Applying to Graduate Schools


Most of the top 20-or-so programs receive between 150 and 250 applications, and admit typically 5% to 15% of that total. There have been significant ups and downs in the academic job market: anticipated retirements of the generation of faculty hired in the 1960s and increases in the college-age population have not always been met with increased opportunities for college professors. Several factors may continue to retard junior job growth, including: (i) repeal of the mandatory retirement age for professors (which happened in 1993); (ii) increasing reliance by universities on adjunct and part-time faculty; (iii) influx of foreign PhDs. The financing of higher education is currently undergoing a major restructuring: while top research universities offer huge salaries and light teaching loads to the leading “stars,” other universities are cutting back on teaching staffs and relying more and more upon graduate students and adjunct faculty. These trends do not bode well for employment prospects, though they may be offset by an upswing in enrollment in the coming years. The extended economic downturn that began in 2007 has resulted in a catastrophic contraction of the job market, which is probably more difficult than it has been in any time in the last fifty years or more. What the market will look like for students beginning PhD programs now is almost impossible to predict, hostage as it is to the general fortunes of the national and world economy.

Students considering graduate school must think about their willingness to move to new, and perhaps unattractive places, in order to secure a position in academia at the conclusion of their studies. Students should also keep in mind that many, perhaps most, of the academic positions in philosophy in the United States are at institutions of higher learning that have as their primary function general education, rather than intensive training in philosophy. There is, moreover, a growing culture gap between what is taught at the leading graduate programs (moral realism, naturalistic theories of mental content, theories of truth) and what sorts of jobs are available (openings for specialists in African-American philosophy, environmental ethics, history of modern philosophy with an emphasis on race and gender issues). However, data for the 1995-96 academic year (collected by the American Philosophical Association) showed that areas like African and African-American Philosophy, Asian Philosophy, and Feminism were heavily in demand as “Areas of Competence”: i.e., areas in which a candidate could do advanced undergraduate teaching, even though the area was not the candidate’s specialization. One thing this data suggests is that most departments continue to view the traditional canon of philosophical topics as their central mission—thus seeking specialists in these areas—even as they have responded to political and other pressures by seeking candidates who can do undergraduate teaching in some of the newer fields. (For more on the job market, see my essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

In evaluating applicants, programs generally consider five factors: GRE’s, academic record, undergraduate institution, letters of recommendation, and sample of written work. (Note: some top programs do not require the GRE.) There is every reason to suspect that programs will rely upon GRE scores and grades to reduce the size of the applicant pool to a more manageable size for careful scrutiny. It would behoove students whose GRE’s or grades are not indicative of their philosophical potential to flag this in their application, and perhaps to have faculty recommenders do the same.

Programs consider an applicant’s undergraduate institution to the extent that there may be concern about the adequacy of the student’s preparation for graduate work, especially in contemporary analytic philosophy. Applicants from very small liberal arts colleges (by which I do not mean places like Swarthmore, Smith, Kenyon or Reed) and universities with philosophy faculties outside the mainstream should make special efforts to convey that they have had suitable preparation and exposure to various areas of philosophy (e.g. ethics, philosophy of language, history of philosophy, etc.). (See also the discussion of M.A. programs, above.)

At the later stages of the admissions process, a student’s sample of written work can really make a difference. Students are well-advised to work hard in preparing a strong writing sample.

When it comes time to choose a school, students should ask to be put in touch with graduate students currently at the program, as they will likely be able to provide the frankest assessment of life—intellectual and otherwise—at the school. Students should also be aware that Departments misrepresent their current faculties with some frequency: essentially retired faculty are often listed as though they were regular members of the teaching staff; faculty that just departed often continue to appear in brochures. Students should query departments about particular faculty members of interest to insure that they will be there upon the student’s arrival.

Students should also take with a grain of salt the self-assessments of program quality offered by faculty trying to recruit students: it is fair to say that “puffery” is the norm, and misrepresentation of fraudulent proportions not uncommon. Students are better off relying on the opinions of faculty at other institutions to which the student is applying, and this Report. You should also, of course, consult your own faculty advisors, though keep in mind they may have their own parochial biases and blinkers as well. Students might also look for tangible indications to verify representations of program excellence: e.g.,

  • Quality of the other schools at which members of the faculty have had job offers or held visiting appointments;
  • Professional honors and awards received by faculty (e.g., fellowships from the NEH, ACLS, NSF, and Guggenheim; visiting fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavior Sciences at Stanford, and the National Humanities Center; prizes like Lakatos, Matchette, and Johnsonian; papers reprinted in The Philosopher’s Annual; editorial positions with major journals; membership in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and British Academy; etc.).
  • Job placement record of the institution (this, of course, is a more backward-looking guide to quality);
  • Whether faculty have published in the most selective and prestigious journals (e.g., Philosophical Review, Mind, Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Noûs; and then perhaps a notch below these, Philosophical Studies, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, Philosophy of Science,and so on).
  • Whether faculty have published books with the leading philosophy presses (Blackwell, Cambridge, Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Princeton, Routledge).

It is also worth considering more general institutional factors in choosing a graduate school. For example, some universities are in financial trouble, which affects not only graduate-student support, but the quality of support services and research facilities. Other programs, by contrast, have sizable private endowments that permit them to recruit faculty, bring in visitors and speakers, and support a wide array of philosophical activities. Finally, students may want to investigate the faculties in areas related to philosophy: e.g., political science, economics, law, history. Some schools have much to offer beyond their philosophy departments; while others are notable mainly for the quality of their philosophy faculty (see the rankings of research universities, above).

Finally, students should consider “general reputation” and “geographical” factors. Graduate students sometimes benefit from earning their Ph.D. at a school with a good overall reputation, even though the philosophy program may not be especially strong. Also, the less prestigious the graduate program the more likely it is that its PhDs will get jobs in the region of the country in which the program is located. Students who do not get into their top choices for graduate schools should weigh these factors particularly seriously.

An important factor for students to consider is financial aid. As a basic rule of thumb, a student should not borrow money in order to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. Job prospects are too unpredictable, and salaries too modest, to make it sensible for a student to acquire substantial debt while earning a Ph.D. (Starting salaries for assistant professors of philosophy these days range from about $50,000 to $90,000, depending on the caliber of the school and the region of the country—mid 70s is increasingly the norm at the major research universities.) Any legitimate Ph.D. program will offer financial aid to promising students; the offer of such aid is a strong indication that that program wants the student to enroll. There are two basic types of aid packages, though there are many variations on these two basic types at different universities. Type A: “Fellowships” which provide relief from teaching the first year or two, or reduced teaching, plus tuition and a living stipend ranging anywhere from about $15,000 to $25,000 (look for the higher amounts in higher cost of living areas, or at schools that don’t provide full tuition waivers). Type B: “TAships,” which require undergraduate teaching, usually from the first year of grad school, in return for tuition (or most of tuition) and a living stipend. Private universities, like Princeton and Chicago, tend to offer more Fellowships than TAships, but they also typically put strict limits on the time a student may spend in graduate school. Large state universities typically have plentiful teaching opportunities, and are often more flexible in permitting students to work on their doctorates for 6, 7 and 8 years.

Let me emphasize again that there are many fine philosophy programs and many fine philosophers at work in the English-speaking world today. Almost all the programs evaluated here have produced graduates that have enjoyed productive and successful philosophical careers.