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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Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Schwitzgebel,

Do you recommend that prospective graduate students visit departments where they have been waitlisted, in addition to departments where they have been accepted? If so, what would be the best way to make that request of the relevant department?

My concern is that departments may be less willing to reimburse travel expenses for waitlisted students, and may also be less likely to treat those students as serious prospective graduates given that their offer would be contingent on other admitted students turning down their offers. On the other hand, were I to be admitted from certain waitlists, I would strongly consider attending those programs. If I were to get an offer off of a waitlist near the April 15th deadline, I would feel more comfortable accepting it if I had previously visited the department.

Is there a sensitive way to ask a department if you have a serious chance of being admitted off the waitlist, such that a visit would be worthwhile? In your experience, do departments tend to reimburse travel expenses for waitlisted students?



Eric Schwitzgebel said...

N: Unfortunately, I think it is rarely advisable to visit when you have been waitlisted. You will be treated far differently from an admitted student, and you might even be viewed negatively. One exception to this is if the admissions chair has explicitly said that you are likely to be admitted and if the admissions chair is supportive of your visiting. (Even then, reimbursement of travel expenses is unlikely.)

Unless the admissions chair specifically signals to you that you are high on the waitlist and have a good chance of being admitted, you should probably interpret "waitlisted" as "unlikely to be admitted".

Tim O'Keefe said...

Sorry for the long copypasta comment, but here is what I advise our own MA students at GSU to do, as well the people we've accepted, as a way of balancing the interests of the applicant with those of the departments plus other applicants:

If you have multiple offers, go ahead and try to decide as soon as possible which one is your top choice and decline all of the others. Obviously, you’ll first want to gather the information you need, by visiting schools if possible, contacting current grad students, etc. But once you have that information, seriously weigh the pros and cons of each option and then make the call. With any schools you’re waitlisted at, do something similar: gather information about the schools (and feel free to do things like ask for funding details if you don’t know them and that information would make a difference). Then rank them relative to one another and the top choice program you’re admitted to. Withdraw yourself from the waitlist at any schools that rank lower than your top current admission; doing so helps those schools and the other students on the waitlists there. And by having your rankings ready, you’ll be in an excellent position to pull the trigger immediately and act if an admission offer does come through on April 13 or 14, which happens quite often. You won’t have to freak out making a momentous choice with next to no time. Being ready to move is good for you and for the others involved in the admissions process, as there is always a lot of craziness on the days leading up to April 15.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Schwitzgebel. A top program has waitlisted me and has offered to fly me out for the visit days. They have said in emails that there is a "reasonable chance" and a "good chance" that they will be able to admit some candidates off the waitlist, and faculty there have sent me several seemingly enthusiastic emails. But I am not sure whether they do this for everyone on the waitlist, and I am wondering whether your advice about not visiting still stands here, or what I should do. Thank you very much!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Feb 13: My impression is that departments are pretty honest about this, and their offer to fly you out tends to confirm that impression. Some departments end up recruiting *mostly* from their wait lists, if their first-choice students tend to mostly decline in favor of higher-ranked programs.