Graduate School Information

Where to Start

There is now a lot of useful information on the Internet about graduate study in philosophy. Here we will cover only some of the most important points. If you are even remotely interested in studying philosophy after your B.A., we urge you to contact one of our advisers.

A good place to start for more information on graduate study in philosophy is the American Philosophical Association. In particular, you should read their latest guide. This guide contains a lot of useful information, including information about each program's placement record, which as we will stress below is essential information to consider.

The information on this page should be supplemented by advice that you receive from both our advisers and the professors who will be writing your letters of recommendation.

A Realistic Perspective on Graduate School

For a sober and sobering picture of philosophy graduate school and the profession of philosophy as a whole, start with Brian Leiter's "A Realistic Perspective on Graduate Study".

Working on a Ph.D. is a tremendous commitment of time, energy, and perhaps even money.

On average, it now takes on six to seven years to finish a Ph.D., although some people can complete their doctorate in five. If you teach a lot while in school, you may need more than seven years. An M.A. requires less of a commitment with respect to time, but it can be expensive because very few M.A. students receive the kind of funding (such as tuition, health care insurance, and stipends) that good Ph.D. programs tend to provide.

Money will be tight.

Graduate stipends in philosophy are modest and they are not always indexed to the local cost of living. If you have children or family, it will be tough to support them with your income. This is especially the case in large urban centers, where the cost of living is much higher than in smaller cities or more rural areas.

Moreover, the competition for jobs is fierce

The ratio of candidates to jobs advertised typically hovers somewhere between 1.5 and 2. This number, by the way, includes advertisements for all philosophy jobs, including "contingent" jobs, such as substitute lines, one-year "lecturer" positions, and "teaching fellowships." If we were to examine the ratio of candidates to advertisements for tenure-track jobs, the number would be even higher. A large percentage of those graduating with a Ph.D. in philosophy do not immediately find tenure-track appointments, but rather spend a few years in a post-doc, or else in temporary, adjunct, or visiting positions. Notice that we mean it when we say "positions." It is all too typical nowadays for a newly minted doctor of philosophy to move from one one-year position to another. In some cases, they even move from one coast to another. This means that you and your family will need a lot of geographic flexibility. For a more personal and recent assessment of the job market in philosophy, please feel free to consult with the Philosophy Department faculty, some of whom have very fresh, and not so old, memories of this process!

You should also know that, relative to the amount of schooling that you have undergone, academic pay can often be modest.

Depending on the part of the country that you are in, starting salaries for full-time, entry-level academic jobs in philosophy can be as low as $30,000.

Yes, I Want to Go to Graduate School 

You first need to determine whether you are going for a master's degree (M.A.) or a doctorate (Ph.D.). If you want to be a professor, you will need a Ph.D. You might consider terminal M.A. programs for the following reasons:

  • You are interested in dabbling a little bit more in philosophy but you have no intention of being a professional philosopher.
  • If you are interested in another advanced degree (say, a law degree or a medical degree), a master's in philosophy is often helpful, both if you want to raise your grades from your undergraduate ones, and if you want to gain some experience with legal philosophy, medical ethics, or other related fields.
  • In some cases, earning a master’s degree might help you to get into a stronger Ph.D. program than you otherwise might have.

If you are considering an M.A. but intending to ultimately earn a Ph.D. in philosophy, you should consider the following:

  • Not all M.A. programs excel at placing students in good Ph.D. programs. As with Ph.D. programs, you need to do your homework and identify those programs with strong placement records.
  • If you are in a terminal M.A. program in a department that also grants the Ph.D., you should be aware that this will not necessarily put you on the inside track to get into that university's Ph.D. program.

For both M.A. and Ph.D. programs, the application timetable is this. Applications are made in the fall for entrance the following fall. So, for example, in order to enter a program in fall 2015, your application deadlines may come as early as mid-December 2014. Note that some schools state that their deadlines are later in the spring. But beware, usually there is an earlier date if you wish to receive any financial assistance (and your answer to whether you want financial assistance is always "YES, please").

If you want to apply to graduate school, you need to begin preparing your applications well in advance. For example, if you want to be on campus at University of X in fall 2015, you should begin to prepare to apply to University of X in spring 2014 (definitely no later than early August 2014).

Here are the basic steps to take when preparing an application:

1. Ask professors to write letters of recommendation for you.

We recommend that you do this very early. The letters of recommendation are one of the most important components of your application. So you need to give your recommenders plenty of advance notice. But in addition to that, we strongly recommend that you consult with your letter writers while you are picking your schools and while you are putting the finishing touches on your writing sample and personal statements.

Most programs require at least three letters. Make every effort to secure good letters from full-time faculty members who know you and your work well. You should have taken at least one class with your chosen professor. Preferably, you have cultivated a longstanding relationship with this professor.

2. Prepare a writing sample (usually around 15 pages).

It is hard to overstate the importance of your writing sample. This is your chance to show off your abilities as a philosopher. Your paper should be a revised term paper. (Trying to write a paper from scratch is not recommended.) Ask the professors who are writing your letters of recommendation to help you to choose an appropriate writing sample. Hopefully, they will agree to read a draft of the revised paper.

3. Pick your schools.

Again, you should consult with your advisers and letter writers to determine precisely which programs you should apply to.

Some things to look for in a good program:

  • Overall reputation of the department.
  • Strength of the department in your areas of interest. (These schools may not have the strongest overall reputation.)
  • The placement record of your program.
  • Financial Aid. (Our strong recommendation: do not go to a school that is unable to give you substantial financial aid in the form of grants or teaching stipends. Given the remarks above about job prospects and pay, it is best to avoid taking out loans.)

Brian Leiter's Philosophical Gourmet Report will give you a sense of the relative overall reputations of philosophy departments in the English-speaking world that are primarily "analytic" in orientation as well as lists of highly regarded programs based on their specialty. For departments with strengths in Continental philosophy you can consult the list that Ferit Güven has collected. The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy keeps a list as well. If you want to look at the overall reputation of a university, The Times Higher Educational Supplement offers a ranking of the top 200 universities.

It must be stressed that these lists will give you a sense of a program's reputation. You should use these lists as a supplement to the advice that you receive from your professors as they may have information about a program that cannot be gleaned from a ranking.

While the reputation of a program is worth taking into consideration, that program’s placement record should be a crucial factor in your decision-making. Note that the placement record of a program might not correlate with its overall reputation.

As a bit of general advice, you should apply to a range of schools. There is no agreed upon formula. So, let it suffice that we recommend that you apply to a curated selection of schools, consisting of a mix of some top programs in your field of interest and some schools that are further down Leiter’s list.

4. Locate application materials and read all application instructions carefully.

By this point, most graduate programs will have a website which contains information for applicants. You may even be able to download all required application forms.

Make a checklist for each program that you are applying to. Each list should include what each program requires and due dates. You must submit everything that a program asks for. It is your job to ensure that all parts of your application are in by the deadline, including the letters of recommendation.

Be aware that most programs require a substantial (and non-refundable) application fee.

5. Take the GRE exam.

Each graduate program will list the exams that they require. Make sure you take all required exams. For most philosophy programs, you will need to take the general GRE. Learn more about the GRE (see also The Princeton Review). If you are a non-native English speaker you may also be required to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

We recommend that you take all required exams near the end of the summer or, at the latest, early in the fall in which you apply.

6. Prepare a personal statement.

Many programs ask for a personal statement. This is your opportunity to highlight your preparation for your proposed specialization and to make the case that you are a good "fit" for this program.

Again, you should discuss your Personal Statement with your professors and solicit their feedback. The Personal Statement is a reflection of you and it should be thoughtful work that is highly polished. Do not take this part of the application to be an afterthought: these statements are read quite carefully by the faculty in the graduate departments to which you apply.

One comment: do not worry that your statement is legally or morally binding. That is, if you say to University of X that you chose them because you want to do the metaphysics of modality, you are not thereby committed to writing a dissertation on the metaphysics of modality. The admissions officers know that you may change your mind once you get to their campus. Nevertheless, they do want evidence that you have some direction and focus. Saying that you want to go to graduate school because "you love philosophy" will not suffice. You have to consider the long view about your potential career in professional philosophy, and be able to talk about your plans and your sub-disciplinary focus to people who are experts in the field.

7. Once you get in, do more research.

Tell your professors where you got in. Visit the campus. Talk to both the program's professors (especially the ones you think you might work with!) and current graduate students. Try to get a sense of the culture and "atmosphere" of the program. You should ask hard questions, especially about the accessibility of faculty and financial aid. Do not be shy about this. If you have been accepted, it is now the program’s job to go after you.

I am Graduating, But I Think I Will Wait

In some cases, it makes sense to wait for a year or two before applying to schools. (We recommend, however, that you do not wait too long.) If you are not applying now, you should do the following before you graduate:

  • Save possible writing samples. (Save it in more than one place.) Ask your professors for advice about which papers might become good writing samples.
  • Tell your professors that you plan to apply to graduate programs in the near future. Ask them to create a personal file for you now so that they can keep track of your academic progress and make sure to keep in touch and follow up with them throughout your undergraduate journey. This will save you the trouble of tracking professors down later and helping them to reconstruct their appraisals of you and your work.

Advice for First Years, Sophomores and Juniors

It is never too early to start thinking about graduate school. Indeed, you will do yourself a huge favor if you start preparing now. Here are some things you should do as juniors, sophomores, and even first years:

Make sure your undergraduate program of study is adequate preparation for graduate school.

For example, some Ph.D. programs in philosophy require that you have taken a minimum number of credits in philosophy or related fields. In addition, they will be looking at the breadth and depth of your undergraduate preparation. Talk to our department’s advisers. Tell them that you are interested in graduate school. Our advisers can help you develop a program of study that will convince graduate programs that you are ready to go after the M.A. or Ph.D. Do not avoid the hard stuff. Fulfilling the requirements for the major is the bare minimum of what you should do.

Cultivate relationships with full-time members of the faculty.

This entire process takes time. Thus, do not put it off until senior year. Take several classes with a professor. Visit them during office hours. Take an independent study. You want your professors to know you well and to be your enthusiastic advocate. The better they know you, the stronger their letters of recommendation will be.