Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

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

Old Series from 2007


Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy
Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

GRE Scores

GRE scores tend to be required for U.S. programs, but they are less important than grades, letters, writing sample, and statement of purpose. Some schools don't even require them. According to this site, that currently includes Cornell, Emory, Illinois-Chicago, Michigan, Penn, and Wisconsin-Madison (among US PhD programs). [ETA: According to the comments below, Boston U. and Northwestern now also don't require the GRE.]

In my experience, some members of admissions committees take GRE scores seriously, others ignore them entirely, and still others employ minimum scores as a preliminary screen and otherwise disregard them. This will almost certainly vary by committee member, institution, year, and applicant details. (Foreign applicants, for example, might not be expected to have taken or done well on the GRE.)

Higher-level administrators play a role here: They oversee the admissions process, and in many schools they make the final decisions about fellowship funding. Since these administrators can really only evaluate your GPA, institution of origin, and GRE scores, students who do well on the GRE are more likely to get better funding offers than students with lower scores on the GRE -- for example, more years of fellowship without teaching (being paid simply to be a student!). Also, it looks good for the department if the students they admit have better average grades and GRE scores than the students in psychology, economics, etc. Since philosophy students on average do amazingly well on the GRE, even philosophers who don't think of GRE as diagnostic can find themselves citing students' GRE scores to make the case for financial support and for the superiority of philosophy over all other disciplines!

Therefore, I recommend that you practice for the GRE and retake it if your performance is disappointing. However, I don't recommend intensive training for the GRE. Devote that time, instead, to revising your writing sample and doing as well as possible in your classes and/or independent work.

Although averages will vary by school, my sense is that among students admitted to UC Riverside (currently ranked #32 in the U.S.), a typical GRE score is 160-167 verbal (86th-98th percentile) and 153-165 quantitative (51st-89th percentile), with totals in the 320-330 range. (No one I know takes the Writing score seriously, but 5 is a typical score.) Much lower would potentially be a disadvantage, whereas a nearly perfect score would be an advantage. Let me emphasize, however, that at UCR, and I believe most other places, a low score is not a defeater: Students with weak or (e.g., if foreign) no GREs are regularly admitted if their application is otherwise strong. Conversely, great GREs are at best a small favorable factor, more likely to help with fellowship opportunities than with admission itself.

There is no GRE subject test in philosophy.

[One philosopher taking a test]

Race, Gender, and Disability

Applications will often have optional tick-boxes in which you can indicate race/ethnicity, gender, veteran status, disability status, or membership in other social categories. Letter writers must also choose pronouns, and they might choose to mention disability or race if they think it's relevant. (Some would never mention such things. Others think they help the applicant by doing so, if the applicant is a member of a historically underrepresented group. If you prefer to keep the information confidential, tell your letter writers in advance.) Committees will often guess gender and ethnicity based on names.

Women and people of color are notoriously underrepresented in U.S. academic philosophy, compared to most other disciplines (data on other dimensions of diversity are harder to obtain). I believe there are persistent systemic biases. However, I also believe that most admissions committees would like to counter these biases and see a broader diversity in the field. Admissions committees may nonetheless show bias implicitly in how they read a file from "María Gonzalez" compared to a file from "Jake Miller", or in how they read a file from someone with a serious disability. For these reasons and others, it is perfectly reasonable not to want to disclose your race, gender, disability status, etc., to the extent these can be hidden. Don't let yourself be pressured into revealing something you're not comfortable revealing.

Schools that allow a "personal" statement in addition to a statement of purpose invite applicants to expand on obstacles they have overcome or other ways that they might contribute to the diversity of the graduate program. For discussion, see my advice on Statements of Purpose.

Presentations, Publications, Life Experience

If you have published a paper in an undergraduate journal or if you have presented at an undergraduate conference, or if you have other achievements of that sort, briefly mention it in your statement of purpose. However, they normally don't count for much.

If you have life experience relevant to your proposed area of study, also mention this in your statement of purpose -- but only do this if it is genuinely relevant, and err on the side of being brief and factual rather than overplaying it. For example, if you want to study philosophy of law and you have some work experience in law, mention it. If you want to study philosophy of race and you have worked with an organization focused on racial justice, briefly describe your experience and its relevance to your philosophical interests.

In disciplines other than philosophy, laboratory experience, work experience, and life experience are often an important part of the application. In philosophy, however, unless your situation is unusual, admissions decisions are almost always based on academic performance plus considerations of fit, balance, and diversity in the entering class, with other considerations having little weight.

Reapplying to Programs You Were Rejected from Last Year

Yes, this is fine! Likely, the admissions committee's composition will have partly changed, so you might get a fresh set of eyes. Also, hopefully, your application will be somewhat stronger.

Late Applications

... are sometimes accepted. This will vary by school.

Personal Contacts and Connections

Such things don't help much, I suspect, unless they bring substantive new information. If a professor at some point had a good, substantive, philosophical conversation with an applicant and mentions that to the committee, that might help a bit. But seeking out professors for such purposes could backfire if it seems like brown-nosing, or if the applicant seems immature, arrogant, or not particularly philosophically astute. Some professors may be very much swayed by personal connections, I suppose. I myself, however, often have a slightly negative feeling that I'm being "played" if someone who is applying to our PhD program contacts me during application season.

If you seek to build a personal connection with a professor, it's best to do so after application season is over or long before you have begun applications. The best way to build a connection is this: Carefully read something recently written by the professor (within the past four years maybe), then ask an interesting and well-informed question about it. You can send them the question by email or possibly ask them face to face at a conference or a local event. The odds of an email reply are probably below 50% and tend to be lower for the best-known faculty, who are inundated with emails from strangers. The chance of a sustained correspondence is even lower, but it's not unheard of.

Unless you are genuinely brimming with inspiration and enthusiasm, you probably won't want to attempt to build these kinds of connections as an undergraduate. However, I recommend remembering this advice for later. If and when you are an advanced graduate student, building connections in this way, outside of your home department, can be both intellectually rewarding and good for your career.


Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part VII: After You Hear Back

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Do Business Ethics Classes Make Students More Ethical? Students and Instructors Agree: They Do!

I'm inclined to think that university ethics classes typically have little effect on students' real-world moral behavior.

I base this skepticism partly on Joshua Rust's and my finding, across a wide variety of measures, that ethics professors generally don't behave much differently than other professors -- and if they don't behave differently, why would students? And I base it partly on my (now somewhat dated) review of business ethics and medical ethics instruction specifically, which finds shoddy research methods and inconsistent results suggestive of an underlying non-effect.[1]

On the other hand, part of the administrative justification of ethics classes -- especially medical ethics and business ethics -- appears to be the hope that students will eventually act more ethically as a result of having taken these courses. Administrators and instructors who aim at this result presumably expect that the classes are at least sometimes effective.

The issue, perhaps surprisingly, isn't very well studied. I parody only slightly when I say that the typical study on this topic asks students at the end of class "are you more ethical now?", and when they respond "yes" at rates greater than chance, the researcher concludes that the instruction was effective.


Nina Strohminger and I thought we'd ask instructors and students what they thought about this. We wanted to know two things. First, do instructors and students think that business ethics instruction should aim at improving students morally? Second, do they think that business ethics classes do in fact tend to improve students morally?

Our respondents were 101 business ethics instructors at the 2018 Society for Business Ethics conference, plus students from three very different universities: 339 students from Penn (an Ivy League university with an elite business school), 173 students from UC Riverside (a large state university), and 81 students from Seattle University (a small-to-medium-sized Jesuit university, where Jessica Imanaka coordinated the distribution). Surveys were anonymous, pen and paper. Students completed their surveys on the spot near the beginning of the first day of instruction in business ethics courses.

Using a five-point scale from "not at all important" to "extremely important", Question 1 asked respondents to "rate the importance of the following goals that YOU PERSONALLY AIM to get [to have your students get] from your business ethics classes:

  • An intellectual appreciation of fundamental ethical principles
  • An understanding of what specific business practices are considered ethical and unethical, whether or not I [they] choose to comply with those practices
  • Tools for thinking in a more sophisticated way about ethical quandaries
  • Interesting readings and fun puzzle cases that feed my [their] intellectual curiosity
  • Practical knowledge that will help me be a more ethical business leader [them be more ethical business leaders] in the future
  • Satisfying my [their] degree requirements
  • Grades that will look good on my [their] transcripts
  • Brackets indicate changes for the instructors' version.

    The target prompt was the fifth: Practical knowledge that will help them be more ethical business leaders in the future.

    [students in a business ethics class]

    Responses were near ceiling. 58% of students rated practical knowledge that will help them be more ethical business leaders as "extremely important" to them, the highest possible choice. The mean response was 4.44 on the 1-5 scale. This was the highest mean response among the seven possible goals. 40% of students rated it more highly than they rated "satisfying my degree requirements" and 48% rated it more highly than "grades that will look good on my transcript". Responses were similar for all three schools. If we accept these self-reports, gaining practical knowledge that will help them actually become more ethical is one of students' most important personal aims in taking business ethics classes.

    Instructors' responses were similar: 58% said it was personally "extremely important" to them to have students gain practical knowledge that will help them be more ethical business leaders in the future. The mean response was 4.41 on the 1-5 scale.

    Question 2 asked students and instructors to guess each other's goals (with the same seven possible goals). Students tended to think that professors would also very highly rate (mean 4.71) "practical knowledge that will help students be more ethical business leaders in the future". Professors tended to think that students would regard such knowledge as important (mean 4.09) but not as important as satisfying degree requirements (mean 4.42).

    Question 3 asked respondents how likely they thought it was that "the average students gets the following things from their [your] business ethics classes". The same seven goals were presented, with a 1 - 5 response scale from "not at all likely" to "extremely likely".

    Overall, both students and instructors expressed optimism: Both groups' mean response to this question was 3.84 on the 1-5 scale.

    Based on this part of the questionnaire, it looks like students and instructors agree: It's important to them that their business ethics classes produce practical knowledge that helps students become more ethical business leaders, and they think that their business ethics classes do tend to have that effect.

    On the second page of the questionnaire, we asked these questions directly.

    Question 4: Do you think that, as a result of having taken [your] business ethics classes, [your] students on average will behave more ethically, less ethically, or about the same as if they had not taken a business ethics course?

    Among instructors, 64% said more ethical, 35% said about the same, and 1% said less ethical. Among students, 54% said more ethical, 45% said about the same, and again only 1% said less ethical.

    Question 5: To what extent do you agree that the central aim of business ethics instruction should be to make students more ethical? [1 - 5 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree"]

    Among instructors, 63% agreed or strongly agreed and only 19% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Among students, 67% agreed or strongly agreed and only 9% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

    The results of these direct questions thus broadly fit with the results in terms of specific goals. Either way you ask, both business ethics students and business ethics instructors say that business ethics classes should and do make students more ethical.


    Many cautions and caveats apply. The results might be influenced by "socially desirable responding" -- respondents' tendency to express attitudes that they think will be socially approved (maybe especially if they think their instructors might be watching). Also, instructors attending a business ethics conference might not be representative of business ethics instructors as a whole -- maybe more gung-ho. Students and instructors might not know their own goals and values. They might be excessively optimistic about the transformative power of university instruction. Etc. I confess to having some doubts.

    Nonetheless, I was struck by the apparent degree of consensus, among students and instructors, that business ethics classes should lead students to become more ethical, and by the majority opinion that they do indeed have that effect.



    [1] However, Peter Singer, Brad Cokelet, and I have also recently conducted a study that suggests that under certain conditions teaching the philosophical material on meat ethics can lead students to purchase less meat at campus dining locations.

    Friday, February 14, 2020

    Thoughts on Conjugal Love

    For Valentine's Day, some thoughts on love.

    In 2003, my Swiss friends Eric and Anne-Françoise Rose asked me to contribute something to their wedding ceremony. Here’s a lightly revised version of what I wrote, concerning conjugal love, the distinctive kind of love between spouses.


    Love is not a feeling. Feelings come and go, while love is steady. Feelings are passions in the classic sense of passion, which shares a root with “passive” – they arrive mostly unbidden, unchosen. Love, in contrast, is something built. The passions felt by teenagers and writers of romantic lyrics, felt so intensely and often so temporarily, are not love – though they might sometimes be the prelude to it.

    Rather than a feeling, love is a way of structuring your values, goals, and reactions. Central to love is valuing the good of the other for their own sake. Of course, we all care about the good of other people we know, for their own sake and not just for other ends. Only if the regard is deep, only if we so highly value the other’s well-being that we are willing to thoroughly restructure our own goals to accommodate it, and only if this restructuring is so rooted that it automatically informs our reactions to the person and to news that could affect them, do we possess real love.

    Conjugal love involves all of this, but it is also more than this. In conjugal love, one commits to seeing one’s life always with the other in view. One commits to pursuing one’s major projects, even when alone, in a kind of implicit conjunction with the other. One’s life becomes a co-authored work.

    Parental love for a young child might be purer and more unconditional than conjugal love. The parent expects nothing back from a young child. The parent needn’t share plans and ideals with an infant. Later, children will grow away into their separate lives, independent of parents’ preferences, while we retain our parental love for them.

    Conjugal love, because it involves the collaborative construction of a joint life, can’t be unconditional in this way. If the partners don’t share values and a vision, they can’t steer a mutual course. If one partner develops too much of a separate vision or doesn’t openly and in good faith work with the other toward their joint goals, conjugal love fails and is, at best, replaced with some more general type of loving concern.

    Nevertheless, to dwell on the conditionality of conjugal love, and to develop a set of contingency plans should it fail, is already to depart from the project of jointly fabricating a life, and to begin to develop individual goals opposing those of the partner. Conjugal love requires an implacable, automatic commitment to responding to all major life events through the mutual lens of marriage. One can’t embody such a commitment while harboring serious back-up plans and persistent thoughts about the contingency of the relationship.

    Is it paradoxical that conjugal love requires lifelong commitment without contingency plans, yet at the same time is contingent in a way that parental love is not? No, there is no paradox. If you believe something is permanent, you can make lifelong promises and commitments contingent upon it, because you believe the thing will never fail you. Lifelong commitments can be built upon bedrock, solid despite their dependency on that rock.

    This, then, is the significance of the marriage ceremony: It is the expression of a mutual unshakeable commitment to build a joint life together, where each partner’s commitment is possible, despite the contingency of conjugal love, because each partner trusts the other partner’s commitment to be unshakeable.

    A deep faith and trust must therefore underlie true conjugal love. That trust is the most sacred and inviolable thing in a marriage, because it is the very foundation of its possibility. Deception and faithlessness destroy conjugal love because, and to the extent that, they undermine that trust. For the same reason, honest and open interchange about long-standing goals and attitudes is at the heart of marriage.

    Passion alone can’t ground conjugal trust. Neither can shared entertainments and the pleasure of each other’s company. Both partners must have matured enough that their core values are stable. They must be unselfish enough to lay everything on the table for compromise, apart from those permanent, shared values. And they must resist the tendency to form secret, selfish goals. Only to the degree they approach these ideals are partners worthy of the trust that makes conjugal love possible.

    [For the final, published version of this essay, please see A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.]

    [image source]

    Tuesday, February 11, 2020

    Question: Why Do Great Philosophers Embrace Such Wacky Views? Answer: The World Itself Is Wacky

    Recently, philosopher Michael Huemer seems intent on irritating philosophers of every stripe. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing.) On Saturday, he took aim at philosophical heroes, arguing that "great philosophers are bad philosophers". He notes that great philosophers tend to confidently defend bizarre conclusions, which he suggests reveals their poor judgment; and often they rely, he says, on arguments so terrible that "even an undergrad" can see the fallacies and non sequiturs. As examples, he offers Socrates's bad arguments against Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic, Hume's "absurdly skeptical" conclusions in the Treatise and Enquiries, and Kant's willingness to take his thinly defended "categorical imperative" to absurd conclusions, such as not telling a lie even to prevent a murder.

    If you don't already know this material, I won't detain you with explanations here -- Huemer's are succinct and readable. I allow that on the face of it, Huemer has a pretty good case. And he's not targeting obscure philosophers or obscure passages. These are some of the most famous parts of some of the most famous works in the Western canon. And the views and arguments are decidedly... well, let's go with wacky. Nor is Huemer especially cherry picking. There's a lot of wacky-seeming stuff in other canonical philosophers too, for example, Leibniz on monads, Nietzsche on eternal recurrence, Descartes on animal (non-)minds, David Lewis on the real existence of possible worlds....

    Huemer has an explanation. He suggests that what makes a philosopher "great" is that the philosopher advances intriguing ideas that future generations find worth arguing about. Ordinary, bland truths, convincingly defended, don't really heat up a conversation. When faced with a compelling argument for a reasonable conclusion, people might react with something like, "yeah, that sounds right," and just move on. If in contrast you say, "there is no self" or "you shouldn't even lie to a murderer chasing an innocent person" (and for whatever sociological reason people take you seriously), that can really start up a good debate! Maybe a debate that lasts centuries. Possibly, the only people willing to advance such claims are bad philosophers -- philosophers who lack the good judgment to recognize the absurdity of their conclusions and who lack the critical chops to recognize that their supporting arguments are rotten. Hence, great philosophers are bad philosophers. QED!

    Is Huemer's argument a good one? Or is it, perhaps instead, a great one (in the strict Huemerian sense of "great")?

    I am probably a good target audience for Huemer's argument: Regular readers will know that I am quite happy to attribute plain old bad argumentation to some of the great historical philosophers, including Kant and Laozi, in accordance with my rejection of excessive charity in reading history of philosophy. Although I like Hume and Plato and (some parts of) Kant, I'm not bothered by Huemer's suggestion and I rather enjoy the idea that the great philosophers are fallible boneheads just like the rest of us.

    However, I have one observation about a piece of the story that Huemer's hypothesis leaves unexplained, and I have a competing explanation to offer instead.

    Here's what Huemer leaves unexplained: The lack of "good" philosophers in the historical record.

    If Huemer's hypothesis were correct, you'd think that among the contemporaries of Plato, Hume, and Kant would be good philosophers who defend sensible views on solid grounds. These philosophers might not get as much attention as the provocative philosophers, but it would be odd if historical records of them entirely disappeared. But there are no philosophers -- or at least (as I'll explain below) no ambitious metaphysicians -- who appear to meet Huemer's standard of being a "good" philosopher.

    Huemer suggests that Aristotle might be somewhat better than the trio he highlights, even if not entirely good. On Facebook, some others suggested maybe Thomas Reid might be a good philosopher who was a contemporary of Hume and Kant. But I don't think Aristotle or Reid are probably good by Huemer's standards. Some of Aristotle's and Reid's views are quite strange, and their arguments for those strange views aren't reliably sensible. For example, Reid, despite his reputation as a "common sense" philosopher, argues that material objects have no causal power and can't even hold together into consistent shapes, without the constant intervention of immaterial souls (an opinion he acknowledges is contrary to the views of the "vulgar"). I have argued that there are some metaphysical issues -- particularly the issue of the relation between mind and body -- where not a single philosopher in the whole history of Earth has been able to articulate a fleshed-out positive theory that isn't both highly dubious and in some respects radically contrary both to our current common sense and to the common sense of their own historical era. (I am still willing to entertain possible counterexamples, if you have some to suggest.)

    Why is this? Why are philosophical theories about the metaphysics of mind (and, I'd suggest, at least also personal identity, causation, and object individuation) all so bizarre and dubious? Here's my hypothesis: The world is bizarre and (for the foreseeable future) philosophically intractable. This is my competing explanation of the bizarre and dubious claims that Huemer has noted often occupy center stage in the history of philosophy.

    The world is bizarre in the following sense: Some things that are true of it are radically contrary to common sense. In physics, consider quantum mechanics and relativity theory. And in philosophy, the bizarreness is epistemically intractable, for the foreseeable future, for the following pair of reasons: (1.) Our common sense about fundamental issues of metaphysics is probably inconsistent at root, and if so, no self-consistent well-developed metaphysics could possibly adhere to all of it. (This explains the inevitable bizarreness.) And (2.) In the domains under discussion, empirical methods are indecisive, and we need to rely on this flawed, inconsistent common sense to a substantial degree. This generates intractable debates where the violations of common sense of one theory become the commonsensical starting presuppositions of competitor theories, which then bring radical violations of common sense of their own. No theory decisively meets all reasonable criteria of excellence. (This explains the inevitable dubiety.)

    Great philosophers are undaunted! Amid the competing bizarrenesses, they find some to favor. (The epistemic landscape isn't totally flat: There still are considerations pro and con and better and worse ideas.) They defend their favored views as best they can -- of course indecisively, given the bad epistemic situation of ambitious metaphysical philosophy.

    How about arguments we now think of as "good" arguments for sensible conclusions? Either (a.) they are unambitious, rather than going after the really huge, intractable issues (especially in fundamental metaphysics), or (b.) they are flawed for reasons that remain mostly invisible to their proponents (i.e., probably you. Sorry!), or (3.) they are forms of skepticism about the enterprise.

    This metaphilosophy is probably at its most plausible when applied to fundamental issues of metaphysics. The best examples of totally weird views and arguments tend to be in metaphysics. Maybe other subfields work differently? (I do think, however, that ethics might soon face a cognitive and methodological crisis, when confronted with a range of Artificial Intelligence cases for which it is conceptually unprepared.)

    Great philosophers embrace bizarre views because our ordinary commonsense understanding of the world is so radically deficient that no non-bizarre view is defensible or even, once one tries to specify the details, coherently articulatable. Great philosophers confront this bizarreness, defending their best guess with the indecisive argumentative tools they have, pushing us forward into the weird unknown.

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    Monday, February 03, 2020

    Jerks of Academe: A Field Guide

    Just out in the Chronicle of Higher Education, with hilarious art depicting the four main types I profile: the Big Shot, the Creepy Hugger, the Sadistic Bureaucrat, and the Embittered Downdragger.

    Unfortunately, it's paywalled. I'm trying to get permission to repost it here, but in the meantime please feel free to comment here or email me and I can send you a PDF for personal use.


    Jerks of Academe

    This morning you probably didn’t look in the mirror and ask, “Am I a jerk?” And if you did, I wouldn’t believe your answer. Jerks usually don’t know that they are jerks.

    Jerks mostly travel in disguise, even from themselves. But the rising tide (or is it just the increasing visibility?) of scandal, grisly politics, bureaucratic obstructionism, and toxic advising in academe reveals the urgent need of a good wildlife guide by which to identify the varieties of academic jerk.

    So consider what follows a public service of sorts. I offer it in sad remembrance of the countless careers maimed or slain by the beasts profiled below. I hope you will forgive me if on this occasion I use “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun.

    The Big Shot

    The Big Shot is the most easily identified of all academic jerks. You can spot him a mile away. His plumage is so grand! (Or so he thinks.) His publications so widely cited! (At least by the right people.) His editorial-board memberships so dignified! (Not that anyone else noticed.) You will never fully appreciate the Big Shot’s genius, but if you cite him copiously and always defer to his judgment, he’ll think you have above-average intelligence.

    The Creepy Hugger

    To those unfamiliar with his ways, the Creepy Hugger appears the opposite of the Big Shot. He will seem kind, modest, and charming, despite his impressive accomplishments. This is his alluring disguise....