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”

guest
25 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Murphy
Mark Murphy
3 years ago

I hope this student will re-think. In admissions at my program the weight carried by letters of recommendation is really minimal, used more to get an overall sense of the candidate’s interests and to provide any major red flags rather than for any more subtle evaluative purposes. There are lots of big-shot professors who one might think have a lot of pull but whose well-earned reputations as bullshit peddlers have made their letters of recommendation worthless. And some of the best and most helpful letters I’ve read have been from faculty members who I had never encountered before but who were able to write detailed, informative letters. Please, student, don’t be discouraged by your professors’ false view of how graduate admissions works.Report

DIH
DIH
Reply to  Mark Murphy
3 years ago

This is a small point, and I suspect that I may be misreading your comment, but I think dismissing a letter of recommendation because the professor is a famous “BS peddler” is just as unfair as dismissing one because the professor is somewhat obscure.

Undergrads don’t know what professors’ academic reputations are. Nor do they have many choices about what professors to study with, to ask for letters, etc.

Frankly, there is virtually no circumstance I can think of in which any characteristic of the letter writer is relevant for the purposes of an admissions committee decision.

Why not require letters to be anonymous? How can knowing the identity of the writer improve the ability of the admissions committee to make a fair judgment?

(I can think of some reasons why this proposal might be too strong, but I’m curious how others react)Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  DIH
3 years ago

I can think of conditions under which knowing the identity of the letter writer would be important for making a fair decision. There are two students, A and B, equal in every way according to the application materials, except that A’s letter writer’s qualifications for evaluating the A’s work in the relevant field far exceeds B’s letter writer’s qualifications for evaluating B’s work in the relevant field. Deciding to choose A given the relevant information about the qualifications of the writer is a fair decision that could not be made without knowing the identity’s of the letter writers.

This is also a reason (though not a very strong reason) against requiring anonymity of letter writers. The important question is whether this and other reasons against anonymity outweigh the reasons in favor of it. Plausibly, one reason for anonymity is that it is (probably) *too often* used to weed out those who don’t have the “right pedigree.” This is problematic and unfair, I think.Report

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
Reply to  DIH
3 years ago

One reason to not want anonymous letters is that admissions committees can make use of the track record (when there is one) of letters written by faculty for past students in assessing and weighing the current letter for the current student.
Some of us have been doing admissions for quite a few years.Report

DIH
DIH
Reply to  Fritz Warfield
3 years ago

Yes fair enough.

A Professor writes a letter of recommendation about the student. We want to know how to interpret this letter of recommendation. Knowing some facts about the letter writer can help us do that. So for instance, knowing that the letter writer is an academic philosopher and therefore has some sense of the norms/practices/culture that govern academic philosophy might be useful in gauging whether the letter writer is in a position to know whether this student will thrive in that environment.

Similarly, knowing that a letter writer systematically exaggerates/underrates their applicants can also be helpful as some kind of weight (either to scale up or down) the assessment of the candidate.

So let’s say I’m convinced that more information [about the writer] gives us more information about the applicant. The question I’m asking is what the fair way to process this information might be.

Let’s say that the student gets a stellar review from someone who isn’t an academic philosopher. Is that a major blow against the student? Does that (dangerously) introduce a weighty bias against students from schools with small philosophy departments? Students who switched to philosophy fairly late? Students who don’t understand the bizarro world of academic philosophy and therefore don’t understand that some people teaching philosophy courses don’t count (to many) as philosophers?

I think a good answer to all this is to say: Given the huge number of applicants we have, judgments of fairness can only take us so far. We need to be confident that a student we admit can succeed in our department. That requires MORE information about the student. Type I v. Type II error and all that. And this requires us to privilege some applications in virtue of letter of rec quality that the candidate is in no position to control.

Fair enough. But the worry is still that this sort of attitude toward admissions introduces substantial bias in the sorts of people becoming philosophersReport

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  DIH
3 years ago

Many at top departments will say: yes, of course, there is substantial bias in admissions of this sort, but it is a completely appropriate sort of bias. The justification for this will likely be: we should produce philosophers of the highest caliber, and this sort of bias contributes to increasing the likelihood of doing just that.Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I don’t know whether graduate admissions programs operate with any sort of geographic diversity principles in hand, but several of my students — and students of other faculty here — have managed to get into very good graduate programs, even a few into the very top institutions. It certainly is doable if not perhaps “high percentage.”

But I also don’t accept the idea that you have to go to a top program to get a job as a philosophy professor. Apropos the other post and discussion, it really does come down to what kind of job you want. At my school, we have tended not to hire the super pedigreed in favor of those who demonstrate breadth and have substantial teaching experience. And though in the early years I pined for a shiny, Leiterrific job, in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t get one. I have ten times the freedom as a scholar and teacher where I am than I would have had at a pedigree institution.Report

Lawrence Hatab
Lawrence Hatab
3 years ago

As far as defeatism is concerned, although it was put too strongly, students from less top-tier institutions should be advised about the difficulties. With a large number of applicants, the reputation of a school will figure in decisions when there are comparably strong recommendations and records. However, if the student is right that the professors would not support an application on the grounds described, that is unconscionable.Report

Marcus Arvan
3 years ago

No doubt some students from less-prestigious undergrad institutions get into top programs. However, these professors’ cynicism about how difficult it may be for their student to get into top programs appears to have some real basis in fact (see http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2011/10/sorry-cal-state-students-no-princeton.html ).

In any case, I agree with Justin that faculty advising student applicants should let admissions committees do the rejecting, and not dissuade students from applying top programs (sometimes long-shots work out!). However, I do think we owe it to our students to give them a realistic picture of what their chances are, in part so that they can make more informed decisions about how broadly to apply.Report

Grad student
Grad student
3 years ago

My undergraduate school was smaller than my high school (<3000 students) and had 3 philosophy professors. I went to a well regarded MA program in philosophy and am now in a very good PhD program. I had friends who went directly from our undergraduate school to a good PhD program. I find the defeatist attitude expressed to this student very unfair and unnecessarily discouraging.Report

sg
sg
3 years ago

Setting aside the question about how best to support a student applying to grad school and how best to warn the student about the miserable aspects of the field and the job market and focusing instead on the idea that the student’s impressions of the low likelihood of getting into a prestigious grad program when coming out of a non-prestigious undergrad institution reveal “an overly cynical view of graduate admissions”:

The student’s view of the likelihood of getting into a “top” grad program doesn’t seem overly cynical at all to me.

Also, we should be wary of holding up individual cases of people who came out of a non-prestigious undergrad program and got into such-and-such a grad program and went on to have such-and-such an illustrious academic career. There is a class system in place in professional academic philosophy, and individual Horatio-Alger-type stories function to justify to class structures in professional academia just as much as they do with regard to socio-economic class structures more broadly.Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
3 years ago

Just repeating the standard advice to these sorts of students: They should include some MA programs in their list of applications, and in my opinion, they should apply to (and go to) only ones that provide funding (at a minimum, do not require payment for tuition) and have good placement records into PhD programs. I am biased (as chair of Georgia State University’s dept of philosophy), but I think we offer a good option for such students, along with several other really strong terminal MA programs with funding. And I also think such programs provide a service of allowing students to get a better sense of whether they want to spend 5+ years getting a PhD in philosophy and go into academia, and providing some good skills for other careers, should they choose not to go into academia (a route, we should all reiterate often, is *not* to seen or described as a failing in any way, but one that may feel less so if it comes after two years of MA instead of 3+ years of ABD time).Report

Thinker
Thinker
3 years ago

Two things:

1) I think the student may be a bit paranoid/over-sensitive. To think “my professors don’t approve of these schools I want to apply to and so they might write letters that are weaker than they would otherwise be” is, I think, an example of the, if I may, culture of worry plaguing (mainly, though by no means exclusively) students in the academy. Justin’s advice was good — to also apply to schools his professors favor and that it’s highly unlikely they’d write different letters for the other programs — but I think at some level it’s also got to be said to students, “You’re reading into and freaking out about this way too much — relax.” It definitely isn’t healthy to worry as much as many students do on a consistent basis about more or less unlikely possibilities and trivial matters.

2) It might also be a good idea for everyone to be a bit less cynical in general. I know of a state school with no philosophy graduate program and little academic reputation — known much more for its partying — that, in one year, sent all of its students who applied to graduate programs (4 total) to esteemed programs. One went to a PGR top 10 program (arguably the very top program for her AOS), two others went to programs ranked in the top 25-30 range, and the fourth student went to a well-respected MA program and ended up in a PGR-ranked program (ranked lower than the others, but again one of the very top-ranked for the particular student’s AOS).

In short, I think everyone just needs to relax a little bit.Report

Jennifer Morton
Jennifer Morton
3 years ago

I confess that I have shared a somewhat cynical attitude about admissions with some of our undergraduates who are interested in graduate school. But I have done it with an eye towards discussing strategies to overcome being potentially overlooked because they are coming from a less prestigious undergraduate institution. For example, I have suggested that students sit in on a graduate level class at some of the well-regarded graduate programs in our area and try to get a letter from a professor there. (Granted, this is not easy to do outside of a handful of cities in the US.) I have encouraged them to apply to summer programs where they can also interact with and get letters from professors at other institutions. I have stressed the importance of the writing sample and GRE scores and even suggested to some students that they take a year off to make sure that their application is ‘perfect’. And, of course, I have encouraged all of them to consider good MA programs. I think cynicism about graduate admission need to not be defeatist.Report

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

While I understand the desire to section off this individual issue and discuss it in a sort of vacuum, I don’t think this discussion should be had *at all* unless it remains firmly connected to the realities of the job market. What if the sentence “but two of these non-shiny students got into 25-30th-ranked programs” can be fairly translated to: “statistically speaking, one of these two people probably will be unemployed in 4-7 years, having spent some of the best years of their youth making stipend wages so that their tenured professors don’t have to grade papers”? That’s one of the “success stories” we’re looking for?Report

Paul Prescott
Paul Prescott
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

In this context, it’s worth pointing out that there are programs in the 25-35th range which currently have *stellar* placement records. One need look no further than Syracuse, for example.Report

Will Behu
Will Behu
3 years ago

I’m not sure it’s possible to be sufficiently cynical about grad school admissions, or the job market, or the profession. I’m trying, though.Report

Nightjar
Nightjar
3 years ago

I am a recent MA who will be applying to PhD programs in the fall. I’ve been told/asked the following by various advisors in reference to various PhD programs:

“We can put you there.”
“We can place you there.”
“That is a long shot.”
“How many kids do you have?… Oh, then you could probably do it.”
“We’ve placed some students there before.”
“But there are no [philosophers of the type the advisor identifies with] there.”
“You’d be alone.”
“Since your child/children will be X years old by then, that will be fine.”

These are advisors who in general are very supportive of me (e.g., nominating me for an award, hiring me for research projects, etc.). I think in making these comments they’re trying to be practical, that is they want to paint a realistic picture for me of what I can expect. At the same time, these comments also imply that the advisors accept (rather than resist) the inequities they see in the process. Not that they could, singlehandedly, resist them.

It’s the system that is broken, but it seems that if you don’t play by its broken rules then very likely you can’t play at all. This requires systemic change. The problem the student mentioned is very real and goes much deeper that this specific problem. Power dynamics between students and advisors are very real, and since students are dependent on their advisors for letters, etc., they don’t speak about the inequities, except amongst themselves.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
3 years ago

Applications cost a LOT of money. Apply to the wrong schools and you can end up getting in nowhere, even if you are qualified and seemingly a good fit. The professors you would work with could be leaving, or not taking students, or there could just be a bunch of wacky people on the committee that year. Being near the top of your class at a no-name school is no guarantee. It’s a bit of a crapshoot and connections are huge. It sounds to me that the profs were simply trying to maximize the student’s prospects. As far as we were told they weren’t refusing to write the student letters for these places. My suspicion given what we are told is that the problem is a mix of cynicism on the part of the profs and the fact that the student was a bit of an overachiever who was hurt by the suggestion that he probably wasn’t going to get into the very best programs.

My suggestion to that student is to apply to terminal MA programs where the profs have the connections that he wants.Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
3 years ago

It is a mistake to conclude on the mere basis of the information mentioned, that the professors acted poorly. We’ll all agree, I think, that comparisons with other students are made in letters of recommendation. And we’ll also agree, I think, that such comparisons can have great force at some institutions (e.g., non-prestigious ones) while having almost no force at others (e.g., Princeton). The professors are in the best position to know how much force their comparisons in their letters of recommendation will have at the institutions to which the student is thinking of applying. Isn’t it likely that this had a role in the advice the professors gave the student? Why should we think otherwise? Without some good reasons for thinking otherwise, it is a mistake to think that the professors acted poorly. For similar reasons, it is also a mistake to think that their thinking operates on an overly cynical view of graduate admissions.Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Thanks for the response. I agree that the student’s story is worth sharing for the reasons you mentioned. Even so, it is always a good idea to be careful about how we think about particular cases, and about what conclusions we draw from them. This is why I commented.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
3 years ago

To quote the great philosopher Donald Trump Jr., this issue seems like a nothingburger. Professors should dissuade their students from graduate no matter what the circumstances: graduate school is a huge opportunity, the job market is terrible, academic labor is adjunctified like crazy and shows no sign of slowing down, tenure is under threat, etc etc etc.

I find that most undergraduate that approach my about graduate school (I write several letters every year) don’t know the first thing about what graduate school or professional philosophy is like. In the spirit of making things clear to them, I try to explain what ranks are, what adjuncts are, what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy, why the job market sucks, why they might not be able to get the kind of job they want, how philosophical research is so very very different than their undergraduate papers, why their interest in continental philosophy might restrict not only which graduate programs will accept them but further limit the already small number of places they might find work.

Cynical? Maybe. I can see how a few students might read it this way (especially those that I think might not be a good fit for graduate school in the first place) but I’m going to keep doing it because I think it’s the right thing to do.Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
3 years ago

Many philosophy departments with graduate programs have a page with bios of their graduate students. Many graduate student bios list students’ undergraduate institutions. If you’re thinking of applying to a school, go to their website and check out where their students matriculated from. You may be surprised, for instance, that many top 25 philosophy PhD programs have a lot of students from schools you’ve never heard of.Report