Philosophy Grad Program Applicants’ Thoughts about the Application Process (guest post)

An informal survey of applicants to philosophy graduate programs, conducted in the Philosophy Graduate Applicants Facebook, Grad Cafe, and elsewhere online, provides some information about the choices of applicants and their thoughts about the application process.

In the following guest post*, Linds Whittaker (University of Washington) summarizes the results of the survey. A full report of the results is here.

[Sarah Morris, “Deviancy is the Essence” (detail)]

Applicant Behavior, Responses, and Perceptions of Barriers: A Summary of Some Results from the Philosophy Applicants Survey
by Linds Whitaker 

In an earlier Daily Nous post and subsequent Twitter posts including by Boston University’s Daniel Star, at least thirteen departments noted they were seeing an increase in applications to their graduate programs. Within that post and on a few other platforms including The Philosophers’ Cocoon folks posited a number of explanations for the evident increase including applicants applying to more programs than in past years and the removal of the GRE from a clear majority of departments among other explanations. While it may be difficult to gauge the respective weights of the various contributing factors, some of them are testable to an extent. That is, they are the sorts of things we can ask applicants about in order to track behaviors, beliefs, and responses to elements such as the removal of the GRE requirement.

This application cycle, the 1000-person Philosophy Graduate Applicant Facebook group decided to ask applicants these questions and ran an ad hoc “Philosophy Applicants Survey” to gather information about how many programs applicants were applying to, whether folks responded to the removal of the GRE as a requirement, and to learn more about extant barriers within the application process. After running the survey for approximately two months we received just over 170 independent submissions and 200 independent data points. (Respondents were able to report up to two application cycles with a single submission. 30 respondents reported a past application cycle with their submission bringing the survey to 170 primary reports, 30 secondary reports, and 200 total data points.)

While we primarily circulated the survey and subsequent summary on Facebook, we feel that the information is important to share with folks outside of the group and that the qualitative responses concerning barriers in the process may be especially pertinent for admissions committees and departments. To that end, this post summarizes the main findings from the survey. For those interested in the full results, the full report can be found here and the raw quantitative data is available here. Quartiles, ranges, and other information such as current degree status at the time of applying (currently completing a Bachelor’s degree, completed a Bachelor’s degree, currently completing a Master’s degree, etc.) along with the number of non-philosophy programs folks applied to are all included in the full report.

NUMBER OF PROGRAMS (2020-2021 Application Cycle)

For our survey, the majority of the respondents (N=143) reported that they were applying to programs this application cycle. From these 143 entries, we found that most respondents applied to only PhD programs (57%) followed by those who applied to both MA and PhD programs (37%). The remaining 6% reported applying to only MA programs.

For those applying to only PhD programs, folks applied to 13.34 programs on average (median of 12). For those applying to only MA programs, folks applied to 6.38 programs on average (median of 5.5). Those applying to both MA and PhD programs appear to apply to the most programs overall on average. While they applied to slightly fewer PhD programs on average than those applying to only PhD programs (mean of 12, median of 10) and to slightly fewer MA programs on average than those applying to only MA programs (mean of 3.42, median of 2), when we looked at the total number of programs for this group we found that they typically applied to 15.47 programs overall (median of 14). Notably, all but 4 of the folks applying to both MA and PhD programs applied to more PhD programs than MA programs (~8 more PhD programs than MA programs on average).

2020-2021 N Respondents Mean # Programs Median # Programs
PhD Only 82 13.34 12.00
MA Only 8 6.38 5.50
Both PhD 53 12.06 10.00
Both MA 53 3.42 2.00
Both Overall 53 15.47 14.00
PhD Total 135 12.84 12.00
MA Total 61 3.80 3.00
OVERALL 143 Respondents

While this application cycle was the most represented in the survey, there are still limitations in what we can conclude. Specifically, it seems unlikely that the N=143 respondents are a representative sample. When PhD programs like Rutgers are reporting upwards of 400 applications alone and MA programs like Tufts are receiving over 200 applications, it is clear that we are missing a good chunk of this year’s applicant pool and are plausibly below the threshold that would be necessary for a high confidence interval and low margin of error.

Overall Statistics and Future Opportunities

While we do not have sufficient data from past cycles to show a statistical increase in the average number of programs applicants are applying to, we still wanted to share a table illustrating the distribution of our data across the various application cycles and the respective means/medians. For previous cycles we received 57 total data points from primary and secondary reports with 28 reports for last year’s application cycle. While it appears that applicants this year may have applied to slightly more programs on average than in past cycles, we would need more responses from this cycle and past cycles to say that with any certainty.

What this may illustrate, however, is that it is possible to gather information for current cycles and start building a data set we can use for future analysis. Applicants are, to some extent, willing to share information about the number of programs they are applying to. If we intentionally open up spaces for them to share this information, we may be able to build a sufficient data set moving forward and be better situated to track whether applicants are applying to more schools on average in future application cycles.  

Mean/Median Pre-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020 2020-2021 Overall
PhD Only 15.50/15.50 6.00/6.00 11.10/9.00 10.68/12.00 13.34/13.00 13.00/12.00
MA Only 0.0/0.0 5.50/5.50 1.00/1.00 8.00/8.50 6.38/5.50 6.44/5.00
Both PhD 5.67/6.00 11.00/11.00 9.00/8.00 12.20/12.00 12.06/10.00 11.87/10.00
Both MA 3.33/3.00 3.00/3.00 1.88/1.50 2.40/2.00 3.42/2.00 3.23/2.00
Both Overall 9/9 14/14 10.88/10 14.6/15 15.47/14 14.59/14
PhD Total 9.60/7.00 7.67/7.00 10.17/8.50 11.00/12.00 12.84/12.00 12.57/12.00
MA Total 3.33/3.00 4.67/3.00 1.78/1.00 4.89/3.00 3.80/3.00 3.64/3.00
N =  5 5 19 28 143 200


This year a number of departments removed the GRE as a requirement. More specifically, by December 2020 only 19 of the 118 PhD granting institutions (~16%) and 17 of the 107 MA granting institutions (~16%) listed on the Philosophy Admissions Spreadsheet as accepting applications required the GRE. In contrast, for the 2019-2020 cycle 84 of the 111 PhD granting institutions (~76%) and 24 of the 40 MA granting institutions (~60%) listed on the spreadsheet required the GRE. While we may not be able to compare the percentages for the MA programs due to the increase in surveyed and included programs, the decrease in PhD programs requiring the GRE is evident from the available data. Given this shift, a live question is whether the removal of the GRE influenced applicants as they applied to programs this application cycle.

While sample size is clearly a delimiting factor, our survey found the following. With respect to the removal of the GRE requirement, a soft majority of respondents for this cycle indicated that they applied to at least one program based on the program removing the GRE as a requirement (N=81, 56.64%). For what limited data we have, it appears that the removal of the GRE requirement had some impact on applicant decision making and that the impact may be more pronounced than in past application cycles. However, given limited data from past cycles and the fact that so few departments in past cycles did not require the GRE it may be difficult to compare cross-cycle responses to the removal of the GRE requirement.

GRE Requirement Comparison Chart:

N/% Pre-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020 2020-2021 Overall
Yes 0/0% 0/0% 3/18.75% 81/56.64% 84/49.41%
No 1/100% 10/100% 13/81.25% 62/43.36% 86/50.59%
N =  1 10 16 143 170

While we can make some assertions, the extent of the actual impact is complicated. This year a significant number of departments removed the requirement due to external factors and the impact of the pandemic. This plausibly includes schools that some applicants may view as “reach” schools or schools where the removal of the GRE requirement was a very significant difference for applicants. As such, when we ask whether the removal of the GRE requirement influenced applicant decision making, a more nuanced question is whether it is the removal of the GRE itself that influenced applicant decision making or the removal of the GRE at specific schools which influenced applicant decision making.

While the actual answer is plausibly somewhere in between, with so many programs shifting away from a GRE requirement, it is difficult to determine what the balance may be. Moreover, our question was not coded to determine how many or which programs applicants applied to based on the removal of the GRE. If more departments return to requiring the GRE next cycle, there may be an opportunity to revisit this question, gain a better grasp on what the actual impact is for applicants, and ascertain how and when the removal of the GRE influences applicant behavior.


The final portion of our survey concerned potential barriers in the application process. For this section we included both quantitative and qualitative questions in order to track whether respondents encountered any known barriers and to allow respondents to share barriers that were salient from their experience as applicants.

Overall, we found that only 26% of respondents reported that they encountered no barriers while applying. For the other 74% of applicants, they reported encountering a number of different barriers while applying, with the most common barriers being the cost of application fees (41%) and unclear transcript requirements (26%). Both of these are well known barriers. However, folks indicated a variety of barriers overall.

Encountered and Perceived Barriers Comparison Chart:

N/% Pre-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020 2020-2021 Overall
Insufficient information for international student applicants/the different requirements for international students 0/0 2/20 1/6.25 33/23.08 36/21.18
Application fee was too high for me to apply 0/0 3/30 6/37.5 61/42.66 70/41.18
Required an official GRE score report (which I couldn’t afford) 0/0 1/10 4/25 28/19.58 33/19.41
Requirement for official transcripts cost too much to apply to some schools 0/0 0/0 0/0 13/9.09 13/7.65
Unclear deadline from the school 0/0 0/0 0/0 16/11.19 16/9.41
Unclear information about funding (From MA programs) 0/0 1/10 3/18.75 22/15.38 26/15.29
Unclear information about funding (From PhD programs) 1/100 4/40 3/18.75 33/23.08 41/24.12
Unclear letters of recommendation system/requirements 1/100 2/20 1/6.25 25/17.48 29/17.06
Unclear transcript requirements on the website 0/0 1/10 3/18.75 40/27.97 44/25.88
N/A 0/0 4/40 6/37.5 34/23.78 44/25.88
N= 1 10 16 143 170

The above chart represents the quantitative responses to a given set of known barriers. In addition to the quantitative responses, there were a number of important qualitative responses that seem salient for admissions committees and departments to consider. While the full report goes into more detail, we can divide the qualitative responses into five general categories (a sixth miscellaneous category is in the full report):

  1. Application Platform and Forms: applicants were curious about whether a standardized application platform, such as ApplyWeb for applications and Interfolio for transcripts, would be possible. They also noted that several of the forms currently used pose problems for graduate students with non-traditional histories, who are located outside of the United States/Canada/Europe, and/or with certain identities.
  2. Communication and Transparency: applicants requested more transparency about whether professors are currently accepting more students, whether departments are looking for specific AOIs in a given cycle, limitations for admitting international/non-domestic applicants, and any reductions in admissions.
  3. Fees and Testing: applicants would appreciate more accessible information about fee waivers, the inclusion of more folks for fee waivers including non-domestic students, allowing self-reports for the GRE and/or TOEFL scores, etc.
  4. Funding/Scholarship Elements: applicants were looking for more transparency about how much funding is available to applicants (especially for MA programs), explicit explanations about how the funding works for those who are unfamiliar with various funding systems, and explanations of any extant scholarship opportunities.
  5. Decisions/Statistics: in general, applicants were looking for quicker decision notifications to some extent (e.g., sending out rejections as soon as they are known), letting applicants know when they will typically hear back about their application status, reaching out to folks still under consideration if/when initial rejections and acceptances have been sent out, being transparent about general statistics (how many applications a department typically receives, how many acceptances are usually offered, how long the waitlist is/if there is a waitlist, the type of waitlist with respect to being ranked/unranked/by area, the typical size of the incoming class, etc.), and furnishing comments to applicants who are rejected (if possible).

While the above categories contain a several different elements, a number of the qualitative responses share the common feature of asking departments to be transparent about their department policies, their application practices, and the elements that they have no control over as a department. While it is clear that many elements are under the purview of departments—such as having clear deadlines, transcript requirements (e.g., “official” can be vague as it is used to indicate both “official hardcopies” and “a scan of an official transcript” depending on the school), and GRE requirements (e.g., “not required” can be vague as it is used to indicate both an optional GRE requirement and a “we are not accepting the GRE at all” requirement for different schools)—there are going to be elements that are beyond the control of departments. Things that may be beyond the control of a department can include fee waiver requirements, restrictions in admissions that occur after the application deadline, limitations on when departments can send out rejections, etc. For applicants, however, a number of these elements may initially appear to be under the control of departments and given the variety of practices across institutions it is understandable that applicants will not always know how all the elements work.

When the policies themselves are beyond the control of departments (though obviously some departments have more control than others), what is in the department’s control is what they do in response to these elements and restrictions. That is, departments can work to be transparent about what they have control over and what is beyond their control. Doing so can help offset discontent amongst applicants, contribute to a better understanding of how the administrative chaos works, and illustrate a commitment to helping applicants make informed decisions when applying to graduate programs in philosophy.


On our end, we plan to continue this conversation in the applicant, recent applicant, and general graduate student spaces as we support one another through the application process and learn more about these processes for future cycles. While this survey is limited in what it is able to prove, we believe it illustrates that it is possible to gather this type of information in the project of learning more about applicant behavior, responses, and experiences. This information in turn can aid us as we continue to make the application processes more accessible for future cycles.

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Alex Bryant
Alex Bryant
3 years ago

This is a great contribution to our understanding of the barriers facing Philosophy applicants Linds, thanks so much for your work on this and to others involved. I hope this report will garner enough momentum to carry on the project into the future–I would happy to contribute if there is a need.

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
3 years ago

In his 2015 Dialogues on Disability interview, Metis disabled philosophy graduate student Ray Aldred talked about some of the ways in which the GRE is inaccessible and his experiences of inaccessibility with respect to graduate school in general. Ray’s interview with me is here:

Bill Vanderburgh
3 years ago

What do we think is the “right” number of schools to apply to? 13 seems like too many, especially given costs. Or put it this way: If you were advising a prospective graduate student about how many applications to make, and how to target them, what would you say?

It would be interesting, too, to find out how choices of where to apply were made: was it subject fit, a particular professor as potential advisor, department specializations, acceptance rates, likelihood of funding if accepted, geography, some strategy about longshots and fallback schools, etc.?

Linds Whittaker
Linds Whittaker
Reply to  Bill Vanderburgh
3 years ago

Part 2 of the survey will be asking some of these questions 🙂 We’re planning to ask folks about their results to see whether more applications leads to better outcomes (some folks applied to upwards of 30 programs), the considerations folks make when applying to programs/when deciding which offers to accept/decline, and how much folks spent on application fees given that it was the most common barrier. That won’t be rolling out until the beginning of April though.