Since I am repeatedly asked the same kinds of questions I have produced this page to collect my responses.
A1: My only other first-hand experience of a philosophy dept was as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Compared to Chicago, I think the department at Cornell is generally warmer and more cohesive. I think that Cornell is an excellent place to be a graduate student because there is a very strong tradition of graduate education here. The faculty generally make themselves available and are unstinting with comments and advice. For example, the standard practice at Cornell is for every term paper to be written in at least two drafts, with a considerable number of comments on the first draft.
Nevertheless, there are some problems of course. The department is narrow in certain ways, both because of its small size and its own traditions and long-standing practices. For instance, right now (Fall 2002) the department is particularly weak in certain areas in the history of philosophy and normative ethics. There is also next to no coverage of German philosophy after the 19th century.
Cornell also has a very strong, well-deserved reputation for Realism in almost all contexts. Not only are there "Cornell Answers," there are "Cornell Questions." In other words, many in the department share certain presumptions as to what counts as a worthwhile subject of philosophical inquiry. This is not to say that those of us who do not share these preconceptions are unwelcome, but here Cornell, more than most departments, has a reputation for producing a "product." Thus, hiring committees generally know what to expect from a Cornell PhD (which generally speaking is not a bad thing, since the reputation of this "product" is by no means a bad one).
I would whole-heartedly recommend Cornell to anyone whose chief desire is to complete a dominantly analytic PhD. I would not recommend it for anyone who has strong continental interests, or for anyone who simply cannot abide living in a small town.
A2: While I would not characterize the whole graduate student population as comprising a particularly strong community, we are certainly all friendly with each other. As one would expect, different groupings tend to form around shared interests, etc. The graduate students here are generally of high quality, and there is a reasonable diversity of philosophical interests (though there is not a great deal of diversity in philosophical approach, or, for example, political orientation). All in all, for a reasonably sociable person it is not difficult to find other grads with similar interests.
A3: Every faculty member at Cornell is a good philosopher, with much to teach the graduate student willing to learn. Nevertheless, as one would expect, some are better teachers than others. The only professor of whom I would be willing to venture a definite opinion is my advisor Richard Miller. Dick Miller has been an excellent advisor to me, conscientious and extremely helpful. Despite disagreeing with me about nearly everything, he has directed my dissertation research with both sympathy and a due degree of skepticism. He is willing to examine positions which he does not hold, but at the same time he challenges his students to defend those positions in such a manner as develops the student as both thinker and writer. I would whole-heartedly recommend Dick Miller as an advisor to anyone in fields for which he has research interests (primarily social and political philosophy).
A4: In the last couple of years Cornell has done reasonably well. Cornell is not Princeton of course, but generally most of our PhDs are being placed in tenure track jobs within 3 years. Cornell has an official policy helping graduates even after they leave. How valuable this is, in general, I do not know. Some grads here have certainly thought that the faculty could have done more for them, but I am sure grads everywhere think that.
A5: I would say that most people take at least a year off between college and graduate school. People coming from strong undergraduate programs generally come straight to Cornell (and other grad schools). People from weaker programs often do a MA first. In my class, for example, I believe only two of the seven entering students had done previous graduate work. This year, on the other had, of the five entering students I think at least three of them have previous graduate school experience.
A6: I have no idea. There is no way to tell. As I repeat over and over again on the main page, the writing sample is far and away the most important component of an application, and if it's good enough nothing much else will matter.
A7: I have no idea; I'm not you.You should describe the attitude you take towards philosophy, and why you believe that you will be a good graduate student at the particular school to which you are applying. More than that I have nothing to offer.
A8: Well that depends. In general you should make sure that you have at least three recommendations from philosophers as well. There is no rule that says you can only send in three. If you have an exceptionally good one from a non-philosopher perhaps you might like to send that one in as one of your three official recommendations, but also include the extra one from a philosopher as well. It also depends as well on whether this person would be known to philosophers--if so his recommendation would be worth more.
A9: Someone obviously can only make such a decision for himself. You should consider your options and what you are willing to do. Given the job situation as it is now, one is clearly not guaranteed a job even if you graduate from a top PhD program. You should only go to graduate school if you are willing to live with a certain degree of uncertainty. That said, most people are getting tenure track jobs within three years of graduation. Oftentimes these are not jobs at top programs, but given the numbers of PhDs produced versus the number of job openings (almost 2:1) this cannot fail to be the case. If you truly love philosophy and will not consider the 5 to 6 years spent in graduate school a waste even if you go on to do something else, then yes go to graduate school. If you are going to constantly fret about the future, then you probably should not.
Back to Grad School.
Oct 23, 2002