Have Philosophy PhD Programs Received More Applications for 2021?


Recently, an undergraduate applying to Ph.D. programs in philosophy wrote with an anxious query about a possible increase in the number of people doing so this year, in comparison to previous years.

He was prompted to do so by a tweet from Kevin Zollman, professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), who noted a 40-60% increase in applications (“depending on the benchmark”).

[Detail of paper scroll sculpture by Hadieh Shafie]

Has there been an increase across the board, or just at CMU and a few other places? And either way, what explains the increase?

I asked a few departments about whether they’ve seen an increase. Below is what I learned. Note that the percentages are rough estimates and the comparisons are to last year’s numbers.

  • University of British Columbia: 25% increase
  • Florida State: 15% increase
  • Georgia State: 20% increase
  • Harvard: 45-50% increase*
  • Johns Hopkins: 40-45% increase
  • MIT: 50% increase
  • North Carolina: 30% increase
  • Princeton: 50% increase
  • Vanderbilt: no significant change yet (deadline is 1/15/21)
  • Texas A&M: 30% increase
  • University of Washington: 30% increase
  • Washington University in St. Louis: 45% increase
  • Yale: 55-60% increase

This isn’t a particularly large sample. Faculty from other departments are welcome to send in their information or mention it in the comments, and I’ll update the above list as I can.

Supposing there is an increase in applications to many philosophy departments, what explains it? Here are some possible contributing factors:

  1. Some departments are not accepting any applicants this year, or are not offering any funding for incoming graduate students, owing to pandemic-related budgetary concerns, pushing more applicants towards those that are. For example, the University of Pensylvania Department of Philosophy is not able to offer funding to new graduate students for the coming year (as per a college-wide policy) and as a result, I’m told, saw a 90% decrease in applications; many of those students who scratched Penn from their list of schools to apply to probably substituted another program.
  2. Economic downturns are correlated with increased applications to graduate school. With the service industry particularly hard hit by the pandemic, its younger work-force may be especially pinched, sending more people towards graduate school—and not just in philosophy.
  3. Some specific departments may be seeing an increase owing to their elimination of the GRE as a required part of their application process.
  4. Over the past several years we’ve seen an increase in popular awareness of philosophy, owing to explicitly philosophical television shows, public philosophy programs and events, outreach programs, podcasts, public-facing philosophy writing, etc., which may have led to more people being interested in studying philosophy.
  5. There has been a slight increase over the past few years in the total number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in philosophy.
  6. As social media use by philosophers grows, graduate school applicants, who skew younger and so constitute a large plurality of social media users, may be influenced in their decisions about where to apply by the social media activity of philosophers. I don’t think it is far-fetched that a department may see an increase in applicants if someone popular or well-liked on social media is associated with it.
  7. Advertising may increase awareness of a philosophy program and in turn increase its applications. The University of Georgia Department of Philosophy, for example, started advertising at Daily Nous in 2019 and has seen a roughly 70% increase in applicants compared to two years ago (they’ve advertised elsewhere, too). Of course, it’s hard to determine the extent to which the advertising is responsible for this.

Discussion, including other possible explanations, welcome.

* This is a revision of the estimated increase at Harvard. The original number appears to have been an error.

UPDATE: Another possible explanation.

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