Thursday, July 25, 2019

Disadvantages of a Lingua Franca in Philosophy

A common language for academic discourse has an obvious advantage: Everyone can communicate, without need of translators, both orally and in writing. That's pretty awesome! We can approach the ideal of a unified global scholarly community to which anyone with the right training can contribute.

The downsides are maybe less visible to those of us who are native speakers of English, the current lingua franca of academia. The significance of these downsides varies by discipline and is probably larger for the arts and humanities, including philosophy, than for the sciences.

(For evidence that Anglophone philosophers, at least, treat English as the lingua franca of philosophy by almost never citing work written in other languages, see my recent article with Huang, Higgins, and Gonzalez-Cabrera.)

Here are three disadvantages of treating English as the common language of philosophical scholarship.

1. The current situation puts disproportionate burdens on non-native speakers. This is obvious on reflection, but easy for native speakers to forget. In their introduction to a special journal issue on "Linguistic Injustice and Analytic Philosophy", Filippo Contesi and Enrico Terrone highlight some of the burdens. Non-native speakers must spend enormous time learning English or be shut out of global academic discussion. Unless they are highly fluent, they will read more slowly and fail to understand some nuances or idioms. Unless they are highly fluent or exert great effort, their prose might seem awkward or clunky to native speakers. They might also face implicit or explicit prejudice in face-to-face discussion, if they have a heavy accent or a less confident speaking style. I invite my readers who are native English-speaking philosophers to imagine how difficult it would be to write all of their philosophy articles in German and always speak in German at talks and conferences. How much less you would probably publish -- and how much harder it would be to escape the periphery of the field!

In a multi-linguistic regime, everyone would bear linguistic burdens. Native English speakers would sometimes need to read works in other languages to stay at the cutting edge of their field. I had personal experience of this while researching 19th and early 20th century psychology for my book on introspection, which required me to read untranslated works in French, German, Spanish, and (I tried!) Czech.

One advantage of English as a lingua franca is that at least some people are relieved of linguistic burdens, even if the distribution of the remaining burdens isn't entirely fair. To this I respond: The burden of reading in another language, especially with new machine-translation tools, is much less than the burden of writing in that language. Yes, machine translation is far from perfect. The proper reading of machine-translated scholarly articles requires substantial familiarity with the original language, looking side-by-side at the original and the machine translation. But the skills required for reading machine translations are vastly less than the skills required for fluent writing -- perhaps especially writing in the arts and humanities. So although in a multi-lingual regime everyone would bear some language-learning costs, the total costs might be less overall. (There would also be an important role for Schliesser-style translator-advocates.)

2. In philosophy, and probably generally across the arts and humanities, the nuances of ordinary language matter. In the sciences, the substance of articles tends to depend on equations, experimental results, and technical vocabulary that is regularized across the discipline. Philosophy, in contrast, seems often to require an ear for linguistic nuance and often relies on concepts that are language-specific. Consequently, there is a risk that an Anglophone-dominated academic community will agree to, or assume, philosophical views that they would not have agreed to or assumed had a different language been dominant.

Much of my academic work, for example, concerns belief. What is it to believe a proposition? Can someone truly be said to believe something (such as that women and men are equally intelligent) if they sincerely say it but don't act and react generally as though it is true? Can we know a proposition that we don't quite believe? It is unclear to me to what extent my work, and other philosophers' work on belief, relies on English-language-specific intuitions. Friends of mine who speak other languages sometimes tell me that the English concept of belief, and perhaps especially the English-language-philosopher's concept of belief, doesn't map neatly and intuitively onto any of the terms in their languages that are ordinarily used to translate "believe", such as glauben (in German) and creer (in Spanish).

Similarly, a seminal paper by Edouard Machery and others in 2004 has launched a minor subfield exploring the question of whether English-language philosophers' judgments about the referents of proper names -- judgments that are central to philosophy of language as it is often practiced -- are cross-culturally robust.

Drawing on my knowledge of classical Chinese philosophy, some of the concepts those philosophers found natural don't have straightforward translations into English, and reflect ways of seeing or conceptualizing the world that are worth considering. De (德), for example, which is often translated "virtue" or "power", might combine something like moral virtue and social power into a single concept, rooted in the Confucian and Daoist tradition according to which if one has (Confucian or Daoist) moral virtue, a kind of power and social influence is apt to follow. An English-language philosopher, of course, could invent such a concept, even with no knowledge of Chinese -- but the classical Chinese word de (德) interestingly invites and facilitates that way of thinking.

Philosophy should, I think, prize having a wide diversity of terms, concepts, and intuitions about linguistic use, which can be compared and selected among. If English is too dominant, we risk being excessively predisposed to concepts and patterns of thought that are comfortable in English. This might be true, though presumably to a lesser extent, even for philosophers whose native language is not English, if they conduct most of their philosophical work in English.

3. Robust, partially separate traditions can nurture diversity of thought. Academic philosophy is subject to trends. In the 1990s, Twin Earth thought experiments were hot. In the past five years or so, implicit bias has become hot. There's nothing wrong with this. (Some of my own recent work concerns implicit bias.) But one of the risks of a linguistic monoculture is that scholars tend to read the same things, get caught up in the same trends, and have the same range of thoughts as a result. There's value in having different philosophical cultures whose participants focus on different sets of canonical works, focus on different ranges of questions, and regard different background concepts and ideas as the default -- and who then engage respectfully as equals with scholars from different cultures. We lose an important source of cognitive diversity if training in "philosophy of mind", for example, involves the same range of canonical texts for scholars across the world.

Here again, the situation in the arts and humanities might differ from the situation in the sciences. In the arts and humanities, including in philosophy, diversity of perspective is intrinsically important. Indeed, I would suggest, the value of the arts of humanities is to a substantial extent constituted by the ability of those disciplines to reveal a wide range of possible thoughts and values.

In Big Bang cosmology and plate tectonics, perhaps, we just want to get at the scientific truth. Although philosophy and the other arts and humanities can and do aim at uncovering truths, they also do something else equally important. They invite readers to challenge their own values and perspectives. They do this not necessarily to replace those values and perspectives with better alternatives, but because part of understanding the human condition is understanding how different things can look when you step outside of your familiar frameworks. A linguistic monoculture with English at the center deprives academic philosophy, especially native English speakers, of the philosophical and cognitive benefits of vividly engaging alternative literatures and conceptual frameworks from different linguistic traditions.

[image modified from here]

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Lower-Ranked PhD-Programs in Philosophy Admit Students from a Wide Range of U.S. Undergraduate Institutions

A few weeks ago, I published an analysis of the undergraduate institution of origin of students in elite U.S. philosophy PhD programs (top-ten ranked in the Philosophy Gourmet Report). Compiling available information from departmental websites, I found that 60% of the non-foreign students in those programs hailed from elite undergraduate institutions (top 25 research universities or top 15 liberal arts colleges in US News, plus a handful of other schools with elite reputations specifically in philosophy). Only 11% hailed from nationally unranked schools. Students with foreign degrees similarly tended to have elite pedigrees, including an amazing 24% from Oxford alone.

Several readers suggested that I look at lower-ranked PhD programs in philosophy, to see if they draw from a more diverse range of undergraduate institutions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it turns out that they do.


I looked at U.S. philosophy PhD programs ranked 30-50 in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Of these universities, information on graduate students' undergraduate institution of origin was easily available online for eight programs: U.C. Riverside (where I am faculty), Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Miami, Maryland, U.C. Davis, Texas A&M, and U.C. Santa Barbara. For each student with available information I noted: undergraduate institution of origin, undergraduate major, most recent prior graduate institution if any, and most recent graduate major if any.

I used the same classification of "elite" programs as in my previous post: the top 25 U.S. News ranked "national universities", the top 15 ranked "national liberal arts colleges", plus for reasons specific to philosophy, NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Pitt, and Reed. (See previous post for discussion.)

I found information for the most recent institution for 214 students. Of these, I had undergraduate institution for 196 students. For the remaining students, information was either available only for prior graduate institution or it did not specify undergraduate vs graduate.

[a UC Riverside graduate student, after having taken my recent seminar on the rights of aliens, robots, and monsters]

Foreign vs. U.S. Undergraduate Degrees

Among the 196 students with undergraduate institution specified, 163 (84%) hailed from U.S. institutions -- 177/214 (83%) if we consider most recent institution when undergrad institution is unavailable. This compares with 70% of students at elite PhD programs, a statistically significant difference (z = 3.7, p < .001). About a third of students in elite U.S. PhD programs did their undergraduate work outside of the U.S., compared with about a sixth of students in lower-ranked programs.

Percentage from Elite Undergraduate Programs

Among students with U.S. undergraduate degrees, 26% (42/164) hailed from "elite" undergraduate programs. As mentioned above, 60% of my sample of student elite PhD programs hailed from elite undergraduate institutions -- obviously a huge difference (z = 6.5, p < .001).

According to data I've compiled from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 15% of graduating philosophy majors nationwide hail from the programs I have classified as elite. (Although elite schools are a small percentage of schools overall, some, such as UCLA and Penn, graduate huge numbers of philosophy majors.) Thus, students who hail from elite undergraduate institutions appear to be somewhat disproportionately represented among PhD students at lower-ranked PhD programs -- though not of course by nearly as much as at elite PhD programs.

Students at elite philosophy PhD programs will mostly encounter peers from places like Berkeley, Harvard, Oxford, and Williams. Students at lower-ranked PhD programs will encounter peers with a much wider range of undergraduate experiences. I'm inclined to think that students' perceptions of the sociology of the discipline might differ as a result.

To be clear, all students in this analysis are classified based on their undergraduate institution, even if they had subsequent graduate work.

Percentage from Undergraduate Programs That Are Not Nationally Ranked

Only a minority of U.S. colleges and universities are nationally ranked by U.S. News. For example, of the 23 universities in the California State University system, which awards about 100,000 undergraduate degrees every year, only four are nationally ranked. In my sample, 21% (34/164) of students hailed from unranked undergraduate institutions -- compared to only 11% among students in elite PhD programs (z = 2.5, p = .01).

It is possible that nationally ranked universities and liberal arts colleges, despite being a minority of universities and colleges overall, award the majority of philosophy bachelor's degrees nationwide. (Consider that the 45 elite schools alone award 15%.) I don't have more specific data, so I don't know how far from representative 21% is.

Of the 34 students from nationally unranked schools, 13 (38%) had prior graduate work before enrolling in their current PhD program (compared to 9/20 in the sample from elite PhD programs). Thus for some but not a majority of these students, graduate study, such as in a terminal M.A. program, served as a stepping stone into a PhD program.

Percentage with Philosophy Majors

Among students in elite PhD programs, the overwhelming majority had completed philosophy majors: 87% had majored in philosophy as undergraduates, and 96% had a philosophy major at either the undergraduate or the graduate level. The percentages were only slightly lower in the lower-ranked PhD programs. Of 153 with undergraduate major information, 125 (82%) had a philosophy major or related major like logic. Of 166 with either graduate or undergraduate major listed, 150 (90%) majored in philosophy at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Half of the exceptions (8 out of 16) were at Carnegie Mellon, mostly math or computer science majors transitioning into CMU's famously tech-friendly philosophy PhD program.

Prior Graduate Work

Of students whose most recent institution was in the U.S., a slender majority, 54% (90/168), had some prior graduate work before enrolling in their current PhD program. Among U.S. students enrolled in elite philosophy PhD programs, only 27% had prior graduate work (z = 5.2, p < .001). (ETA: Foreign students are a different matter.)

About half of the students with prior graduate work did that work at well-regarded terminal MA programs. Terminal MA programs with at least 3 students in my sample included Wisconsin-Milwaukee (10), San Francisco State (9), Georgia State (7), Northern Illinois (5), Brandeis (4), Tufts (4), Virginia Tech (4), and Texas Tech (3).

The Surprising Absence of Oxford and Cambridge

In my sample of students in elite philosophy PhD programs, 24 (9%) reported Oxford as their most recent prior institution -- a strikingly large percentage, given that Oxford is only one university of thousands in the world. In contrast, among the lower ranked programs I am analyzing today, not a single student had Oxford listed as their most recent prior institution (though one student did have Oxford listed among institutions they had earlier attended).

Similarly, my sample of students at elite U.S. PhD programs contains 8 students from Cambridge. However, no students from Cambridge appear in my sample from lower-ranked PhD programs.

These numbers include both native U.K. students and students from U.S. undergraduate institutions who later did graduate study in Oxford or Cambridge (15 students in the elite-PhD-program sample).

I'm unsure why, but once one has studied at Oxford or Cambridge, whether as a U.K. student or as a foreign student, the step down in prestige to a lower-ranked U.S. PhD program appears to be unlikely.


Based on my earlier post, students from lower-ranked or unranked U.S. undergraduate institutions might feel pessimistic about their chances of admission to a top-ranked PhD program in philosophy. However, lower-ranked PhD programs appear to admit students from a much more representative swath of U.S. colleges and universities. About half of these students do some other graduate-level work first, and about half jump straight in.

[image source]


Appendix: Undergraduate institutions of origin, full list:

Elite (34): Harvard, Chicago, Yale (2), Columbia (2), Stanford, Dartmouth, Rice (2), UCLA (3), Berkeley (5), Georgetown, Virginia (2), Amherst College, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Middlebury, Bowdoin, Pomona College, Haverford (3), Washington & Lee, Smith College, Michigan, NYU (4), Rutgers (2), Pitt (3).

Nationally ranked universities (61): Tufts, UNC Chapel Hill, UCSB, Brandeis, University of Florida, UC Davis (4), William & Mary, UCSD (2), Ohio State (3), Maryland (2), Texas A&M, U Mass Amherst, UC Santa Cruz (2), Minnesota, Virginia Tech (2), Baylor, American University, U of Iowa, U of Delaware, Loyola-Chicago, Saint Louis U, Temple, U of Arizona, Arizona State (2), Auburn, U of Utah, U of South Florida, Illinois-Chicago, New School, U of Central Florida, Houston, Rowan, Ball State, Wyoming, Texas Tech (2), U Mass Boston (2), Colorado-Denver, Cal State Fresno, New Mexico State, U of Akron, U of New Orleans (2), San Francisco State, Indiana U of Pennsylvania, Northern Arizona, Portland State (2), Texas-El Paso, U of North Texas.

Nationally ranked liberal arts colleges (27): Colgate (2), US Military Academy, Macalaster College, Mount Holyoke (2), Whitman (2), Rhodes College, Dickinson, St Olaf, College of Wooster, Wheaton College (2), New College of Florida, Augustana, Saint Anselm, Lake Forest, Hanover College, Westminster College, Saint Vincent, William Jewell, Gordon College, Guilford, Bard, Carthage College, Fort Lewis College.

Unranked (34): American Military U, Appalachian State, Austin Peay State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (2), Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Stanislaus, Calvin College, College of Charleston, Converse College, Drury (2), Evergreen State, Flagler, Gonzaga (2), Green Mountain College, Humboldt State, John Carroll U, Loyola-New Orleans, Marywood, Millikin U, Salisbury, San Jose State, Stetson, SUNY Geneseo, Taylor, U of Michigan-Flint, U of North Carolina-Wilmington, U of Portland, U of Redlands, Valparaiso, Western Washington (2).

Foreign (33): American University of Beirut, Barcelona, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Hull, King's College, Korea Military Academy, Korea University, Leiden University, Lingnan, London School of Economics, Monash, National Chung Cheng University, National Taiwan U, National U of Columbia, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ottawa, Peking U, Renmin University (2), Sapienza U of Rome, Seoul National University (2), Toronto, U Bocconi, U of Canterbury, U of Latvia, U of Tehran, Uganda Martyrs University, UNAM (2), University College Dublin, Yale NUS, York (Canada).

Note: In cases of ambiguity, I interpreted the origin university to be the best-ranked university among the possibilities, e.g., I interpreted "Michigan" as U of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ethics Classes Can Influence Student Behavior: Students Purchase Less Meat after Discussing Arguments for Vegetarianism

by Eric Schwitzgebel, Bradford Cokelet, and Peter Singer

[poster presentation for the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, 2019 meeting]

All data and analyses are tentative, pending final checks and peer review.


Work by Haidt (2012) and Schwitzgebel & Rust (2016) suggests that philosophical ethical argumentation might have little influence on real-world moral behavior.

However, to our knowledge there are no existing ecologically valid studies of the influence of university-level philosophy classes on non-laboratory, non-self-reported moral behavior.


1143 undergraduates in four large lower-division classes at U.C. Riverside.


Half of students were required to read a philosophy article defending vegetarianism (Rachels 2004), followed by a group discussion section and an optional advocacy video.

The other half received similar materials and discussion on charitable giving.

Opinion Measure

Later that week, students received an anonymous questionnaire asking their opinion about four moral issues.

The target question was “Eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical” with response options from “strongly agree” (+3) to “strongly disagree” (-3).

Behavioral Measure

We examined campus dining card purchase data for 5,981 campus food purchases from 476 students for whom data were available.

Only purchases of at least $4.99 were included.

Purchases were coded as either vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

Results: Opinion

In the meat ethics group, 43% of respondents agreed (+1 to +3) that eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical, compared to 29% in the charitable giving control group (z = 5.0, p < .001; mean +0.12 vs -0.46, t(1029) = 5.6, p < .001).

Responses to other ethical questions, including one about charitable giving, did not differ between the groups.

Results: Purchase Behavior

In the control group, 52% of purchases included meat, both before and after the discussion section.

In the meat ethics group, meat purchases declined from 52% to 45% (z = 3.3, p = .001).

Participant-by-participant among students with purchases both before and after the discussion:

  • The control group averaged 53% meat purchases both before and after.
  • The meat ethics group averaged 56% meat purchases before and 45% after (paired t(162) = 4.3, p < .001).
  • Monday, July 01, 2019

    Elite Philosophy PhD Programs Mostly Admit Students from Other Elite Schools (or Sorry, Cal State Undergrads, No Berkeley Grad School for You!)

    Do elite PhD programs in the U.S. admit mostly students from elite undergraduate backgrounds? Let's look at the numbers. (Spoiler alert: yes.)

    Let's call a U.S.-based PhD program in philosophy "elite" if it is among the top ten ranked programs in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Let's call a U.S. college or university elite if it is among the top 25 "national research universities" or the top 15 "national liberal arts colleges" in US News & World Report. For purposes of philosophy PhD admissions specifically, let's add five more schools to this elite list: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, and Pitt due to the the top-five PGR ranking of their philosophy PhD programs, and Reed College, which has a well-deserved reputation as an elite liberal arts college, especially among philosophers, despite its notoriously low US News ranking. This yields 13 elite PhD programs in philosophy in the U.S. (due to a five-way tie for 9th) and 46 elite U.S. colleges and universities that they might draw from (due to a two-way tie for 25th among national research universities). Of course all such rankings are imperfect.

    To assess the undergraduate background of students in the top ten programs, I examined student information on departments' websites. Undergraduate institution was readily available for philosophy PhD students on the websites of 8 of the 13 elite PhD programs: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Pitt, Yale, USC, Columbia, and Berkeley. The biggest systematic shortcoming in the data was that Columbia provided information for only about half of their listed graduate students. In all, the departmental websites listed 332 current or recently completed PhD students. The most recent previous educational institution was available for 281 students (85%) and undergraduate institution was unambiguously available for 252 students (76%).[1]

    Foreign Students

    The primary analysis concerns U.S. students. Therefore, I excluded from analysis 83 students whose most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university who did not unambiguously receive an undergraduate degree from a U.S. university.[2] This constituted 30% of the 281 students for whom most recent previous educational institution was available.

    If this estimate is accurate, elite philosophy PhD programs have a larger proportion of foreign students than do nonelite philosophy PhD programs: The National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates shows only 14% of recipients of philosophy PhDs in 2017 to have been temporary visa holders.

    Elite universities are highly represented among the 100 students whose most recent previous university was non-U.S.: 24 (!) were from Oxford, 10 from Toronto, 8 from Cambridge, 5 from McGill, and 4 from St Andrews. Half of the students hailed from just these five universities. Many (but not all) of the rest hailed from universities that count among the most elite in their respective countries, such as Peking (Beijing), Pisa, and UNAM.[3]

    Graduate Study Before the PhD

    The primary analysis concerns U.S. undergraduate institution. However, it is also interesting to examine graduate study before the PhD. Of 176 the students whose most recent institution was in the U.S. (excluding five with unclear information), 48 (27%) had Master's degrees, law degrees, or similar graduate work. Thus, contrary to some rumors, most U.S. students in elite PhD programs are admitted straight from undergraduate study. (ETA: In contrast, the majority of non-U.S. students had prior graduate training.)

    Most students with previous graduate degrees attended an elite university or a leading terminal Master's program: Nineteen of the 48 hailed from one of the five terminal M.A. programs described as "very strong" in the PGR (Tufts, Brandeis, Georgia State, Northern Illinois, and Milwaukee) and another fourteen hailed from elite national universities (Harvard, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale). Just six universities accounted for more than half of U.S. students' prior graduate degrees: Harvard, Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Stanford, Tufts, and Yale.[4]

    The Majority of U.S. Students in Elite PhD Programs Received Their Bachelor's Degrees from Other Elite Schools

    Using the definitions of "elite" above, and treating the available data as representative, the majority of U.S. students in elite philosophy PhD programs received their undergraduate degrees from other elite schools.

    Of the 183 students with listed U.S. undergraduate degrees, 106 (60%) hailed from elite schools. Five universities contributed at least eight students to the list, that is, at least one student per examined PhD program: Berkeley (10), Chicago (10), NYU (10), Harvard (8), and Stanford (8). These five schools alone are responsible for 25% of listed students. Several other elite schools contributed at least four students each: Rutgers (6), Princeton (5), Yale (5), Dartmouth (4), Reed (4), and Williams (4).[5] Each of the top ten ranked national universities contributed at least one student.

    Only a Small Percentage of Students Are from Unranked Schools

    I count 20 students total (11%) from schools that are not nationally ranked in US News. (These schools are all regionally ranked.) Represented are: Cal Baptist, Calvin College (3), Cedarville, College of Charleston, Columbia College, CUNY Brooklyn, James Madison, Loyola Marymount, Middle Tennessee, Missouri-Kansas City, Providence College, Simon's Rock, Spring Arbor, St Thomas, SUNY Geneseo, Trinity University (2), and Western Washington. Nine of these students received M.A. degrees elsewhere before moving on to the PhD, and another spent time at Oxford. This list contains only ten students from nationally unranked schools who appear to have made the leap straight into an elite PhD program without training elsewhere.

    Bear in mind that most U.S. universities are not nationally ranked. For example, of the 23 universities in the California State University system, which awards about 100,000 undergraduate degrees every year, only four are nationally ranked. Not a single student with an undergraduate degree from Cal State appears on the list. (There are three students, however, from the well regarded terminal M.A. programs at CSULA and San Francisco State.)

    Even nationally ranked but nonelite colleges and universities are only sparsely represented. Although you might think that national universities ranked 51-100 would graduate a large number of philosophy majors ready for graduate study, only 13 students from this group of universities appear on the list (excluding Rutgers and Pitt) -- not many more students from these 48 universities combined than from Berkeley, Chicago, or NYU alone. In my twenty-two years at UC Riverside (ranked 85 among national universities), I have never seen a student admitted to a top-ten ranked philosophy PhD program.[6]

    But Maybe Elite Schools Generate More Philosophy Majors?

    Looking at data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I find 829 schools that have awarded at least one Bachelor's degree in philosophy (IPEDS category 38.01) in the seven years from 2011-2017. However, elite schools and schools with very strong philosophy faculties do tend to graduate many more philosophy majors on average than do other universities. For example, the two schools that graduated the most philosophy majors in that period are both top 25 research universities: Penn (915) and UCLA (888).[7]

    In 2011-2017, the 46 schools I have classified as elite awarded 9,174 philosophy BAs, while the remaining 783 schools awarded 51,078 philosophy BAs. If we consider this to be approximately the pool of students from which my list of students at elite PhD programs is drawn, then approximately 1.2% of philosophy graduates from elite schools appear on my list, while 0.15% of graduates from nonelite schools do so. A rough estimate, taking into account missing data, students who enter PhD programs without an undergraduate major in philosophy, and students who are admitted but who choose a lower ranked program or drop out early, maybe about 2.5% of philosophy majors from elite schools gain admission to top-ten ranked PhD programs in philosophy and maybe about 0.3% of philosophy graduates from nonelite schools do.

    What Percentage Had Philosophy Majors?

    One hundred ninety-three students had undergraduate major information listed. Of these, 167 (87%) majored in philosophy or a cognate discipline like History and Philosophy of Science -- sometimes with a double major. Of the 26 without an undergraduate major in philosophy, 18 (69%) had previous graduate work in philosophy. Thus, 96% of students had either an undergraduate degree or previous graduate work in philosophy.

    What Explains the Phenomenon?

    I don't conclude that admissions committees are being unfair, much less explicitly elitist. Maybe students from Berkeley and Chicago really are much better. Or maybe students from elite universities are more skilled specifically at the task of producing writing samples and personal statements that will delight admissions committees. (My advice for students seeking admittance to PhD programs in philosophy, which I have begun to update, is intended in part to help mitigate that particular advantage.) 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 Berkeley 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. I am sure there are many potentially excellent philosophers from nonelite schools who are missing terrific educational and career opportunities because students from elite schools have such a large competitive advantage.


    Note 1: In a few ambigous cases, I assumed that a student's last listed university was their most recent. For example, "he comes by way of Wesleyan and Princeton" was coded as ambiguous regarding which college awarded the undergraduate degree, with Princeton as the most recent previous institution.

    Note 2: 100 students' most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university. Of these, 17 unambiguously had a U.S. undergraduate degree. Strikingly, 12 of these 17 attended Oxford.

    Note 3: The full list of foreign universities is: Amsterdam (2), ANU, Auckland, Barcelona, Birkbeck (2), British Colombia, Buenos Aires, Cambridge (8), Cape Town, Carleton Univ., China (unspecified), Edinburgh (3), Frankfurt, Freie Univ. Berlin, Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem (2), Humboldt Univ. Berlin, King's College (3), Ludwig Maximilian (2), McGill (5), Melbourne, Oxford (24), Peking, Pisa, Queens, Queensland (2), Ruhr Univ. Bochum, Seoul, Sheffield, Simon Fraser, St Andrews (4), Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto (10), Tubingen, Univ. of Hong Kong, Univ. of Paris, University College London (2), UNAM, Univ. Catolica Peru, Univ. de los Andes, University College Dublin, Wits South Africa, Wuhan, and Yale-NUS. [Corrected Jul 8, 2019]

    Note 4: The full list is: Arizona State, Brandeis (3), Brown, Cal State LA, Fordham, Georgia State, Harvard (3), Houston, Johns Hopkins, Milwaukee (5), Missouri St Louis, Northern Illinois (6), NYU, Princeton (2), San Francisco State, Stanford (3), Texas Tech, Tufts (4), U Conn, UC Davis, UNC Chapel Hill, Union Theological Seminary, USC, Western Michigan, and Yale (4).

    Note 5: The full list of elite programs is: Amherst College (2), Berkeley (10) Brown (3), Carleton College (3), Chicago (10), Claremont McKenna, Columbia (3), Cornell, Dartmouth (4), Emory, Grinnell (2), Harvard (8), Haverford (2), Johns Hopkins (2), MIT, Northwestern (2), NYU (10), Penn (3), Pitt, Pomona, Princeton (5), Reed (4), Rutgers (6), Stanford (8), USC, Virginia, Washington U. St Louis, Wellesley, Williams (4), and Yale (5).

    Note 6: The full list of nationally ranked but nonelite schools is: Alabama, Arizona State (2), Auburn, Biola (2), Boston College, Brandeis (2), Cinncinnati, Franklin & Marshall, Furman, Houston, Illinois College, Indiana (2), Kenyon, Lafayette, Lewis & Clark, Marquette, Maryland-Baltimore County, Minnesota (2), Missouri-Columbia, North Carolina State, Northeastern (2), Oberlin (2), Pepperdine, Purdue, Sewanee, St Johns, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook (2), UC Davis, UC San Diego (2), University of Missouri-St Louis, UNC Chapel Hill (5), UNC-Asheville, Union College, University at Buffalo-SUNY, Vermont, Wake Forest, Washington-Seattle, West Point, West Virginia, Westmont, Wheaton, Whitman, and William & Mary.

    Note 7: For the curious, the remaining top ten are UC Santa Barbara (693), Boston College (654), UC Berkeley (644), Washington-Seattle (485), Wisconsin-Madison (478), UC Santa Cruz (468), Colorado-Boulder (428), and University of Arizona (426). (Washington-Bothell is excluded due to what I interpret as a classification error by NCES.)


    Related: Sorry, Cal State Students, No Princeton Grad School for You! (Oct 27, 2011). (This post contains a similar analysis from 2011, with similar results and lots of interesting discussion in the comments section.)

    [image source]