Some Thoughts on How to Choose a Graduate Program in Philosophy

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.”)


Some Thoughts on How to Choose a Graduate Program in Philosophy — 31 Comments

  1. Keith,

    This is an excellent post. While applying to schools last year I maintained a blog providing tips on preparing applications. However, I didn’t spend much time at all dealing with this issue (though I used much of the same strategy you used. I was lucky enough to have a recent enough graduate on the faculty at NEU). I really wish I had this additional resource during my round of applications.

    One thing you might want to comment on is the possibility for students to get fee waivers to many graduate schools if they are eligible for GRE waivers. This can effectively increase the number of schools you can afford to apply to. In my case it allowed me to apply to several more of the top schools than I would have had I not been able to get waivers.

    I hope you don’t mind, I’ve linked to this post from my blog (I still try to keep things updated for prospective students).

    All the best,

    John Basl

  2. All this seems very salutory and useful. I do worry, though, that all the emphasis put these days on placement records might encourage in some students an unrealistic view of how the job market works.

    (Keith’s advice is addressed, after all, to undergraduates, who have no knowledge, or even experience, of the job market, much less what is being assessed in applications and interviews.)

    Going to a good graduate program, and all that that involves, no more guarantees success than having a good pedigree and (even) a good upbringing does, or than a good diet and good exercise regimen guarantees longevity. A good program improves your chances, no doubt significantly. But some of the most important factors are what you bring to the table and what you make of it during graduate school. It’s a competitive market and no program is magic.

    I’m not objecting to anything Keith said — in fact, I agree with pretty much all of it, and expect that he would agree with some, if not all, of the sentiment I’ve expressed here.

    I just think it’s worth reminding students that these sorts of calculations can only go so far. If other things are genuinely equal, they can matter. But not against more substantive differences, about specific areas of study you want to pursue or the type of training you want to receive.


    Victor Caston

  3. This is very helpful advice. In addition, I’d like to add a couple of points that often don’t get mentioned in the normal channels. I wish when I’d been applying a couple of things had been emphasised more. Firstly, students are often very likely to change their interests over their grad student career, which suggests not placing so much emphasis on programs’ strength in one’s current area of interest. Secondly a difference can be made by the quality of current students (who are regularly around the department). Which other departments current students got offers from, and placement records, are decent indicators of this.

  4. A point concerning the visiting of grad schools before admissions decisions are made:

    How does this differ from students who have the financial means to meat faculty from departments they plan on applying to at conferences etc? It seems such interaction can also stand to improve an applicants chances just in virture of the fact that some department members know who the student is by meeting them in a professional setting.
    I would imagine when a student does visit a department he will most likely talk with those members of the department whose area the student is interested in. In which case, one could also meet all relevant faculty at, say, the APA.

    So my question is this: how is visiting a department before a decision is made different from attending conferences with the goal of talking to faculty of departmens you are applying to?

  5. Thanks for these very helpful comments, Keith. Like the Philosophical Gourmet itself, your comments will be especially useful for students from overseas who are thinking of applying to American graduate programs. One thing that I might add is that prospective applicants should pay careful attention to Brian Leiter’s meticulous tracking of the moves of faculty members from various institutions to various institutions. Any moves anounced from Nov 2006 onward will not have been reflected in the PGR’s current rankings.

  6. I agree entirely with Matthew. These comments are prove excellent advice to all prospective graduate students. I will be sending the link to the piece to all students I know considering study for a Ph.D. Thank you!

  7. Some very good points are made in the comments. I’d like to explicitly agree with and emphasize the point made by Victor Caston, since my post may have been a bit misleading — at least to some prospective grad students — on that point. Since the post was on choosing graduate programs, when I discussed (at considerable length) placement, I was focused on the impact on placement of what program a student is in. But VC is definitely right to warn students against thinking that getting into any program, no matter how good, comes anywhere near to guaranteeing a good job. This warning is correct in general, but is especially so if one’s goal is to get a very good job at a research-oriented university. For that, you have to start having ideas that can be important to your field, and to develop the ability to express them in writing at a high professional level. You have to give evidence of being at least somewhat close to becoming an important “player” in your field. I think that’s more likely to happen at a top program, where you’re taking seminars from philosophers who are at the tops of their fields, and where you’re more likely to be surrounded by excellent fellow graduate students. And if it does happen, being at a top program will mean that its happening is more likely to be securely recognized by an advisor whose recommendation is likely to get potential employers to take a very close look at you. But none of that takes away from the facts that it does have to happen, and that most of what will decide whether or not it happens will come down to what you do after you get to the program you attend. (I think many beginning graduate students have to break out of the mindset in which they take as their goal being a good student in some way quite continuous with what being a good student is for an undergraduate. Instead, when you read good philosophy papers and books (which you should do a lot of), you should be thinking in terms of putting yourself on the same playing field as the producers of that philosophy.)

    Sadly, I fear that going to a poorly regarded program comes closer to guaranteeing that one will not get one of those very good jobs. *Coming closer to guaranteeing* isn’t guaranteeing: I’m just expressing the opinion that it makes getting a very good job extremely difficult.

  8. Thanks to Keith (and also Brian) for providing this service; like others, I endorse the advice.

    A few thoughts:

    1. Apply to a large number of places. On my view, except in special circumstances around 10 is the minumum, and around 15 is better. Outcomes are unpredictable and disorderly enough (eg, getting rejected at a weaker program while getting in at a stonger one), to make lower numbers pretty risky. As Keith says, this makes for considerable expense, but it is an investement with long term ramifications. For most students, in this number should be included a range of schools from “long shot” to “shoo in.” Some students, and their advisors, may be confident enough to avoid “safety schools,” but both student and advisor should think carefully here.

    2. Do not make a decision based on the prospect of studying with one person. Even if all parties are well-meaning, philosophical chemistries are subtle, and you may not work effectively with your chosen one. This, btw, is one of the reasons it’s hard to predict what you will end up working on, and why it makes sense to favor programs with brooad strength.

    3. It is perfectly reasonable to consider location: is this a place you’d be comfortable living in? I suspect that misery is implicated as many bad graduate student outcomes as inability, and if you don’t like the place, it may be tough. You’ll be there a while: I chose Ann Arbor in part because I thought it would be a fun place to be a poor (in my case, both academically and financially!) student, and I was very I glad I considered this factor, since I was there . . . err . . . a few years.


  9. Some good advice. However, I, for one, am not fully on-board with the idea of applying to a range of schools including some shoo-ins — at least not for all students. That’s good advice for some. For instance, a student who really wants to teach college philosophy, would rather do that at almost any college than do anything else they have a shot at, and would prefer doing that by a great enough margin that they just want to take their best shot at getting to do that, even if their best shot isn’t all that great a shot. And others, too, no doubt. But, given various personal factors (preferences, level of risk tolerance, other opportunities, etc.), it seems perfectly reasonable for another student to think like this: “Well, I’d like to go to grad school in philosophy, and these programs look very good to me. I know there’s a good chance I won’t get into any of them, and I could also apply to this and that shoo-in, but I’d prefer to try something else than to go to a shoo-in, anyway.” Also, there can be students in this situation: They’re extremely talented, but don’t have as much course work in philosophy as graduate programs like. If they don’t go right to graduate school, they have the chance to take several advanced philosophy courses at their school or some other place. (Sometimes masters programs in philosophy play this role, in which case a student might apply to top PhD programs, and also to MA programs as their back-up.) So there’s a good chance they’ll be significantly better positioned to get into a top program after waiting a year, but there’s also a decent chance that they might get into a top program already this year. Such a student might do well to apply only to top programs, with the thought that if they don’t get in, they’ll try again next year — and perhaps next year they will also apply to programs a bit more down their list.

  10. Keith, I agree with your point here about the danger of allowing candidates to visit departments in order to enhance their chances of being accepted and funded. I wonder, though, if there isn’t a compromise position here. Instead of saying “no”, I think a chair could host such a visit and make sure that no one on the admissions committee was involved in the event. That might mean that the visitor doesn’t get to talk to everyone he or she might wish to talk to, but a good chair can explain the procedure. The advantage to the department is that it allows the recruiting advantages of personal contact without corrupting the admissions process.

  11. Some such compromise might be fine, Jon. But I would suggest making it clear to the potential visitors that the visit will only be good for getting information about the program and won’t help their chances of getting admitted at a point where they can escape the visit without embarrassment. I suggest this b/c of my suspicion that most prospectives who make such a pre-decision visit really are angling to lobby for admission. (Am I just too cynical here? If so, it’s due to discussions with some real master anglers.)

  12. Keith, no I don’t think you are too cynical! You are exactly right. But here’s a principle worthy of acceptance: when candidates attempt to gain an unfair advantage in this way, we do not owe them an explanation to the effect that our procedures are developed to stop such unfairness. My own approach is to use the visit to the best advantage of the department, and personal visits are really good for helping to spread the word about the positive atmosphere, etc., of a rising program. I also know what the candidate is hoping to get out of the visit, but I don’t see any need to acknowledge that or take it into account. If I thought the visitor didn’t realize that there’d be no advantage and didn’t realize that the advantage being sought was unfair, then I might say something in advance. But I think that candidates know what they are doing and know that such an advantage would be unfair.

  13. Keith, you note,

    Some such compromise might be fine, Jon. But I would suggest making it clear to the potential visitors that the visit will only be good for getting information about the program and won’t help their chances of getting admitted at a point where they can escape the visit without embarrassment.

    The problem seems more subtle. Suppose that you learn something about the candidate on the visit that (1) you otherwise would not have known and (2) is relevant to the acceptance criteria? Do you try to ignore that information? Do you regard that information as providing the candidate with an unfair advantage? If the information is relevant to the acceptance criteria–and not just his chumminess quotient–I guess I can’t see why you would ignore it. What would the argument be? That the candidate had an unfair or disproportionate number of opportunities to convey relevant information? For that matter, chumminess is not such a bad thing to learn about, either.

  14. Mike: I think Jon was proposing to meet with candidates when he (Jon) is *not* on the admissions committee, and to allow the candidate only to talk with faculty not on the admissions com., and it was some such compromise that I was saying might be OK. The basic idea seems to be to keep the candidates away from those who will be making admissions decisions. (That wouldn’t work well at my dept. as we often do things: Even when I’m not on the admissions committee, if one of the most serious candidates works on one of my topics, someone on the committee might give me the candidate’s writing sample and ask me what I think, and I might ask one of my colleagues to similarly take a look at a writing sample when I’m on the committee.)

    Jon: I think many of these “anglers” don’t think of what they’re doing as unfair. Just as those who work harder on their writing samples will have a (presumably fair) advantage over those who don’t, they think of themselves as putting in the extra effort that quite properly improves their chances. And I think many DGSs and other faculty who do meet with these “anglers” agree, and think that these pre-decision visitors are showing interest and initiative that can be quite properly taken into account in admissions decisions. Also, some candidates may be starting to get the idea that others are making such visits, and that they have to as well to avoid being disadvantaged. In this situation, I think it’s to everyone’s advantage to deescalate this program searching arms race, and just hold off on personal visits until after admissions decisions are made and to make it clear that that is one’s policy — especially in light of the general advantage this practice would give to those with the financial resources to fly about the country.

  15. Keith,

    I received mixed advice from friends, faculty, and graduate students in the department where I am, so I came up with my own formula for figuring this stuff out, which (in some respects) looks similar to yours.

    I established several criteria for programs I’d want to apply to (in no particular order of importance):

    1. Are there people there I’d like to work with?
    2. Reputation of School
    3. Reputation of Department
    4. Location
    5. Funding
    6. Will I be able to get a job?

    I then formulated a preliminary list of programs that are strong in my primary areas of interest, but that are also strong overall (since my primary interests might change). I then took this list to each one of my letter writers to get their advice. After comparing those notes, I decided to keep some and drop others.

    I think the PGR was extremely helpful, not merely for the rankings, but as a catalog of options worth pursuing. I’m also a compulsive reader of footnotes and bibliographies, which I think really helps one to see who are the major players in one’s areas of interest.

    Re: Campus visits

    I agree that they should be restricted to after offers are sent out. If it’s true that those who visit will (or think they will) have an advantage in the admissions process, then it seems entirely unfair for those of us (like me and many others I know) who don’t have the money to make such trips. Not allowing pre-decision visits would help level the playing field at least in that respect.

  16. I would also agree with Professor DeRose when he says “Also, there can be students in this situation…(Sometimes masters programs in philosophy play this role, in which case a student might apply to top PhD programs, and also to MA programs as their back-up).”

    Although the specifics for me are a little different, I applied to top PhD programs last year, and masters programs as a backup. I got into a top 40 program, but none of the really good ones I was hoping for. As a result, I decided to attend a masters program and re-apply in two years. So at least I am an instance of what Professor DeRose was talking about.

  17. I suppose it’s admirable for Keith, et al, to be concerned about issues of socio-economic fairness, but my own opinion is that there isn’t that much to worry about here.

    As it happened I visited quite a few departments before being accepted, including the ones where I ended up doing my MA and my PhD. (I didn’t do this because I was terribly wealthy, but because I happened to be on road trips that went near schools I was interested in.) I certainly didn’t think of myself as an “angler” at the time — instead I was quite clueless, and was sincerely interested in seeing these programs that I thought I might apply to. I would have been quite disappointed if some or all faculty members at these schools had refused to meet with me on grounds of fairness. (Fortunately no one did at any of the 5 or so schools I visited this way.) I would have been especially disappointed if I’d been told I couldn’t go to the seminar that met on the day I was visiting, or couldn’t meet with an author who’s book I’d enjoyed reading, just because that would involve me meeting someone on the admissions committee.

    I think it should be emphasized that pre-admission visits often *don’t* help prospective students gain admission. These visits are fairly awkward to begin with, because no one in the department knows exactly what stance to take toward completely unvetted students. And furthermore, the students have every opportunity to make a bad impression, and eliminate the opportunity that they might have had to get in based on how they looked on paper.

    I think most students at that stage don’t have a great sense of whether they would make a favorable impression or an unfavorable impression. (Anyway, I didn’t.) So, it doesn’t strike me as unfair to allow students who somehow have the opportunity to visit a school prior to admission to also have the opportunity to contribute more information to the admission process in a way that, from their perspective, doesn’t seem any more likely to help than it is to hurt. It seems to me that the various benefits of social interaction, professional development, and providing useful information to the prospective students greatly outweigh whatever limited concerns there might be regarding fairness.

    Perhaps I’m being naive here… Do other people really think this is a serious problem?

    (I hope it’s not rude to float the hypothesis that what’s really going on here is that people dislike these visits because they’re awkward and often a waste of time for faculty, and that the fairness issues are just a post hoc rationalization for an independently desired conclusion.)

  18. Justin: If I’m understanding you right, your reason for discounting fairness concerns is that pre-admissions visits can hurt a candidate’s chances, and that many candidates don’t know whether the visit will help or hurt their chances. That doesn’t do much to ease my concerns. Especially in a context where a small percentage of applicants can get in, it can be an advantage to get a shot at significantly raising one’s chances, even if one thereby also takes a risk of hurting one’s case. It was after watching someone who was apparently very good at these visits — a student I knew who visited several programs, at which time I got e-mails from faculty I knew at the programs in question telling me how impressed they were with him — that I became concerned about the fairness of the situation and about the escalation that would be involved if that generally were to become the way to get one’s best shot at getting into very good programs. That some students who make such visits aren’t as impressive to the faculty they meet or don’t know ahead of time whether they’ll help or hurt their chances doesn’t do that much to ease those concerns.

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  23. From the original post:

    “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.”)”

    Just out of curiosity, how do you know what students making visits to departments are saying to their friends or relatives prior to coming to the area? Seems pretty implausible to me that anyone should know that students “frequently” are giving one reason for their visit to friends/relatives and another reason to members of the department. If you do make a habit of acquiring such information, I believe the CIA is hiring.

    Even if this sort of thing does happen, who cares? I have mixed feelings about the practice of visiting departments before admissions decisions have been made, but I’m not sure how students being somewhat wishy-washy on the real reason for making the drive out there should factor into one’s opinion on the subject. I’ll second Justin’s suspicion that the opposition to pre-admissions visits isn’t *entirely* based on fairness issues.

  24. How do I know? I have been told by students. Mostly these are concerned students who are worried that they are at a disadvantage because they have talked with or heard about others who are doing these things.

    If you think that you have somehow divined that what is driving me here is other than what I say, I don’t think there’s anything much for me to say. Think what you want.

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  27. I know that this thread has not been commented on in some time and having finished my applications this is something closer to a comment than a discussion topic.
    As an international student living and studying a very very long way (South of the Equator) from the departments I applied to a post-admissions decision visit is simply not possible. Personal circumstances however placed me in the city of one of the schools to which I hoped, and subsequently did apply to. This was last summer. I sent in a general email knowing it was the summer, hoping merely to take a look at the school, it’s facilities and the general area. I received a rather short reply that a visit was not possible despite my modest request.
    Having read this I now feel somewhat uneasy at having even made the request. I understand that many who seek out personal meetings during these visits may be seeking an advantage. But ultimately for me I was lucky enough to even be close to the school to make a visit possible. I am now concerned that I may have hurt my chances of admission as due to my country if origin I would be easily recognisable amongst the other applicants.
    (It might also be worth noting that in my home country department visits are highly encouraged, although this may have something to do with funding not being administered at a departmental level.)

  28. I’d think it’s unlikely that you hurt your chances by asking. In the post, I urged faculty to avoid pre-decision meetings, but I don’t get the feeling my advice has caught on, and I don’t think many would react to the request in a negative way that would hurt an applicant’s chances. (Even though I would turn down such a meeting, I would not hold it against an applicant that they asked.) It’s quite likely that the people who finally made the decision on your application never heard of your request — and even if they did, I doubt that would have much effect.

  29. So, I think I’ll have a good writing sample; but I hail from a little-known undergraduate school, have three history professors writing letters of recommendation for me, and have a 1400 GRE. Should I even bother applying to the top programs? Could demonstrated research ability save me, in spite of the above application problems? How important is viewpoint in the writing sample? If I take a position which is antithetical to that of most contemporary philosophers, are they likely to discriminate against my application on that basis?

  30. ACM: Am I correct in assuming that you were not a philosophy major as an undergrad? If so there are several things you might do to make your application more competitive. In your letter of application you should explain concisely but directly why you’ve decided to pursue a PhD in Philosophy; you might also highlight in that letter various other features of your application that attest to your skills in philosophy; and I would recommend that your writing sample be in philosophy — not in e.g. history. (And no, viewpoint in the paper should not matter; clarity, argumentation, and depth of understanding of the issues are what matters.) The more you can do to give concrete evidence of your excellence in philosophy, the better.

    I know that Northwestern (my home institution) would be delighted to receive applications of this sort, from serious and excellent students whose interest in philosophy, though having bloomed late (relatively speaking), is nonetheless deep. Such an application would receive the same serious attention as applications from philosophy majors at good undergraduate institutions. I doubt Northwestern is unique in this way; I’m sure other departments too would give serious scrutiny to such an application. This doesn’t guarantee you’ll get in, of course, but you will be taken seriously (which I take it is what you’re looking for).

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