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]


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

PS: I am told that one SF State undergraduate is will soon be starting in the PhD program at Stanford (which was not included in my analysis). That's nice to hear! It doesn't much affect the overall analysis, of course -- though if I had systematic data from Stanford I could add that into the mix.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the ten students from a nationally unranked school who made it into a top-10 program straight out of undergrad. I followed the advice on your blog very closely during applications, and reading your blog (and following the advice it has) is the main advice I give to people I know who are thinking about applying. So it's played at least some role in leveling the playing field, and I can't give you enough thanks for how helpful it was!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jul 1: I am delighted to hear that!

Anonymous said...

I may have misunderstood note 3, but the University of Otago has three former MA's now in top ten PhD programs on this list. Should we be there?

Nick T said...

Our discipline is so screwed up.

It would be interesting to know how the 'elite' universities compare in socioeconomic/race demographics to the non-elite ones.

Eric, do you have any idea how philosophy compares to other subjects, especially non-humanities subjects, on this elite-pipeline issue?

Sam Duncan said...

This is good bit of analysis and we owe you for it. I once thought of trying to do something similar but did not get very far at all.

My only real comment is that I think this is a big loss to the discipline of philosophy itself in various ways and not just the people who get passed over because of non-elite status. The biggest one is that given how reliant contemporary philosophical practice is on "intuitions" (or whatever you choose to call them) this really hampers the search for truth. I'm not against using intuitions in ethics or political philosophy but my worry is that "our" intuitions might very very tied to the background of the "us" we're addressing. I've often wondered how much of what passes for our intuitions really reflect things that practically anyone would agree to and what just reflects the basic outlook of well-off, liberal, secular, white men. (And don't get me wrong this is intended as a self-criticism since I'm definitely two of those things and increasingly a third). This reliance on intuitions seems to me a very good reason to encourage diversity in philosophy but I wonder how much good that will do if say we increase the numbers of women and minorities in philosophy but maintain the exact same class background?

I would wager that this also hampers our discipline's ability to teach and to communicate effectively with the public. And both of those have pretty important bearing on the longterm health or even survival of academic philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Anon Jul 1: I estimate that I have information for only half of the PhD students at top-ten ranked PhD programs, since only 8/13 programs are represented and I don't have info on all of the students at those 8 programs. It looks like the Otago students are among those not counted. The results are meant to be representative, not complete.

Nick T: Yes, that would be interesting to know. A commenter at Daily Nous provided this link: . Also, my sense from having read various things over the years (though I can't dig up citations right now) is that English literature tends to have even more of an elite-pedigree advantage and that in some of the physical sciences there might be less of an elite-pedigree advantage. I'm not sure, though.

Sam: I'm inclined to agree on both counts.

Howie said...


In 2017 I graduated from a pretty decent MFA program in New York.
Night school.
My entrance was judged by the strength of my work and not my checkered academic career.
I got into and out of great schools, just have no idea how I managed to graduate college.
At the better MFA programs, too, candidates are judged by their talent not their resume.
How about Ulysses Grant graduating at the bottom of his West Point class?
I think philosophers may be a little uptight and status conscious.
Why can't they just see talent as in literature, art and (yes) war.
I mean Socrates didn't graduate from the academy and Descartes never stepped foot in Harvard Square

Yik said...

I am going to apply for PhD program and I have learned a lot from your recent posts and the series from 2011. Thank you very much Eric!

I have graduated from UCLA (B.A. Phil) back in 2014, at that time I lost my interest in studying philosophy and ended up with ~2.8 cGPA. I lost my interest at that time because the upper division classes (or academic philosophy as a whole) are getting technical and impractical. Long story short, I have found my reason to study philosophy again two years later. I just recently graduated from a MA program in philosophy with ~3.64 GPA from CUHK (currently ranked 28 in philosophy, from QS subject ranking)

What would come to your mind if you were to look at my PhD application? Would my undergraduate GPA be a red flag to you? I understand that you suggest us to straight write our intended area of interest in our personal statement, and skip the "reason to study", or "background information", but I feel like I should somehow address my unsatisfactory GPA in my undergraduate studies.

Thank you

Arnold said...

Seeing myself still, as a lily in a field...

Go for a PHD in seeing all ways...

As whatever I do, is always in front of me...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! Yik, in these kinds of mixed-record cases, a lot will turn on the letters and especially the writing sample. A great writing sample can show that you are a very different philosopher from the one who lost interest five years ago.

Anonymous said...

I am also one of the ten students from unranked universities mentioned in this piece. Because Eric's blog was enormously helpful to me as an undergrad, I want to mention some of the things that strengthened my application in case it might help others coming from unranked schools.

First, I had supportive mentors from the beginning who gave me a great education as well as the confidence to pursue the opportunities I did, especially as a first-generation college student. It helped that I knew by sophomore year I would likely want to apply for Philosophy PhD programs, so I had time to "compensate" for my school's lack of name recognition (which I was aware of due to an older version of this post).

I was very intentional about trying to spend time at elite schools, both to get high-quality practice in philosophy and, frankly, to cater towards potential prestige bias in admissions. I want to plug one program in particular called The Leadership Alliance. They offer a paid three-month summer research program that pairs undergrads from underrepresented groups with a faculty mentor at one of several elite universities. The program is intended to help students from underrepresented groups have a better chance of gaining admission to competitive PhD programs, and it is one of the only programs like this that takes humanities students. I learned a lot under a fantastic mentor who ended up writing one of my letters of recommendation. Aside from this, I studied abroad at Oxford (which it sounds like another person did as well) and explored philosophical topics beyond those offered at my school. I also did a couple of independent studies at my school.

These experiences were all extremely enriching and made me a better philosopher, which might have made my writing sample stronger than it would have been otherwise. I also know that some of the advantage in admissions might have been due to getting outside "endorsement" from elite schools. It's hard to say, but I strongly encourage other students coming from unranked universities to seek out as many research experiences as possible, especially if you can do so outside your home university. Thank you for initiating this conversation in the profession, Eric.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Anon Jul 9! I'm glad that my advice proved helpful, and I'm sure your advice will also be helpful to others.

Kenny Pearce said...

I think it would be interesting to try to control for what percentage of philosophy majors are applying for graduate study. (It might be hard to get reliable data, of course.) I did my undergrad at Penn, and my impression is that a huge percentage of my classmates--especially, but not only, humanities majors--were applying for some form of graduate study. My teaching experience suggests that more prestigious colleges have a larger number of students interested in graduate study.

Of course, even if this is right it doesn't end questions about bias/unfairness. It may be that students from less prestigious colleges aren't applying because they don't think they can get in, or their professors may not suggest they apply because no one has been successful recently, etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting points, Kenny. I don't have those data, but I'd bet you're right that a higher percentage of students from elite undergraduate programs apply -- and part of the explanation might be, as you also suggest, that students from lower-prestige programs do not have much expectation of success.

Unknown said...

I think that, if there are advantages for elite students, the most important is the opportunity to submit a better writing sample (which is the most important part of an application). Students from elite universities are more likely to have the guidance to write a successful sample –even if that sample turns out to be less representative of the student and more of the advisor(s). But, to be honest, I don't think there is much that can be done about that. Admissions have to be based on criteria. And someone can be trained to meet them just enough to be admitted –especially from people who know very well how the process works. Better candidates most likely meet those criteria. But meeting those criteria doesn't necessarily mean that one is a better candidate. In other words, a candidate from a non-elite University may be talented, but with not enough guidance on what makes a effective writing sample.
It is something similar to the GRE test: those who have access to better test preparation will probably do better. This doesn't mean that they are not good, but it also doesn't mean they are always better than others who did worse.
But,unfortunately, the admissions' committee has no other choice than to suppose they are better, since their application seems to be so –no matter where they come from.