Student Discouraged by Sectarian and Defeatist Professors

A recent college graduate who finished near the top of his class wrote to me last year to share a problem he was having with the professors in the small philosophy department at the college he attended: disagreement over which graduate programs in philosophy to apply to.

There seemed to be two issues: sectarianism and defeatism.

First, the professors wanted him to apply only to programs that reflected their interests and style of philosophy, and he feared they would not write him letters of recommendation (or would write only lukewarm ones) if he applied to other schools. The student says that his professors “tried to turn me away from schools I liked toward schools where they wanted me to go.”

Out of respect for the student’s privacy I am be sparing with details but I will say that the student was interested in pursuing what would be considered in Anglo-American philosophy a rather mainstream graduate education.

The student’s professors seem to have acted rather poorly here. It is one thing for professors to share their judgments about the relative value of various courses of study, and quite another for them to give their undergraduates the impression that they would not support applications to reputable programs that represent a different approach to philosophy than they themselves take.

I responded to the student, in part, that he should at least ask them for letters of recommendation and not assume they will not write them or will only write poor ones. Noting that the letter writers were unlikely to write substantially different letters for his applications to different schools, I advised him that it may be prudent to also include among the schools he was applying to some that may appeal to both him and his professors, and offered some specific suggestions.

In his reply to this advice, he shared the second issue, which was that while he included some of the programs I recommended on his list, because the college he attended was not elite or well-known, he “was told they would be ‘almost impossible to get into’ as my professors have ‘no pull’ there.” He was left with the same impression as before: that his professors would not support his applications to his preferred programs.

I hope this line of thinking is not common. It operates on an overly cynical view of graduate admissions, and overlooks that there are cases in which people started at non-mainstream or less academically prestigious undergraduate institutions but ended up in good graduate programs in philosophy and, eventually jobs—which, in some cases, their degrees from their “humble” colleges helped them get. If you’re an example of this, feel free to share your story.

Professors, by all means offer your opinion about your students’ prospects to get into various graduate programs. But show some humility, too. You’re not on the graduate admissions committees deciding the educational fate of your student; let them do any rejecting. You never know.

And if you think that your student isn’t sufficiently prepared for a graduate program, offer some advice about how he or she might become prepared.

In a recent email, the student reports that, discouraged by his professors, he has not applied to any graduate programs in philosophy.

Carmen Herrera, “Equilibrio”

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