Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

It's awfully hard to be admitted to top-ranked PhD programs in philosophy in the U.S., as I mentioned in Part I of this series.

Today: What do admissions committees look for in transcripts? In future posts, I'll talk about other aspects of the application.

First: How Admissions Committees Work

Normally, philosophy PhD admissions are decided by committees constituted of a few faculty members from the philosophy department, with higher administration formally reviewing and approving the choices. Although some faculty members work on admissions year after year, most faculty rotate on and off the committee.

At U.C. Riverside, where I teach, we receive one to two hundred applications every year, arriving in January. (Elite programs must receive hundreds more.) We have a committee of four, and two members read the files of every applicant. In February, we winnow to about 40 applicants, who are then reviewed and discussed by the whole committee. Offers go out February to March or sometimes April. We usually aim to admit about 15-20 students for a final entering class of 6-8.

In my experience, committee members employ different approaches. Some take GRE scores seriously; others don't consider them at all. Some look carefully at the letters; others think letters typically say more about the letter writer than about the applicant. Some read every writing sample, looking for gems; others don't bother with the samples unless the student looks plausible on other grounds. Some care a lot about whether the student's interests fit with strengths of the department; others happily admit students with any range of interests. These differences, along with yearly changes in committee composition, explain some of the unpredictability of the process. There is no formula.

GPA, Overall and in Philosophy

You must have excellent grades to have a reasonable prospect of admission to a top-50 ranked philosophy PhD program, unless there is something very unusual about your application. At UCR, currently ranked #32 in the U.S. in the Philosophical Gourmet Report, admitted students typically have GPAs of 3.8 or more and basically straight A's in philosophy during the last year or two of their transcript. For example, in a two-year sample of 13 entering students at UCR (excluding non-U.S. students), median GPA at the most recent previous institution was 3.89, and there were several perfect 4.0's. (Admitted students who declined our offer presumably had GPAs at least as good on average.) The lowest GPA in the two-year sample was about 3.6, but that student had straight As in the final three terms of their record.

Transcripts are evaluated holistically. Not all 3.8 GPAs are equal. What matters most are grades in upper-division philosophy courses. A "C" in chemistry your first year won't sink your application. Conversely, a 3.9 that includes a lot of A-minuses in senior-year philosophy courses doesn't look so good. We want the very strongest students, not (usually) the A-minus students.

Of course, transcript isn't everything. Eyeballing last year's applicant pool, the median GPA of rejected applicants was probably at least 3.75, and we rejected at least 16 applicants with GPAs in the 3.95-4.00 range. A great transcript earns you a closer look, but the whole application has to be impressive, standing out in a field containing dozens, or even hundreds, of other terrific students.

Yes, it's that competitive.

Institution of Origin

By institution of origin I mean where you received or expect to receive your undergraduate degree, or if you are in a Master's program, your Master's degree. Institution of origin strongly influences prospects for admission. Admissions committees tend to look more favorably on applicants from Yale and Oxford than on applicants from less prestigious schools. This appears to be especially true of the most elite PhD programs (PGR top ten ranked), perhaps less true of lower-ranked PhD programs (PGR ranked 30-50), though even among lower-ranked PhD programs I suspect that pedigree has a big influence. (Follow the links for some quantitative analysis.)

This pedigree advantage has several possible explanations. It can be difficult for faculty to evaluate transcripts from schools with which they are unfamiliar (how meaningful is that "A"?). Also, students from elite schools might be better taught how to create writing samples and personal statements that will please admissions committees. Members of admissions committees are more likely to know of, and respect the judgment of, letter writers at elite schools. They might also generally respect the ability of elite schools to select and train excellent students. And, of course, there may also be simple prestige bias.

Non-U.S. students, except from a few elite universities, are probably also disadvantaged in the admissions process, for related reasons: transcripts that can be difficult for U.S. committees to evaluate, differences in philosophical culture and training, fewer personal and professional connections. Furthermore, some programs cap their foreign admissions. At UCR, for example, the Philosophy Department normally can’t enroll more than one new foreign student per year, due to (foolish!) U.C. regulations concerning international students.

Since it can be difficult for admissions committees to evaluate transcripts from small liberal arts schools, foreign schools, and the less famous M.A. programs, it helps if students can have at least one of their letter writers address the issue with concrete comparisons. "Jill's GPA of 3.91 is the best GPA for a graduating senior in Philosophy in the past five years, among 80 graduates." Now the admissions committee knows better what that 3.91 means, in your context.

If you have attended multiple institutions (e.g., community college before undergrad), you are normally required to submit transcripts from all institutions. This can be worrying if, for example, your grades from an older institution are weak. Although ideally its best to have strong grades throughout your college career, in my experience, the most recent two years are more seriously considered than older work, so poor grades early in your education aren't necessarily an application killer. People's educational aspirations and priorities can change over time, especially if their educational path has been crooked. Admissions committees know this.

Master's Degrees

Although probably the majority of admittees to PhD programs gain admission straight from undergraduate study, a substantial minority (about a third?) have some graduate work first. Typically, this is in the form of a terminal Master's program in philosophy. If you aren't admitted into a PhD program that you like, you might want to consider applying to M.A. programs. However, there are also downsides. See the discussion of this issue in Part I.

Transcripts from M.A. programs are evaluated somewhat differently from undergraduate transcripts and often read alongside undergraduate transcripts. From the most demanding M.A. programs, a mix of A's and A-minuses is more favorably viewed than a similar mix would be at the undergraduate level, though in my experience successful applicants from M.A. programs typically do have all or mostly A's, with few A-minuses.

Do You Need to Be a Philosophy Major?

Somewhat to my surprise, when I crunched the numbers, I found that 96% of graduate students in a sample of elite PhD programs and 90% in lower-ranked programs had majored in philosophy or a cognate discipline like History and Philosophy of Science, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. This might give you the impression that unless you are a Philosophy major, your odds of admission are low.

My experience on admissions at UCR suggests that these numbers might be misleading. As long as a student has performed excellently in a substantial number of upper-division courses in philosophy (maybe six to eight), I'm not sure we care so much about the major. There's something attractive about admitting, say, a Biology major who has also done well in a bunch of philosophy courses. That student will bring an unusual perspective and set of skills to the department. The main thing is to have a track record of excellent performance in upper-division or graduate level philosophy.

If I’m right about that, maybe the very high proportion of philosophy majors among admitted students reflects a similarly high proportion in the applicant pool (or the pool of plausible applicants), rather than the preference of admissions committees.

Graduate-Level Courses

If you have the opportunity to take graduate courses in philosophy, by all means do so, especially if you're at a school with a PhD program. If you can earn an A or two in graduate-level courses in philosophy, that can really solidify the case that you're ready for graduate school -- especially if one of your letter writers compares you favorably with their current graduate students! Also, a graduate course can provide a good opportunity to write an essay that will make a good writing sample.

Unfortunately, applications generally have to be sent in early winter, so make sure you do that graduate work by fall term of the year you apply.

Honors Thesis

For some reason, we don't get many applicants who have written undergraduate honors theses, nor do many philosophy students at UCR write them. (I have supervised only two in my 22 years.) However, if your school offers this option, I would recommend considering it, especially if you are able to complete the thesis by the time of application. It establishes that you can do long-term, self-directed work, and also it gives you a taste of such work so that you can think about whether it's really for you; it's likely to be your best piece of work and so a natural candidate for a writing sample; and on top of all that, it's an intrinsically worthwhile experience!

Timing Graduation

Oddly, students completing their studies in May or June, as is traditional, are at a disadvantage compared to students who finish in December. If you start on the standard U.S. undergraduate schedule, take four years to graduate and apply at the beginning of your 4th year, 1/2 or 2/3 or your senior year won't show in your transcripts, you'll have fewer essays to draw on as writing samples, and you'll have had less exposure to potential letter writers than if you take an extra term to graduate and apply at the beginning of your fifth year.

I myself took an extra quarter at Stanford and applied in fall of my fifth year -- and I know my application was much better than it would have been had I applied in fall quarter of my fourth year. I then had fun for nine months, hanging out with friends in northern California, holding a temporary job I didn't care much about. I had plenty of time to travel to the schools that admitted me -- a wonderful experience that I'll describe in Part VII of this series.

Another possibility is to graduate your fourth year, then apply the year after. This potentially doesn't look quite as good to admissions committees, who might wonder why you didn't proceed straight to graduate school. However, let me emphasize that if you are still within one year of graduation this consideration is a relatively minor factor.

If you are more than a year past graduation, the situation is more difficult. You will need to work carefully on your Personal Statement (which I will discuss in Part V) to explain why you are now interested in pursuing graduate school in philosophy. You will probably also want to show recent engagement in academic philosophy, for example, by taking further coursework.

Part III: Letters of Recommendation


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

Old series from 2007, Parts I-VII.


Anonymous said...

Do you know if the GPA might be weighed differently for a JD than an MA? For example, my law school curved so that only half of each class has above a 3.1.

howard said...

Needless to say, Socrates and Plato and Diogenes and Pythagoras and Thales and even some moderns did not get straight A's in Philosophy.
Randall Collins warns of credentialism in education and scholasticism in academia
It sounds like you're describing it with this straight A's fetish
A;s are the essence of philosophical acumen

Unknown said...

At UM recently we've had around 250-300 applications. That was also the level at Rutgers a decade ago, though it may have gone up since.

The very high application fees mean there is a lot of self-selection, so the application numbers at the top are not *much* higher than they are anywhere else - though they are higher.

I haven't looked at our GPAs as closely as you looked at yours, but I'd say we're taking grades even more seriously now than we have in the past. This is in part a function of trying to get away from having a bias towards elite private schools; it's much easier to admit someone from a school you've never admitted from before if they've got straight A's.

Anonymous said...

What is the committee' members stance toward older applicants? Are they "ageists"?

It may sound like an odd question, but I have a feeling that age is an important factor, and that older applicants are in a worse position.

Do you remember what age was the oldest accepted applicant at your University in recent years?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's an interesting question. In one case (maybe 15-20 years ago) we admitted a retiree, but that was rare. I have heard reports of ageism against an applicant who was in her early 50s. Most grad students are in their 20s or early 30s, and I would guess that there would be some ageism for people in their 40s. However, I also think that committees will differ considerably in this. Committees' composition is small enough (often 3-4 faculty, rotating year by year) that one year you might have people who would just love to have a retiree in their program, and think that adds positively to diversity, and then the next year you might have ageism.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the very helpful series on graduate admission. I want to ask, what do you know about Purdue's M.A. in Second-Language Philosophy program? I am an international applicant, and I am interested in this program as a stepping stone to the Ph.D. programs at the USA universities.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm sorry, I don't know anything about it. Purdue is an excellent university, of course!