Elite Philosophy PhD Programs Mostly Admit Students from Other Elite Schools (guest post by Eric Schwitzgebel)


“There are many potentially excellent philosophers from nonelite schools who are missing terrific educational and career opportunities because students from elite schools have such a large competitive advantage.”

The following is a guest post* by Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside). It originally appeared at his blog, The Splintered Mind.


Elite Philosophy PhD Programs Mostly Admit Students from Other Elite Schools
(or Sorry, Cal State Undergrads, No Berkeley Grad School for You!)
by Eric Schwitzgebel

Do elite PhD programs in the U.S. admit mostly students from elite undergraduate backgrounds? Let’s look at the numbers. (Spoiler alert: yes.)

Let’s call a U.S.-based PhD program in philosophy “elite” if it is among the top ten ranked programs in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Let’s call a U.S. college or university elite if it is among the top 25 “national research universities” or the top 15 “national liberal arts colleges” in US News & World Report. For purposes of philosophy PhD admissions specifically, let’s add five more schools to this elite list: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, and Pitt due to the the top-five PGR ranking of their philosophy PhD programs, and Reed College, which has a well-deserved reputation as an elite liberal arts college, especially among philosophers, despite its notoriously low US News ranking. This yields 13 elite PhD programs in philosophy in the U.S. (due to a five-way tie for 9th) and 46 elite U.S. colleges and universities that they might draw from (due to a two-way tie for 25th among national research universities). Of course all such rankings are imperfect.

To assess the undergraduate background of students in the top ten programs, I examined student information on departments’ websites. Undergraduate institution was readily available for philosophy PhD students on the websites of 8 of the 13 elite PhD programs: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Pitt, Yale, USC, Columbia, and Berkeley. The biggest systematic shortcoming in the data was that Columbia provided information for only about half of their listed graduate students. In all, the departmental websites listed 332 current or recently completed PhD students. The most recent previous educational institution was available for 281 students (85%) and undergraduate institution was unambiguously available for 252 students (76%).[1]

Foreign Students

The primary analysis concerns U.S. students. Therefore, I excluded from analysis 83 students whose most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university who did not unambiguously receive an undergraduate degree from a U.S. university.[2] This constituted 30% of the 281 students for whom most recent previous educational institution was available.

If this estimate is accurate, elite philosophy PhD programs have a larger proportion of foreign students than do nonelite philosophy PhD programs: The National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates shows only 14% of recipients of philosophy PhDs in 2017 to have been temporary visa holders.

Elite universities are highly represented among the 100 students whose most recent previous university was non-U.S.: 23 (!) were from Oxford, 10 from Toronto, 8 from Cambridge, 5 from McGill, and 4 from St Andrews. Half of the students hailed from just these five universities. Many (but not all) of the rest hailed from universities that count among the most elite in their respective countries, such as Peking (Beijing), Pisa, and UNAM.[3]

Graduate Study Before the PhD

The primary analysis concerns U.S. undergraduate institution. However, it is also interesting to examine graduate study before the PhD. Of 176 the students whose most recent institution was in the U.S. (excluding five with unclear information), 48 (27%) had Master’s degrees, law degrees, or similar graduate work. Thus, contrary to some rumors, most U.S. students in elite PhD programs are admitted straight from undergraduate study.

Most students with previous graduate degrees attended an elite university or a leading terminal Master’s program: Nineteen of the 48 hailed from one of the five terminal M.A. programs described as “very strong” in the PGR (Tufts, Brandeis, Georgia State, Northern Illinois, and Milwaukee) and another fourteen hailed from elite national universities (Harvard, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale). Just six universities accounted for more than half of U.S. students’ prior graduate degrees: Harvard, Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Stanford, Tufts, and Yale.[4]

The Majority of U.S. Students in Elite PhD Programs Received Their Bachelor’s Degrees from Other Elite Schools

Using the definitions of “elite” above, and treating the available data as representative, the majority of U.S. students in elite philosophy PhD programs received their undergraduate degrees from other elite schools.

Of the 183 students with listed U.S. undergraduate degrees, 106 (60%) hailed from elite schools. Five universities contributed at least eight students to the list, that is, at least one student per examined PhD program: Berkeley (10), Chicago (10), NYU (10), Harvard (8), and Stanford (8). These five schools alone are responsible for 25% of listed students. Several other elite schools contributed at least four students each: Rutgers (6), Princeton (5), Yale (5), Dartmouth (4), Reed (4), and Williams (4).[5] Each of the top ten ranked national universities contributed at least one student.

Only a Small Percentage of Students Are from Unranked Schools

I count 20 students total (11%) from schools that are not nationally ranked in US News. (These schools are all regionally ranked.) Represented are: Cal Baptist, Calvin College (3), Cedarville, College of Charleston, Columbia College, CUNY Brooklyn, James Madison, Loyola Marymount, Middle Tennessee, Missouri-Kansas City, Providence College, Simon’s Rock, Spring Arbor, St Thomas, SUNY Geneseo, Trinity University (2), and Western Washington. Nine of these students received M.A. degrees elsewhere before moving on to the PhD, and another spent time at Oxford. This list contains only ten students from nationally unranked schools who appear to have made the leap straight into an elite PhD program without training elsewhere.

Bear in mind that most U.S. universities are not nationally ranked. For example, of the 23 universities in the California State University system, which awards about 100,000 undergraduate degrees every year, only four are nationally ranked. Not a single student with an undergraduate degree from Cal State appears on the list. (There are three students, however, from the well regarded terminal M.A. programs at CSULA and San Francisco State.)

Even nationally ranked but nonelite colleges and universities are only sparsely represented. Although you might think that national universities ranked 51-100 would graduate a large number of philosophy majors ready for graduate study, only 13 students from this group of universities appear on the list (excluding Rutgers and Pitt) — not many more students from these 48 universities combined than from Berkeley, Chicago, or NYU alone. In my twenty-two years at UC Riverside (ranked 85 among national universities), I have never seen a student admitted to a top-ten ranked philosophy PhD program.[6]

But Maybe Elite Schools Generate More Philosophy Majors?

Looking at data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I find 829 schools that have awarded at least one Bachelor’s degree in philosophy (IPEDS category 38.01) in the seven years from 2011-2017. However, elite schools and schools with very strong philosophy faculties do tend to graduate many more philosophy majors on average than do other universities. For example, the two schools that graduated the most philosophy majors in that period are both top 25 research universities: Penn (915) and UCLA (888).[7]

In 2011-2017, the 46 schools I have classified as elite awarded 9,174 philosophy BAs, while the remaining 783 schools awarded 51,078 philosophy BAs. If we consider this to be approximately the pool of students from which my list of students at elite PhD programs is drawn, then approximately 1.2% of philosophy graduates from elite schools appear on my list, while 0.15% of graduates from nonelite schools do so. A rough estimate, taking into account missing data, students who enter PhD programs without an undergraduate major in philosophy, and students who are admitted but who choose a lower ranked program or drop out early, maybe about 2.5% of philosophy majors from elite schools gain admission to top-ten ranked PhD programs in philosophy and maybe about 0.3% of philosophy graduates from nonelite schools do.

What Percentage Had Philosophy Majors?

I also recorded undergraduate major where listed. 193 students had undergraduate major information listed, of whom 167 (87%) majored in philosophy or a cognate discipline like History and Philosophy of Science — sometimes with a double major. Of the 26 without an undergraduate major in philosophy, 18 (69%) had previous graduate work in philosophy. Thus, 96% of students had either an undergraduate degree or previous graduate work in philosophy.

What Explains the Phenomenon?

I don’t conclude that admissions committees are being unfair, much less explicitly elitist. Maybe students from Berkeley and Chicago really are much better. Or maybe students from elite universities are more skilled specifically at the task of producing writing samples and personal statements that will delight admissions committees. (My advice for students seeking admittance to PhD programs in philosophy, which I have begun to update, is intended in part to help mitigate that particular advantage.) Or maybe the epistemic task of discerning the genuinely most promising applicants is so difficult that committees need to play the odds and the odds almost always say that the Berkeley student is more likely to succeed than the Cal State student. Or maybe so much turns on the credibility of the letter writers that students whose letter writers aren’t well known can’t really be fully evaluated. Or, or, or, or.

But regardless how innocent the explanation, it’s a shame. I am sure there are many potentially excellent philosophers from nonelite schools who are missing terrific educational and career opportunities because students from elite schools have such a large competitive advantage.

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Note 1: In a few ambigous cases, I assumed that a student’s last listed university was their most recent. For example, “he comes by way of Wesleyan and Princeton” was coded as ambiguous regarding which college awarded the undergraduate degree, with Princeton as the most recent previous institution.

Note 2: 100 students’ most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university. Of these, 17 unambiguously had a U.S. undergraduate degree. Strikingly, 12 of these 17 attended Oxford.

Note 3: The full list of foreign universities is: Amsterdam (2), ANU, Auckland, Barcelona, Birkbeck (2), British Colombia, Buenos Aires, Cambridge (8), Cape Town, Carleton Univ., China (unspecified), Edinburgh (3), Frankfurt, Freie Univ. Berlin, Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem (2), Humboldt Univ. Berlin, King’s College (3), Ludwig Maximilian (2), McGill (5), Melbourne, Oxford (23), Peking, Pisa, Queens, Queensland (2), Ruhr Univ. Bochum, Seoul, Sheffield, Simon Fraser, St Andrews (4), Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto (10), Tubingen, Univ. of Hong Kong, Univ. of Paris, University College London (2), UNAM, Univ. Catolica Peru, Univ. de los Andes, University College Dublin, Vancouver, Wits South Africa, Wuhan, and Yale-NUS.

Note 4: The full list is: Arizona State, Brandeis (3), Brown, Cal State LA, Fordham, Georgia State, Harvard (3), Houston, Johns Hopkins, Milwaukee (5), Missouri St Louis, Northern Illinois (6), NYU, Princeton (2), San Francisco State, Stanford (3), Texas Tech, Tufts (4), U Conn, UC Davis, UNC Chapel Hill, Union Theological Seminary, USC, Western Michigan, and Yale (4).

Note 5: The full list of elite programs is: Amherst College (2), Berkeley (10) Brown (3), Carleton College (3), Chicago (10), Claremont McKenna, Columbia (3), Cornell, Dartmouth (4), Emory, Grinnell (2), Harvard (8), Haverford (2), Johns Hopkins (2), MIT, Northwestern (2), NYU (10), Penn (3), Pitt, Pomona, Princeton (5), Reed (4), Rutgers (6), Stanford (8), USC, Virginia, Washington U. St Louis, Wellesley, Williams (4), and Yale (5).

Note 6: The full list of nationally ranked but nonelite schools is: Alabama, Arizona State (2), Auburn, Biola (2), Boston College, Brandeis (2), Cinncinnati, Franklin & Marshall, Furman, Houston, Illinois College, Indiana (2), Kenyon, Lafayette, Lewis & Clark, Marquette, Maryland-Baltimore County, Minnesota (2), Missouri-Columbia, North Carolina State, Northeastern (2), Oberlin (2), Pepperdine, Purdue, Sewanee, St Johns, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook (2), UC Davis, UC San Diego (2), University of Missouri-St Louis, UNC Chapel Hill (5), UNC-Asheville, Union College, University at Buffalo-SUNY, Vermont, Wake Forest, Washington-Seattle, West Point, West Virginia, Westmont, Wheaton, Whitman, and William & Mary.

Note 7: For the curious, the remaining top ten are UC Santa Barbara (693), Boston College (654), UC Berkeley (644), Washington-Seattle (485), Wisconsin-Madison (478), UC Santa Cruz (468), Colorado-Boulder (428), and University of Arizona (426). (Washington-Bothell is excluded due to what I interpret as a classification error by NCES.)

Image: Schonbek Sophia Chandelier

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