Getting In Next Time (Ought Experiment)

Getting In Next Time (Ought Experiment)


Welcome back to Ought Experiment! Today’s letter comes from a student who just struck out on all their grad school applications, and wants to know what they can do to improve their chances next time:

Dear Louie,

I have well over a 4.0 GPA, and had great letters of recommendation from my professors. I also have published one paper in an undergrad journal. On top of this, my sample writing was—if I’m allowed to say so—original and interesting—though, I argued for a very unpopular position. I didn’t apply to very many schools (only 4) (partially for financial reasons), and only one of them was ranked (relatively) high (and only one of them was a PhD program). However, I have been rejected from all of them. I concede that my statement of purpose was not very interesting, but I was still surprised to get rejected by all of the schools! Is it because I attend a small (no-name) liberal arts university? If so, why is it seen as such a terrible thing to not go to a well-known school? I was wondering if you (and your readers) had any suggestions for how an undergraduate in my failure of a situation (who does not have many financial resources) could best enhance his chances of getting accepted to grad school on the next try? Should I submit a sample writing that is more mainstream or what?

Best,
Four Point D’oh!

Dear Four Point D’oh!,

Getting wiped out this year doesn’t mean that your dream of going to grad school is dead, or that The Field has spoken and it’s time for you to consider a new line of work. Next year might be different. The dream is still alive. Cue the Journey song. Man, that’s a great song. But look, before I get too far into the warm, moderately waffling love and support for which I’m known, I think you have some misconceptions about applying to grad school that are worth addressing:

Misconception 1: Four is the magic number

The first, and probably most important misconception? That applying to only four programs is anywhere near enough. I want to be sensitive on this point, as you list financial considerations as one of the factors in your decision. But competition is stiff, and this is absolutely a numbers game. Most professional philosophers I know have way more than four rejections in their collection. And that wasn’t a turn of phrase, either: collecting rejections is actually one of the most common hobbies in our field. It’s like collecting stamps, but you stop to wonder why you’re spending your life this way slightly more often.

How much do numbers matter? I applied to around 20 programs my senior year of college. And I didn’t get into any of them. Justin got wiped out the first time he tried, too. Daily Nous is actually staffed entirely by rejects. (“We know,” chimed in several corners of the blogosphere.) You say you’re surprised, but the fact that you got rejected from four programs shouldn’t actually surprise you, and I can say that without knowing the first thing about you. To put the point another way, the problem isn’t that you were rejected everywhere. The problem is that your prospects couldn’t weather a very normal number of rejections because you only had four applications in play. Getting into grad school is a gamble, and that means placing a lot of bets.

Which brings us back to the money thing. I can’t just blithely tell you to go into debt for this. Increasing the number of applications you’re fielding won’t guarantee that you’ll get in somewhere, getting in somewhere won’t guarantee that you’ll graduate, graduating won’t guarantee that you’ll get a job, getting a job won’t guarantee that you’ll keep that job, and keeping that job won’t guarantee happiness in life. You’re looking at a dozen years of gambling ahead, at the very minimum. So it might turn out that telling you to go two grand into debt on your grad school applications, like I did over the course of two years, is very bad advice. However, I can advise you to think about application costs in terms of how much sacrifice you’re willing to tolerate for a chance at this life. Is it worth $50 in debt to you? $200? $500? More? What are you willing to give up? Just how much are you willing to gamble? These are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself. Maybe you’ll think about it and conclude that no amount of debt is worth it. Throwing good money after bad, and all that. That’s perfectly fine. This is a highly personal, highly contingent question. But if so, you’ll have to revise your expectations downward. Rather than being surprised that you didn’t get in anywhere, you may have to prepare yourself for that very outcome.

Misconception 2: You can guess the reason behind a rejection

At least based on your letter, you suspect two possible causes for your rejection: you attend a small liberal arts university, and your writing sample argued for an unpopular, non-mainstream position. If I had to guess, neither of these are the reason why you were rejected everywhere. I’ll offer some likelier guesses in a moment.

But it’s important to note that there might not be any reason why you were rejected at a particular program. Maybe they wanted to enroll six students, you were one of a few dozen great candidates out of a pool of hundreds, and they simply went with a different six. Does this necessarily mean there was something wrong with your application? Does this mean there was anything you could have done differently? Does this mean it’s time to change your thesis to something less controversial? No, no, and no. Heck, maybe your four programs all tried to balance how many students they admitted by subfield, and you were the second best prospective metaphysician competing for a single seat. Did your university of origin hurt you in that two-person race? I mean, maaaybe. Or maybe you were up against the next David Lewis. Shrug.

It’s not that you’re in a bad position to guess—it’s that rejections encode far less information than you think. There could be hundreds of reasons why a particular program made a certain decision, and if all you have to work with is a “We regret to inform you” letter, then you’re not going to be able to tease out the actual reason. And you might overcorrect, trying.

So don’t speculate about what happened at these four programs. Even asking people for general advice about what to change is of limited help. (“Now you tell me!”) If you haven’t already, show your full dossier to a few different professors at your institution, and ask them if they can spot any glaring mistakes or if they have any concrete suggestions. If there is something wrong with your application, then it’s probably not going to show in the handful of summary stats you sent me. It’s probably lurking somewhere deep in the dossier itself. Even the documents that you’re confident are high quality, like the writing sample, should go before as many sets of eyes as you can get to agree, because you might be wrong about their quality. Maybe your professors won’t find anything that needs fixing. Maybe you did just get out-competed four times in a row. Either way, re-vetting the dossier is likely to give you a better sense of what to fix and what not to tamper with than speculating about reasons.

Misconception 3: What you think matters is what matters

Sometimes surprised applicants have a “but I did everything right!” mindset when processing their rejections. But there’s no such thing as doing everything right. Not every program is looking for the same thing in a candidate. And even if they were, applying to grad school isn’t like a formula or a recipe, where following transparent steps guarantees results. This isn’t about clearing some threshold beyond which acceptances happen. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to deserve an acceptance letter. This is all about increasing the probability of being accepted. And some elements of the dossier increase that probability more than others.

I think you have the wrong idea about which elements those are. For example, you confidently note your publication in an undergraduate journal, and you kind of brush aside the fact that your statement of purpose was not very interesting. My sense of things? Publications in undergraduate journals probably don’t help applicants at all, but statements of purpose and cover letters are absolutely, critically, vitally, astoundingly important.

Why do undergraduate publications probably not matter? Leaving aside the problem that it’s not always clear whether such publications actually signal much about the quality of your work (what are the editorial and review practices? how much competition was there?), there’s the fact that we always have a far more reliable mechanism for assessing the quality of your written work: reading your writing sample. A publication in an undergraduate journal will never convince me that a bad writing sample is good, and a lack of undergraduate publications will never convince me that a good writing sample is bad. The writing sample is what I care about, because it tells me whether you can do this. To be clear, I’m not saying that opportunities like publishing in undergrad journals have no value. I’m just saying they probably have no value to admissions committees. Especially not compared to the writing sample.

Now, why do statements of purpose and cover letters matter? It’s where you demonstrate fit. And fit is the other thing I care about. If programs only have a handful of seats a year, and admitting a grad means an investment of half a decade’s worth of money and time and energy, then we really, really don’t want to waste seats. Generally speaking, admissions committees are looking for two things: evidence that you have what it takes to successfully finish the program, and evidence that this is the right program for you. What kind of evidence tells us that you’re a good fit? The kind of evidence that only you can provide. Listing areas of interest that match our program strengths. Telling us that the courses you took or the writing sample you provided are indicative of the direction you want to go in, rather than just being a function of what courses were available and which term paper your advisor told you to use. Mentioning the names of the professors you’re excited to work with, and telling us why you want to work with them. Demonstrating that you know something about the program to which you’ve applied, and that you’ve made an informed decision that this program that can help you do the kind of work you want to do. A generic, copy-paste kind of cover letter is lethal. It has a survivability rate of 8%. And giving it a number as high as 8% might be my optimism showing.

Hey, halfway through #3 you finally started to answer my question!

Hey, so I did!

Probably the two most important elements of any application are the writing sample and the evidence of fit. So if you want to increase your chances of getting accepted next year, then in addition to increasing the number of programs to which you apply, I would pour all your available time and energy into changing, improving, or polishing these two documents.

The second year I tried, I again applied to around 20 programs, but this time with a better than 50% success rate. I ended up accepting the offer of an excellent program. The two things I changed that second year? I made sure I fit the places I applied (and made sure they knew it, too), and I spent months writing and rewriting a new sample. Same home university, same recommendations, same transcripts, same GRE score, and same couple of red flags that I couldn’t do anything to change.

First, I researched programs much more carefully. As an undergraduate, it’s hard to know the sociology of the field. I thought the best programs were those at the most famous institutions, and mistakes like that aren’t uncommon. And even if I understood that fit was what matters, how was I supposed to know which programs were strong or ably represented in my areas of interest? Google every single program out there, including the ones I didn’t even know about? So I started with the Breakdown of Programs by Specialties over at the PGR. (Am I allowed to favorably mention the PGR on Daily Nous? No, wait Justin – what are you doing? I’m sorry! No, please don’t throw me in the Daily Nous dungeon! It’s so dark and consensusy down here! Fine, fine, I hear this and this are also good!)

The PGR isn’t perfect, but the breakdown told me where to start my investigation. And investigate I did. I read the faculty pages of professors in my area. I read or at least skimmed a lot of their papers. I got as clear a sense as possible of what kind of philosophy they did, and what their approach to philosophy was. And that information went into my cover letter. When I said I wanted to go to program x in a letter, it wasn’t because x was a well-ranked program (that kind of reason tells committees more about the program than it does about you, the applicant). It was because professors y and z at program x work on a and do so b-ly, which dovetailed with my own carefully explained and detailed interest in pursuing a-like work from a b-like direction. I convincingly demonstrated why I wanted to learn from and work with y and z, and without painting my interests as inflexible or resistant to being shaped, I made a highly tailored, non-bs case for my admission.

The other thing I did? I junked my writing sample and started all over. My first writing sample was just a polished version of my best term paper. It wasn’t even a term paper in my stated area of interest. My second writing sample was the best piece of philosophy I was capable of producing at the time, intended to show committees the kind of work I wanted to do as well as my ability to do it. I spent four months researching and writing this thing, and I treated it like my full time job, because this document was the best argument I could make about the kind of philosopher I could be. Of course, I realized about a week into my first graduate seminar that my new thesis had been a very, very stupid idea that could never, ever work (stupid, stupid Louie, and my stupid face, too), but hey, it got me in the door.

Does this one anecdote mean that polished term papers make bad writing samples? Not necessarily. The treated-it-like-a-full-time-job thing probably played a bigger role. And again, you want to check with professors who have access to your entire dossier, because a handful of stats say less about your candidacy than you think. But I stand by the idea that of the variables over which you currently have control, demonstrating fit and writing a sample that serves as your advocate matter most.

Now, based on your letter, I only know two things about your writing sample: that it argues for an unpopular position and it’s not mainstream. Maybe all you meant by ‘not mainstream’ is the unpopularity thing again, or maybe you meant that it’s not on a mainstream topic as judged by the programs to which you’re applying. The latter would be a big problem because, you guessed it, fit.

But if you meant the former, and its only problem is that it defends an unpopular position, then I don’t think it has a problem. Folks might disagree with me in the comments below, but I don’t think you need to be a cookie cutter candidate with mainstream views to get into grad school. Of course, there are more and less philosophical ways to buck convention. Sometimes original papers can read like polemical screeds, short on citations and long on assertions. Sometimes ‘original’ papers come across like the author wasn’t aware that there’s actually a lively literature out there on precisely their question. Notice that those are philosophical flaws, not a sin of originality. I’m willing to wager that most graduate committees don’t have a bias against unconventional, original work. Theses aren’t like art—unrecognized displays of genius not respected in the author’s lifetime. Committees are judging skill more than content.

Maybe this is my optimism talking, but I think a rigorously researched, carefully argued, controversial paper is actually a great writing sample rather than a risky or a wounded sample. It takes a lot of chops to pull off a controversial paper well, and chops impress! What matters are the ‘rigorously researched’ and ‘carefully argued’ parts, because those are the parts that tell committees whether you have what it takes to succeed. Committees aren’t going to hold you to the thesis you defend for life, but your abilities at that moment in time are being compared to the abilities of all the other applicants. So if your paper isn’t mainstream in the sense that it takes a bold stance, then shine on, you crazy diamond. But if your paper isn’t mainstream because you break all the rules of philosophy papers because you’re just that original damnit, then you’re not giving committees evidence that you can do the kind of work that programs are all about training you how to do. You’re not showing them that you know what philosophy is. And enough of your competitors aren’t going to make the same mistake. Remember, we don’t want to waste seats.

I think some of this advice is fairly standard: apply widely, and focus on your writing sample and on demonstrating fit. But there are controversial points, too: you may have to go into debt if you want to get into grad school badly enough, and you don’t have to change your unpopular views in order to get in somewhere. And there are some elements that I just don’t have enough information to comment on, like whether students coming from certain institutions should try to get a solid MA first. (I don’t think so, but again, I don’t know.) So I’d be interested to see what others think below.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

[Note: Commenting with pseudonyms is allowed, but please pick one that does not have “anonymous” or “anon” or the like in it. Thanks.]

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Potential Applicant
Potential Applicant
5 years ago

This is very informative, thank you Louie and Four Point D’oh! I’m also concerned about getting into grad school. To be honest, until I read this article I hadn’t realized how difficult it might be once I begin applying.

I’m curious as well about whether or not attending a less-known, “unpopular” college for undergraduate studies is likely to be detrimental to graduate school admission chances. I’d love to hear more thoughts on the subject. I’m also wondering how much your undergraduate school matters when it comes to securing a career in philosophy. I read somewhere it’s nearly impossible to publish in reputable journals if you’re not from a big-name university?

Thanks again for this awesome article! Report

real_email_fake_name
real_email_fake_name
Reply to  Potential Applicant
5 years ago

For some data on how undergraduate pedigree bears on graduate admissions, see this post by Eric Schwitzgebel:

http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.sg/2011/10/sorry-cal-state-students-no-princeton.htmlReport

Potential Applicant
Potential Applicant
Reply to  real_email_fake_name
5 years ago

Thank you! This is a great resource. Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Potential Applicant
5 years ago

For whatever anecdotal evidence is worth…

I went to an unknown institution for my undergrad. I also scored poorly on the GRE. I was admitted to 0 of about 15 Leiter-ranked PhD programs on my first try. When seeking advice for my second round of applications, I was told to retake the GRE and apply only to ranked MA programs, so I took the GRE again. (And, like Louie mentions, I focused more on demonstrating fit in my letter and reworked my sample — and it might be worth mentioning that I currently think that that sample is not a good paper). I also spent more than a year rereading what I read as an undergraduate, reading multiple history of Western philosophy series, and writing (ok, blogging, but whatever). I applied to 12 MA programs and was accept to 1.

After finishing an MA in philosophy from a mid-range program, I had a new writing sample, all new letters from recognizable names, some conference presentations, conference organizing experience, and a grad certificate in cognitive science. I applied (this would be the third round) to 26 PhD programs — mostly in philosophy, but also a few in psychology. I was accepted to one one philosophy program and one psychology program.

(Apologies for typographical errors.)Report

Potential Applicant
Potential Applicant
Reply to  Potential Applicant
5 years ago

Thank you everyone for the responses! It sounds tough to get into graduate programs, tougher than I’d assumed previously. Report

Matt
Matt
5 years ago

I teach in a regional state university which nobody would think to call “popular.” Every couple of years we have someone who wants to go to grad school and who we think able enough to do so. So far, every one of them has been admitted to at least one and often more than one really good or excellent master’s programs (an essential step for our students before the PhD). Judging by that, those programs (including Ga. St., Western Mich., UW-M, and others) are happy to take candidates from “unpopular” colleges if they meet their requirements.

And good advice overall, Louie. Of course, as you imply, much of it applies ceteris paribus to every subsequent stage of academic life, at least up to getting tenure. We philosophers sure love rejection!

Report

Tim O'Keefe
5 years ago

I think that Louie’s advice is spot-on.

I’d also echo the comments above, that throwing into the mix a few terminal MA programs that are a good fit for your interests is probably prudent for most applicants from lesser-known schools. I know that such applicants do sometimes get into strong PhD programs, but from things like Eric Schwitzgebel’s post above and my own looking over lists of grad students at PhD programs, it does seem like prestige often plays a significant role in admissions. (And this makes sense, unfortunately–with the huge number of applicants, PhD programs can afford to be risk-averse and favor applicants from places they’re more familiar with.)

On the other hand, at Georgia State, at least–and I think many other MA programs–we think that part of our role is to help promising students from lesser-known schools. (Take a look at our grad student page, at http://philosophy.gsu.edu/people/graduate-students/ : the first five undergrad institutions listed are Ithaca College, Saginaw Valley State University, Portland State University, The City College of New York, and the University Of Massachusetts, Lowell.) We’re happy to admit people from prominent places too, but I’d be unhappy if our entering cohort shifted predominately to such students.

I’m DGS at Georgia State, so the above is self-serving, but I also think it’s true. I could go on further about why a terminal MA program is a good idea for lots of people, but I’ll stop here. Report

JMM
JMM
5 years ago

What I tell my students, based on my limited experience on a top-ranked grad admissions committee, is that coming from a lesser known school doesn’t itself affect their chance of admissions negatively but it does so indirectly. The reason is that the letters they are likely to get will be from lesser known philosophers, like me, than from the kind of big shots that would write the letters for students at an Ivy or R1 school. I know that when I applied to graduate school I benefited from my letter writers being well-known and personally vouching for me to the people at the other end. Students who come from other schools might not have that “in.” That means that, as you said Justin, their writing sample and personal statement have to be exceptionally strong. But also that they should ask their letter writers whether they have good professional contacts at some of those good Masters or Ph.D. programs. I have personally gently guided my students to apply to programs at institutions where I know some of the faculty so that the chances that they might take my letter seriously are somewhat increased. I’ve placed all of the students I’ve supervised through this process into very good MA or PhD programs, but also spend TONS of time helping them rewrite their writing samples…Report

Eric Wiland
5 years ago

Echoing earlier commenters, I’ll emphasize the importance of the writing sample, and de-emphasize the prestige of the undergraduate college. Then again, I am a DGS at an MA program (UMSL), not a PhD program. I am less concerned about fit, however, than Louie is. As long as the topic of the writing sample is familiar enough that I can assess the quality of the paper, I trust that when applicants apply to UMSL, they know what kinds of philosophy they will learn, and what they won’t, but I’ll check to see that their SoP confirms this. If the topic of the paper of the writing sample is a little weird, so be it. In fact, other DGSs have told me that they prefer quirky writing samples. For me, one winning writing sample in this round of admissions was about the metaphysics of time in Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury.

Finally, I encourage applicants who get shut out of good PhD programs to immediately contact good MA programs to see if there might be time to apply for the Fall. Some such programs keep a couple spaces in the entering class open for just such applicants.Report

Fritz
Fritz
5 years ago

Having just completed admissions to our MA program and applications from our MA students to PhD programs, I’d emphasize two things. First, Louie is definitely right about it being a numbers game. Apply to as many as you can afford, then some. Some of the outcomes almost appear random, and having numbers on your side helps. Second, *demonstrate fit*. We got a bunch of applicants from talented students who wanted to study, say, Plato (which we don’t have at all). It’s almost like they’re just throwing balls in the air and seeing what lands. (Btw, those are quick rejections.) So, while it’s a numbers game, be smart about it, and at least make it look like these are thoughtful applications and not a bunch of quick clicking. You don’t have to have read the faculty members’ writing, but at least pretend you know what the coverage and orientation of the department is.Report

Fritz
Fritz
Reply to  Fritz
5 years ago

Oh, and no, I don’t think undergraduate institution matters much. GREs are great equalizers. Letters from big-name faculty are overrated, particularly insofar as they tend to be vapid. Particularly for MA programs, part of the entire point is to help people bridge the gap from non-research faculty at undergrad to Ph.D. programs, so a lot of students have the profile of coming from lesser-known schools.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Fritz
5 years ago

I don’t think GREs are particularly good equalizers, especially since some schools (like, e.g., mine) don’t even ask for them.Report

GhostOfRejectionsPast
GhostOfRejectionsPast
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

If you have good letters, apply to Brian’s program.Report

GhostOfRejectionsPast
GhostOfRejectionsPast
Reply to  Fritz
5 years ago

If you have high GREs, apply to Fritz’s program.Report

GhostOfRejectionsPast
GhostOfRejectionsPast
Reply to  GhostOfRejectionsPast
5 years ago

One more thing: I went up 150 points between August 30th and November 4th of the same year, just by memorizing flashcards while I was on the subway. You can get them at any Barnes & Noble, and they cost less than $20.00.

So, that will help you for places that are into GREs.Report

Current grad
Current grad
5 years ago

I agree with everything Louie says, but just wanted to note one thing about the financial considerations: Often, application fee waivers are available for applicants who can’t afford to spend one or two thousand on their applications. I’m not sure exactly how hard it is to get them, but a number of friends in my grad program took advantage of this opportunity. So it’s worth noting that the financial aspect of applications can sometimes be partially offset.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Current grad
5 years ago

If you’re looking for a fee waiver, make sure that you’ve filled out the FAFSA form, even if you’re not taking out financial aid etc., as FAFSA is how most places that give some need-based waivers determine need.Report

Dale Miller
5 years ago

I’m curious what people doing graduate admissions say about the importance of the GRE. I came from a regional public university and went to a well-regarded Ph.D. program, and I’ve always assumed that this was largely on the strength of my GRE score. Now that I teach at a school much like the one I attended, I stress the importance of the GRE to my students who want to go to grad school. But perhaps times have changed and the GRE counts for less now, or perhaps I exaggerated its importance in my own case. Is it still an equalizer, as Fritz said above?Report

GhostOfRejectionsPast
GhostOfRejectionsPast
5 years ago

I went to a top ranked place for undergrad. I think seven or eight of us from my year went grad school. SEVEN or EIGHT is a lot for one year.

I’m not as much of an expert as Louie, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it didn’t hurt that each one of us had at least one letter from a big name.

There are summer programs for undergrads that might help you get in touch with some of those big names. Maybe someone can post some info about those here (I’m thinking of one at Rutgers and another at Boulder -I think).

What’s messed up, yes, messed up, is that $ plays a role. If it makes you feel better, I applied to six, and only got into two (and one of those not until April 15th after receiving an initial rejection).

So, try and save up this year, and consider something like a Go Fund Me campaign to help you along.

Also, make sure you really love philosophy. All the painful moments like this- and there might be more to come- better be worth it for you.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  GhostOfRejectionsPast
5 years ago

Might be? Make that “will be”. Rejections from grad programmes will be followed by rejections from journals, rejections from post-docs, rejections from job applications, rejections from funding agencies, you name it.

You really gotta love it to do it. 🙂Report

Four Point D’oh!
Four Point D’oh!
5 years ago

Thanks for all the advice thus far! What I’m taking out of this is to make sure that my letter of intent does not suck next time around.

What has not been addressed is GPA: as indicated, I have a pretty solid GPA. I know that people like to say that GPAs have been inflated (or whatever), but, judging from the grades of my peers, I know that this is at least not true of my institution. Anyway: is my GPA even relevant? Report

GhostOfRejectionsPast
GhostOfRejectionsPast
Reply to  Four Point D’oh!
5 years ago

I am a very up and down person, and my GPA reflected that. So, from my own personal experience, GPA doesn’t matter as much as the writing sample, letters of recommendation, and the GREs.

That doesn’t seem fair when I think about it. I mean, we need creativity, but we also need solid scholarship. So maybe people should care more about GPAs.

Off the top of my head, if you’re more of a scholar than a creative type, maybe play to that strength, you might get a better writing sample that way.

What else are you interested in? And more generally to everyone else, what can we do to help bright majors who don’t make it to grad school (for whatever perhaps arbitrary reason)?Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Four Point D’oh!
5 years ago

If you’re considering applying overseas, then, yes, GPA will matter. In the UK, what is looked for, in applicants to master’s programs, is an upper-class degree (which translates into a high GPA) in a relevant discipline; GRE scores are a non-issue, as there isn’t anything like the GRE here.Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Four Point D’oh!
5 years ago

When I’ve been on grad admissions, I don’t think I given GPA much weight. It might be a red flag if it’s low (or more importantly, if grades in philosophy classes are low), but there are enough applicants with stellar GPAs that a high one won’t set you apart. The writing sample and letters matter much more.Report

take or leave this advice
take or leave this advice
5 years ago

As an undergrad, I went to a small, commuter-only campus of a state university (with a good philosophy faculty, but not one where there would be much name recognition in letters, etc.). I recently started a really awesome, very cushy job, so none of the following is sour grapes.

But here are some things I strongly recommend:

First, if you are not used to being a professional student–e.g. if you had other responsiblities (a full time job, caring for family members, etc.), and/or if you haven’t had much exposure to what graduate student life is like (e.g. you don’t have a grad program at your undergrad school, haven’t attended grad seminars, don’t have faculty who are very recently out of grad school), do not go directly to a PhD program. (I would say more about my situation with respect to this but I’d rather not be identified.) Go to a fully funded terminal MA program if possible. Otherwise, try to find a way to sit in on some grad seminars and talk to philosophy grad students about what grad school is like/experience as much of the culture as possible. Do not go into any debt to go into an MA program. It is much, much harder to adjust to grad school if you are a working class, lower-middle-class, or whatever person who worked your way through college, who didn’t go to a residential college, who doesn’t really get what snobby research academic culture is like, than if you are an undergrad at a research school or a prestigious SLAC. an MA program can help you decide whether academia is for you. It can also help prepare you for the way in which philosophy is now hyper-professionalized, which personally is a huge turnoff for me, and which I think, had I fully grasped at the get-go, would have been enough to cause me not to go to grad school. I think lots of smaller and lesser known schools can do a great job preparing you for the purely academic part of grad school. But in my experience that is really the least of the struggle, which has been mostly about dealing with a totally foreign kind of “workplace” that everyone else seems to feel completely comfortable in, and with the need to “network” and be incredibly professionalized. Undergrads from R1 and prestigious SLACs are now coming into grad programs *already* hyper-professionalized and connected and knowledgeable about things that you will know nothing about, trained in “sounding smart” in a way that you are not likely trained, and these are the things that matter–the cultural capital–to success, sadly at least just as much or perhaps more so than your ability to write a good philosophy paper. You can help fix this gap by attending an MA program. As a person from a working class background who worked 40+ hours a week during my undergrad years and was caring for a young child, I was completely unprepared for the totally different structure and culture of grad school, and had an extremely hard time adjusting, and almost left the profession multiple times. Do not assume it is easier because you don’t have to work, or that because you are used to both going to school and working, only having to go to school will be like a free vacation. It is, in some ways, but it is a miserable, horrible vacation where you get 3rd degree sunburns and are stung by a Portuguese Man-o-war and attacked by sharks and left for dead on the side of the beach. Related: DO NOT go into debt unless you have a wealthy-ish family you can depend on to bail you out. There is a very good chance that somewhere along the pipeline you will leave philosophy.

Second, in addition to getting into a good terminal MA program, there are two other things that will help this kind of student. One is the aforementioned “try to audit/sit in on grad seminars somewhere”. If you have enough flexibility to move to a place (Boston, NYC, Chicago, LA, SF, etc.) where there are multiple good grad programs, and can find a job that will allow you to attend even one or two seminars a semester, do it. People are going to get mad that I’m suggesting this, because no one wants a bunch of random undergrads who may or may not be “good at” philosophy clogging up their seminars. The solution is just to be extra careful about your role as a participant. There are stupid questions. Don’t talk a lot. Don’t monopolize the professor’s time. etc., etc. But do try to forge a relationship with faculty who might then be willing to help you. (Also be open to deciding that grad school is in fact not for you!) The second is to attend one of the summer programs for philosophy undergrads. To my knowledge, these exist at Brown, Rutgers, UCSD, Colorado, Carnegie Mellon, MCMP (Munich), PIKSI (which I believe this year is both at Penn State and somewhere in Boston, but I’m not sure if that will be true next year) this year one at UMass-Lowell, and so on. Note that some of these are restricted to various underrepresented groups in philosophy, but some of them include, e.g., the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Many of them are free. Some of them even also give you a stipend. I am sure there are more.

Third, if you do go directly to a PhD program, do everything in your power to get allocated the same resources as everyone else. This sounds easier than it is. While my program may have been a bit extreme in this respect, resources like faculty attention, extra funding for various things, fancy fellowships, opportunities for exchange with other schools, opportunities to travel to conferences with one’s advisor, etc. were allocated mostly based on some combination of which students the faculty thought were “glowy”, and smart enough to deserve them (exclusively the students who were already professionalized/”seemed smart” because they had been trained in R1 and prestigious SLAC environments, some having gone to prep schools and private schools before that), and which students were persistent in asking for/making cases for being supported in these ways. (There also tended to be a lot of overlap between those two categories, unsurprisingly.) They are not at all distributed fairly or, as far as I can tell, according to actual philosophical quality, promise, hard work, or anything like that.

If you are like me, no matter what you do, there is no way to get into the first category. But in retrospect I should have pushed much harder to be in the second category. It is a thing that most students who go to undergrad at schools like mine, and who are products of huge, glaringly bad public K-12 school systems, have no idea how to do–advocate for yourself. But it will make a huge difference in grad school if you just force yourself to do it. Request as many meetings with faculty as you want. Don’t be hesitant about the requests or give them a way out. Same with asking them to read stuff. Speak up in seminars. Put together proposals for things you want to do and ask the faculty how they can help you find money or resources to do them. Make cases for getting extra funding for travel. Lose all worry of seeming presumptuous or too demanding or asking for too much. Try to model yourself on your classmates who, while they may seem morally corrupt/repulsive/to lack any virtues whatsoever, will indeed have a better, easier time in grad school, and will indeed get better jobs than you do (if you get any job at all, which is unlikely). Become entitled. It is the only way to succeed, except by extreme fluke, which is all I can say about my case, because I didn’t manage to internalize this advice even though I could see that it was true.

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GhostOfRejectionsPast
GhostOfRejectionsPast
Reply to  take or leave this advice
5 years ago

Ah! First things first, anyone who can care for a child while finishing a PhD and going on the market is the type of person we need more of.

So yeah, stand up for yourself, but I think we’re all better off when we act like this person than their jerky classmates.

You know, cooperate in the prisoner’s dilemma.

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Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

I understand the desire for general principles and explanations, but very few exist. Admittance decisions are extremely idiosyncratic. (So Louie’s point 1 is key.) Some departments care a lot about GPAs; some think inflation renders them meaningless, or don’t care whether you got a C in your science courses before you discovered philosophy. Some departments rest a lot on GREs; some think they primarily measure your socioeconomic background (or don’t ask for them at all). Some put a lot on the writing samples; some think writing samples are likely to be heavily coached by professors. And in fact, I oversimplify by talking about what ‘departments’ want—admissions committees are made up of individuals (different ones each year in many departments), and each individual is going to emphasize different things differently.

I know this isn’t encouraging to hear, but I think it’s the honest picture. The only general advice is, make each element as strong as you can—by the time you’re applying to grad schools, I think the writing sample is usually the element that will best reward you for time and effort spent improving it—and apply to a lot of departments if there’s a wide variety of places you’d be willing to go.Report

Alastair Norcross
5 years ago

I’ve been on admissions committees at two places (Rice and Colorado). At both places, for pretty much every member of the committees I served with, the writing sample was the most important element of an application. The importance of GRE scores varied wildly, depending on who was doing the evaluating. For pretty much everyone, though, a really low GRE score pretty much disqualified an applicant. This isn’t just because we all thought that someone with really low GRE scores wouldn’t succeed, but also because GRE scores matter to people like deans, who get to evaluate our entering graduate classes. They also play a significant role in getting university-wide graduate fellowships, which can often be used to supplement whatever the department can regularly offer. If it were up to me, I’d do away entirely with the analytic writing section of the GRE. There’s a lot of evidence that the score is based on length. Besides, the applicant submits a writing sample, which is a much better indicator of ability to write philosophy than the analytic writing component. When I took the GRE, back in the middle ages, there was an analytic reasoning section, which was pretty much all logic puzzles. That was actually relevant to philosophical ability (at least broadly speaking). I’ve no idea why it was replaced with the analytic writing section. As for GPA, I don’t remember that figuring largely in anyone’s evaluations. Demonstration of fit, in the statement of purpose, is certainly important. At the very least, make sure that you don’t tell, say, Arizona or UMass that you think they are the perfect place for you to pursue your passion for Heidegger, or Harvard that you’d just love to write your definite defense of utilitarianism under the supervision of Chris Korsgaard and Tim Scanlon.Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
5 years ago

That should, of course, be “definitive” defense of utilitarianism. Still, a definite defense is better than a vague one.Report