Philosophy Graduate School FAQs
How do I get admitted?
Graduate schools may consider five types of evidence when deciding whether to admit you and whether to give you financial aid: your grades and courses, letters of recommendation, a writing sample, GRE scores, and your personal statement.
Grades and Courses, What is needed? Departments may look at your overall GPA, but they'll primarily be interested in your grades in philosophy classes. Philosophy departments get few enough applicants that they'll also look at what courses you took, and how well you did in them. Doing well outside of philosophy might help a bit, if you do well in any area relevant to your philosophical interests. For example, if you're interested in philosophy of physics, doing well in advanced physics courses will help; if you're interested in classical Greek philosophy, doing well in Greek and Latin language courses will help. But since they're primarily interested in your philosophical abilities, your philosophy courses matter more.
Who should write my Letters of Recommendation?
Most schools require you to have approximately three letters. These letters can matter a lot; try to pick people who know your work well enough to write knowledgeably about it. This means you should try to get faculty here familiar with your work. Talking with faculty outside of class is one good way of doing that; taking several courses from one faculty member is another. You should get recommendations from philosophy faculty, not from faculty in other departments, since the graduate school will be interested primarily in your philosophical ability. (If you're applying to a specialized program that requires knowledge of another field, a letter about your abilities in and knowledge of that field may be useful.) One final bit of advice: writing good letters of recommendation takes time. Do not ask someone to write a letter at the last minute. Ideally, you should ask people to write letters of recommendation early on, even before you decide where you're applying, so they have weeks to write the letter. (Schools often have forms that they ask recommenders to fill out. Usually, faculty will write a letter of recommendation for you, and then attach a copy of that to the forms.)
What about Writing Samples?
This may be the most important element of your application. The people who read the paper you submit will make their own judgement of it, and may place a lot of weight on it since it is their judgement. You should pick a good paper, and rewrite it. Keep reworking it until it's as good as you can make it. Getting advice from faculty here about that paper will be useful. You may want to ask the faculty member for whom you wrote the paper to review it; you may want to ask other faculty members to review it.
What should I know about GRE Scores?
No philosophy GRE exam is now offered. In their application information, schools will tell you whether they require the GRE. Whether GRE scores matter varies from department to department (and even from individual to individual). They do provide a uniform standard for judging all applicants, unlike (for example) grades, which may vary wildly. But they are only weakly correlated with success in graduate school. Departments (and individuals) will give more or less weight to GRE scores depending on which consideration they think most important.
How should I write a Personal Statement?
Graduate programs usually ask for a short statement describing your interests. This is your chance to introduce yourself to the department and make yourself seem as someone who will be an interesting student to have around. So write it carefully, and have at least one other person read it to judge whether you've succeeded.
What if my record isn't great?
If your record has problems (e.g., poor grades, relatively few philosophy courses, or weak letters of recommendation), you should consider applying to an exclusively Masters' degree program in philosophy. These programs can help you prepare for a Ph.D.-granting program. And if you do well, you have a proven graduate-level track record that can overcome weaknesses in your undergraduate program.
You should know, however, that courses do not automatically transfer at the graduate level. You should expect to take at least one year of courses at whatever department you end up in, even if you come with a Masters degree.
Where should I apply?
Two questions are relevant here. What criteria should you use to decide where to apply? How do you find out the necessary information about graduate programs?
What Criteria is important?
You, of course, must ultimately decide what criteria are most important to you. You may, for example, need or want to stay in a particular area, or to live in an area with jobs available for a partner. Three types of academic criteria might be important: the specializations of members of the department, who the members of the department are, and the overall quality of the department.
Should Faculty be a consideration?
Choosing a department because of particular faculty is dangerous. You don't know whether that faculty member will retire or leave for another department. If that person is the only reason for being interested in a department, and they leave, you may have wasted significant amounts of time and money. But if you're deciding between several departments which are generally interesting, choosing a particular faculty member you're interested in working with might be useful.
What are other considerations?
This is particularly important if you have particular interests. No department can realistically cover all subjects. If you, for example, are interested in philosophy of physics, you need to find a department that can help you learn and guide your research in philosophy of physics.
Some departments have joint graduate programs, which let you gain two graduate degrees in less time than you would usually need. For example, some law schools and philosophy departments have programs that let you get both a JD and a PhD in philosophy, by letting some philosophy courses count as electives in the JD program. If you're interested in multiple degrees, look for programs like that.
Perhaps the most important criterion is the overall quality of the department. Even if you already know the area you want to work in, you will certainly take courses outside your area of specialization, and you shouldn't become too narrowly focussed. The overall quality of the department will largely determine the overall quality of your education. It will also play an important role in determining your chances of getting a job.
You should probably apply to at least one school you would love to go to but aren't sure of getting in to. (Even the best students may not get into the best schools, since many more excellent students apply there than they can admit.) Then apply to several that you have a reasonably good chance of getting into. Finally, apply to at least one that's a bit below your level, so that you're almost sure of getting into it. But don't apply to any that you would be unhappy going to; applying requires some time and money, and going to a school involves even more commitment.
Sources of Information
- The "Philosophical Gourmet Report" is an excellent source of information about graduate programs.
- The easiest way to get information is to ask the faculty at your undergraduate institution. They can give you information that's hard to find otherwise.
- Your philosophy department may post information they receive from graduate schools. Here at UNL, the bulletin board opposite the philosophy department office has a large selection of posters from graduate departments.
- The Directory of American philosophers (available in the Department Office and in Love Library at Ref B/935/D5) lists departments, the degrees they offer, their faculty, and their faculty members' specializations. It also includes some information about the financial aid available in each department, and areas they think of themselves as especially good in.
- Departments usually have a booklet describing their graduate program. When you've found departments you're interested in, send for their booklets.
- Visiting the department, and talking to their graduate students, is a good way of finding out what being a graduate student there is like.
- Peterson's Guide to Graduate Schools has an online service with information about some programs, and links to departmental web pages.
What jobs can I get with a graduate degree in philosophy?
The primary job that philosophy graduate programs prepares you for is teaching philosophy at the college or university level. Occasionally, other jobs requiring philosophy graduate degrees are available. For example, hospitals sometimes hire ethics consultants. But these are relatively rare. You can, of course, use the analytical and writing skills you gain to help get other jobs. But there aren't other standard career paths that involve philosophy graduate degrees.
Teaching jobs in philosophy have been difficult to find for some years. Given the current financial climate, they may continue to be relatively scarce. Colleges and universities are hiring some faculty to replace retiring faculty. But the long-anticipated surge of hiring to replace large numbers of retiring faculty hasn't occurred, probably because departments are not being permitted to replace all retiring faculty.
Departments should be willing to tell you how many of their recent graduates have been able to get jobs. Many will give you that information in their informational booklets. Be careful here: whether those jobs are temporary or permanent matters.
What about money?
Most graduate students try to get financial aid. Going to graduate school without aid is possible, but very difficult. Graduate work is more intense than undergraduate, and requires a lot of time. Working and going to graduate school simultaneously is hard. Most financial aid in philosophy comes from teaching assistantships. This requires some work (usually no more than about fifteen hours per week). The nature of the work varies tremendously. Some departments expect new TA's to teach their own classes. Other departments have new TA's grade or lead discussion sections, and have experienced TA's teach their own classes. The number of students each TA is responsible for varies from twentyfive to one hundred. The work you're required to do as a TA will significantly affect your life as a graduate student. Be sure to check what each department you're considering offers. Departments usually offer assistantships to their most promising students. Sometimes departments don't offer first-year students assistantships, but decide which students are best after their first year, and offer them funding. Other departments offer incoming students funding.
Will I have to pass a language exam?
That depends on where you go and on your specialty. Some departments require competence in reading a language; many have given up the general requirement. Standardly, philosophy departments don't require two languages, counting the logic one. Of course, you will need to know any languages necessary for your specialty. For example, if your specialty is Kant, you'll have to know German.
How should I prepare for graduate school?
The most important thing to do is to get as broad and deep a philosophical education as you can. If you're at an institution which has undergraduate and graduate classes, taking some undergruate courses that are cross-listed with graduate courses will help you prepare, since you'll find out what graduate courses here are like (but have lower requirements than the graduate students). Finally, writing an honors thesis will help you, both by allowing you to work on a topic in great detail, and by providing you with a paper to submit to graduate school.
When should I do this?
Your first three years
do as well as possible in philosophy courses, looking especially for ways to make yourself and your work known to faculty
About one year before graduation
begin thinking about what schools you might be interested in; talk to faculty here and use printed texts to gather names
Summer before you graduate
- pick the paper you want to submit, and rewrite it as many times as you can
- send to departments for information about their graduate programs, and for applications
- register for the GRE's
Semester before you graduate
- ask people if they're willing to write letters of recommendation for you
- As early as possible, give forms for letters of recommendation to your recommenders
- Fill out the applications
- Write your personal statement
- Take the GRE
Semester in which you graduate
if you've finished everything, relax; if you're like most of us, work to get everything done