michael. Few students contact departments regarding denial of admissions. I can imagine that you might get some helpful feedback. But it's also possible that the chair of the admissions committee will (1) not know why you were denied admission (since some other committee member(s) might have evaluated your file), (2) give you some generic response rather than specific feedback, and/or (3) feel mildly annoyed at being requested this information. In a way, it's not unreasonable to request, but if many applicants were to do so, that would constitute substantial additional uncompensated labor. For this reason, schools might have a general policy of not responding to such requests.

On balance, my advice would be to only request this information if you know you were close to being admitted, in which case the chair of the admissions committee has carefully evaluated your file and has a generally positive opinion of your application.

Sara L KL said...

My question is as a supportive spouse. My husband has an MA in philosophy from Texas TechaTech an MA in psychology from UTSA. He has been teaching philosophy in a community college setting for several years. His graduate GPAs are not super competitive. he is hoping to apply to several PhD philosophy programs in the next few years. I found your advice on auditing courses for more elite colleges and perfecting a writing sample very helpful, that being said, what are some things from your perspective he could do to increase his chances of admission?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

If he's already teaching philosophy, that makes for an unusual and intriguing application. If the application portal allows you to attach supplementary materials, you might consider including course syllabae and student evaluation records. Strong syllabae, teaching evaluations, strong letters, and a strong writing sample, could definitely combine to make an attractive candidate even if the M.A. grades aren't what most places would look for straight out of the M.A.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Long time reader first-time poster.

I am an Australian student wanting to complete a Ph.D. program in America and I have seen in the other stream that you note that there can be a bias against international applicants due to international grades not being comparable.

Thus, I was wondering how should an international student ascertain which graduate programs would be realistic for them to apply for and hopefully attend?

I understand that this might be hard to judge without knowing the details of the individual circumstances so in short Bachelor of Science (Major Neurophysiology, Minor Chemistry & Astrophysics) Aus GPA 2.92/4 (using WES to convert) USA GPA 3.67/4, Diploma of Liberal Arts (Major Philosophy) Aus GPA 3.86/4 USA GPA 4/4, Advanced Diploma of Arts (Major Literature) Aus GPA 4/4 USA GPA 4/4 and Masters of Secondary Teaching (TFA) Aus GPA 2.5/4 USA GPA 3.42/4. I am currently completing my honors year in philosophy and a Diploma of Science (Major Pure Maths) both of which have not received any grade as yet.

Sorry for the long post and I do not expect a thorough response as my post is rather specific and personal; however, any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It really is hard to know! It's a big help, though, if you happen to be at a place with faculty who are well known in philosophy departments the U.S., such as ANU, Melbourne, Monash, or Sydney.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
Thanks for your reply. I am at Monash which is helpful. Whilst understanding that it is very hard to know, do you think a university such as UC Riverside would be realistic for me? I understand that this may be an unanswerable question.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

In general, with strong letters from philosophy faculty at Monash and a strong writing sample, a mid-ranked program like UCR is quite reasonable to aim for, though I do think a lot will depend on the sample and the letters (it's very competitive) and the uneven GPA outside of philosophy might raise some concerns (depending on the attitude of committee members and the application as a whole).

Anonymous said...

Thank you Eric, I appreciate all your help and feedback.

Anonymous said...

Dear Eric, what should one do if one enrolled in a philosophy PhD program, and even finished coursework, before noticing that one's interests have changed and there's nobody in the department to work with? Would it be possible to transfer departments, and how does that work? Thank you.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, absolutely. It's not super common, but it happens commonly enough that admissions committees are familiar with it. (I'd guess at UCR we lose and gain one PhD transfer student approximately every four years.) If it's your first year, you might lean on old letters (perhaps updated) from when you initially applied. But it's best if you can also get one or two supportive letters from your current institution -- more important, the longer you've been there. Also, of course, you might have a different and better writing sample. In your cover letter, it's probably strategically best focus on your change of interest in research topic rather than on grievances (if any).

Matías Miller said...

Dear Eric,
Thank you for this information. I am currently finishing my Philosophy undergraduate studies in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at a private institution called Universidad del Salvador (this is my last year), so I was looking forward to enrolling on a PhD program in the USA. I have really high grades (the scale here is different than the one which is used in the United States, so I have 9,60/10 so far), two philosophical works presented on congresses and an article soon to be published on a Spanish journal. This year I am going to present another work on a congress and write a book chapter, all by november-december. I would like to ask you some questions:

1)Is it better to enroll on September, just when the applications open, or is it the same applying on January?
2)I am going to finish my degree by november-december period of this year. Can I apply without having finished my studies?
3)What are my possibilities as an international student coming from an argentinian university? Does it reduce the chances of being accepted on a high-ranked program?
4)Do you think I still have time to prepare and take the required english exams like TOEFL, IELTS or GRE (I think this one is optional, but maybe doing it is better than not to)? I have B2 level (FCE Cambridge).

Sorry for the amount of questions. It would be great if you could answer some of my doubts.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dear Matias --

Sorry for the slow reply. I was traveling and am still trying to catch up.

1. Most PhD programs will not notice if you application is submitted early or just before the deadline in late fall / early winter. Either way, enrollment is general fall of the next academic year.

2. Yes, this is entirely normal.

3. All programs will admit some excellent students from elite international universities, but I suspect it's overall a bit harder if that university is not Oxford.

4. Yes, go ahead and take those exams. Most committees won't put much weight on the scores as long as you perform satisfactorily and your written English is excellent.

Matías Miller said...

Don´t worry Eric. Thanks for your help.