Selecting a graduate program in philosophy is a difficult task in itself, never mind the time-consuming nature of the actual application process. There are a variety of helpful websites, particularly the Leiter report, which ranks philosophy graduate programs based on the quality of their faculty and that is widely regarded as the industry standard for that sort of thing, to assist you in the decision process. But the breadth of information available to you can itself be overwhelming, and these three easy tips can be especially helpful in streamlining and simplifying this important task.
1. Be realistic
If you have been successful enough in philosophy that you are actually contemplating graduate study, it is probably because somewhere along the way you have been given positive feedback about your philosophical abilities. However, be careful not to misconstrue the favor of your professors with a suggestion that you ought to apply only to top-ten PhD programs. Top programs are incredibly competitive, and it’s important to be aware of how you look as an “on-paper” candidate. If you went to Podunk State University and have so-so GRE scores, you’re chances of going to Michigan are not very good despite your straight-A average and your glowing recommendations. It’s perfectly fine to apply to one or two great programs that you don’t have much chance of getting into, because you just never know. However, applications are expensive and you don’t want to waste your time or money. Further, you will likely find yourself with a choice among several very good programs by being realistic about your own chances and focusing on schools you can actually get into.
2. Placement record is more important than ranking
The academic purists among you will likely cringe at this suggestion, and among philosophy students there is definitely a tendency to view philosophical study as a subject of raw inquiry, not necessarily geared toward some career path. I’m sorry to those of you who believe this, but its utter nonsense. If you are trying to get into a PhD program in philosophy, it’s because you want to be a professor. As much as it’s probably a great experience to work with a top-ten or fifteen faculty, what good is that experience if that program places only 25% of their graduates? The goal here is to get into a program that will lead to landing a good job, and it’s not necessarily the case that highly ranked or well-regarded programs are also the ones with good placement records. If what you want is a good job teaching philosophy, focus on schools that give you the best chance to achieve that, regardless of what some ranking system has to say about them. Philosophy is a very elitist discipline, and cutting through that elitism by focusing on your goals is a useful strategy.
3. Apply to places you would go to if you were accepted
This point can be best illustrated by an example. As I was preparing my own list of graduate schools to apply to, I found myself very interested in the University of Arizona. It is a well-regarded program with a good placement record and great faculty. However, it is very competitive and there were a number of schools on my list where my chances of acceptance were much better, and which would likely be my chosen destination over the University of Arizona were I accepted to both. As a result, Arizona was cut from my list of potentials. Why would I spend the time and money preparing an application for a competitive, tough to get into institution when there were other schools where my chances were better, and that I would rather go to? I have watched my fellow graduate students send applications off to schools that they had very little interest in attending, but that either seemed like good fits for them or were simply the sorts of places that they thought they ought to be applying to. Don’t waste your time and energy. Every school you apply to should be one that you want to attend. This way, if you get accepted to only one place, it’s a school you are happy with. And if you get into more than one school that you actually want to go to, you can base your decision on things like placement record or financial package, rather than trivial concerns like not wanting to live in Tucson. Avoid these types of considerations by eliminating schools that you don’t really want to attend.
Choosing where you are going to apply to graduate school is an exciting, challenging, and nerve-racking task. Get feedback from professors and peers along the way, as you will often find out information that is not posted on any website. By approaching this task with a practical strategy, you will likely find yourself with a list of quality programs that you have a good chance of being accepted to, and a decision to be made among several great options regarding where you want to complete your PhD.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.