Issues with Graduate Admissions


“Ph.D. programs are one of the few parts of higher education where admissions decisions are made without admissions professionals.” So begins Inside Higher Ed’discussion of Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping by Julie Posselt (Michigan). Posselt observed ten different U.S. departments as they narrowed down their pool of PhD program applicants, including at least one philosophy department (unnamed). Among the findings reported by IHE:

  • “Many of the professors sound insecure about their programs even though they are among the very best.”
  • There is “a priority on GRE scores that extends beyond what most departments would admit.”
  • “Faculty members effectively practice affirmative action for all applicants who are not from East Asia,” when it comes to GRE scores.
  • Faculty, especially those who see themselves as producing academics like them, are “risk averse in ways that limit the diversity of those admitted.”
  • “White males ‘dominated’ the admissions committees.”
  • GPAs, especially of students from elite undergraduate institutions, are thought of as “a lousy signal.”
  • There are “a lot of inferences about the quality of someone’s work and their ability based on where [that is, which school] they come from.”
  • Many faculty consider minority “race and ethnicity as a slight tip among otherwise equal candidates who had advanced to a finalist round.”
  • There is a concern about foreign students, particularly Chinese students, “inflating test scores through cheating” on language competency exams.

Do Posselt’s observations ring true? What issues specific to philosophy PhD admissions should we be paying attention to? What strategies have your committees employed to address them? Would intervention from admissions experts help or hurt? Discussion welcome.

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JJ1
JJ1
5 years ago

I really hope GREs don’t play a huge role—mine suck. Asking someone who wants to pursue an advanced degree to take that expensive exam is absurd. Rant over.Report

Tim O'Keefe
5 years ago

Georgia State has a terminal M.A. program, not a Ph.D. program, and terminal programs in the U.S. may differ significantly from the general trends of Ph.D. programs, but her observations don’t at all ring true of our program. We don’t have explicit standards about how to weigh various factors, and decision-making in admissions is pretty widely dispersed among faculty members. But in my own case, I give GREs very little weight, and I think that overall GPA, and especially GPA in major, are quite important.

Finally, because I believe that undergrad pedigree is often overemphasized in Ph.D. admissions, I take one of the important functions of terminal M.A. programs is to help folks from little-known schools who want to pursue graduate study but who are at a significant disadvantage. I’m happy to get excellent students from well-known places here too, but I wouldn’t be happy if such students crowded out those from little-known schools. (Take a look at our grad student directory at http://philosophy.gsu.edu/people/graduate-students/ if you’re curious.)

I cannot speak for everybody here, but my sense is that the description of my own preferences fits many of GSU’s faculty.Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
5 years ago

Tim: I’m curious. Why GPA? Is it because you think it’s a good predictor of success? There’s so much grade inflation that I’ve found GPAs not very informative in grad admissions, but I’m happy to re-think that. When I served on admissions committees in the past, I generally gave most weight to the writing sample and second most to GRE scores.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Colin Heydt
5 years ago

Hi Colin. I agree that writing samples should be given the most weight, and I’ve rejected plenty of applicants with tippy-top grades and GREs who had bad writing samples. With regard to GPA vs. GREs, a few thoughts:

* I’m not talking about small differences of GPA (e.g., an overall 3.78 vs. 3.84) between applicants who are from elite schools where the overall average GPA is way high anyway. What I run across more often are applicants with top-notch (3.9+ GPA) grades but meh GREs vs. top-notch (95%+) GREs but meh (3.5) GPAs. And a lot of the high GPA applicants are coming from schools where I don’t think the practice is to give almost everybody a high grade.

* A person may get great undergrad grades and not do excellent work at the graduate level. But I do think that great grades overall indicate, at least, that the student has had their act together and is less likely to flame out. (People can struggle in grad school for all sorts of reasons unrelated to raw intellectual ability.) And doing extremely well in upper-division philosophy classes in particular (when coupled with a strong writing sample) should be predictive of how they’ll do in grad-level classes, since you’ll be using the same sorts of skills in each. (Whereas GRE scores strongly reflect your socioeconomic status.)Report

Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

This is silly. We know that the work “admissions professionals” can and do reflect a similar set of biases. Look at undergraduate admissions. There, the biases are towards athletes, university legacies, members of certain minority groups (race, gender, religious, geographic, economic, etc., depending on the college or university), and so forth. Some of these biases may be goods; others may not be. Either way, they’re there.

Beyond that, the last thing we need is more such-and-such “professionals” getting involved in higher education. What is killing higher education in the US, both from the standpoint of education quality and cost to students, is the rapid rise in the number of university administrators and the increasing dependence on various types of professional consultants to make university decisions.

What strikes me as the valuable takeaway from this piece is providing faculty members with information about apparent biases that they likely don’t realize they have. That can and should be useful in helping them make better decisions. But the idea that faculty should give up their decision-making power because of these biases is foolish. If anything, I’d argue that we’d be much better off if undergraduate admissions looked like graduate admissions, and faculty members had more substantial involvement or full control over that process.Report

Richard Zach
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

I don’t think the article suggested that this should be done.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Richard Zach
5 years ago

Of course Suprenant is right that the ultimate aim of Posselt’s ethnographic study is to bring “admissions professionals” into graduate admissions, and he is also right that this is yet another outrageous encroachment on faculty governance.

I’m not sure how someone could miss this after reading the linked article (or even the first sentence of the article), but perhaps the fact that Posselt’s research has been supported by the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals (whose sole function seems to be to have lots of meetings) should make her agenda clear.Report

Ian Werkheiser
Ian Werkheiser
5 years ago

As someone who taught English as a Second Language for nearly a decade and administered and taught preparatory classes for English proficiency tests (TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, etc.), I can say that cheating is rampant, and ought to be a concern for admissions (including professional admissions officers dealing with undergraduates). More common than cheating but also problematic are intensive preparations for those tests, which leave students with the ability to get an overly inflated score that does not represent their actual abilities to do well in an English-based school. Those preparatory crash courses are aided and abetted by the companies designing the tests, because they can make money off the back end by selling authoritative prep textbooks for their own test. I’m sure this is much less of a problem for Philosophy graduate programs than, say, Engineering, but I would count those tests as much worse indicators of ability than cover letters, writing samples, and interviews.Report

Ian Werkheiser
Ian Werkheiser
Reply to  Ian Werkheiser
5 years ago

I should have added: I don’t agree with the assumption detailed in the report that Chinese students are particularly likely to engage in cheating or cramming. Having taught students from all over the world, it seems to be a very widespread problem.Report

Nick
Nick
5 years ago

–GPAs, especially of students from elite undergraduate institutions, are thought of as “a lousy signal.”

This is a good thing. Some of those institutions have school-wide averages that approach or even exceed 3.6. While their students are on the whole better, there is still significant institutional pressure–often tacit–to keep doling out As at those schools. If you think about it, grade inflation *has* to lead to this result, or we lose the only weapon we have left with which to fight it.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
5 years ago

The emphasis on GRE scores puts Canadian students at a rather unfortunate disadvantage in applying to US programs, because they haven’t spent their formative educational years learning how to take standardized tests. US school kids take week-long standardized tests almost every year, and are thus very familiar with the testing environment. For Canadian students, the GREs are the first time they encounter a test of that format, which makes it more about how well they did in unfamiliar and artificial testing environments than it does a genuine reflection of knowledge or ability. It bothers me when our really good students spend a couple months studying for the GRE just to learn how to take that kind of test, instead of all the much more worthwhile things they could have done with that time.

An MA can do very helpful things for students from less respected undergrad institutions and especially for students from other parts of the world, including East Asia, to let the other parts of their applications shine (especially their writing samples!). Our MA program at SImon Fraser University partially specializes in students who don’t have a standard North American degree. We’ve had a number of students from China and other Asian countries who came here and did fantastically well, and then had the material in their recommendation letters, writing samples, and teaching experience to alleviate concerns about ‘risk’ of such students.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

I personally have never seen GRE scores make a difference; I’ve seen really awful scores knock people out in early rounds, but in those cases, I had looked at the essay, and I’m confident the candidate would have been rejected anyway once the writing sample received close attention from the committee.

Given the article, the one thing I think is important about Posselt’s research is her case describing what looks a lot like religious discrimination in the unnamed linguistics department. As I have mentioned in other discussions, I have seen this kind of behavior multiple times, both in grad admissions and hiring in philosophy. While there are, obviously, all sorts of biases at work in admissions and hiring, what has been shocking to me is just how flatfooted, blatant, and accepted this kind of discrimination is in our field. The linguistics professors *knew someone was transcribing their comments* and still managed to display overt prejudice, and no one had the balls to challenge it. Just imagine what happens when no one is watching.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Given the traditional conflict between philosophy and religious belief on many issues, one would expect religious discrimination to be far more widespread in philosophy than in linguistics. Other than Notre Dame or Georgetown, a degree from a school with an active religious affiliation probably puts one at a significant disadvantage for PhD programs or jobs at non-religious institutions. Additionally, there is a widespread but mistaken belief that students who have studied at religiously affiliated schools are religious themselves. Even if graduate programs have a legitimate interest in weeding out “nutcases,” they end up weeding out excellent candidates because of uninformed and biased profiling.Report

gradstudentfromChina
gradstudentfromChina
5 years ago

I would like to clarify “inflating test scores through cheating” in English tests in some countries including China. I took GRE and TOEFL in China and I may know a little more than most readers here.

First, it is worth clarifying the term “cheating” here. I do not know (and actually I never heard of) anyone who cheated when she/he was taking the tests. In most test institutes there are cameras and all video documents will be under review by ETS. I doubt anyone would take the risk. But there are some grey areas. I can think of two kinds of cases that can be (or, should be) regarded as cheating. (1) Many students took courses from private schools that help you prepare for the tests (like Kaplan in the US). Students can get most past test questions collected by those schools (probably illegally. I read articles about it. The teachers from those schools took tests as students but copied or memorized test questions.) I do not know the situation now but till several years ago it is easy to get all test questions from 1980s to early 2000s. A typical way to prepare for GRE in China is to go over all past test questions. (2) There are some online forums where people share their test “experiences”, mostly about the questions they encountered in the tests. Of course they will not memorize details but they may tell you, for example, the main idea of some reading articles. People do this because it is said that ETS gives test questions from a large database, and it is probable to encounter same questions in the same month. But many people do not care about those online “experiences”.

Second, I agree that people in China generally spend a significant amount of time on preparing for English tests, especially GRE. Most people start from reciting words from a dictionary size book including all hard words (for Chinese) ever appeared in the history of GRE tests. (interestingly, it is called “Red Book”, way bigger than the little red book though.) Then people go over real tests in the history as well as some mock tests. I heard that people spend 3-6 months on average to prepare for GRE. I think this is mostly because people (esp. those in the admission committees) disagree about how important GRE scores are. One of my friends prepared for GRE tests for a really long time (at least 6 months, just for GRE…) since he heard from a US professor that one has to get a very high score on verbal part in order to get into a philosophy phd program. But I also heard that some people do not take GRE seriously at all. Anyway, I think GRE test for a non-native speaker is not a waste of time; I learned a lot of interesting words and improved my writing skills when I prepared for GRE.Report

Daniel
Daniel
5 years ago

I can’t help but be struck by how odd it is that philosophy PhD programs use the GRE as an admission criteria at all (excepting the fact that graduate colleges may require them, because reasons). It doesn’t seem like anyone thinks the test actually measures many (or any) of the attributes one seeks in a string candidate for graduate study in philosophy. The typical justification for their use is that, on practical grounds, it’s an easy way to determine which candidates ought not be considered at all. This seems like a thin justification, though, if we don’t typically think it counts as a reliable indicator of any of the things we care about as philosophers.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Daniel
5 years ago

Well, I think many people understand that the GRE is a valuable tool. The GRE is a kind of IQ test, and IQ tests have been shown in countless studies to be excellent predictors of success in essentially every profession, and especially in professions that are cognitively demanding. There is therefore every reason to suspect that GRE scores correlate with success in philosophy as well. Admittedly, this is hard for any particular program to verify, given that graduate students are in part selected for their GRE scores and given that graduate programs are stratified by GRE scores.Report

Zara
Zara
Reply to  Ben
5 years ago

Following up on Ben’s reply to Daniel.

Here is a consistent pair of claims: (1) the GRE does not actually many (or any) of the attributes one seeks in a string candidate for graduate study in philosophy (Daniel); (2) high GRE scores are highly correlated with many of the attributes one seeks in a string candidate for graduate study in philosophy (Ben). One only needs (2) to justify using GRE scores.Report

perpetuavix
perpetuavix
Reply to  Ben
5 years ago

“graduate programs are stratified by GRE scores”
I have not heard this before. Is there somewhere (other than individual program websites) where average GRE scores for philosophy grad programs are reported?Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Daniel
5 years ago

“It doesn’t seem like anyone thinks the test actually measures many (or any) of the attributes one seeks in a string candidate for graduate study in philosophy.”

The ability to read and understand written passages and distinguish between the meanings of words seems to me pretty on point to most graduate study. I understand criticisms of how well GRE may predict scholarly performance but I have never heard its detractors explain exactly how someone who cannot understand a paragraph on the GRE will be able to understand the far more complicated readings they need to master in say, a philosophy graduate program.Report

Dave Ripley
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

I’m a GRE detractor, as a direct result of having spent three years teaching GRE prep for the Princeton Review. Here are two points in response. You may not agree, but at least you won’t be able to (truly) say you’ve never heard a detractor offer the explanation you’re asking for.

First, it’s pretty easy to see how someone could fail to understand a paragraph on the GRE while being able to understand the (let’s stipulate) far more complicated readings they’ll encounter in graduate school. There are at least three obvious differences worth pointing out: students take the GRE under time pressure, they take it while being watched, and the topics that they are reading about are quite widespread. All of these can easily affect reading comprehension. (Yes, that last one matters too. We will all comprehend more quickly a passage on something we’re familiar with than something we’re not.)

Second, although I’ve just provided a candidate explanation, I deny that any such explanation is needed. It would only be called for if GRE scores actually measured whether a student “understand[s] a paragraph”. But they don’t. They measure whether the student selects the “right” answer, and there are a lot of tasks that need to come together for this to happen, of which understanding the passage is just one. The biggest obstacle by far for the vast majority of students I taught was not understanding the passage, but rather learning to predict which available answer (often all bad) the test-makers will think is best.

Tl;dr: GRE scores don’t measure understanding, and even if they did there’s every reason that understanding on the GRE wouldn’t predict understanding in graduate school.Report

jj1
jj1
5 years ago

Ben, GREs don’t test intelligence. The only thing they test is how well you sit the GRE—prep companies tell students this all the time.Report

UG
UG
5 years ago

Following up on Zara: That could very well be true (though, I’m suspicious about that), but the fact is that that process discriminates against those who are not good at taking standardized tests.Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
5 years ago

Reading and writing on passages on the GRE is very different than reading and writing on passages in philosophy.

First off, the GRE has tight time constraints. You can read and reread philosophy at your own pace.

The GRE is long, it sucks, and is just plain exhausting (especially given the atmosphere) and unenjoyable. Philosophy reading is (presumably) something someone has interest in.

I don’t think low scores on reading/writing on the GRE translate to inability to read and write philosophical works.Report

Pendaran Roberts
Pendaran Roberts
5 years ago

Henri Perron makes very good points. Yes, the GRE does test reading comprehension and other areas relevant to philosophy, but it does so in a way that is very different from how professional philosophers actually do things.

I can successfully publish philosophy in good journals. But the way I do this is very different from the GRE. It’s not timed. I’m not forced to read and then answer arbitrary questions. My insights and ideas come to me over time. I read articles as needed so new ideas occur to me. I come up with the questions.

I didn’t do stellar at the GRE the many years ago I took it. For one, I get very anxious whenever I feel rushed. In the real world this isn’t a problem. I plan everything ahead of time. I never procrastinate. I don’t do things last minute before a deadline with a clock ticking.

It may be that a high GRE score is indicative of something. But people with non-stellar scores may end up being good philosophers, because the GRE doesn’t really test the real world. It’s artificial. Most philosophers do not go about writing philosophy in anything like the way people have to answer GRE questions.

The GRE is biased towards people who are good at doing timed, standardised tests. These tests bear little resemblance to what philosophers actually do.Report

jj1
jj1
5 years ago

Can we just agree the GRE sucks and nothing but a money maker for ETS?Report