Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs

(This is the outline handout accompanying our annual “applying to grad school in philosophy” session, including a few links to useful resources.)

Three questions:

  • Good news about life in academia: if you get a tenure-track job, it gives you lots of autonomy. Being a college professor is often rated as one of the best careers. Spending your time teaching philosophy and conducting research in philosophy can be very satisfying. But. . .
  • Some words of warning:
    • Length of program. Even with an MA in hand, you should count on 5-6 years minimum to get a PhD, with many people taking longer, and a minimum of 2 years to get your M.A.
    • State of job market. Terrible: has been, is, and will continue to be so. There is a high likelihood of bouncing around the country on temporary jobs for several years before (possibly) getting a TT job. If you want a TT job, you will have little choice of where to live. Typical starting salaries for assistant professor of philosophy, while plenty to live on, are not particularly high. Salaries for visiting instructors are often low (and pay for adjunct instructors is usually pitifully low). Because of this. . .
    • Financial considerations. Do not go to graduate school in philosophy without an assistantship that includes tuition remission. Taking out large student loans to pay for philosophy graduate school is foolish. Pay attention to requirements for being TA and instructor.

Bottom line: Apply to graduate school in philosophy only if your intrinsic interest in the subject is high enough that you'd enjoy spending many years of your life studying it and would feel happy having spent the time doing so, even if after receiving your PhD you end up bouncing around visiting professor gigs here and there and never get a permanent job in academia, as that outcome is quite possible.

Some considerations:

  • Overall strength/reputation of program in philosophy (not the same as academic reputation across the board: Arizona and Pittsburgh are among the top philosophy PhD programs).
  • Strength of program in your areas of interest and faculty you want to work with (attend to whether those people will be around and will work with new students).
  • Quality of mentoring / graduate training / graduate student community.
  • Your chances of getting in. (Apply to wide range of schools. Faculty have different opinions about the best total number of applications, e.g., 6-8 to 12-15.)
  • Placement record (for MA, to PhD programs; for PhD, to jobs). Look at placement both overall and for people working in your area: placement is correlated with strength / reputation, but only roughly.
  • Retention, progression, and graduation: how many entering students get their degree, and how long do they take?
  • Location and other schools in area (least important factor).

Where can I get information about these things?

  • Departmental websites (but watch out for out-of-date information and self-puffery!)
  • American Philosophical Association Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy. Lots of (self-reported) data about demographics, placement, completion time, and finances.
  • Philosophical Gourmet Report. Check out: overall ranking, specialty rankings, updates. Take it for what it's worth (only a reputational survey).
  • Academic Placement Data and Analysis for philosophy. Based on surveys of graduates from 2012-16. Gives percentage of graduates with permanent academic positions, permanent positions in PhD programs, post-docs, and more.
  • Editable pages with information about graduate programs broken down by specializations. Far from complete, but useful in the categories it covers.
  • Professors, current grad students at programs (sample size >1)

What should I do to make my application as strong as possible?
The parts of a typical application:

  • Transcripts (overall GPA and GPA in major are usually very important; request early)
  • Writing sample (incredibly important).
    1. Length (about 12-18 pages, check limits for different programs); very sharp first 3 pages!
    2. Have several people you trust read it (including faculty members).
    3. Must be well-written, clear, and contain an argument (i.e., not just an expository piece). Doesn't need to be ambitious.
    4. Papers with a more literary flair (e.g., dialogues) are not advisable.
    5. In your main area of interest is best, but not necessary.
    6. Finish no later than Thanksgiving break.
  • Letters of recommendation (very important)
    1. Ask philosophy professors (mainly) who have given you good grades (liked your paper) in upper-level classes. Get 3-5 letters (check limits; 4th and 5th letters might be from non-phil or (for MA students) undergrad).
    2. Make sure the people who write them know you and your work well (so connect now).
    3. Give lots of lead time. Ask by October. Get all materials to them before Thanksgiving. Be considerate with a sheet with all the info on where they should send letters, details about online submissions, etc. We recommend (unless your professor says otherwise) that you use this spreadsheet to compile all that information. Also make sure that all paper and online forms are filled out to the extent you can fill them out, that for places requiring hard copies that you furnish SAS envelopes, etc. Send an email reminder near the deadlines. Try to make it so all the email requests are sent to them at one time, rather than dribbling in over a number of weeks.
    4. Offer to give them your papers from their class, your writing sample, personal statement, CV, etc. Make sure they know everything (good) about you there is to know. . .
  • GRE (importance varies widely)
    1. Take it with time to spare (and time to retake it, ideally)
    2. Prepare for it: sample tests, self-guided studybook
    3. Sample combined median scores: UT Austin claims 329, Wisconsin Verbal 165 and Quantitative 157 (so combined 322), UC Riverside a typical range of 310 to 330; FSU minimum Verbal 164 and Quantitative 152.
  • Personal Statement (not as important, but take it seriously). 3 parts:
    1. What you've done in philosophy and relevant areas of research interest (but don't write it as an autobiography)
    2. What you're doing (thesis, papers for conferences, teaching, etc.), and especially
    3. What you want to do (have a specific research area or project in mind; don't just drop names, but if you know the faculty you want to work with and why, discuss that in a program-specific paragraph). When you are researching what programs to apply to, you should take notes about what makes a place an attractive destination and a good fit for you: include that information in your personal statement.

    Finally: sound serious, not cheesy, and don't gush (e.g., don't say things like, "Philosophy has changed my life and now I want to change others' lives by teaching philosophy" or "If I can only work with Professor X, my life will be fulfilled"). You can also use your statement to explain anomalies (e.g., bad undergrad semester, time off, weak GRE score, but helpful if letter writers also explain).

Some more helpful information is at: