Table of Contents:
I. Getting Ready
II. What to Expect
The following was written just after I had accepted an offer from The Sage School of Philosophy in April of 1999. It has been haphazardly updated over the following three years. In light of many suggestions and questions from readers as well some of my experiences now that I have finished my coursework and have begun working on dissertation research, I have decided to make a few emendations and additions.
Many of the impressions and opinions I report here were formed before I had fully experienced grad school, and so are perhaps somewhat naive and underinformed. I have endeavored in this revision to remove anything I now think to be false, but many things about which my thinking might have subtly changed I have left as I wrote them.
The revision status of this document is recorded here.
The Philosophical Gourmet Report is generally the first web resource that comes to mind for people interested in becoming a graduate student in philosophy. I used it myself to begin the process of narrowing down my options and determining how and where to apply. Of course the Gourmet Report is controversial, and many people disagree with parts of it. You are advised to take it, and indeed this page itself, with a healthy dose of circumspection. In that spirit you might also have a look at a web page written by Richard Heck at Brown criticizing the Gourmet Report.
The purpose of this web page is to give its readers an idea about the entire process of becoming a graduate student at a top philosophy dept: what you need to do and what you can expect. I have written this document to be a collection of the kind of information I wish had been available to me as I was going through this process. It consists of nothing but my own opinions formed in going though this process and in the course of my graduate student career.
What you will need:
a.) at least three (3) letters of recommendation
b.) GRE General Test scores
c.) Official transcript
d.) A personal statement
e.) A writing sample
There are some variations among different schools (for instance Cornell only requires two letters of recommendation and does not utilize the GRE scores).
Every school's admissions process is different; the information contained on this page is general advice and may have more or less applicability to any specific school.
Of course your letters of recommendation are very important. They provide an admissions committee with the kind of personal information that cannot be gleaned from transcripts and GRE scores.
All things being equal it is better if your recommenders are known to the general philosophical community at large. Different professors have told me different things about this. However, if the reader of the letter knows (of) the writer, you are that much ahead. You might also try to determine if your recommender had any kind of reputation, positive or negative, regarding letters (e.g. generic and full of platitudes, or specific and genuine).
Nevertheless, it would probably not be advisable to get a generic letter from a most famous member of your department if he or she does not really know you. At the very least offset such a letter with others from people who know you and your work more intimately. Also, remember there is no rule that says you can only send three letters. If you have more good letters send them, but be sure to indicate which three are the most important and the ones you want read if only three are read.
One thing that is important to keep in mind is that the people reading these letters will be getting literally hundreds of letters from all kinds of people. If you look at the letter forms that most places send out you will notice that it asks the writer to place the student in a percentile of those who have gone onto graduate school from that institution: top 2 %, 5%, 10%, etc. In my own case, I had my letters written before I had any application materials and put on file. Therefore they were not written on the blanks sent to me by the various schools. I do not know if my recommenders remembered to indicate where they felt I belonged on such a percentile basis. If your situation is similar - you plan to have your letters placed on file and not written directly on the blanks - I would recommend that you suggest to your letter writers to include a sentence to the effect that "this student was in the top x percentile of student from this department who have gone on to graduate school." Of course, you probably want to make sure that that x will be a rather low number, and such is a question you might ask of your professors when determining whom to ask for your recommendations.
GRE General Test Scores
It has been my impression from speaking to various people that GRE scores can only hurt you and cannot really help you that much. With top departments getting between two and three hundred applications for generally fewer than ten spots, some departments may use GRE scores as a kind of screening device. Different professors also look at scores differently. In any case, if your scores are low you should probably retake the test or at the very least account for the reason that your scores are low. (Of course if you retake the test you will have to give some reason why, all in all it is probably best to just study enough to do well in the first place).
I have heard some professors indicate that they take the mathematics and analytic sections more seriously than the language. This is certainly not a universal conceit, but it makes sense that especially analytically minded philosophers would think that way. In any case a philosopher should probably be educated well enough to do well on all sections of the exam.
I do not know at this time of a major department that requires the GRE Subject test in philosophy. (I can not imagine what such a thing would be; I almost want to take it just to find out. If you have taken it, please let me know what it's like). Nevertheless, contact the departments you are interested in beforehand to make sure.
Obviously grades are important. Your philosophy choices are important. You should try to ensure that you are given a good grounding in the history of philosophy as an undergraduate. You will do some more history as a graduate student, but the more history you do as an undergraduate, in my opinion, the better. I would not worry if you are not prepared that much in contemporary philosophy. Again different people look for different things. Naturally you should have the best grades possible, especially in philosophy.
You should also try to have good grades in things like Calculus or General Chemistry. The thinking behind this, according to one professor, is that these type of classes are more or less the same all over the country. Therefore an 'A' in Chemistry is probably a much more universal indicator of ability than one in a course entitled 'Ethics: Contemporary Issues', much less something like 'Post-modern Aesthetics.'
Your personal statement should probably be straightforward, but if possible individual without being overly eccentric. This is more easily said than done, naturally. Schools will use your personal statement to get some idea of the type of philosophy you want to do, and so whether that will fit in well with their program. Declaring, for instance, that you want to write a dissertation on Foucault is probably not the best way to gain admission to Princeton (in truth it is probably not a good way to gain admission anywhere there is a concern with truth).
The writing sample is without doubt the most important component of your application. Choose it carefully. There is some sense in which all the other components are used as the initial screen, but after that process there remain a large number of qualified applicants (with regards to the number of available spots).
Many people choose to send abridged versions of their senior essays. In general the writing sample should be in the range of 20-25 pages, because if it is longer they may not read it, or more likely they will stop in the middle. What readers are looking for in general is probably not so much a brilliant original contribution to philosophy, but the clear exposition of complicated and serious philosophical ideas. They want to see that you can write effectively and develop logical and rigorous philosophical thinking. I think that this is in general more important than the content per se (assuming, of course, that the content is a serious bit of philosophy).
Since writing that last paragraph I have been presented with evidence to the contrary. At least one person I know who was successful in gaining admission to a variety of programs submitted a senior thesis in excess of 100 pages. What this person did, however, was carefully note to the reader which part (for instance a 20-30 page chapter) that he or she should read if unable to read the whole thing. The advantage of this is, if you have a smaller part that can be read independently, that the committee will have more information about you in the later rounds of decision-making. In the first pass-through the readers will have so many samples to read that they cannot spend much time with any given one; that is the source of the advice in the last paragraph. However, once they have narrowed down the choices, if there is more to read then it will likely be read. More positive information about your writing style can only be of help once you get to those later stages.
The first caveat is that you must make sure that there is a cohesive smaller part (20-30 pp) of your long essay that will serve as the initial writing sample and this part must be made very clear to the reader. The second caveat is that a long writing sample may annoy the readers more than anything else. In fact the person who submitted that long thesis indicated that various readers thought the length of the sample very unusual. If you do submit a long sample like that you run a risk of its not being read as closely as a shorter more concise essay.
In any case work your submission over repeatedly until it is perfect. Typos and spelling mistakes are next to unforgivable in this context. Much more so than your college admissions, the writing samples you submit to graduate committees are you for all practical purposes. When it comes down to it, when the hard choices have to be made, those choices will be based on the writing sample.
If possible, ask someone (such as the director of undergraduate studies) in your department to read your writing sample. I cannot stress enough its importance. Even if you are offered admission to a certain place you will often be ranked among those admitted, and monetary offers (fellowships and/or TA-ships) will be made accordingly.
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What to Expect
October, if you didn't take it the previous April you will need to take the GRE General Test at this time to ensure that scores will be available by deadlines. Now would be a good time as well to start thinking about whom to ask for your recommendations. You may have to pester your recommenders a bit, so it is a good idea to start early.
November, if you haven't gotten them yet, you need to contact the various departments to which you are thinking of applying and request applications. For many departments you can do this over the web or you can get the phone number of the departmental administrative person.
December: Get out your typewriter and fill out all of those forms. Of course by now you should have decided which departments to apply to. In general it should be like college, apply to as many as you comfortably can across a range of several top schools including your first choice, a couple of middle range schools, and probably one or two "safety" schools. This can get somewhat expensive as processing fees range from a reasonable $35 (Pittsburgh) to an egregious $65 (Stanford and host of others).
January: Application deadlines! Some deadlines may even fall in December (e.g. Harvard). Keep in mind as well that at some places fellowship deadlines may be different (earlier, e.g. Berkeley) than admissions decision applications.
Now the waiting begins. Through the next few weeks you should start to get reply cards back from the various schools indicating that they have received your application. If you haven't gotten one back by the first of February you may want to call to ensure that it has been received.
Admissions committees meet at different times at different universities. Furthermore the admissions decisions are made differently as well. At some places a committee may narrow down the pool of qualified applicants and then have the whole department read the remaining applications to decide on the offers. At other places the admissions committee may do all of the work itself. Other places may involve the whole department from the beginning. In any case, while this process will naturally be of great interest to you since your whole fate rests in it, it will generally be entirely opaque. (It seems like most things in life of paramount importance are - such as what, exactly, is going on in her head).
In any case once committees meet and make their decisions you will be notified.
When do you find out?
The short answer is late February or early March. Most committees meet, it has been my observation, in February (and possibly as late a early March). For instance, I know for a fact that in 1999 committees at Pittsburgh and Cornell met in February. If you are lucky you will hear from the director of graduate studies directly after the decision is made. This is not the case everywhere, though. I heard first from Cornell and Rutgers by phone, from UCSD by email, and from Chicago and Texas both by mail. Of course, you will receive official letters from everyone whether or not you are admitted. Generally it seems that letters of offer go out before those which decline to admit.
You should expect to receive most of your letters, one way or the other, by the second week in March. This is by no means a hard and fast rule. Berkeley didn't get back to me until nearly the end of March and the graduate studies director from Rutgers called me in early April. Don't lose heart too early, but it was my experience that I had heard all the positive offers by the first week in March (excepting an offer to be wait-listed at Rutgers which came quite late).
March and April: This is a good time, because hopefully at this point you are mulling over several offers. Take this opportunity to visit the various departments. Talk to the professors. Perhaps even more importantly, talk to the graduate students. You should probably rely most on the graduate students to get the best idea of what a department is like. You are going to be spending the next four to five (or more) years of your life there, you want to make sure it a congenial place to work. If you have utilized the Philosophical Gourmet, now is a good time to observe the distinction Leiter makes between faculty quality and the quality of graduate teaching. There is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between the two. (In fact there often seems to be a negative correlation.) Now is the time for you to determine if a given place is concerned not only with having the best faculty researchers, but also with educating its graduate students.
April 15: This is the deadline recognized by nearly all the schools you would want to attend. You have to make a binding commitment to a school by the date. Keep in mind, however, that no matter what anyone else tells you, you are not in any way obligated to make a binding choice before this date.
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Choosing Where to Go to School
Where you manage to get in will naturally be the limiting factor, but once you have to choose between several places where you have been admitted there are a variety of considerations (see the important new addition added for this second edition below):
I.) Money. Funding will inevitably play some role in your choice. Hopefully not that much of a role in that your offers will all be of a similar nature so that you are not tempted to choose one place over another just because of more money. Nevertheless it is a real possibility, and it happened to me, that your offers will be widely divergent.
What to expect:
Offers can vary greatly from one school to the next based on how much money they have to give. Many things can affect this, but perhaps the most salient consideration will be whether the university is public or private.
Public universities will often offer mostly TA-ships. You might be required to serve as a TA even the first year. This will basically require you to teach about 20 hours a week-so they will tell you. At public universities they often take some liberties with this requirement; the undergraduates are often foisted off on the graduate students because there are so many of them. It is possible to have up to 85 or more students. On the positive side you may be offered longer support packages at a public university, but the funding may not be guaranteed. The offer may stipulate a proviso like "though we do not anticipate any problems your offer will be contingent on the department achieving its expected level of funding for the next five years." This is probably just a legal out should anything unforeseen happen, and probably should not be taken too seriously The amounts of these TA-ships will likely vary from $8 to $12 thousand per school year. Private universities generally offer at least one year of fellowship, generally the first, and maybe even more. The balance of the offer will probably be a TA-ship. Offers are generally between $8 and $13 thousand per school year.
In both cases summer funding may be additionally available between $2 and $3 thousand. Total packages at the top level are probably in the range of $15,000 per 12 months, maybe even a bit more. Keep in mind that offers of the same monetary amount will vary in value across the country because of a variety of factors. As a graduate student you will have to pay federal income tax on your stipend/TA salary (tuition fellowships and the amount spent on required course materials are tax deductible). Furthermore, different states have different state income tax rates (this is an advantage of Texas and Florida, for instance, as neither of which have state income taxes).
Keep in mind as well that it is possible to apply for external fellowships which can greatly expanding your funding options. For instance, I was able to get an external for my fourth year at Cornell, allowing me to defer my 2nd year of Sage Fellowship to my 5th year, and relieving me from teaching responsibilities for the whole time I will be writing my disseration.
II.) The university as a whole. Philosophy depatments, despite what they sometimes seem to think, do not exist in the abstract. They exist, or at least should exist, within the context of a greater university. Why does this matter? For a variety of reasons. For instance, a good philosophy department should be paired with a good classics department. If you are interested in any kind of interdisciplinary work whatsoever (e.g. cognitive studies, literature and philosophy, legal philosophy, ancient philosophy) the resources available for that kind of work will depend greatly on the quality of the rest of the university. Also keep in mind that you will likely be having to serve as a TA and so will be interacting with undergraduates from your chosen university. In general, the better the university the better your undergraduates will be, and the more enjoyable your teaching experiences will be.
The University of Pittsburgh is the archetypal example. It has, and has had for many years, one of the best philosophy departments in the world. However, the university as a whole is not a world-class research university. The significance of this may vary and indeed may be immaterial to you. There are some things to keep in mind, however. I have heard from some former graduate students at Pittsburgh that the low quality of the undergraduates really did make teaching there less enjoyable than it might have been elsewhere.
III. Public or Private: I have already noted some difference between the two in the Money section. I have only attended private universities, and I am an unabashed partisan thereof. However, one must keep in mind that there are public universities and then there are public universities - Berkeley and Michigan are probably not in the same class as some place like Arizona (whatever the relative status of their philosophy departments proper). In general, public universities have many more undergraduates than graduate students. As such they use their graduate students as teachers more than private universities.
If you are paying a private university $30,000 a year for your undergraduate education, there is an expectation that you will be taught by the faculty, not the graduate students. However, if you are paying $2,000 a year at a public university there is less of a presumption on the part of the university or the student that he will be taught by the faculty. This is important for the graduate student because if you are at a public university you will be faced with having to provide this teaching. Therefore a TA award at a private university may be worth more than one of the same amount at a public university simply because you will not have to do as much work at the private university as at the public one.
IV.) Other Factors: There are a litany of other things that will affect the choice of where to go to school. Some things will be utterly contingent, like the location of the university, rural or urban, and so on. I mentioned before that there is a difference between the overall quality of the department and the quality of graduate education. You should carefully consider this. Talk to the graduate students - they will be your best source of information. You should find out if professors take the graduate students and their objections seriously; whether they make themselves available for conferences; whether they take an active role in guiding students in their education. The converse of which is of course whether the faculty is flexible in allowing a student to pursue what he is interested in.
Intersecting with all of these other factors is that nebulous thing called "reputation." The reputation of the program you graduate from may have some effect on your eventual job placement. Needless to say, the better the reputation of your department for producing top class philosophers the better. There have been a number of departments that have had excellent reputations for the past 20 or 30 years. These include Princeton, Harvard, Pittsburgh, Michigan, Berkeley, Cornell, and UCLA. However, many excellent philosophers have come from other programs and have found good jobs at top programs. In the end, as Webster said, "there is always room at the top." Your job prospects will be most affected by factors over which you have control, AOS and AOC (see below), and in general your philosophical aptitude.
Now that I have been a graduate student for three years it is clear that I had no idea what the most important thing about choosing a school was when I did in fact choose to come to Cornell. The single most important factor affecting your graduate school experience will be your thesis advisor. In this I have been fortunate to have landed in the hands of someone who is particularly conscientious about his students. I know for a fact that this is by no means universal. If an advisor does not make himself available for conferences, if he does not provide timely feedback on students' work, and if he does not take a genuine interest in his students' work (for instance to make sure that they are in fact getting something done), then the students' experiences will be very poor.
Of course this is a Catch-22 situation. I had no idea when I came to Cornell that I would ultimately be working with the professor who did in fact become my thesis advisor. I suspect most people will be in the same situation, especially if your interests are somewhat in flux when you begin graduate school. That said, the best advice I have to offer is to try your very best to narrow down the number of professors with whom you think you might like to work closely; then, carefully sound out their graduate students. Ask whether the professor is open and available to criticism; ask if he comments on work; ask, in short, if he seems to really care about his students. In general, philosophy graduate students will not lack of opinions on topics like these.
One of the biggest mistakes that new graduate students make is to come to a particular place to work with some big name, only to find out that that big name, however great a scholar he may be, simply does not take the time to really look after and develop his graduate students. If you have come to University A just to work with Mr. Big Name, and you find out that you can't stand Mr. Big Name, you had better make sure that either you can stomach buckling down for five years (which is almost impossible), or there is somebody else in the department with whom you can work. Transferring is an option, but from my experience is relatively rare (except for people following thesis advisors who have moved). In general, it is much better to get it right in the first place.
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Graduate School Itself
The experience will naturally vary from school to school. Just to give you some idea of what will happen I will outline a typical five year course here at Cornell.
Year One: On Fellowship. This will be the first of two years of course work. These first two years will be something like the last two years of college (at least those mixed grad/undergrad classes). Of course more will be expected of you and you will have to become more sophisticated in your thinking and exposition.
I'll never forget one of my evaluations for one of my first classes, something along the lines of: "Mathew's work is merely adequate for a beginning graduate student." My classes my first year were: Plato, "Reconceiving Liberalism," a seminar on Mental Causation, Hume, seminar on Objectivity, and a seminar on Moral Psychology.
Year Two: First year as a TA. This will be your first year of teaching experience. You will TA an undergraduate class, and will continue your own course work. By the end of this year you should have satisfied your distribution requirements (history, logic, etc.). Hopefully by now you will have settled fully into the routine; this will be the first time that you will have to balance teaching with learning and research.
My classes my second year were: Modern Political Theory, Deductive Logic, Early 20th Century Analytic Philosophy, Heidegger, Augustine, and "Social and Political Philosophy: Ties of Community." My TA assignments were: "Bioethics" and "Reason and Religion."
Year Three: On TA-ship. This year will be encompassed by a year of individual study with a faculty member and/or committee. The purpose of this year is to do enough specific philosophy to determine your dissertation topic. At the conclusion of this year you will take the a candidacy exam, which at Cornell (the "A-exam") is an oral exam. By passing this exam you will be admitted to candidacy, meaning that you are now working on your Ph.D. dissertation. (You also get a Masters degree if you want it and the status of being ABD: All But Dissertation (or Done)).
This year I have done my early dissertation work with my thesis advisor, Prof. Richard Miller. My TA assignments were "Existentialism" and "Introduction to Philosophy."
Year Four: On Fellowship. Cornell's second year of fellowship is portable, so this is the ideal opportunity to work at another department here or abroad. You will be working on your dissertation topic, researching, etc.
This year I am working on my dissertation; I'm hoping to complete 3 - 5 chapters during this academic year.
Year Five: TA-ship. At Cornell during the fifth year you are given the opportunity to teach a Freshman Writing Seminar on your own. Senior graduate students at many places are given the opportunity to petition the department for the opportunity to teach small undergraduate classes (such was the situation at Chicago). Hopefully, everything has gone well to this point and you will be finishing up your dissertation. You will probably be going on the job market at this point and visiting one or more of the APA meetings to interview, etc.
(Year Six +): Some people tend to spend more time in graduate school, drawing out their dissertation research or changing topics. Guaranteed funding generally will not extend past the fifth or sixth year, but it is possible that your department may be able to extend funding if you "are making satisfactory progress."
Incidentally, summers may be taken off just like in college, or if it is included in your funding package, you may continue to work over the summer.
Once you go on the job market, you will be marketing yourself as having one or more Area(s) of Specialization (AOS) and Area(s) of Competence (AOC). Your AOS will be presumably whatever it is you did your dissertation work in. Your AOC's will comprise those areas in which you have done enough work to teach the subject at an advanced undergraduate level. Whatever your AOS, it is to your advantage to have a broad AOC, especially if you will be able to offer the kind of classes that are becoming more popular among undergraduates.
The job market being what it is - very poor - it is important to make yourself as marketable as possible. One way to do this is to be able to teach the kinds of classes that are popular among students, but not so popular among the faculty. Examples include Introduction to Philosophy, Existentialism, Bioethics, and other forms of Applied Ethics. As such, it would behoove you to request TA assignments to these kinds of classes (given your interests, of course), so that you have some idea what it is like when it comes time for you to formulate these kinds of classes yourself.
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Going to graduate school in philosophy is an adventure. The dismal prospect of employment afterwards is naturally the greatest disincentive. The issue is really whether you love philosophy enough that you are willing to spend five or six years studying it, whatever should happen afterwards. If you are going to be constantly worrying whether you are going to get a job, this is probably not what you want to do. In the end though, if you cannot imagine doing anything else, then you should head to graduate school.
About the Author
See my web page.
A note for Foreign Students
Many foreign students have contacted me regarding the information in this page. In short, everything on this page should apply to foreign applicants just like their domestic counterparts. There are a few things for foreign students to keep in mind, however. If you are coming from a non-English speaking country you will need to submit a good score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). This test is administered by the same people who do the GRE (and SAT and LSAT, etc.) - Educational Testing Services (ETS). You should contact them to determine what you need to do to take the test in your given circumstances.
In general, foreign students should expect to receive the same consideration that Americans get in both admissions decisions and financial aid (the financial aid situation might be different at public universities, but at private universities it should be the same regardless of national origin). One thing to keep in mind, however, is that American programs are overwhelmingly analytic in character (although there are a few exceptions like SUNY-Stony Brook, Penn State, etc.). As such, they will perhaps look slightly askance at applicants who are not able to show a good grounding in analytic philosophy, or at the very least an intention to pursue primarily analytical studies. If you are coming from a continental program in your home country this is something to keep in mind. Another disadvantage that foreign students may face is the simple fact that, all things considered, people tend to favor things that they know. In other words, recommendations from prominent American, Canadian, Australian, British, etc. philosophers - that is, those that publish in the journals that Americans would be likely to read - are likely to be received more favorably than recommendations from unknown quantities. Therefore, if possible, you should try to get at least one recommendation from such a person.
Of course, you will have to submit your credentials in English, so make sure the translations are clear. Perhaps, most important is to communicate your background in philosophy and your proficiency in the field of analytic philosophy that will allow you to successfully pursue a program at an American institution. One thing that is important about the transcripts is to make sure that it is somehow indicated in them, preferably by an official of your institution (for instance, a professor who is writing a letter for you) what the numbers on your record mean in your academic system.
Over the last few decades at most if not all American institutions of higher learning there has been an increase in the average grades given to the students. This "grade inflation" is the result of a variety of sociological, economic, and political factors and does not in the least reflect a similar improvement in the quality of the work by the students. What this means though is that, for instance, in the US a score of 85% is now looked on as just average. Therefore, if you are coming from some place where only a couple of people per year make an 85% score, then it is very important that you have your professors note that fact in the letters they write you. This will be taken care of somewhat if you follow the advice in the letters section above to have your writers rank you as a percentile of those from your school who have gone on to graduate school (in the United States).
The American system of higher education is the best in the world and is kept that way in part by its ability to attract top-notch talent from around the globe. If you want to study at an American university do not let a few extra bureaucratic hurdles stand in your way. The best thing to so is to contact those institutions which interest you well in advance to obtain application materials and determine if there are any special conditions you may have to meet.
For just anecdotal evidence on this point; in my three years at The Sage School, we have had graduate students from: Canada (many), Finland, Norway, England, and Germany.
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This document is for informational purposes only. The information given herein is in no way guaranteed as to accuracy or completeness. Though I have tried to adopt an objective stance, I have strong opinions and they come out in various ways. This document may be freely distributed so long as it is unaltered, with full attribution.
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