Graduate School Advice
Are you interested in pursuing a graduate degree—whether an MA or a PhD—in Philosophy? Having trouble figuring out how to get started? Wondering what the process of applying to graduate programs is like? Just looking for some general guidance before you get too far?
To help you with this, the faculty of the Department of Philosophy have created this page. We hope you find it helpful. At the same time, we want to stress that nothing can substitute for the kind of mentorship each of us is happy to offer! So, in addition to reading this page, please meet with us—the earlier, the better.
One important caveat: in composing this page, we’ve drawn upon our own experiences in guiding Geneseo students through the application process. We’ve had some very good success, helping students secure admission to several of the nation’s top PhD-granting programs. However, since we don’t ourselves sit on admissions committees for graduate programs, we know that our perspectives are somewhat limited. Thus, in addition to reading this page, we encourage you to read somewhat more broadly, and especially if you can identify advice from those who serve on admissions committees. To get you started, here are two resources:
- Advice for Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, written in October 2021 by the Director of Graduate Admissions in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University
- Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, a seven-part series written in 2007 (but updated in 2019) by a Philosophy professor at the University of California at Riverside
Now, on to our locally-produced advice!
Some Notes of Caution
Pursue a graduate degree in a non-professional field only if you can't imagine yourself being happy doing anything else. It's an incredibly rewarding but also incredibly difficult experience. Think about the education you'll receive while pursuing the degree: is it worth the difficulty, the time, and the money to you just on its own, even if you do not get a job in academia at the end? If you're not sure of your answer to these questions, take time to figure it out before taking the plunge. There is nothing wrong, and often much to be gained, by working for a year or two while you decide.
As we write this in the Fall of 2021, we note that this is a terrible time to be looking for a position as a professor in Philosophy. The job market right now is bad. Hiring in Philosophy took a hit during the Great Recession from which it never quite recovered, and this has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Of course, if you are just looking to begin a graduate program now, you won’t be on the job market for at least another 5-7 years, by which time the market might have opened wide up. Moreover, you might not be interested in pursuing an advanced degree in Philosophy in order to become a professor of Philosophy. Still, it’s good to be aware of the condition of the labor market sooner rather than later.
In light of that first note of caution, you should also consider the implications of taking on debt as you pursue an advanced degree (any advanced degree, not just one in Philosophy). To put it bluntly, a graduate degree in Philosophy is worth pursuing only if you don’t have to pay for it (or, at least, only if you don’t have to pay too much for it)—unless you are independently wealthy. Most graduate programs that you should consider will offer tuition waivers; most will also offer stipends for serving as a teaching or research assistant; some will offer fellowships (essentially a stipend for just being a student). If a program offers no financial assistance other than student loans, you should not consider it.
Finally, admissions to graduate programs in Philosophy is extremely competitive. How competitive? It’s not unusual for most programs to receive 150 applications for just a handful of spots; the very top programs might receive as many as 400 applications, and will aim to yield an incoming class of 5-7. So, even if you are a top student with a strong application, there is some chance that you won’t be admitted anywhere. Have a back-up plan!
Producing a Strong Application
Your Academic Record
There is a sense in which the application process begins with your first Philosophy course. This is not to say that you need to recognize that fact at that time. But it is to say that one essential aspect of any application to a graduate program is your academic record, especially in your Philosophy courses. Your record should demonstrate that you are prepared for graduate study—you have a taken a good breadth of courses, and you have done well in them. If your top grade in your Philosophy courses is a B, you’ll face an uphill battle. Most students who go on to graduate school in Philosophy have earned A-range grades in just about all of their Philosophy courses.
Your Writing Sample
As part of your application, you’ll submit a writing sample. On average, this should be 10-15 pages long (some schools will specify exact limits, some won’t). This should be the very best thing you’ve ever written. It should show that you are prepared to produce the kind of written work that graduate school demands. The best writing samples will demonstrate familiarity with the typical structure of philosophical writing, as well as some relevant portion of the literature on the essay’s topic. The topic itself should provide evidence of a strong background—it should deal with an issue that philosophers today deal with.
Your Personal Statement
As part of your application, you’ll submit some kind of personal statement. On average, this should be 2-3 pages long (with some schools specifying exact limits, and others not). This should address your reasons/goals in pursuing an advanced degree in Philosophy, your preparation for doing so, and your interest in the particular school/department to which you are sending it. The last of these means that you will need to customize your statement for each application. Although this isn’t a piece of philosophical writing, understand that the people making the admissions decisions will be philosophy faculty (and maybe a philosophy grad student or two). This is not the place to engage in vague generalizations or vapid statements about how you’ve always been interested in justice or the like. Be specific; if you can, connect your philosophical interests to projects you’ve already completed, or courses you’ve taken. Recognize, also, that the personal statement is an opportunity for you to make yourself seem like the kind of student the faculty in the program will want to work with. A strong personal statement won’t get you into a competitive program if your academic record or writing sample is weak; a weak personal statement can give the admissions committee a reason to exclude you.
In most cases, you’ll be asked to supply three recommendation letters. These should be from faculty who know you as a (philosophy) student well. Letter writers who know you well will be able to write better letters than will those who know you only as a student who received an A in a course a few semesters ago. They should be able to speak to your strengths as a student; they should be able to address any weaknesses in your record. Ideally, these would come from faculty within the Department of Philosophy, though there are circumstances in which getting one letter from a different department would make sense. The process of getting a strong letter begins well before the moment when you ask for the letter!
Some schools have dropped the requirement that applicants submit a GRE score report; since the pandemic hit, even more are doing so. As with the other parts of your application, a strong GRE performance won’t get you into a competitive program if your application is otherwise weak, but a bad performance can give a committee a reason to exclude you.
Figuring Out Where to Apply
A central element is identifying the right schools to which to apply. There is no magic bullet here—you need to do the work of researching programs. One big part of that is looking at the faculty, seeing what their research interests are and what they teach, finding information about how their recent students have done on the job market, etc. If your interests are in Ethics, then you’ll want to pay special (though not exclusive) attention to faculty who work in that area. Take a look at some of their recent publications. Find people whose approach or focus resonates with you. Some ethicists work in normative theory, others work in applied areas, still others work in meta-ethics, and others work in moral psychology. Pay attention to those differences, learn something about them if you don’t already know about them (for example, by reading through relevant entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and reflect upon what your interests really are.
All of that presupposes that you know where the competitive grad programs are. Most students don’t. Fortunately, there is at least one helpful resource, though it is somewhat controversial, and it is somewhat narrowly focused on programs that work in the analytical tradition. If your interests are strongly Continental (or phenomenological), it won’t be terribly helpful. The controversy associated with it relates to the fact that it is taken as a ranking of program quality when the methodology behind it amounts to little more than a reputational survey. For that reason, think about it this way: at the very least, it is a helpful resource in that it identifies for you approximately 50 schools in the USA that have a graduate program leading to a PhD in Philosophy (it also highlights some programs that lead to a “terminal” MA). That’s probably almost 50 more than you previously knew about!
OK, with all of that out of the way, here’s the information:
The Philosophical Gourmet Report offers both general and “specialized” rankings of graduate programs in Philosophy. The specialized rankings are broken down by area within Philosophy; so, for example, you can look at a series of rankings with Theory of Value that will include rankings for each of the major subdisciplines within that area (e.g., normative ethics, applied ethics, etc.). Don’t worry about the absolute rankings; be grateful to have learned that the schools on the list have faculty who work in that area! Click through to the program’s website and start to learn about the faculty (as well as the program requirements, typical funding levels, recent job placement record, etc.).
In addition to the rankings, the report discusses its methodology (if you’re interested in that) and also includes a section about graduate study (including the application process).
Just note that the most current report is already several years old. There was to have been an update done last year, but the pandemic interfered with that. The process of updating it has begun, but I don’t know when the update will be completed. Again, this serves as another reason not to be fixated on the rankings (as faculty move from one position to another, the rankings often change).
One additional important consideration here is that the Gourmet Report is absolutely silent about some very important factors, such as department climate, diversity, and so on. An alternative resource is Academic Placement and Analysis; a recent post at Daily Nous provides a snapshot of some recent updates to that site.
Of course, there is at least one additional resource available to you: the faculty. We are happy to give advice about programs to consider.
The Importance of Mentorship
The opening section of this document stressed the role played by faculty mentorship. This final section returns to that point in order to emphasize again just how important faculty mentorship is.
As you start to work through the process of applying—including the decision about whether or not to apply—keep in touch with the faculty here at Geneseo. Ask us uncomfortable questions, including whether or not we think you should consider going to graduate school. Ask us to work with you on revising a writing sample. Ask us to tear apart a really bad draft of a personal statement. Ask us to write letters—give us plenty of lead time, and remind us of work you did for us. Also ask us how strong a letter we feel we can write for you given your academic record and performance in our courses. A lukewarm letter of recommendation will not help you, and if we can't write more than a lukewarm letter, that is a good indication that grad school might not be the best choice.
And ask us any other questions you might have along the way. We’re happy to help.