Saturday, March 26, 2011

USU: Advice to Graduate Students

Utah State University councils Students looking to enter graduate school in philosophy. Suggests applying to schools with multiple strengths because graduate interests often change. Other basic advice as well.

This text is only partially quoted, see bottom for link to full text.

Advice about graduate school in Philosophy

The competition has shifted downward, so now it is getting increasingly difficult to get into a top grad program. To get in, you need these things, in order of importance:

1. Excellent GRE scores;
2. Excellent letters of recommendation;
3. Excellent grades (ideally, from a really solid school);
4. An excellent writing sample.

You will also need to write a clear, specific, and concise letter of purpose stating why you wish to get a PhD in Philosophy. To write this, you need a clear idea of what subfield of Philosophy you want to study (ethics, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, history of philosophy, etc). The best way to decide this is to read some journal articles or recent academic books in the subject and find what really grabs you. (You should be doing this anyway; if you are not already reading widely and far beyond what is assigned in your Philosophy classes, then you should not go on to graduate school. It means you really aren’t all that interested in the subject.) The letter of purpose is used to determine how serious and mature the student is, and how much of a head start they already have in their area of specialization. Basically: does this applicant have a clear idea of what he or she is getting into?

By the way, you will not be held to your statement of purpose. It often happens that people change direction while in grad school. Recognizing this, it is best to get accepted into a school with multiple strengths, and not just a single strength. Otherwise, you may discover that the subfield you thought you were drawn to really doesn’t interest you, and you’ll be stuck without any other real options.

It is wise to get help from a sharp and dedicated professor in putting together your applications. S/he will be able to give you feedback at each and every stage. If you are on your own, well, good luck!

I don’t know if I am right to do so, but I also counsel students not to go to grad school if they have to pay for it themselves. Getting a Teaching Assistantship or a Research Assistantship is a department’s vote of confidence in your ability. If you don’t get that vote of confidence, then maybe you don’t show much promise. Then, if you keep shelling out tuition, you may end up having spent thousands of dollars for a degree that still won’t get you a job, and that would be truly unfortunate. Again, this might be bad advice on my part. If you get into a great school, it might make sense to pay for it for a year or so, in order to give yourself the chance to prove to the faculty that you indeed are a shining star. But if you take this route, listen carefully for discouraging remarks, and take the hint.

If you are not in a really solid undergraduate school, you should consider applying to some good or very good terminal MA programs in Philosophy, in order to springboard your way into a good PhD program. Students are often confused about this, so let me explain how these degrees work. Once you have a BA or BS, you can enter either a MA program or a PhD program in Philosophy. You do not need to get an MA before applying to a PhD program. If you are pursuing a PhD, somewhere along the way (typically after you finish your coursework and before you start your dissertation) you will be granted a MA. For this reason, it usually makes the most sense to simply plunge into a PhD program. But, again, you might want to enter a good program that only grants MAs (“terminal MA program”), and not PhDs, if that will help you get accepted into a good PhD program. 
There is a ranking of MA programs at the philosophicalgourmet site mentioned above.

Above all, keep in mind that the world needs philosophically-minded professionals more desperately than it needs more philosophy professors. There is a lot of good someone can do in law, editing, medicine, banking, and insurance, as well as in most fields, and the truth is that having some education and some continuing interest in philosophy will help someone to do some good in these fields. Being a philosopher does not necessarily mean being a professor of philosophy.

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