Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Charity Argument Contest Update

In october, Fiery Cushman and I announced a contest: Participants were to write a philosophical argument that attempts to convince research participants to donate a surprise bonus to charity. The winner would receive $500, and we would donate an additional $500 to the winner's choice of charity.

We planned to run the experiment in early 2020 and announce the winner by today, March 31. For a variety of reasons, the experiment has been delayed, but the contest is still on and we will announce the winner as soon as we can.

In the meantime, I hope Splintered Mind readers and contest entrants are managing well through the chaos.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Snail Weather

Yesterday was a good day to be a snail. Spring rains are rousing them from hibernation, and on my morning stroll I saw hundreds cruising the vacant sidewalks of suburban Riverside.

The streets were so quiet, even this snail appeared to be in no particular danger:

I took dozens of photos in the rain, my usual fifty-five minute walk stretching to an hour and a quarter. It was peaceful -- just me and the snails. Normally on a Monday morning, cars fill the streets, leaving for work and school. Yesterday I counted only fourteen cars the whole time I was out, less than one car every five minutes. Nor were there other pedestrians.

Alone in the rain with the snails, I thought back to couple of days previously, when my wife Pauline, my teenage daughter Kate, and I had been walking our dog in the sun. Pauline had wondered aloud if the world would be better without humans. Think of all the destruction and suffering we cause, she said.

But without humans, I replied, there'd be no science, no philosophy, no art, no heroes -- none of the distinctively human things that make Earth such an amazing planet! Isn't it better that the universe has planets like this, even with all the suffering we inflict on ourselves and other species, than it would be if every planet were just a paradise of cows?

But how much destruction and suffering is worth it, Pauline asked. What if we wiped out every species, including ourselves, and turned the planet into a sterile rock forever? Would our great accomplishments have been worth it?

Probably not, I conceded. But if we wiped out 90% of species and then the world recovered, with new wonderful species emerging later -- then we were worth it.

Kate had been listening in. I asked her opinion.

"The world would be better without humans," Kate said. She loves animals. She was thinking, I'm sure, of all the wild animals that would flourish better without us.

Two antinatalists in my own family!

I'll give Pauline and Kate this much: It's not a bad thing to let the snails to enjoy a day without us once in a while. I've noticed more birds and squirrels recently too. We humans can tuck in for a nap and let some other species cruise around for a while, in our suddenly quieter spaces.

The big, beautiful ones are common garden snails, Cornu aspersum. The low, sleek ones are decollates, Rumina decollata, predatory snail-eating snails, sneaking up on the garden snails in their slow-paced hunt.


If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

Friday, March 20, 2020

On Sharing Umbrellas

Sometimes I love a cloudburst. You're walking downtown. Suddenly the rain starts and you're under some random awning, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, sharing complaints and guesses about the weather. The rain eases a little, and the most hurried or the least concerned dash away, accepting wet faces and shoulders, while the more relaxed wait it out. I'm reminded of G.K. Chesterton's essay about the joy of chasing your hat when it's snatched by the wind "On Running After One's Hat" -- but a friendlier event, where people are thrown together instead of managing alone.

Last November, after a week of warm sunny weather here in southern California, a surprisingly rainy afternoon jumped on us. The first rain of the season is always fun, and I noticed students sharing umbrellas. Every umbrella, it seemed, had two or three students under it, some in coats, some in shorts -- sandals, boots, skirts, sweatshirts, flannel, summer dresses, all jumbled together, smiling and giggling.

Students and staff members sharing umbrellas seemed much liklier to be smiling than those walking solo. I put on my hat (no umbrella) and took a long stroll around campus in the rain, starting a count: student/non-student, umbrella/no umbrella, sharing/not sharing, smiling/not smiling, with a friend/alone. I developed a method and coding scheme on the fly. I chose observational subjects when I was behind them, not looking at their faces, to minimize experimenter bias, then somehow without seeming too weird or conspicuous I had to position myself to register, at a predetermined time, smile vs. no smile. I did a lot of speedwalking, corner cutting, and sprinting through the rain. The fairest comparison, I soon realized, would be groups of friends who all had umbrellas vs. groups of friends sharing umbrellas. After about forty minutes, I was thoroughly soaked (but having great time), and the rain let up.

I didn't yet have many good data points, since it could take sixty seconds to choose a group and position myself for an observation. Preliminary evidence suggested that my hypothesis would play out. I could see it in their faces. Being thrown together with a friend under an umbrella is one of the lovely little pleasures of life. There's the shoulder-bumping intimacy. How often are we so physically close with our friends? There's the novelty of the change of weather in dry California, which you can now jokingly grouse about together. There's a special pleasure, maybe too, in having something to offer a friend -- room under your umbrella -- which you can share without cost. It's a toy emergency: no real risk of harm, nothing serious at stake, but some of the same cooperative bonding as in real emergencies, some of the same intimacy, uncertainty, newness, lowered barriers.

After the rain stopped, I had only the beginning of a data set. No worries, I thought. I'll collect more data later, during the next unexpected rain. It didn't happen, though, in December, January, February. It had been a dry winter, and during the few rains, I didn't manage to find the time.

It's rainy again this week, after a warm February and early March. A wee bit of winter (SoCal style) is back. It would be a perfect time to don my hat and gather more data.

But of course, with the epidemic, no one was on campus this week. Wednesday was my last day to retrieve belongings from my office before complete lockdown through April. Campus was already looking a little dilapilated -- the paper and cardboard signs and flyers from a few weeks ago bent and weathered, abandoned, unreplaced. I saw only one person during my visit, someone in a winter jacket, turned away from me, head down, walking swiftly the other direction.

With the California governor's shelter-in-place order last night, sharing umbrellas with acquaintances, anywhere, is on pause -- one more small casualty of the pandemic.

So I'm sitting at home, staring through my window at the overcast sky while my wife and daughter sleep late. My son is self-quarantined on the other side of town after possible exposure during his truncated study abroad.

My umbrella research will wait til next year, I suppose, while I huddle with family, not knowing what kind of protection we might need, waiting out a different kind of storm.

[photo from Alamy, used with license]

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Feeling Bored? Isolated? Insufficiently Supplied with Philosophical Weirdness? Watch or Listen to a Wide-Ranging Two-Hour Interview about My Work

Released Monday at Eclectic Spacewalk

Topics include:

* juvenile delinquency
* group consciousness and the "Chinese room"
* a cyberpunk spin on Kant's transcendental idealism
* ancient Chinese philosophers Mengzi and Xunzi on whether human nature is good
* science fiction as a form of philosophy
* garden snail sex
* approaching academic life with a childlike sense of fun
* and more!

Eclectic Spacewalk is just getting started, so if you like the interview, please subscribe and support them!

Bonus feature if you the YouTube video: You can play a new COVID19 themed game. Every time you see me touch my face, squirt a bit of sanitizer on your hands!



  • Eric’s dad was a grad student in the famous Harvard (Timothy Leary & Ram Das) LSD Studies, and invented the ankle monitoring system for arrestees (00:04:28)
  • Eric did his post graduate work at UC Berkley under John Searle of “The Chinese Room” thought experiment fame - a critique of “The Turing Test” (00:11:14)
  • What exactly is consciousness? (00:17:35)
  • Can collectives, societies, companies, ideas, or countries like the United States be conscious? (00:21:00)
  • Eric’s thoughts on Object Oriented Ontology and speculative realism (00:25:52)
  • Kant meets cyberpunk (00:29:38)
  • Unknown Unknowns, and the quest for consilience, and the Fermi paradox (00:34:31)
  • Part Two:

  • Philosophical outlook on altered states of consciousness (00:43:17)
  • The great debate between Mengzi & Xunzi about whether human nature is good or evil. (00:47:21)
  • Moral psychology, business ethics, and how much can someone gain from thinking philosophically? (00:53:08)
  • Making experiments to test philosophical and moral inquiries (00:58:17)
  • Science fiction as a philosophy & ethics of technology (01:01:37)
  • Upcoming anthology: “Philosophy through science fiction stories” (01:05:44)
  • Discussing films Ex Machina & Arrival (01:10:11)
  • The bizarre, weird, and complex lives of garden snails (01:15:24)
  • The love of writing, running a blog called “The Splintered Mind,” and everyone is really a philosopher and interested in the deepest mysteries of existence (01:22:55)
  • Eric’s new book: “A Theory of Jerks and other Philosophical Misadventures" (01:29:36)
  • The re-connection of psychology and philosophy (01:36:53)
  • Recommending Zhuangzi (Butterfly Dream) and John Stuart Mill (On Liberty) and Montaigne (Personal essays like On Solitude) (01:39:05)
  • How has teaching philosophy changed you? Different teaching methods starting with moral questions first. (01:42:38)
  • How has your influences changed over time? (01:49:01)
  • What can we gain philosophically from the idea of the “The Overview Effect?” (01:54:49)

  • Friday, March 13, 2020

    The Academic Jerk: A Wildlife Guide

    This post originally appeared as "The Jerks of Academe" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 31, 2020. The awesome art was created by Lars Leetaru for the Chronicle and is used by permission.]


    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 academia 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. You will flee to him for comfort and protection after abuse by the other types of academic jerk. The Creepy Hugger with lecherous motivations is one variety, but not the only one, nor the most common. More frequently you’ll encounter the type who takes advantage of his power to extract favors and “friendship” that you would not otherwise give. His arm is around your shoulder while he complains about his colleagues. He invites you for beers that you feel obliged to consume in feigned bonhomie. You meet his family and are expected to be sweet and sociable. Because you are so nice, and because he seems so enamored of you, you proofread his drafts and help organize his office. Soon, he will be distracted by someone better and forget you exist – unless he can gain advantage by presenting you as his protégé.

    The Sadistic Bureaucrat

    You will recognize the Sadistic Bureaucrat by the little smile he can’t quite suppress as he informs you that your reimbursement application was not completed correctly. Your visa approval process is delayed. The only available time slot for your class is seven in the morning, and your sabbatical request is denied. He is really so sorry. But, he reminds you, the policies are clearly listed in the faculty manual. It would be unfair, don’t you see, to make an exception. Somehow, his friends don’t seem to suffer under the policies in quite the same way. The Sadistic Bureaucrat washes away his moral qualms about granting exceptions to others by relishing his great fairness and rigorous principle when applying the rules to you.

    The Embittered Downdragger

    You and the Embittered Downdragger agree that the Big Shot is not nearly as brilliant as he imagines – neither, the Downdragger adds, is that other scholar, whose work you rather admire. The Embittered Downdragger is distinctly unimpressed that you finally managed to publish in a so-called “elite” venue. And your great teaching evaluations? They prove only that you cater to student demand for easy A’s. The Embittered Downdragger has only published a few articles. His students complain about him. He serves no important administrative role. This is because he knows that the system is corrupt. He rolls his eyes at the award you just won and the invitation you just received, of which you had, until then, felt rather proud. His “no” vote can be relied on for every policy change, every new initiative, and every tenure case.

    This list is neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Jerkitude manifests in wondrous variety and not all the species have yet been cataloged. Hybrids abound – for example, the past-his-prime Big Shot who is becoming an Embittered Downdragger.

    If you spot one of these jerks in the wild – at a conference hotel, on the other side of the seminar table, at a campuswide committee meeting – react as if you had spotted a bear. They are dangerous, unpredictable creatures, best avoided if possible. Do not try to cuddle up close, thinking you can befriend them without getting hurt. Do not try to seduce them with treats. Walk as far away as possible. Jerks are best viewed from a distance, with telescopic lens.

    If surprised up close by an angry jerk, stand tall, if you can raise yourself to intimidating height. If it’s a grizzly, though, play dead.


    But what if you are the jerk?

    It’s generally difficult to recognize and acknowledge one’s vices. No one wants to see themselves as flaky or vain. We try to ignore evidence of such character deficiencies in ourselves, and we find rationalizing excuses. But if we look close enough and long enough we can wincingly recognize such shortcomings.

    Self-knowledge of jerkitude is more recalcitrant. Big Shots will not see themselves as Big Shots – at least not that kind. Sadistic Bureaucrats and Embittered Downdraggers will rarely recognize the true shape and extent of their awfulness. We can admit, when pressed, that we are flaky and vain, but we can’t admit, not deep down, that we are the Creepy Huggers students whisper about in the halls.

    Jerkitude, though it comes in many varieties, has a central defining feature: culpably failing to appreciate the perspectives of the people around you. The Big Shot fails to appreciate the intellectual merits of his colleagues. The Creepy Hugger fails to appreciate how the power dynamics of “friendliness” are experienced by those he wraps his arms around. The Sadistic Bureaucrat fails to appreciate the merit of most other people’s excuses and the difficulty of negotiating complex, unfamiliar rules. The Embittered Downdragger fails to appreciate the value of accomplishments beyond his own.

    Illegitimately devaluing others’ goals and ignoring their opinions – this is the essence of being a jerk. It’s a peculiarly epistemic vice, one that works to prevent its own detection by painting the world in seemingly objective self-flattering colors and by thwarting the jerk’s ability to respectfully hear others’ critical feedback. Jerkitude flourishes in ignorance of itself.

    But all hope is not lost. Though I doubt that the most horrible jerks among us will ever change their ways, the best chance to attain a glimmer of self-knowledge is to think phenomenologically – that is, to think about how the world in general looks through your eyes, and then to compare that vision with the world as seen by the jerk. Do you see the world through jerk goggles?

    You’re important, and you’re surrounded by idiots! You can’t believe they gave that award to that absolute dolt. Her work isn’t nearly as good as yours. And why are you wasting time with this student? Can’t he see you have a ton of important things you need to get done? That new article should have cited your work here and here and here. Is the author ignorant? Is she intentionally downplaying how much she’s borrowing from you? Ugh, your colleague is making a case for Distinguished Professor, but you’re clearly more deserving. No need to read work by scholars you haven’t heard of. It can’t be good if they aren’t well known…. You’re thinking like a Big Shot.

    You’re not like those other professors, formal and standoffish and so full of themselves. You’re an egalitarian. Your students are peers, and, well, you guess you’re kind of cool. It’s kind of big of you to step down the social hierarchy like this, relating so well with your inferiors – whoops, you didn’t mean “inferiors”! It’s fun that you can tease her, call her an “asshole” in a joking way, say her thesis work is totally stupid. She knows you’re just razzing her. It sure is nice of her to help you organize your office. You guess you do kind of deserve that, because – whoops! You mean of course you would do the same for her…. You’re thinking like a Creepy Hugger.

    Box A correct. Box B correct. Box C, oh, tsk-tsk … no, no, no. This will need to be redone. You can’t approve it this way. They did it wrong, and the policies aren’t really under your control. Option A: If excuse is from a friend. Ah, you see the problem! Of course, we can get this fixed. The rules serve us, not us the rules. Mistakes happen – we’re human, after all. Option B: If excuse is not from a friend. The rules need to be applied consistently. It’s only fair to the others. Clear rules are what make the institutions work, and it’s important to be even-handed and careful. You’re sorry about all the trouble this is causing – though maybe in your secret heart not so sorry. Did you just now feel a little rush of pleasure at the power you exerted over them? No, of course not! Really it’s too bad they’ll have to return to their home country / not get sabbatical / lose the grant money…. You’re thinking like a Sadistic Bureaucrat.

    Wow, you find this description of jerks to be so on target! You’re not like any of them! The whole system is rotten. Peer review is basically a scam. And the students – lazy complainers! None of them really deserve As, but with all the grade inflation you’ll have to give out a few good marks. You give sarcastic congratulations to your friends on their great success in the Game!... You’re thinking like an Embittered Downdragger.

    I have drawn these four types as caricatures. We – you and I – know we’re not that awful … right?

    But there’s a reason I find it so easy to imagine the inner life of these jerks. It’s my own inner life, sometimes. I catch myself thinking in these ways, and I worry. That sting of worry is the moral self-knowledge I treasure – the seeing that it is so, which makes it less so.


    For more:

    A Theory of Jerks (Aeon Magazine, Jun 4, 2014)

    A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures (MIT Press, 2019).

    How to Get a Big Head in Academia (blog post, Sep 20, 2010)

    Cheeseburger Ethics (Aeon Magazine, Jul 14, 2015)

    Wednesday, March 11, 2020

    Snail and Slug Consciousness and Semi-Unlimited (?) Associative Learning

    I've just finished reading Simona Ginsburg's and Eva Jablonka's tome on consciousness in non-human animals, The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul. It is an impressively wide-ranging work, covering huge swaths of philosophy, biology, and psychology for many different species. (For an article-length version of their view, see here.)

    Ginsburg's and Jablonka's central idea is that consciousness (i.e., phenomenal consciousness, subjective experience, being an entity that there's "something it's like" to be) requires something they call Unlimited Associative Learning. They argue that we see consciousness and Unlimited Associative Learning in vertebrates, at least some arthropods (especially insects), and in some mollusks (especially cephalopods) but not other mollusks (e.g., sea hares), and not in most other animal phyla (e.g., annelida such as earthworms or cnidaria such as jellyfish). If you wonder -- as I do -- where we should draw the line between animal species with consciousness and those without consciousness, theirs is one of the most interesting and well-defended proposals.

    I'm not convinced for two broad reasons I discuss here and here. I think all general theories of consciousness suffer from at least the following two epistemic shortcomings. First, all such theories beg the question, right from the start, against plausible views endorsed by leading researchers who see consciousness as either much more abundant in the universe or much less abundant in the universe (e.g., panpsychism and Integrated Information Theory on the abundant side, theories that require sophisticated self-representation on the other side). Second, all such theories are ineliminably grounded in human introspection and verbal report, creating too narrow an evidence base for confident extrapolation to very different species.

    But today I don't want to focus on those broad reasons. As regular readers of this blog know, I love snails. So I was interested to note that Ginsburg and Jablonka specifically highlight two genera of terrestrial gastropod (the Limax slug and the Helix snail) as potentially in the "gray area" between the conscious and nonconscious species (p. 395). And I think if you pull a bit on the thread they leave open here, it exposes some troubles that are specific to their theory.

    Ginsburg's and Jablonka's view depends essentially on a distinction between Limited Associative Learning and Unlimited Associative Learning. Associative learning, as you might remember from psychology class, is the usual sort of classical and operant conditioning we see when a dog learns to salivate upon hearing a bell associated with receiving food or when a rat learns to press on a lever for a reward. Unlimited Associative Learning, as Ginsburg and Jablonka define it, "refers to an animal's ability to ascribe motivational value to a compound stimulus or action pattern and to use it as the basis for future learning" (p. 35, italics added). Unlimited Associative Learning allows "open-ended behavioral adjustments" (p. 225) and "has, by definition, enormous generativity. The number of associations among stimuli and the number of possible reinforced actions that can be generated are practically limitless" (p. 347). An animal with Limited Associative Learning, in contrast, can only associate "simple ('elemental') stimuli and stereotypical actions" (p. 225).

    Immediately, one might notice the huge gap between Limited Associative Learning (no learning of compound stimuli, no stringing together of compound actions) and truly open-ended, truly "unlimited" Unlimited Associative Learning with full generativity and "practically limitless" possibilities for learning. Mightn't there be some species in the middle, with some ability to learn compound stimuli, and some ability to string together compound actions, but only a very limited ability to do so, far, far short of full combinatorial generativity? For example... the garden snail?

    Terrestrial snails and slugs are not the geniuses of the animal world. With only about 60,000 neurons in their central nervous system, you wouldn't expect them to be. They don't have the amazing behavioral flexibility and complex learning abilities of monkeys or pigeons. There's not a whole lot they can do. I'd be very surprised, for example, if you could train them to always choose a stimulus of intermediate size between two other stimuli, or if you could train them to engage in long strings of novel behavior. (Certainly, I have heard no reports of this.) But it does seem like they can be trained with some compound stimuli -- not simply "elemental" stimuli. For example, Limax slugs can apparently be trained to avoid the combined scent of A and B, while they remain attracted to A and B separately (Hopfield and Gelperin 1989) -- compound stimulus learning. Terrestrial gastopods also tend to have preferred home locations and home ranges, rather than always moving toward attractive stimuli and away from unattractive stimuli in an unstructured way, and it is likely (but not yet proven) that their homing behavior requires some memory of temporally or spatially compound olfactory and possibly other stimuli (Tomiyama 1992; Stringer et al. 2018).

    Nor is it clear that even rat learning is fully generative and compoundable. As Ginsburg and Jablonka acknowledge (p. 303), in the 1960s John Garcia and Robert A. Koelling famously found that although rats could readily be trained to associate audiovisual stimuli with electric shock and gustatory stimuli with vomiting, the reverse associations (audiovisual with vomiting and gustatory with shock) are much more difficult to establish.

    Between, on the one hand, "Limited Associative Learning" which is noncompound and reflex and, on the other hand, fully compoundable, fully generative "Unlimited Associative Learning" stands a huge range of potential associative abilities, which with intentional oxymoronity we might call Semi-Unlimited Associative Learning. Ginsburg's and Jablonka's system does not leave theoretical space for this possibility. Terrestrial gastropods might well fall smack into the middle of this space, thus suggesting (once again!) that they are the coolest of animals if you are interested in messing up philosophers' and psychologists' neat theories of consciousness.

    Go, Slugs!

    [image source Platymma tweediei]

    Friday, March 06, 2020

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

    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

    Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

    Old Series from 2007


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

    When You'll Hear and When You'll Have to Decide

    There's a general agreement among philosophy PhD programs that applicants have until April 15 to decide whether to accept an offer of admission. This deadline drives the process.

    Schools with a hard cap on their admissions offers might be permitted by the administration to admit only eight students, for example, or to offer funding (in the form of TA-ships and fellowships) to only eight students. These schools will try to admit those eight students quickly (in February, maybe) and will often pressure those students to decide quickly so that, if the student declines, another student further down the list can be admitted or offered funding.

    Other departments will target a certain entering class size and admit approximately twice that many students (more or less, depending on "yield" rates in recent years) with the expectation that about half will decline. In principle, these departments could admit all of those students early in the process, but in fact things often fall behind. Departments might sometimes be conservative in their early admissions to avoid the risk of being committed to too large an entering class. Later, if the number of students accepting offers is falling short of expectations, a few may be admitted late in the process.

    If you're at the top of the department's list, expect (typically, depending on the department's speed) to hear around mid-February to mid-March. Applicants lower on the list might not hear until April -- even April 15 itself! You might not hear good news about funding, in particular, until very near the April 15 deadline, if the department has a hard cap on funding. Be ready on April 15 to make an immediate decision about an offer should one come -- and don't be too far from the phone! It's not unreasonable to ask for an additional day or two to decide, should you hear on April 15th, but the department might or might not comply with such a request.

    It's generally in the interest of the applicants, then, to wait on their decisions until April 15. However, it is in the interest of departments to extract decisions from applicants as early as possible. Unfortunate!

    Occasionally, if an entering class is looking smaller than expected, a department may admit someone after April 15th. That student may already have committed to another school. This needs to be handled delicately, since the school is counting on you to attend and might have turned away another applicant in favor of you. My own view is that the interests of the student generally ought to outweigh the interests of the program in such cases. If one program is much more appealing than the other, I'd recommend reneging with a heartfelt apology!

    Funding Offers

    Most top-50 ranked PhD programs do not expect students to pay their way through graduate school. They'll offer funding (at poverty levels) in the form of TAships and fellowships. When comparing funding offers between schools, don't just look at the raw dollar amounts. Some schools inflate their dollar amounts by adding the cost of tuition to their stated funding totals -- money which of course comes right back to them. Make sure, also, that your funding offer includes student medical insurance.

    Most departments will guarantee students five years of support in some combination of fellowship and TAship. If you're on fellowship you're paid just for being a student! (Sweet!) A typical offer at a typical department will be for one year of fellowship (your first year, when you aren't really advanced enough a student to be a T.A., anyway, in the eyes of many departments) and four years of TAship. Students especially targeted by the department may receive additional fellowship years. (Outstanding GPA and GRE scores help a lot here, since the high-level administrators who often give out those fellowship packages can evaluate those numbers better than they can evaluate writing samples and letters of recommendation.) Although most PhD programs expect most of their students to pay their way through most of their years by TAing, a few schools -- especially the smaller private schools -- don't expect much TAing from their students and offer comparatively more fellowship support.

    You might also consider how much is expected of a T.A.: Teaching one section of 25 students is much easier than teaching three sections of 25 which in turn is easier (usually) than teaching an entire course on your own. Also consider what happens when your guaranteed years of funding run out, since most students at most schools run out of guaranteed funding before they complete their degrees.

    Don't expect too much wiggle room in negotiations about funding. But if a comparable department is offering you a better package than the school that would otherwise be your first choice, it can't hurt to politely mention that fact to the chair of the admissions committee.

    Financial offers generally don't include summer funding, though often students can apply for a limited number of summer-school teaching positions.

    Letting People Know Where You've Been Admitted

    Let your letter writers know where you've been admitted -- or even if you haven't been admitted anywhere -- and ultimately where you decide to go. It's only polite, since they put in work on your behalf. It helps them have a better sense, too, of what to expect for future students. And besides, they might have some helpful advice.

    Admissions committee chairs also like to know where you've been admitted and where you decide to go (if not to their school) and why. You needn't share this information if you don't want to, but it helps them in thinking about future admissions. For example, if lots of admittees are going to comparably ranked schools because those schools have better funding offers, admissions committees can make a case for more funding to the college administrators. If admittees are declining mostly for much better-ranked schools, then committees know that their low yield rates are due to having a strong batch of applicants. Etc.

    Visiting Departments

    I highly recommend visiting the departments to which you've been admitted -- but only after you've been admitted. Admitted students, whom departments now want and are competing to attract, are treated much differently than students who have merely applied or who are on the "waiting list" (if there is one), who will be seen as petitioners. Unfortunately, then, it won't be possible to properly visit departments that admit you at the last minute.

    Some departments have money to help students fly out to visit, others don't. It doesn't hurt to ask politely. In any case, let the admissions committee chair know you intend to visit. Even if funding isn't available, she can help arrange your stay -- for example by mentioning what times would be good or bad and maybe finding a graduate student willing to let you crash on their couch for a night or two.

    There are two main reasons to visit departments: First and obviously, it can help you decide where to go. But second, and less obviously, it is a valuable educational experience in its own right.

    The second point first: As I mentioned in Part I, students who spend their whole time in one department often have a provincial view of philosophy. Even visiting another department for a few days can crack that provincialism and give an invigorating and liberating, broader perspective on the field. Also, you will never again be treated as well by eminent professors as you will when you are a prospective (admitted!) graduate student. The country's best-known philosophers will take you out to lunch or coffee for an hour and genuinely listen to your views on philosophical topics. They'll be solicitous of you. They'll value your opinion. Graduate students -- who at top schools sometimes soon become influential professors themselves -- will engage you in long discussions about the state of philosophy, and you'll (sometimes) feel a real camraderie. My own graduate school tour, for which I set aside three full weeks (for six campuses) was one the highlights of my philosophical education.

    To maximize all this, try to stay at each campus for a few weekdays. Weekends don't really count. If you have to cut classes, cut classes. This is much more important than whether you get an A or a B in Phil 176. Also, I'd recommend emailing in advance the professors you'd like to meet and asking them if they're willing to go out for coffee with you.

    When you visit a school, the department will generally set you up with first- and second-year students to meet. No harm in that, but bear in mind that first- and second-year students are often still in the glow of having been admitted and they haven't yet started the most difficult part of their education, their dissertation. Insist on meeting students in their 5th year and beyond, especially students working with advisors you imagine you might be working with. In my experience, such students will generally be brutally honest. Unlike new graduate students and unlike professors they don't really care whether you come to their school or not, so they have little motive to draw a rosy picture. And often they're just itching to have someone to grouse to.

    Not everyone who read the 2007 version of this post took my advice about talking with advanced graduate students, so let me emphasize it just a bit more. I think this is the single most important thing you can do. I don't have statistics on this, but my impression is that only about half of students finish their PhDs in philosophy, and among those who don't finish the majority peter out during their dissertation phase, after already haven given four, five, six, seven, eight years of their life to the program. The reasons for fade out are complex: lack of funding, perfectionism, procrastination, loss of inspiration, confusion about what to do -- almost never, I think, lack of ability -- and also bad advising or at least lack of encouragement, support, and timely feedback from one's dissertation chair. It is very important to have a realistic sense of this before you enroll in a PhD program (it's bad almost everywhere, but not equally bad), especially if the students of one of your prospective advisors are among those who tend to struggle or fade out.

    Relatedly, don't expect professors' solicitious treatment necessarily to continue after you've enrolled. The advanced students' opinions about the professors are probably a better gauge of how you'll actually be treated. Nonetheless, if you talk substance with professors on philosophical topics you care about, you can get a sense of whether you're likely to see eye-to-eye philosophically.

    Gosh, with this new emphasis, this section is sounding a bit like a downer. I don't really mean it that way. Take a look again at the "Yippie!" button. Yippee! In many respects, graduate school is terrific and writing a dissertation is an amazing experience unlike anything else in your life in terms of the depth of study and scholarly satisfaction you can experience. But... eyes open about the challenges.

    The Summer Before

    Students often seem to be shy about showing their faces around the department to which they've been admitted until either classes start or there's some formal introductory event. No need for this. Move in early. Meet some professors and ask them for some reading suggestions pertinent to your shared interests or classes you'll be taking with them in the fall. Get a running start. Professors are often quite interested in meeting the new students -- until the inevitable disappointment of discovering that on average they're only average! But if you get a running start, maybe that's a sign that you'll be an unusually good student...?

    ETA (March 8): Wait Lists

    If you've been told you've been "waitlisted"? Probably, you should interpret this as "unlikely to be admitted" unless you have specifically been told that you are high on the wait list and have a decent chance of admission. (On the other hand, if you have been told the latter, believe it.) Normally, there isn't a formally ranked wait list, just a sense of who are among the dozens of students who were considered seriously but not offered admission. If yield is low, some these students' applications will be revisited, prioritized partly on grounds of balance (e.g., if acceptances are coming from students in Area A but not Area B, Area B students are more likely to be reconsidered).

    ETA (March 10): If You Can't Visit

    I have no especially creative ideas here, but it is especially pertinent this year due to the epidemic. I recommend video or phone conversations with prospective advisors and with advanced graduate students.

    If it's possible to get a list of contact information for all graduate students, along with their year and areas of interest, that might be especially helpful, so you can choose students whose experiences might be representative of your own rather than being funneled to a few of the most enthusiastic students whose areas of interest and faculty advisors might be very different from what you expect yours to be.

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