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.

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