Friday, March 11, 2011

Strengthening Applications to Grad Programs

Advice and discussion about Strengthening Applications.

 I will summarize the important information tomorrow but here is the discussion in its completeness.  If this is a topic of interest you should check out: Tips for Creating A EXCEPTIONAL Graduate Application in Philosophy

From Lieter Report.

Advice for Undergraduates about Strengthening Their Applications to Grad Programs

An undergraduate philosophy student in Canada writes:
I am wondering, if you have some time to answer, whether you can suggest ways undergraduate students can get involved in philosophy outside of their classroom. Since graduate programs have become so competitive, there is a lot of fear among my peers that we will not be admitted into our schools of choice, particularly since the school we are doing our BAs in is not very well regarded, and is by no means at the top.

I have approached professors, inquiring whether I may help them out, but if they do offer such an opportunity it never involves doing actual philosophy. How can students co-author papers in top journals; that is, how should we approach our professors so that they will give
us such a chance? What should philosophy students do during the summers, when we are not taking classes? Aside from ensuring that we achieve top grades, what should we be doing to make ourselves attractive to prospective graduate schools? Also, how much do publications in undergraduate philosophy journals count?
Two quick thoughts:  first, it is extraordinarily rare for faculty to co-author with undergraduates, so undergraduates should not waste time pursuing that possibility; second, publications in undergraduate philosophy journals are worthless as a credential.  If it's a good piece of philosphical writing, great!  That it appeared in an undergraduate philosophy journal counts for nought it seems to me, all that matters is the quality of the writing.
Comments are open; post only once (comments may take awhile to appear); signed comments strongly preferred, as usual.


Manyul Im
Brian writes: "it is extraordinarily rare for faculty to co-author with undergraduates, so undergraduates should not waste time pursuing that possibility." The first part of that is definitely true; I'm not sure the second is. In the one case I've personally known where it's happened, it was because the student was pretty exceptional and the professor was a good scholar who wasn't under any particular pressure to publish but thought the project was interesting. I think that's something professors, especially at undergraduate-only institutions, should try to instigate more--with the right students, of course. Why not? It also goes on the professor's CV after all. I know that at many institutions, in fact, there are internal research grants available for collaborative research with students that are usually only taken advantage of by non-humanities professors. As for the student instigating such a project, to the extent that a student at such an institution has had some indications that he or she is exceptional--there are ways to tell--this is something I would think is worth trying to do--with the right professor. It doesn't hurt to ask and it seems just as useful, maybe even more, as writing an undergraduate thesis with someone.
Michael J Shaffer
While it is true that undergraduates do not often publish with faculty memebers, it is not totally out of the question. I have published articles with undergraduates in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy and in Philosophical Psychology, for example. Those students had there pick of good schools for graduate education. Often doing this just requires suggesting the possibility to the faculty memeber and is much easier to envision in the context of a directed independent study. Of course, this is not a real possibility for EVERY student (abilities do vary considerably at the undergrad stage) and it takes some time to get through the publishing process. The latter point about the lenght of review times, revisions, etc. means that it may not really help you unless this is done say by your third year of your undergrad education. More realistically what you should think about are opportunities to present your work at conferences and using your best work for writing samples. Also, doing things like running your department's philosophical society, grading for professors and tutoring for students, and so on can help make you look involved and competent.
Tim O'Keefe
Another thing that can help is experience outside the classroom that relates to your philosophical interests. So, for instance, we've had an applicant to our program who is interested in philosophical issues relating to poverty and globalization, and he's also spent significant time doing NGO-type work in Africa and Asia. That sort of thing makes a person stand out. Or if you're interested in phl of mind, do a summer internship at a lab that conducts research using fMRIs.
Andrew Goldfinch
I would recommend participating in undergraduate philosophy conferences, either by presenting a paper or responding to one. Being a graduate student, I don’t know how this is viewed by admission tutors. I suppose that a variety of attitudes are adopted: some might view it favourably as indicating potential; others might view it as an irrelevance.
Presenting papers at undergraduate conferences might also lead to unexpected opportunities that carry more weight. For example, in December 2006, during the final year of my undergraduate philosophy degree, I presented a paper on Machiavelli at an undergraduate philosophy conference held at Cambridge; on the strength of this, I was invited to give a much longer version of the paper to the Edinburgh University Philosophy Society. Invited speakers that year included Peter Atkins and Alister McGrath (I was the only invited speaker without a PhD). I don’t know whether this fact strengthened my graduate applications in any meaningful way; but suffice to say, it didn’t exactly harm them.
Ultimately, I suppose that all the advice to be given about this matter boils down to cashing out, in various ways, the following principles: produce sterling work and be active.
Drew Kukorowski
I earned by BA in Philosophy (magna) at a large public university in the US that has a good but not great academic reputation. I applied for Ph.D programs my senior year, and was rejected from all the Gourmet Top-20 programs that I applied to (waitlisted at two places). I was accepted into a low-ranked Ph.D program, and to the MA program at Tufts, where I currently am.
Looking back on the process, and having watched many of my fellow Tufts MA students apply and be rejected by top Ph.D programs over the past two years, there a few things that I've come to believe which seem relevant to your questions.
First, as you know, acceptance into a top Ph.D program is extraordinarily competitive. But it's going to be more competitive for you because you're coming from a less-than-stellar undergraduate institution, and an institution which, I assume, doesn't have a history of sending undergrads to top Ph.D programs. What this means is that you need to have impeccable grades and recommendations. Your GRE scores need to be very high (I know that there is much debate about the relevance of GRE scores to Ph.D program acceptance. But I can't help but think that GREs are more important for someone coming from a less-than-stellar undergraduate institution that lacks a history of sending students to Ph.D programs). And of course your writing sample needs to be outstanding, probably even more so than the writing sample of someone coming from a better college. This is all par for the course.
What else can you do to make yourself a more attractive applicant? I'd suggest double-majoring in a subject that is related to philosophy (For example, I was also an Economics major). You could also try applying to a program such as Princeton's PSURE (, although when I applied to PSURE a few years ago I was accepted into the program only to later be rejected because no Princeton philosophers were going to be around in the summer to supervise me. But something like this still may be worth a shot. It might also be beneficial to audit courses at a nearby prestigious institution, if that's an option.
Charlie Huenemann
I think it probably is a good idea to participate in UG conferences and publish in UG journals not because they will impress anyone, but because the preparation (with a good professor) and the experience will make you a better philosopher -- and that will lead to better letters of recommendation, GREs, and writing samples. Also, I'm impressed by some of the philosophy blogs out there maintained by UG students; if nothing else, they show great dedication and interest, and usually also creative intelligence.
I am somewhat skeptical of the idea of doing extra activities in order to get a leg up in the application process. Many of these activities (publishing in undergrad journals, attending undergrad conferences, starting a philosophy club) can seem like conscious attempts to resume-build. This doesn't mean there is anything wrong with such activities. But that they should be undertaken for their own sake. (Self-conscious resume building has its pluses. It shows that you are diligent, for instance. But as evidence that you will be a good philosopher, it is probably pretty limited.)
I think the best use of your spare time, if you want to go to grad school, is to read a lot. Read twice as much as you think you need to. In my experience, most people admitted to top programs have simply read much more than would be required to get A's in their courses. This helps you seem knowledgeable in your personal statement. It helps in *obvious* ways with your writing sample. And, it is, at its heart, what attracted you to the discipline to begin with.
Given that publications in undergraduate journals are worthless, credential-wise, should (talented) undergraduates turn their attention towards publishing in "real" philosophy journals? Obviously, it's a rarity that undergraduates end up publishing in such journals, likely for a multitude of reasons, but how significant is the benefit for a grad school applicant who has published in a "real" journal?
(anonymous grad student in top-20 program)
Another thought: a number of top PhD programs offer summer courses in philosophy, which are open to undergraduates from other schools and are often taught by graduate students in the department (you can normally find this out by looking around a department's webpage). If you're willing/able to make the tuition, and move somewhere else for a few weeks of summer, this can have a lot of benefits for someone interested in graduate school.
For one, you get a closer view of what a top department looks like - this can help you both in knowing how to pitch your application (e.g. how people respond to mention of Heidegger), and in knowing whether the grad school life is one you'd actually enjoy. For another, most PhD students are very enthusiastic teachers and tuned in to current trends, so there's the potential to learn a lot of exciting philosophy. Last, the classes are often small, so there's a reasonable chance that you'll be able to develop the sort of rapport with the instructor that he/she would be willing to look over your writing sample (or, assuming it ties in with the course, help you produce one), and give you general advice on applying.
(I'm posting this anonymously so as to not blatantly advertise my own program's summer courses.)
Christy Mag Uidhir
The Rutgers Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy is a great program for philosophy undergraduates. Not only is the Institute pretty philosophically intensive, but the selected undergrads can meet and network with prominent faculty (from Rutgers and other stellar programs) and get sound advice for applying to grad school.
The application deadline is early May.
Lisa Shapiro
It is hard to tell from your correspondent just what his or her situation is. How active are the faculty at the student's institution? In my department, we have made a concerted effort to encourage our most talented undergrads, whether by advising them to take an honors degree, or if there is a slot available, TAing for us (this has become harder as the MA program has grown). In general, I would encourage a talented undergrad to do an honours degree or write an honours thesis, and then consider taking a year off in which, among other things, he or she would put together a PhD application using that honours writing as the writing sample. If the student is not at a higher profile institution, it might well be that the training has not prepared her or him well for a highly competitive PhD program, and the student might benefit from taking a terminal MA. (This course might be more advisable than an honours degree.)
Porter- The combination of the extreme unlikelihood of an undergraduate having a submission accepted to a major journal, the long wait times for responses from journals, and other such things, makes submitting to journals seem, to me, to be a waste of time. Most graduate students don't even do it (at least until late in their careers).
One thing that should be mentioned as well is that it is easier to gain admission to an M.A. program, and many of these programs place their students in top PhD programs. Someone worried that their undergraduate education would not be sufficient to get them into a top PhD program might think about starting at U.W. Milwaukee, Tufts, Georgia State, or other top terminal MA departments.
I have had some moderate success getting into graduate schools (MA programs, not PhD) and I graduated from a small school with a degree in a subject other than philosophy. However, I studied abroad at Oxford and I am confident that the semester I spent there was a boost for my applications. While it can be expensive, studying abroad might be a good way to expose yourself to some of the more reputable schools in the English-speaking world, and thus bolster your graduate application.
Pavel Davydov
I think that Paul is right - almost invariably, the best way to spend summers as an undergraduate considering grad school is to read and think about philosophy on one's own. Depending on how close to graduating one is, it may be particularly helpful to read in the fields in which one is planning to take courses after the summer. It may also be worth asking one's professors whether they would be willing to supervise a course over the summer, with minimal commitment on their part (perhaps even entirely by email), or just corresponding with them.
Extracurricular activities, such as enrolling in a summer program at another university, may well be fun (if that's the sort of thing one enjoys), but I am skeptical that they can help one a lot in terms of application resume building. This is so largely for the same reason, I take it, that publishing in undergrad journals is not particularly helpful - participation often does not indicate ability. In any case, I've met lots of students from the top PhD programs, and their resumes cover the whole spectrum - some are quite extracurricularific, while others (myself included) have resumes that are virtually empty. I think this says something about how much value extracurricular activities really have.
1980's PhD
It is true that the odds of an undergraduate getting a paper accepted at even a decent journal, let alone a top journal, are remote, but this very fact is the key reason an undergraduate who aspires to attend a top PhD program should consider making (not a jointly authored submission but) a single-author submission to a well-regarded professional philosophy journal. As an undergraduate in the late 1970's I published an article in a decent journal that appeared in the same issue with articles by, among others, both Donald Davidson and the well-known professor for whom I had originally written my paper. I am convinced that this accomplishment facilitated the success of my graduate school and national fellowship applications, and I was able to attend the PhD program in philosophy that was ranked 2nd in those days by the NRC. Will submitting papers to professional journals help more than a handful of prospective PhD students get into top programs? Of course not. But it will, I think, help those applicants who actually deserve to be in top programs create precisely the kind of evidence which indicates that top programs are where they belong. The more such evidence an applicant can provide, the better.
Perhaps this has more to do for students studying the history of philosophy, but I wonder if a good grasp on languages such as Greek, French and German would be helpful for applicants. Reading texts in their original language is important and already having that skill should be worth something on a grad school application.
Also, I wonder if extra curricular activities such as starting up and participating in a philosophy club would help. But I agree with Brian, publishing with a faculty member or publishing in an undergraduate journal is not the way to go.
Aaron Garrett
Is it just me, or is it a bit depressing that undergraduates are asking about co-authoring papers in a top journal as opposed to thinking about time travel or something fun? Make sure you are going into philosophy for the right reasons before you bother.
James Harold
Recent graduates from my institution (a small well-regarded liberal arts college) have lately done very well in getting admitted to top graduate programs. I suspect that one reason that they have done well is that we have encouraged them to take graduate classes (really joint grad/undergrad courses) at the university nearby during junior or senior year. In almost every case, the student did excellent work, and found a faculty member at the university who took an interest in her work. The student then invited that person to serve on her honors thesis defense committee, and continued to keep in touch with that person, and that person was able to write a letter of recommendation for the student. Such a letter probably carries a great deal more weight than a letter from one of our own faculty, since we might be percieved as having self-interested reasons for promoting our own students.
Obviously, this advice applies only to some, but if you're at an undergraduate institution, consider taking a grad class at a university nearby (if possible), or while studying abroad. If you excel, you might be able to develop a relationship with a professor there who can write you an additional letter that will help your application stand out.
As an added bonus, taking a graduate course as an undergrad can help you in thinking about whether graduate school is really right for you.
I disagree. I did my undergraduate work at two small (one step up from a community college), liberal arts colleges in Illinois and Wisconsin and was accepted into a top program. I formed good relationships with many of my professors and did many things, from presenting with them at conferences, commenting on their work and (in the near future) writing a book with one of them. Since I had these great relationships, I was able to get wonderful letters of recommendation that led to good graduate school offers. It all depends on the faculty.
I also disagree with not writing in journals. I wrote two papers for journals and presented six at undergraduate conferences. It is very beneficial to you to form contacts with as many people as possible. Participating in conferences has allowed me to meet many professors at universities across the country. I do think that this might help me get a job. Networking is key in any field.
Moreover, when I was admitted to this top program, more than one professor told me that he was impressed with the amount of work I had done. Writing for journals and conferences demonstrates that you are capable of doing the sort of work you will be expected to do in graduate school. It also helps you go through the revision process, which means you will likely produce a better writing sample for graduate programs.
What school you come from does matter, and your grades and GRE matters (I did very well on the exam), but you do have a better chance if you put yourself out there. Send your papers to several journals and conferences and see what happens. The worst that can happen is a rejection. I do strongly suggest you go on the internet and see what kind of journals and conferences there are and send your work in. The experience was invaluable for me. I formed contacts with many professors and have already been invited to come to/present at graduate conferences (which, we all agree, do count) this coming term.
Put yourself out there and see what happens. I received all sorts of the same negativity when I was applying, but more than one great program thought I was worthwhile.
It should go without saying, but one of the things any prospective grad student should be doing is really honing and fine-tuning their application's writing sample. This will be an 'outside of the classroom' experience, and if one is able to take the writing sample to one's professors outside of the context of it being a classroom paper ("Prof X, I wrote this paper for your course last fall, but I've revised it for grad school application...would you give me some feedback?"), you're getting much closer to doing philosophy. I think a lot of undergraduates are under the misguided impression that a grade of A on a seminar paper means the paper is good work, and that may not be the case. Working, and re-working, your writing sample will both improve your application AND give you some experience in 'real' philosophy. This might, of course, also help the chances of getting it published at some point, but that should be an ancillary concern.
Presenting one's work, particularly one's writing sample(s), at conferences, even undergrad conferences, is also a good idea.
It seems that the debate here about undergrad conferences and publications is misguided.
Both of the following things seem true:
Having attended an undergrad conference/having a published paper in an undergrad publication will most likely not impress an admissions committee simply because you've done it.
The process of presenting at undergrad conferences and working a paper up for submission to any sort of publication is very useful for developing an understanding of how really working with philosophical questions and ideas work and it can also give you a chance to work one-on-one with a professor.
Both of these can be true and not in conflict. So, saying that you should/shouldn't do these things isn't really the point.
What you SHOULD do is really engage with philosophy in ways that make you a better philosopher, give you a better understanding of the professional side of philosophy, and allow you to interact with and benefit from professors both in your university and elsewhere. If you do these things, it will come through in your statement of purpose, your writing sample will be strong, and your professors will know you well enough to write really strong recommendations.
Things that have been mentioned that will help you do these things are:
-taking grad classes (James Harold's advice is very good; I'm one of the students who is at a top program who graduated from where he teaches.)
-reading as much background and contemporary literature as you can get your hands on.
-talking to professors; bothering professors at other schools with relevant and interesting questions.
-really working on developing your writing sample from a good seminar paper or thesis chapter into a really respectable work of philosophy with a professor from whom you can take criticism and who is willing and able to offer criticism
(finding someone like this is really important).
-Going abroad somewhere with a very good philosophy department (Oxford, St Andrews, etc) can be really useful if, like I was, you are in a very good liberal arts college, but don't have access to a very large array of classes to choose from. Getting breadth, a change of scenery, and access to a new slew of people to learn from, can be extremely useful.
To this I'll add, really develop a strong group of peers interested in philosophy. Talk about philosophy with the other bright people in your classes who might also be interested in grad school and who you can learn with. So, make a philosophy club, get a reading group going; not because these things look good on applications (though they might), but because then you'll have friends at good programs all over the country and you'll always have good sounding boards for your ideas.
Tony Cole
On a practical level, one thing you can do is simply find out where previous graduates from your school have gone for graduate study (if any have done so). In my own case, I also went to an undergraduate school with little recognition (and some suspicion) in philosophy circles. When I applied I found a marked difference between those departments already familiar with my school and those that were not - the former recruited me and offered me large fellowships, the latter rejected me quickly (of course the correlation wasn't as perfect as described here, but very close). Basically, if your undergraduate school does not by itself stand out, or is questionable, it can be helpful to apply to departments where people can say "remember X, he/she came from this school as well, and was extremely good".
Devyn Buckley
I've been warned that admissions at top philosophy departments use grade point averages and GRE score cutoffs to create a pool of applicants whose transcripts and writing samples will be reviewed, regardless of the student's participation, performance, transcript and good looks (just kidding). Because I have double majored in neuroscience and philosophy, with a German minor, I have carried more than 20 credit hours each semester since my freshman year, while working in a prestigious neuroscience lab about 20 hours a week. Also, because I graduated from Stuyvesant High School in NYC with 30 AP credit hours, I have not been taking entry level classes, but challenging classes. (And you might have guessed it, I also am an editor of a undergraduate neuroscience journal and run a mile or two every day and I won't mention my undergraduate neuroscience publications. See above posts.) Is it true that the drunken undergraduate students I shared my freshman dorm with, who have taken only four undergraduate entry level classes every semester and, consequently, have maintained a slightly higher GPA, will have a better shot at a meaningful philosophy graduate experience than I will?
Fritz Warfield
"Is it true that the drunken undergraduate students I shared my freshman dorm with, who have taken only four undergraduate entry level classes every semester and, consequently, have maintained a slightly higher GPA, will have a better shot at a meaningful philosophy graduate experience than I will?"

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