Some prospective graduate students in philosophy have faculty advisors at their undergraduate institutions who work hard at keeping current about the state of the various graduate programs and who can give the students excellent advice in choosing which graduate programs to apply to, and, supposing the students are accepted by more than one program, which one to actually go to. But many prospective students will find that their faculty advisors have quite limited knowledge. For instance, their advisor may not know much about which graduate programs are good in certain areas that are of interest to the student but not that particular advisor. And some do not have advisors who know much at all about the various programs.
Fortunately, these days there are some extremely helpful tools to help in making these key choices: Most philosophy departments that have graduate programs have helpful and informative web sites, and students have instant, free on-line access to a good set of rankings of graduate programs: The Philosophical Gourmet Report. These tools can greatly help students in their deliberations, however knowledgeable their faculty advisors are. What follows are my suggestions as to how to best use these tools, together with other sources of information, in choosing programs, whether or not one also has access to a knowledgeable faculty advisor.
These are all just one person’s opinions, so take these suggestions for what they’re worth. Perhaps some others will express other ideas in the comments…
I recommend also reading the advice contained in the PGR on “Applying to Graduate Schools”.
Your deliberations will eventually result in two separate decisions: first, which programs to apply to; then, a while later, supposing more than one program has accepted you, which one to go to. So it’s natural to divide the whole process into two stages. But I think it’s helpful to sub-divide the first of those into two smaller parts, yielding a total of three stages. Given how high application fees are, many students will find they are restricted to applying to a quite limited number of programs. It will therefore be wise for them, already when deciding which programs to apply to, to investigate some programs in significant depth before applying to them. (If there were no application fees, one could just apply to any program that seems a plausible choice, and wait to see which ones accept you before putting in the time to check them out with greater care.) But most will find they simply can’t carefully check out every possible PhD program. So, first, you need to fairly quickly locate a number of possibilities to investigate later with some greater care. Then, you need to decide which of those to apply to. Then, after you find out which programs have accepted you, you have to decide which one to go to.
1. Locating Possibilities
The Philosophical Gourmet Report is extremely helpful in the first of these three stages — that of locating good possibilities to check out further. Most college seniors don’t have a good idea of which particular area of philosophy they’ll want to specialize in. But many have a decent idea of several areas of philosophy that interest them. A good way to locate programs that might be well-suited to your interests is to use the PGR’s rankings of programs by specialty areas. Using the area-by-area rankings, one can check the rankings for the areas that most interest you, and look for programs that do well in many of those areas. And/or you can use the handy program-by-program listing of area strengths to find suitable programs (from among the top 54 U.S. programs, the top 15 U.K. programs, the top 4 Canadian programs, and the top Australasian programs). You can then go to the web sites of the programs that look interesting and see what helpful information you can rather quickly gather there. (The PGR very handily has links to the programs in its overall rankings.)
Those students who have good faculty advisors will also want to consult these advisors about likely possibilities. What I suggest is finding a way to use the PGR and your faculty advisor together. The advantage of the PGR is that a good deal of time and care was put into gathering its information rather systematically – which probably isn’t true of how your faculty advisor arrived at her opinions as to which programs would be best. The advantage of your faculty advisor is that they either already know you, your strengths, and your interests pretty well, or they can get to know you better by discussing your interests, and can tailor their advice to your particular case. Your faculty advisor can also explain to you why they’re making the recommendations they are, while the PGR doesn’t explain why programs are ranked as they are. (Well, they’re ranked as they are because of the scores assigned to them by many evaluators, but what isn’t explained is why evaluators gave the particular scores they did.) So, to effectively use these sources of information together, I suggest you do some checking on your own, using the PGR and department web sites, before talking with your advisor. Then, when you see your advisor, you can start by asking her for some possibilities, given your areas of strength and interest. If there’s a program that looked promising to you that your advisor doesn’t suggest, you will then be prepared to ask about that program. Maybe your advisor didn’t suggest it because she has reason to think that program isn’t well-suited to you. (Perhaps though they’re strong in areas your interested in, their faculty in those areas don’t work on the particular topics in those areas that interest you, or they don’t approach the area in the style that you like.) But it’s quite possible that she simply didn’t think of the program, and once she’s asked about it, she might say something like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good choice for you, too.” It’s hard to come up with all the good candidates just working off the top your head. By coming into your meeting with your faculty advisor having already done some searching, you’ll be in a position to ask more helpful questions, and, hopefully, to arrive at a better list of programs to investigate.
2. Choosing Programs
Now, I really have no formula for making your big decisions of where to apply and which program to go to (the second and third stages). But what I will do in what follows is point out some sources of information you can use, and some issues to keep in mind.
a. The PGR
I’ve already mentioned the helpful of the PGR in locating programs to check out more carefully. But it is also helpful in the later stages, because it is a guide to the quality of the programs, both overall and in various areas, and that of course remains important to one’s decisions in the later stages.
It’s important to note that the PGR is a ranking of programs based primarily on the quality of their faculties. Evaluators are given lists of the faculty at the various programs, and asked to score those programs, both overall and in the evaluator’s areas of expertise. (See the complete description of the surveys here.) And of course factors other than faculty quality are important to prospective students. As the PGR explains, “Because evaluators do not have reliable access to information about the quality of graduate teaching and mentoring for most departments, this was not a component of the evaluation. As always, students are advised to talk to current students before enrolling at any program.” We’ll return to these issues in section d, below.
b. Placement and Placement Records
Prospective students want to go to better programs not only because they are likely to receive the most valuable training from the best faculty, but also because highly regarded programs tend to have better luck placing their graduates in good teaching positions upon completion of the programs. (For a more detailed explanation and defense of the importance of faculty quality to both training and jobs, see Leiter’s “Open Letter” of defense of the PGR, especially the section entitled “How Important is Faculty Quality?”.)
The correlation between how highly ranked programs are how well they do in placing their students in jobs is very far from perfect. Thus, it’s good to also consult other information on placement, including the programs’ placement records.
Way back when I was applying to graduate schools, programs didn’t have web sites with lots of information, and what information we typically received about placement in the information packets departments would mail out (sometimes it was just a single small brochure) was just a list of some of the schools which the program’s students got jobs at. What such a list didn’t tell you was how many students finished the program, but couldn’t find an academic job, and so simply weren’t listed. Nowadays, due to a significant degree to efforts by the PGR’s editor, Brian Leiter, to pressure programs to do so, many programs list more complete and more helpful information about their placement records. There are privacy issues involved, and most programs don’t want to list their recent graduates — and especially those who didn’t secure employment — by name. But what most programs do now is something along these lines: Without using names, they tell you how many students received their PhD degrees in each of the recent years, then say what jobs those students secured in philosophy, and also how many students didn’t get academic jobs (with, perhaps, some information about what they are doing). The placement record of the program I teach in, Yale, can serve as an example. I think it’s fairly typical of the kind of information one can find now for most programs. Note that the explanation at the top of the list states, “Below are the employment histories of all our recent (1999-) Ph.D.’s, listed by the year in which the Ph.D. degree was awarded.” If a placement list doesn’t specify that they’re giving information for all of their graduates, you should suspect that they’re just telling you about their successes. At the very least you should then ask some questions about such a placement record.
Now, even these better placement records that are available nowadays don’t tell you the whole story. For instance, they typically only tell you about students who complete the program. But what of those who started the program, but didn’t complete it? Some of these might have realized early on that philosophy wasn’t for them, and dropped out. Or perhaps some left their graduate program because another extremely attractive possibility opened up for them. But in some cases, students leave precisely because they can tell, based on how well they’re doing together with the experiences of those who finish the program ahead of them, that they are unlikely to get a job. And no placement list will tell you how many students have left a program for that reason. So the information you’re getting is quite limited.
What’s more, placement records show past success/failure, which may not be a good reflection of future prospects, especially when a program has undergone recent significant changes. This is most evident when a PhD program with excellent faculty is first started up, or when an existing program suddenly hires several excellent faculty members. Those who would use only past placement records would draw either pessimistic or agnostic conclusions about placement prospects at such programs. But experience shows a more optimistic stance might be called for; as Leiter writes at this blog post:
When NYU shot up to the top ranks of the PGR in the late 1990s, I heard much grousing from philosophers elsewhere: “How can you rate them so highly when they haven’t produced any students yet?” “That department is full of prima donnas, I would never send a student there!” and so on. From years of doing the PGR, I have grown accustomed to the extent to which intelligent people can both deceive themselves and be completely ignorant of simple facts. Any sociologist of the profession could have predicted that a department composed of distinguished philosophers–who had trained many students at their prior places of employment–would produce highly successful PhDs in philosophy. I said this to the critics at the time, and subsequent events completely vindicated my position. The same had happened with Rutgers in the early 1990s, and, again, I was correct.
So, I counsel using both current strength, as revealed by PGR rankings, and placement record, together with what information you can gather about important recent changes to departments (for this, it’s worth looking at how a department fared in previous PGR rankings, some of which are listed right on the PGR’s main rankings), and other information, to get the best complete picture you can of placement prospects. Toward constructing as helpful and accurate a picture as you can, here are some factors that can affect placement:
-Overall quality of the program: When you apply for jobs, your application will typically be one of several hundred. In the initial stages of evaluation, the perceived strength of the program you are coming from can play a large role (depending on just who is reading your application). When application readers consult your letters of recommendation, statements like “One of the best students our program has had in recent years” mean a lot more to most evaluators when the student is perceived as coming from a top program.
-Quality of the program in your area, strength of your advisors: Also very important (perhaps even more important than overall quality of your program) is how strong your program is perceived as being in your area of specialization. Closely connected with this is how respected are your advisors, who will be writing your letters of recommendation. As Leiter writes in his “Open Letter”: “With rare exceptions, only philosophers with established reputations in an area of specialization can get students good jobs in that area. Letters of recommendation from philosophers who are not respected researchers in an area are generally not very credible.” See the relevant section of that letter for impressive evidence in favour of Leiter’s claims here.
-Placement operations. Sometimes programs do well in placement at least to some extent because they work harder and more effectively at placing their graduates. Good placement operations do things like the following. They conduct mock interviews for their candidates to prepare for their real job interviews. They have their job candidates give their “job talks” (the paper they will give when seeking jobs) at their own program’s colloquium series as a “warm-up,” and will have lots of the program’s faculty members attend these warm-up job talks. They will have someone (usually the placement director) look over all of a candidate’s application, including all of the letters of recommendation, to assure that everything fits together well, that, if possible, at least one of the letters addresses the candidate’s teaching abilities, etc. (Here’s an amusing example of a failure of such coordination. Once when I was reading job applications, one letter of recommendation praised a candidate for being, without exception, the best student that had ever come through a certain special program the department had set up for a certain area of philosophy. That sounded impressive, until I got to the next letter, which explained that the department had just set up the special program the candidate was in, and remarked about how nice it was that the candidate in question was the first student to go through it.)
-Some programs have valuable connections with certain colleges which help them to place their students at those schools. For instance, there may be a program at a Catholic university that is very successful at placing its students in Catholic colleges, some programs may have connections with colleges in their geographic regions, or sometimes a program just develops a history of placing its students at certain colleges who come to like the candidates who have been trained at a certain program.
With some knowledge of the factors that may be important, you can seek information about the placement prospects of the various programs, and put together a more-or-less accurate story. You can ask the contact people at the programs in question about their placement records, and, perhaps more helpfully, ask current and recent students at the programs. Some possible stories: Such-and-such a program isn’t all that strong overall, but they have some significant placement successes because they have one or two very highly respected faculty members, and the students of these faculty members do very well on the market. (In this case, it’s a good idea to get a read on your prospects for being able to work with the faculty members in question.) Such-and-such a program has placed very well in the recent past, but they’ve slipped noticeably in the rankings recently due to a loss of certain key faculty members, and most of the placement successes were students of the faculty that recently left. Such-and-such a program isn’t highly rated, but they do place a large percentage of their graduates in tenure-track jobs. However, these jobs are at small colleges with which the program has connections, and very few of its students get placed at leading research programs. (How attractive such a program’s placement prospect are, of course, depend a lot on your own preferences for what kind of job you’d like.)
Some of this information will take quite a bit of effort to acquire, so you may want to conduct these investigations after narrowing your possibilities to a quite short list, using perhaps ranking and placement records for a quick-and-provisional estimation of your job prospect in reaching a short list.
c. Program Web Sites
Most programs now have a good deal of good information about their programs at their web sites. You can usually learn a lot about financial support, the structure and requirements of the programs, and other information. There will usually be substantial information about the individual faculty members, including lists of their recent important publications. Sometimes you will be linked to individual faculty members home pages, where you can read some of the papers themselves.
Some suspicion is called for when programs start issuing evaluations of themselves; as the PGR advises: “Students should also take with a grain of salt the self-assessments of program quality offered by faculty trying to recruit students: it is fair to say that ‘puffery’ is the norm, and misrepresentation of fraudulent proportions not uncommon. Students are better off relying on the opinions of faculty at other institutions to which the student is applying, and this Report. You should also, of course, consult your own faculty advisors, though keep in mind they may have their own parochial biases and blinkers as well. Students might also look for tangible indications to verify representations of program excellence…” (see the rest of the PGR’s section on “Applying to Graduate Schools” for more, including a list of five such types of indications).
d. Current and Recent Students
As we’ve already seen, the PGR advises students to consult with current graduate students at programs about certain matters: “Because evaluators do not have reliable access to information about the quality of graduate teaching and mentoring for most departments, this was not a component of the evaluation. As always, students are advised to talk to current students before enrolling at any program.” I’d add that current students can be a helpful source of information about placement prospects: Many of them have been carefully observing the fates of their colleagues who have preceded them onto the job market, and have useful perspectives on the matter. And they can also give you a good idea of what the “atmosphere” of a program is like – what’s it like to be a graduate student there?, Is there cutthroat competition among students?, Do they hang out together, and with faculty, “talking shop”? Recent graduates of programs can also be a good source of such information. Often in one-on-one communications, current and recent students of programs can give you information that is unlikely to be posted in public places (e.g., that a certain faculty member is only good to work with if your ideas agree very much with hers). Often programs will put you in e-mail contact with current graduate students, if you ask them to do so. Or current students’ e-mail addresses are sometimes listed on a program’s web site. Or you can talk to current students if you visit the program, which brings us to…
e. Campus Visits
It is often very valuable to visit a program. You can often sit in on graduate seminars, meet with individual faculty members, and, perhaps most helpfully of all, hang out with current graduate students in the program and ask them lots of questions.
Many programs will pay part, or sometimes all, of the expenses for such a trip for candidates they have accepted before the students decide on which program to attend.
Generally, I’d advise waiting until you’ve already been accepted before making such a visit – in part because you can often get some of your expenses paid for that way. But another reason is that campus visits can take up a lot of your time, and so might be best reserved for when you know that the program is definitely an option for you.
(Incidentally, I would discourage chairpersons of departments, directors of graduate study, and other faculty from meeting with potential graduate students in person before admissions decisions are made. Students usually ask for such meetings under the guise of getting more information about the program. However, I’ve found that they usually view such meetings as a chance to improve their chances of admission – which is often their real reason for wanting to visit. Some might think that’s OK – perhaps on the grounds that such a student, and especially one who travels a long distance to make such a visit, is showing a good deal of interest in the program, and the program should be especially interested in candidates with so much interest in them. But such a procedure will give a relative advantage to students with the financial means to travel around the country during their senior years in college, lobbying for admission. I, for one, don’t think that should be encouraged. Better for everyone, I think, if personal visits are made after admissions decisions have been made. What I suggest in responding to such requests for meetings prior to admissions decisions is a nice reply message saying that in order to promote objectivity in admissions decisions, you don’t meet with prospective students before those decisions are made. Oh, and about the occasional student who happens to be visiting friends or relatives in the area of your university prior to admissions decisions, and is wondering, since they’re going to be in the area anyway, whether they might stop in for some information…. I don’t know just how widespread this is, but I know that this sort of thing frequently happens: A student decides they’d like to have meetings with some faculty in a certain program, to improve their chances of getting in. They find some relative or friend who lives in the vicinity of the university in question, and they call this person, saying something like, “Hey, I’m looking to visit X University. Maybe I can stop by and see you sometime while I’m out there?” They then e-mail the DGS and/or other faculty, saying something like, “I’m planning to visit so-and-so, who lives very nearby your university. I was wondering, since I’m going to be so close anyway, whether I might stop by and see you, just to get some information about your program.”)