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Day 8: Advising Students on Applying to Philosophy Graduate Programs

At the Mentoring the Mentors Workshop yesterday, four faculty at philosophy doctoral programs (UNC Chapel Hill, Marquette, University of Oregon and Brown) talked about how to advise students about graduate school. This is the kind of information that is difficult to find in print, although some advice can be found in the blogosphere here and here, and Brown’s program offers advice here.  Beware: the one thing I took away is that different programs run their admissions process differently and so advice about how to apply to one program might be the anti-advice for another program.

Geoff Sayre-McCord from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill explained that his program realized that the writing sample was the single best indicator of success in graduate school. After an initial look at personal statements, at UNC, two philosophy faculty read each writing sample and they make their decision on this basis.   Sayre-McCord advised faculty to have applicants include information about their training in their file if students come from smaller programs that are not well-known. One way to do this could be in a recommendation, another could be for the applicant to include a bibliography on three courses that had the most influence on a student’s career.

Grant Silva at Marquette recommended that students write a personal statement that explains how the student has interests in the areas the program specializes in. He said applicants should apply early. He recommended students contact people they are interested in working with at his program prior to application, because faculty can advocate for students.  Though Silva-McCord said don’t visit.  They discourage it because it contributes to implicit bias (middle class men whose parents went to college tend to be those with the resources and the chutzpah to visit).  And Bonnie Mann said getting in touch can feel kind of pushy and weird, so you have to be careful about it.  Silva recommended that students do research to know what areas you would work on with whom (contra to Silva-McCord’s view that you should know the program but not mention specific people). Silva suggested students be able to speak of a general trajectory, rather than a specific dissertation project. One thing that could really make a difference is having a recommendation letter from someone outside of your institution because this shows that people outside of your department think you have ideas that are important to the field.

Bonnie Mann, chair at the University of Oregon, encouraged students not to despair if they are wait-listed, because many successful graduate students at Oregon were admitted off the waitlist, and given the way the competition for students work, Oregon is sometimes a backup school for students, depending what happens further up the list you could still get in if you are 10 on the waitlist. At Oregon, the admissions committee begins with a review of 175 applications, which is then reduced to 25, then at that stage, any faculty member can reintroduce disgarded applications. So faculty should contact faculty they know at Oregon and ask them to look at students, especially underrepresented students. At Oregon, recommendation letters are extremely important, but Mann advised faculty not to delve into the deep psychology of students.   If you cannot write a good letter, then don’t write one at all. But while that is the case, explaining the questions a student’s dossier might raise (like time off or a low GPA because of some personal issue) should be done.

Nina Emery at Brown spoke of the desire within the department to increase the diversity of the graduate student body.   Emery said there were few hard and fast rules about how admissions works because the make-up of the admissions committee changes and it’s the admissions committee who makes the decisions. Emery acknowledges that implicit biases might be at work, and says that they are looking for candidates who are promising even if they do not have all of the polish that they might ideally want. They want to be able to tell a story about why they might not have that. Letters of recommendation that explain that story can make a big difference.   She also recommends faculty address questions about candidates in letters.

One question that came up was whether recommendation letters should be superlative to compete with all the other superlative recommendation letters. Sayre-McCord said something worth keeping in mind on this point: when you write a recommendation letter, you set a track record for yourself. But what the admissions committee cares about is the support you give to show a student has good ideas. If you can keep track or record comments students make or the thesis of papers that are noteworthy, even pointing to the writing sample. The writing sample is not just showing that a student can write, but that a student has interesting ideas. Bonnie Mann also recommended specificity in letter writing saying that letter writers should try to make a student come alive through a specific story. Emery encouraged letter writers to compare an applicant when possible to previous students your program sent to their program.

Sayre-McCord said he actively discourages undergraduate students from publishing in undergraduate journals. It is generally not good work and it doesn’t reflect well on them. But he said undergraduate conferences can be worthwhile if it will help students grow but not for itself.

The one topic where there was the most disagreement was over the personal statement, which made me think mentoring faculty might want to reach out to faculty at the specific programs to learn about their application process and how they understand the role of the personal statement in it. Sayre-McCord and Emery both were of the mind that, as Emery said, “The statement of purpose can only hurt you.” (She acknowledged that they were looking for a better way to say this.) Sayre-McCord said that there are just so many possibilities for missteps in personal statements. It’s easy to dismiss the person who says I want to do exactly x with y person, better to say what their general interests are. Show you are ready for graduate school without being too narrow or focused and committed. The statement should explain why are you interested in studying things that are relevant to the program, but don’t explain how you want to do x with y person. Sayre-McCord said, “We ask ourselves, will this person thrive here?”

One misstep for the personal statement is that you might say you want to work with a faculty member in an area they worked in but are no longer interested in working in. Sayre-McCord said don’t write a statement of purpose (a different term for the personal statement) that expresses interest in an area not represented in the program. But Silva said that having a different area of philosophy you are interested in might be attractive to a program if that interest could draw on the strengths of the program and also reflects who you are. He was interested in Latin American philosophy at a program that did not have anyone doing that work, which he said individuated him, and he said in his personal statement that he thought it would set him up on the market.   Bonnie Mann said that the “Statement should be philosophically interesting.”

There was some discussion about how many students are admitted with an MA. At one program, I think it was Oregon, all but one in their most recent cohort had an MA. At Brown, it was 1/3. Sayre-McCord recommended students not go to MA programs that are part of Ph.D. programs because there is a real risk that they produce second class citizenry. But he said, there are well-funded MA programs with fantastic mentors and a good number of them, which Daily Nous listed here. Encouraging students to attend MA programs need not be articulated in terms of their lack or inadequacy, but rather in terms of a place to round out their philosophical education.

Photograph is of me at the site of Plato’s Academy in Athens (2014).

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