Should Philosophy Grad Programs Interview Applicants?


Recent updates posted at the Grad Cafe by prospective graduate students in philosophy have mentioned the scheduling of admissions interviews at certain departments. Not many departments, it seems, conduct interviews as part of the application practice, but some do. What’s the extent of this practice, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

Some philosophers were surprised to learn about applicant interviews for graduate programs in philosophy, and even wondered whether the reports of them were mistaken or confused. But such interviews do take place—at a couple of programs, at least.

One is the MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at the University of Cambridge, as it says on its “How to Apply” page:

Another is the philosophy PhD program at the University of Chicago. Jason Bridges, associate professor of philosophy and current admissions chair, replying to an email, says. “We’ve been experimenting in the last couple of years with interviews of our top candidates, originally prompted by a suggestion made at a division-wide meeting about admissions.” He describes their admissions process:

  1. Every file is read initially by at least two members of the admissions committee, in the majority of cases three or four. Probably about half of the files are cut at this stage
  2. The remaining files are then read by additional members of the committee, each file is subsequently discussed with the whole committee, and on this basis we reach a collective decision regarding what files to pass on to the third stage. We don’t have a quota for how many files to pass on, but typically it is two to three times the number of admission slots we have been given.
  3. At the third stage, we distribute writing samples, prepared for blind review, to the faculty at large. These are each read by up to five faculty members. The faculty evaluations of these writing samples are by far the most significant factor in our subsequent decision-making.
  4. The decision for an interview is made at this point, once the files have already been narrowed down based on the faculty’s evaluation of the written work. Interviewers are largely but not exclusively drawn from the six or so members of the admissions committee.
  5. The committee votes upon and subsequently makes its final proposal to the department as a whole. The department discusses, and votes.

He adds:

As far as I know, we have admitted everyone we decided to interview in the two times we have previously tried interviewing. So this shows both that our evaluation of the writing samples remains the decisive factor in our admissions process and that this experiment with interviewing has served so far to confirm our confidence in the weight that we place on the written work in helping us to identify the best candidates.

(Current applicants: Professor Bridges notes that their program is not yet finished with their admissions process.)

Rumors about the interviews included UC Irvine’s Department of Philosophy, but director of graduate studies Duncan Pritchard says they don’t generally do interviews. Irvine’s Logic and Philosophy of Science, however, does interview. James Weatherall, director of graduate studies in that department, writes:

As of a few years ago, both UCI’s Graduate Division and the School of Social Science (where our Department lives) have strongly encouraged Departments to interview applicants before admitting them into PhD programs. Grad Division actually requires interviews before applicants can be nominated for Campus-wide fellowships, including small “top-off” awards. Since we often nominate many students for those fellowships, over the past few years we have simply interviewed everyone we hope to admit.

The philosophy department at Johns Hopkins University, also mentioned in the Grad Cafe posts, relayed that it is conducting interviews. Department chair Steven Gross says, “We are only interviewing in Mind, Language and Logic this year, as a pilot that may be expanded into other areas in future years.” Leonard Lawlor of Penn State confirmed that their department conducts interviews of applicants and has done so since 2008 (currently video interviews, and before that, phone interviews).*

If your philosophy department has been or will be interviewing applicants to its graduate programs, please let us know in the comments.

It would be helpful if you could add an explanation for why your department is doing this. What are its advantages? Also, how many applicants do you tend to interview? How much weight do interviews tend to play in admissions decisions? What kinds of questions are asked? And are interviews structured and conducted with consistent questions across applicants?

Is this a practice more programs should adopt? What about observations about the low signal-to-noise ratio of (especially unstructured) interviews (for example) that has people questioning their value in contexts such as hiring? A discussion of these and related matters are welcome.

* This paragraph has been updated, since it was originally published, with information about the Logic and Philosophy of Science Department at UC Irvine and the Department of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins.

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Louis F. Cooper
4 months ago

Not to be a nuisance etc., but I’m sure what you meant to say is “a discussion of these and related matters *is* welcome.”Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
4 months ago

The following are welcome:
(1) A discussion of these [i.e., the topics discussed above]
(2) related mattersReport

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  David Wallace
4 months ago

I guess it could be read that way…Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
4 months ago

I was being facetious.Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  David Wallace
4 months ago

Presumably Justin meant to convey that a discussion of both these matters and/or related matters would be welcome, in which case the singular verb would be correct. Related matters would not be welcome in se—what would that mean?—but only as topics of the discussion mentioned. Hence “a discussion of [these and/or related matters] is welcome.”Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 months ago

We should interview people to check for subject-verb agreement. 🧐Report

Nick Wiltsher
4 months ago

In Sweden (and I think Norway) doctoral positions in all disciplines are essentially actual jobs, and so the hiring process is very similar to that typical of fixed-term positions. A structured interview is a standard part of that process. I think shortlists are generally three or four candidates.

(note that we don’t have “graduate programmes” in the American sense, and we don’t have a regular annual intake; hiring happens on an irregular schedule, depending in large part on when incumbents graduate)Report

Nick Wiltsher
Reply to  Nick Wiltsher
4 months ago

Apologies, I should have said: many disciplines, including philosophy. There are some departments at some universities that run something closer to an American-style grad programme (I think it’s common in economics).Report

Anco
Reply to  Nick Wiltsher
3 months ago

It’s similar in the Netherlands and Germany.Report

Matthew Fritz
4 months ago

University of Iowa’s PhD program interviewed me when I applied in 2016. I recall it being later in the calendar and I was ultimately not admitted, so my guess would be they use interviews for edge cases.Report

Ali Hasan
Reply to  Matthew Fritz
3 months ago

Hi Matthew. Just for the record, at U. of Iowa we did interviews for a couple of years, and we interviewed all candidates who made it into our initial list after looking through all the applications — between 15 to 20 candidates if I recall. For anyone interested, I will add some more details about our experience with interviews in a separate comment below.Report

Observer99
4 months ago

I know of a department that began interviews after admitting someone whose social practices caused everyone concern and significant discomfort. These practices weren’t discovered until the meet and greet weekend and by then an offer was already extended and couldn’t be revoked. My understanding has been that the interviews are just an opportunity to observe basic social etiquette and enthusiasm for the field and play minimal role in the decisions.Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Observer99
3 months ago

I recall an incident where someone on the waiting list, present at the prospectives weekend [aside: a bad practice], was removed therefrom after displaying some “you’re pretty smart for a chick” level misogyny towards another prospective. But this was after some drinks, so not the sort of thing that an interview would be likely to catch.Report

Zack Garrett
Reply to  SCM
3 months ago

Maybe instead of interviews grad programs should see how people act after some drinks. (Not a real proposal)Report

WiseGuy
4 months ago

Maybe they want to make philosophy a more beautiful profession:

https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1196/annals.1412.005Report

Last edited 4 months ago by WiseGuy
martin
3 months ago

cambridge phd for philosophy does interviews at least for popular supervisors such as rae langtonReport

Matt L
3 months ago

I’d be very curious to hear from programs (especially in the US, where people typically don’t apply to work with specific advisors) on why they use interviews and what they think is added. My impression is that there is good reason to think that, in many situations, interviews don’t add much, but primarily serve as an opportunity for people to exercise their prejudices, even if they don’t realize they are doing so. There’s also very little reason to think philosophers are immune from this. Perhaps interviews make sense in programs where people are applying to work with a specific advisor on a specific topic (as is, I believe, more common outside of the US, but not always the case there, either.) But, in the US I am skeptical that the benefit outweighs the danger, so would be interested to hear what the justification is.Report

Junior Scholar
3 months ago

When I applied to PhD programs in philosophy without a prior background in philosophy one program did interview me. I was accepted, though chose a different program in the end. In my case it was helpful insofar as the program was clearly interested in my application but recognized I didn’t technically meet their admissions criteria, and this could be risky for them and me, and so having a conversation allowed us both to address these concerns. It was not, however, an instance of a systematic and structured interview, though I am in favor of those.

Like others who have commented, my experience in graduate school was that every year at least one person was admitted who likely would not have been if the department interacted with them prior to the admitted students weekend. As others have said, PhD programs are jobs: you take coursework and do your own research, but you also generally have to teach or perform other job functions as part of earning your stipend. Some people may be brilliant thinkers and writers, but are unable to fulfill the professional expectations of the PhD program and this is going to make them less likely to succeed in the PhD program, and on the job market. There could be ways to creatively support such individuals to develop the emotional or professional maturity or skills necessary for these professional aspects of the field – but departments need to be equipped to provide such support. And if they aren’t, then I think it is their responsibility to appropriately screen for the students that they can best support in order to do right by those students. I recognize that interviews can introduce different kinds of biases into applications processes, but I trust that those can be mitigated similar to how they are mitigated in other aspects of hiring or applicant review, and that those risks don’t necessarily outweigh the benefits of interviews if they are managed appropriately.Report

Robert Bloomfield
3 months ago

I’m not in philosophy, but my PhD program has been interviewing applicants since I joined my school decades ago. I share other commenters’ skepticism about interviews, and with a department half-filled with folks who do behavioral experiments for a living, we are very aware of the biases and limitations that come with interviews. The candidate’s record is far more important than the interview.

That said, interviews serve some valuable purposes. The first is that we do sometimes change our minds based on big red flags or big flags of whatever color are good. Some students are good on paper, but clearly have no sense of what they are actually getting into, or have no interest in our program, or can’t communicate (our graduates can’t get good jobs if they can’t teach), or simply didn’t know or care to prepare for the interview. More rarely, applicants surprise us by asking very insightful questions, showing that they carefully read the work of the faculty and proposed lines of work that adjusted their statement of purpose accordingly.

As a result, we’ve denied students we otherwise would have accepted, and more rarely admitted students we otherwise would have rejected. We’ve had enough time to see that our interview-based reconsiderations have generally been right, though as I say, they are not that common.

But interviews are also very valuable for applicants. Sometimes they see that our department is not a great fit for them, and sometimes they see that it is! I’m sure philosophy is far more competitive than my field, but good students are rare, and we invest in interviews because we want them! So we make sure our best applicants meet with many of our best faculty–applicants are judging us, too.

Now in the days of Zoom, a 20 minute interview is a low cost way to learn a bit more about applicants, and help them learn a lot more about us.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  Robert Bloomfield
3 months ago

Robert, you make an important point: the interview gives students a chance to meet the interviewing professors, which in this age of easy zoom meetings gives applicants an equal chance to determine whether they’re a good fit for the department, even if they cannot afford to travel to all the schools that admit them. In the ancient times when I was applying, I could afford to visit only the schools within driving range of home, and one that flew me in to interview for a competitive fellowship. At two of these three schools I discovered the person I intended to work with was planning to take a new job the following year but it had not yet been formally announced, so I escaped what would have been an unfortunate situation for me. At the school I chose, I found out my intended advisor was a cellist and a truly awesome human, so that made the choice very easy.Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Laura Grams
3 months ago

Laura: I agree this is important; however, it seems better if such meetings (e.g., over zoom) occur AFTER the admissions decisions have been made – to avoid all the biases that might affect the admission decisions otherwise.Report

Harald Karlsson
3 months ago

I think it is obvious there should be formal interviews — in my experience, you can’t always tell from an interview whether someone will be good, but there are indications that reliably indicate when an applicant will *not* be good. Interviews are useful because they can provide the latter kind of indicators which are reliable. Put another way: even if we can’t always identify ‘green flags’ from the appearance of a green flag, we can always indicate ‘red flags’ from the appearance of red flags. Better to give yourself the opportunity to see a red flag if there is one to see than to forego the interview and potentially take on a student who will be a real difficulty (and who will themselves not thrive) for around five years or so.Report

Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
3 months ago

If these things were obvious we wouldn’t be discussing them and people wouldn’t be studying them empirically. And it’s good they have been studied for there turns out to be solid evidence that interviews aren’t very reliable filters for what we think we want to know.Report

Harald Karlsson
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
3 months ago

You’re mostly right, but not on the specific point I was making. The question of whether interviews for PhDs in philosophy is ‘reliable’ (given our interests in admitting all and only good applicants) is sensitive to how good interviews do for four *different* reliability measures as captured by True positives,
False positives, True Negatives, and False Negatives (where the latter refers to cases where bad applicants are misidentified as good ones). I will happily concede to you that interviews are not reliable in any of the first three measures; however, I maintain interviews are *obviously* reliable when it comes to not generating false negatives. If a person gives tell-tale signs that they are problematic (suppose they betray evidence of being clueless about their own PhD topic), there is not a risk that they will be misidentified as a good candidate.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
3 months ago

When the interviewers think the interviewee has given tell-tale signs that they are problematic, the worry isn’t that they’ll be misidentified as a good candidate. It’s that they’ll be misidentified as a bad candidate.
As Nicolas says, we should rely on scientific evidence rather than our own experiences, but I happen to know of several extremely good (and now extremely successful) philosophers who were misidentified as problematic in their (job) interviews.Report

Doris
3 months ago

The empirical evidence of the efficacy of short interviews is very mixed; confidence in assessments based on them is at serious risk of overconfidence.

In philosophy, there has been much discussion regarding short “convention” employment interviews, and I’d expect that many of the concerns raised there apply equally to interviewing prospective graduate students.

The APA has recognized these concerns regarding employment interviews in their statement on “Best Practices for Interviewing” (see Appendix B in the link below).

https://www.apaonline.org/page/interviewing#appendix_aReport

WRE
WRE
3 months ago

When I applied to PhD programs in 2018 only LSE had an interview as part of the process. It was the only British school I’d applied to, so I assumed it was more common in the UK. Was tough – they mostly grilled me on my writing sample for a half-hour. I enjoyed having to defend it though! Was a fun experience.Report

Bradford Cokelet
3 months ago

Maybe someone on team X-phi can run some studies on structured vs. non-structured vs. no interviews for various philosophy cases (tracking inter-interviewer validity, predicted outcomes, etc)?

I was looking around in the empirical literature again and found this funny one from 2013: Belief in the unstructured interview: The persistence of an illusionReport

Ali Hasan
3 months ago

University of Iowa requires us to interview international students prior to any admission offer, in order to assess whether they are likely to meet minimal English Proficiency requirements to serve as TAs. We do that only with international students that we were strongly leaning on admitting.

However, we did try out interviewing applicants for just a couple of years (around 2015 and 2016 I think). We had a ranked list of about 15-20 students based purely on a review of the submitted application materials. We then interviewed each person on the ranked list, and after the interviews, decide if we want to shift our ranking. The rationale for doing so was to get a sense of the applicant’s ability to talk philosophy, and talk about their research (e.g., answer some questions about their writing sample or topics of interest), to get some sense of whether they are ready to serve as TAs, and to have an opportunity to ask follow-up questions about parts of the application (e.g., why they switched programs or dropped out of a program before completing). Interestingly, the interviews did not change our rankings much — we ended up switching the ranking of applicants right next to each other in the ranking in a couple of cases. There was, however, one applicant whose responses to pretty much all the questions were very confusing or difficult to understand (and it wasn’t a language issue — this wasn’t an international applicant). We decided to take that applicant off the list.

We haven’t conducted interviews since then. One reason is that it adds a lot more work for the admissions committee, and we were not sure it was worth the amount of work we put in to it. We were also not comfortable using interviews to make fine-grained distinctions between candidates, given the room for bias to creep in. Even when we conducted the interviews, the application materials were more heavily weighted and were the source of the initial ranking, and we only made changes if there was some clear reason from the interview for doing so. We are not conducting interviews this year either, though it’s a topic we are still discussing as a department.Report

columbia alumni
columbia alumni
Reply to  Ali Hasan
3 months ago

As an international student whose native language is not English, I’m sure if Columbia had interviewed me for “minimal English Proficiency requirements to serve as TAs” I wouldn’t have been admitted for its PhD program at all. Instead of such interviews, Columbia asks admitted international students to take English proficiency exams during orientation week, and places us in (or exempt us from) English classes for one or two semesters before assigning TA jobs. I think that’s a much more reasonable approach than interview.Report

Ali Hasan
Reply to  columbia alumni
3 months ago

I agree completely. U of Iowa now does this as well. The problem before was that there was no remote testing that the university accepted, and so we didn’t want students to travel all the way here and then not be able to teach and so not receive the full TA-ship funding. So we tried to determine rather minimal standards as best we can. Fortunately, we don’t have to do that anymore as they do take tests remotely.Report

Sam Duncan
3 months ago

I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the obvious cost of any interview: They are stressful and time consuming for any applicant. Even a twenty minute “chat” will occupy a lot of the applicant’s head space, and any responsible applicant will spend a goodly bit of time preparing for the interview. All of this will likely come at a time of year when college students, especially graduating college students, are quite busy and already stressed. I’d really like to hear more from UChicago and other places that are doing interviews what the format is like and what rationale there is for this. I’m assuming they’re Zoom or a phone call? If they are in person then who pays? All the defenses I’m seeing of interviews are either anecdotes or “well I just feel this,” which I’m sorry to say is just frankly embarrassing coming from anyone with an academic position anywhere in any field but especially philosophy given how much we pride ourselves on supposed intellectual rigor. Unless someone can do better it’s quite clear that the costs of interviews in applicant stress, distraction, and wasted time aren’t worth the practically non-existent gain in useful information that unstructured interviews provide.Report