Deciding Between Grad Programs: What Questions to Ask? Of Whom?


Applicants to graduate programs in philosophy are now hearing from admissions committees and will have decisions to make about which to attend, or whether to go at all.

A current graduate student has suggested I open up a discussion about how admitted students should approach this decision.

We might assume that at this stage, prospective students have already winnowed things down somewhat, and whatever small differences in various rankings across the programs to be decided between are not themselves all that informative.

Some of the survey responses and data at Academic Philosophy Data & Analysis (APDA) might be useful, and that’s one place to start.

But programs are often happy to make faculty and current graduate students available to speak with those they’ve admitted. How can admitted students best take advantage of this? What questions should they ask? And who should they ask them of?

Your suggestions are appreciated.

 

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Rosa
Rosa
2 months ago

I would encourage them to ask about climate above all else. Not just DEI – although that matters too – but climate among the grad students and between faculty and grads generally. Is it a competitive or collaborative place to be? Do faculty seem to like working with grad students, or does it seem like an obligation? Do grad students see each other a lot and have lots of opportunities to talk philosophy informally (whether through shared office space, grad-student lead reading groups or WIP sessions, or in some other way)? You’ll probably get the most honest answers to these questions if you can ask a few different grad students one-on-one rather than in a group.

I’d also try to have at least a short conversation with each faculty member you think you might want to eventually be your advisor. Just talk philosophy with them – do they seem interested in your ideas? Do they seem warm and accessible? Do they have positive things to say about the other grad students they are supervising?

elisa freschi
2 months ago

I always recommend prospective students to ask current students, especially because an exceptional thinker and writer might be a poor mentor and supervisor. Also: since psychologically humans are inclined to justify their poor choices, any uncertainty in this case should be taken as a red flag.

Grad student with no paid leave :(
Grad student with no paid leave :(
2 months ago

Like Rosa said, ask current grad students about general social and academic climate and about your potential supervisor. Also any lifestyle questions that you think might be relevant for you – eg parental/ maternity leave and whether it is paid leave if you are on scholarship.

naive skeptic
naive skeptic
2 months ago

I would ask a selection of professors, especially potential supervisors, what they think the biggest changes have been in the field in the last 50 years. Follow this up with: what are the most likely developments in the next 50 years, and: what ought we be focusing on instead of that most likely course and why.

Alfred
Alfred
2 months ago

Prospective students should get a good sense of the mental health resources available at a particular school. Does the school make accommodations for a death in the family, learning disabilities, social anxiety, and the like? Free counseling is not enough. Students should be confident that said service is more than just a way for the school to 1) detect students struggling with their mental health, and 2) ensure that the university will not look bad in the event that they break down or burn out. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are higher among graduate students than they are among the general population. If the “counseling” services offered by the university are just a means to kick suicidal students out of accommodation and avoid bad PR, for instance, prospective students should avoid the graduate program in question.

In addition, prospective students should pay close attention to the character of the faculty in their department of choice. Are there any scandals involving academic, sexual, or other misconduct by faculty still in the employ of the university? Are the faculty civil in their engagements with the research of their peers or are they inflammatory? Are professors invested in teaching and service as well as their own research or are they just going through the motions? These criteria are especially important when it comes to selecting advisors, directors, supervisors, etc. If the students are held to a higher standard than their professors, prospective students should avoid the graduate program in question.

Prospective students should also research differences between assessment procedures in various programs. In some programs, a 70% is exceptional whereas in others, it’s barely passable. In some programs, the professor(s) advising, directing, or supervising one’s work are also involved in its assessment whereas in others they are not. And so on. These considerations can help condition a student’s expectations of themselves and their program in a manner conducive to both their success and their well-being. If the assessment procedure is liable to hurt a student’s career prospects or penalize them for implementing constructive criticism, prospective students should avoid the graduate program in question.

Finally, prospective students should get a sense of student life at the university they are considering. If the university has an anonymous confessions page on FaceBook, for example, students should check it periodically. (This can also be a good way to learn about how the university handles mental health and misconduct.) Students should also look into the budget of the university to see what the administration’s priorities are and how they are reflected in student life. It is easy to take for granted the ramifications that a student’s social life has for their academic performance. One’s social climate can either improve one’s mental health and motivation or diminish them. If a student doesn’t want to isolate themselves entirely, they need to be confident that their peers will form a support network rather than dragging them down. If not, prospective students should avoid the graduate program in question.

M. Dean
M. Dean
2 months ago

Barring huge red flags, I would suggest students go to the highest ranked school that admits them. Any testimony from grads or faculty will not be very reliable. I don’t think this is a good way to make the decision unless you are talking to a large sample size. I find that students usually talk to 1 or 2 current grads, and I don’t think this does much besides add variance to the decision based on whether those 1 or 2 grads had a good experience or not (and this experience may or may not be related to the quality of the program).

A chat with your potential advisor is more worthwhile, but only as a negative signal. If someone is bored or won’t meet with you, this is reliable info, but if they are on their best behavior in a short meeting, I would take this as neutral information rather than positive.

abd grad
abd grad
Reply to  M. Dean
2 months ago

Even if one’s goal is maximizing employment opportunity, I don’t that prioritizing the school ranking (barring huge red flags) above all else is necessarily the right call. If you had a choice, for example, between two schools, one of which has a significantly higher ranking, the other of which is lower but a better overall fit for philosophical interests, then I think it is at least an open question how you should proceed. I know some fellow grad students who have made this choice, gone with the higher-ranked school, and have regretted it, and in some cases, dropped out.

I definitely agree that talking to 1-2 grad students will not be a good sample size, and you should take what you hear with a grain of salt. At the same time, when it comes to information about the department life, work environment, etc, you really cannot substitute for the info you’ll get talking to actual grad students. Talk to as many as possible, take everything with a grain of salt, but the idea of going to grad school without talking at length with at least some current grad students seems like a bad idea to me.

Regarding academic advisors — also important to meet and talk with any faculty you might want to work with. Aside from talking philosophy, it would be helpful to talk as well about the past students they have worked with, and what that looks like. Some faculty might do research that is exciting to you, and they might be a strong presence in the open-house you attend, and you might get along with them well conversationally. But none of this will necessarily tell you about how good they are to work with, i.e., literally how they will help you write your dissertation. Do they give you timely comments, are those comments actually helpful, and are they responsive to your own expectations about the work you are doing? Do they blow off your emails to meet or take months to deliver any feedback on your work?

Personally, I have had a great experience with my advisor, but I know so many who have not, and often times it comes as a surprise because of how faculty present themselves at official events — they can be engaging in conversation, work on topics you find inspiring, but once you actually try to work with them, they have trouble giving you the time of day (not because they don’t like you, but because they have many priorities vis a vis their own work, reputation in the profession, etc, and simply don’t accord the same priority to students that they take on).

It is truly amazing to me how some faculty will brand themselves as being a vital presence of a department, working on cutting edge topics (especially when those are not topics you can find at the majority of grad programs), wine and dine grad students to get them to come to their department, and then proceed to offer in their capacity as dissertation advisors such sub-par guidance and concern for their intellectual development that it would make most grad student TAs feel as though they do a better job working with their own undergraduate students.

For these reasons, it is also super important to talk to grad students who have actually written dissertations with faculty you might be interested in working with. As a prospective, you might have no idea who you want to work with, but you might have a list of 3-4 faculty that you can reasonably determine are more likely than others.

Find the placement record
Find the placement record
2 months ago

Not everyone has the goal of maximising chances of success in academic employment. But if this is the reason you go to a phd program, avoid places where they do not have a fully transparent placement record. Something like “we have a good placement record” by itself is not a good placement record.

Alfred
Alfred
Reply to  Find the placement record
2 months ago

If you can afford not to worry about whether your years in a graduate program will hurt your professional prospects, directly or indirectly, you are one of the lucky ones. Most people cannot afford to choose a graduate program based purely on whether or not they would have, as CDKG put it, “a great time”. Having a great time is a misguided goal, anyway, since there’s very little control a person has past a certain point over the experience that they have in a graduate program. I understand your concerns if you associate maximizing chances of success with fetishizing rankings. Rankings only measure the quantity of faculty members with a certain quality of research on a certain definition of quality. So, M. Dean’s advice is not particularly useful. I’m more concerned myself with whether or not a student’s prospects will be worse after a graduate program than they were before. In light of the investment of time and the opportunity cost involved, I think this is a legitimate concern.

M. Dean
M. Dean
Reply to  Alfred
2 months ago

The reason I think it’s important to “fetishize rankings” is precisely because it’s important to maximize one’s professional prospects post-graduation. What these rankings actually track is irrelevant. Hiring committees take them to track your value, so your should value rankings if you value being highly valued by hiring committees.

Alfred
Alfred
Reply to  M. Dean
2 months ago

My point is that rankings should not be the only thing that applicants consider which is precisely what you said — go to the highest ranked school possible unless the faculty and/or administrators at said school are exceptionally, unconscionably awful. It is absolutely worth consulting grad students and faculty before committing to a school.

Last edited 2 months ago by Alfred
Sam Duncan
Reply to  M. Dean
1 month ago

Eh, some do. A lot don’t. A lot of the people doing the hiring at community colleges like mine haven’t heard of the Leiter rankings. To the extent they have they don’t care about them. I’m told the same is true of teaching focused SLACs and many larger regional schools without highly competitive admissions. And between these schools almost certainly make up the majority of the job openings.
My impression is that if what you care about is actually landing a job there are three things you can do when evaluating a program: 1. Look at their placement record. 2. Look at their placement record more closely. 3. Ignore people who tell you to focus on anything besides placement records. (I’ll admit I stole this from an old joke about how to judge politicians. Strike “placement” and it is also the only good way to judge a politician).

don't mourn, organize!
don't mourn, organize!
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 month ago

This is an important point, one which bears emphasizing. Prospective grad students should interpret placement data in light of their aims, and not just look at top-line numbers.

Suppose that Very-fancy-U places 60% of its graduates in permanent/TT positions, most of which are other highly-ranked jobs. By contrast, Less-Fancy-U places 50% of its graduates in permanent/TT positions, almost all of which are community colleges, regional schools, confessional schools, etc.

But if my strong and stable preference is to teach at a community college, regional school, or confessional school, I might be setting myself up better in going to Less-Fancy-U, despite its lower ranking and less impressive placement record.

Sam Duncan
Reply to  don't mourn, organize!
1 month ago

Well a more challenging, and not uncommon one, is the fancy program places about 50% of its graduates in permanent jobs but almost all of those lucky ones get R1 jobs while the less fancy place places say +70% but absolutely none of them get R1 jobs to start off and even getting R2s is vanishingly rare. UVA where I went and, even more so, UTennessee where I used to teach fit that latter profile. (Or at least they used to. They may still but it’s been ages since I was at either place, so do your homework and don’t rely on me on this one).

don't mourn, organize!
don't mourn, organize!
Reply to  M. Dean
1 month ago

If I’ve got you right, your point is that one good reason to focus on rankings is that rankings are an excellent proxy for placement. But if someone’s concern is job placement, then they might as well focus on job placement rather than rankings, since rankings are (under this justification) a proxy for placement. We can grant that they are an excellent proxy for placement, but if you have access to placement data, that’s necessarily more instructive than even an excellent proxy.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  M. Dean
1 month ago

I suspect that grad students are more aware of the details of rankings than hiring committees are. Hiring committees are composed of faculty who have been in the field for a while, who have their own opinions about which places are good and which aren’t. They might glance at the rankings occasionally, and these rankings might shape their opinions somewhat. But to the extent that rankings and the opinions of hiring committees are correlated, it’s because people on the hiring committees are the ones being surveyed to create the rankings, more than because the hiring committees are looking at the rankings.

To the extent that you are interested in being hired by places whose hiring committees aren’t surveyed in producing these rankings, the rankings are only going to be a very rough approximation of what those hiring committees are thinking.

MPA
MPA
Reply to  Find the placement record
2 months ago

Yes, I agree that the placement record is very important. Here are some unsystematic and disorganized thoughts.

I would try to get a sense of how the “average” student does in a program. This will be very imprecise and from an admittedly small sample, but if there are a few good placements but then 75% are unplaced then that is a bad situation. Even some highly regarded programs may have some good placements here and there but then have students drop out (and then not be counted in placements).

Also, it’s important to have a sense of the extent to which a dept “supports” placement. Do faculty provide workshops on placement (and publishing)? Do they support mock interviews? Feedback on cover letters, etc? Is there a tradition of there being a “placement” Faculty member (as part of service) and is it helpful to students.

Some depts do all of this, but some do very little or none. The difference between zero feedback and some feedback on job documents can be really significant because there are so many ways to eliminate oneself (unwittingly) from consideration.

CDKG
CDKG
2 months ago

I second Rosa’s emphasis on asking about climate. I would expand: the most valuable conversations you can have about climate are one-on-one conversations with graduate students in informal settings, like a few hours into the inevitable prospective weekend party. I would also make sure to talk to a variety of different sources, since basically every program will have some people having a great time and others feelings alienated, unsupported, or otherwise frustrated. It’s your job to try to understand what proportion of the students fall into each category and which category you would be likely to fall into if you chose that program. Some students would have had a great time at almost any program, and others would have felt frustrated with almost any program — assessing the reasons they give for feeling how they do will help you to draw conclusions about what your experience would be like if you joined the program.

Last edited 2 months ago by CDKG
J. Wallis
J. Wallis
2 months ago

To the previous comments I would add the following:

  • Regarding the stipend: ask specifically about which things are funded and which aren’t. Health care? Dental? Conference travel? Do you have to pay up front and get reimbursed? This will help you evaluate whether the stipend is workable for you financially. If you are coming straight from undergrad and less familiar with managing living expenses, have someone look at the numbers with you or do some basic budgeting.
  • Regarding teaching: ask how much and what kind of teaching is required of you. TA every semester? Teach a bunch of courses as the sole instructors? See if that fits your working style (i.e., if you teach every semester, will you be able to partition time for your own research?), aligns with your timing, career trajectory, etc.
  • Regarding your potential cohort: don’t forget to talk with the other admitted students as well. They might be your future colleagues. Do you get along? Will you enjoy talking with them about their work? Does that matter to you? To them?
  • Regarding non-academic jobs: ask if they do anything to support grads getting jobs outside of academia. Are there department or university resources for this? Have any recent past graduates of the program gone into non-academic positions?
Casey Landers
Casey Landers
2 months ago

I think these are questions to ask faculty and current grad students:

-Do they have a placement director? What are they like? How involved do they seem to be?

-What does the department do in terms of professionalization outside of coursework? I.e., do they facilitate presentations or working groups? How often do students share their work with the department? Is there a faculty member, workshop, or seminar that is focused on professionalization?

-Ask about graduate students who have recently (last three-ish years) graduated. Who are they? What are they doing now? Who did they work with? What did they work on?

-Does the faculty invite interesting speakers to the department? Are there opportunities for you to network and meet other philosophers outside the department? Does the department have strong interdisciplinary connections with other departments at the university?

Moti Gorin
2 months ago

How demanding are the TA assignments or whatever other duties you’ll have in exchange for your funding? These can vary significantly and it matters.

Is there funding in the event that you need another semester or year? (Life happens. Loved ones get sick or die. Babies are born. Dissertations don’t write themselves. You might need a semester off, which will extend your time in the program, or some cushion at the end to wrap things up.)

Get detailed placement data. Assume you are no better than their average grad student and apply the placement data to your own career prospects in that light.

don’t mourn, organize!
don’t mourn, organize!
2 months ago

Are the grad students unionized? If so, how do faculty feel about this?

If not, is there an active push for unionization? Is unionization on the horizon?

If not, what institutional or social mechanisms are in place to help protect grad students from domination and exploitation?

rutabagas
rutabagas
1 month ago

Talk to newish grad students and grad students who’ve been around a long time (seek them out if you have to). Newish grad students have the most recent experience with what you’ll be doing early in the program, but they can be overly optimistic; older grad students can tend to be crabby, but they have more experience with the department’s ups and downs.

off the cuff
off the cuff
1 month ago

Check the rankings and the placement record. Don’t take what the dept says on the latter at face value. Check the websites of colleges where they’ve placed people and see if the recent grads are still there (think ‘tenure denials’ or people who just left the profession). Look for the publications of recent grads (say, past 5-10 years) and see whom they acknowledge. I noticed that for my old program, the most successful recent grads were the ones who used postdocs or other grants to visit at other schools or who networked like hell and got letters of recommendation from people at other colleges. You could spot this trend in their book and article acknowledgments (they primarily thanked professors outside their graduate dept). Finally, beyond contract teaching in the dept, are there smaller schools in the vicinity that regularly hire ABD’s for contract teaching. It’s a good way to pick up experience or even get a line on a permanent position if you’re not headed for R1.

teaching load
teaching load
1 month ago

Apart from all of the above:
What’s the teaching load of the full-time faculty? – I learned that this matters by comparing my school (3-2) to a place where it was quite a bit less (1-2 or even 1-1). I liked my program, but was amazed how much more engaged the profs were at this other school, in terms of attending or running events, interacting with student work, general academic socializing, etc. No wonder – they had more time for such things, and felt less burdened by all the UG teaching.

Big time
Big time
1 month ago

TA’ing load varies dramatically across programmes (even across similarly ranked programmes). In my PhD I taught (and graded, etc.) a total of 90 students—across the entire programme. Many places require their graduate students to TA close to that number each semester. Those differences are enormous and, inevitably, greatly bear upon your ability to do great graduate work.