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Graduate School in Philosophy

Becoming a professional philosopher can be rewarding. But it is quite challenging and takes careful preparation. This guide discusses the profession and avenues into it.

Becoming a Professional Philosopher

Most professional philosophers make their living teaching philosophy at the college level.  There are some others ways of making a living at philosophy.  Some philosophers who specialize in biomedical ethics work for hospitals as ethics consultants.  A few philosophers work as philosophical counselors; a few work for private companies.  But the vast majority of professional philosophers work as college professors.  Even those who work as counselors, consultants, etc. often also teach.  Here we will focus on teaching jobs and how to prepare for them.

There are several different sorts of teaching jobs in philosophy.  Adjunct (part-time) jobs tend to offer low pay and few or no benefits aside from gaining teaching experience.  Full-time teaching jobs tend to offer better pay and benefits.  They may be temporary or permanent, and among permanent jobs some are tenure-track and some are not.  Philosophy is taught mainly at 4-year colleges and universities and at community colleges.  It is also taught in high schools, but rarely.

To get a job teaching philosophy at the college level, you’ll first need to earn a master’s degree in philosophy and you will almost certainly need to earn a PhD in philosophy as well.  While some community college instructors and adjunct instructors have only master’s degrees in philosophy, it is increasingly the case that many candidates for such positions have PhDs.  Earning a PhD in philosophy typically takes at least five years.  Competition for the available slots in high-quality PhD programs in philosophy is intense; there are far more applicants than there are spaces.  To take just two examples: there were 133 applicants for the PhD program in philosophy at UMass-Amherst for fall 2012.  Of those, 24 (18%) were admitted, and seven actually entered the program.  Yale reports for a recent year receiving 300 applications for just five spots.

Furthermore, competition among philosophy PhDs for good teaching positions is similarly intense; there are far more qualified -- indeed, far more excellent -- candidates than there are good teaching positions.  A philosophy professor at the University of Colorado puts it this way: “Think about the smartest person you have ever known. Now imagine that there are 20 copies of that person competing with you for a job. That is roughly what it will be like.”[1]   Once you’ve earned your PhD, you’ll almost certainly need to be prepared to take a job anywhere in the United States -- and possibly outside of the United States.  You should also be prepared to take some temporary one- or two-year positions before, with luck, finding a permanent position.

The upshot is that pursuing a career as a professional philosopher probably makes sense for you only if (i) you are very good at philosophy and (ii) you are so passionate about philosophy that you have a hard time imagining yourself being happy doing anything else.  Having said all of that, some DePauw graduates have gone on to successful careers in philosophy. (We list some of them later in this document.)

The Application Process

Many (perhaps most) students who enter PhD programs in philosophy enter these programs directly after earning their undergraduate degrees.  There are some graduate programs in philosophy that offer a master’s degree in philosophy, and some of these programs can serve as a good springboard for entry into a high-quality PhD program.  If you are a strong student but lack a strong background in philosophy (e.g., you aren’t a philosophy major), it may make sense to consider such programs.  However, we’ll focus here on the application process for PhD programs in philosophy.

Admission to most graduate programs in philosophy is determined based on the following five elements:

(i) undergraduate GPA
(ii) GRE (Graduate Record Exam) scores (general test only; there is no GRE Subject Test
      in philosophy)
(iii) letters of recommendation (most programs ask for three)
(iv) writing sample
(v) personal statement

The application deadlines for most philosophy graduate programs are in December and January.  This means that if you hope to enter graduate school the year after graduating from DePauw, the summer between your junior and senior years is a great time to think about which programs to apply to and to work on getting your application materials together.  We’ll discuss each of the five elements of your application below.

Undergraduate GPA

How high how does your GPA need to be to get into a good graduate program?  While there’s no simple answer to this question (different programs weigh GPA differently, and your chances of admission to a given program depend in part on the GPAs of other applicants to that same program), a very rough rule of thumb is that you’ll probably need a GPA of at least 3.5 in order to have a good chance of getting into a good program.

Graduate Record Exam

The GRE consists of three main parts: Verbal Reasoning (possible scores range from 130-170), Quantitative Reasoning (possible scores range from 130-170), and Analytical Writing (possible scores range from 0-6).  More information about the GRE is available here

Like GPA, GRE scores are weighed differently by different programs.  Here are some data provided by a few good PhD programs about their own admitted students that may be useful:

 
Program Average Verbal Average Quantitative Average Writing
Notre Dame 93rd percentile (163) 84th percentile (160) 87th percentile
Wisconsin 165 157 5.0
Colorado 163 157 5.6
UC-San Diego 166 159 5.4

 

 

 


 

(These data were collected in the fall of 2012.)

It’s important to keep in mind that these are averages, which means some admitted students had scores well below these numbers.  Similarly, some applicants with much higher GRE scores than these averages were rejected by these programs.

Letters of Recommendation

Most PhD programs ask for letters from three of your professors; some programs specify that these letters should be from philosophy professors.  Ideally you’ll be able to request letters of recommendation from three members of the DePauw philosophy department who think well of your philosophical abilities and who know you and your work well.  Some advice about approaching prospective letter-writers: do so sooner rather than later, and provide them with a helpful summary of relevant information (e.g. which courses you’ve taken with them, grades earned, topics of your final papers in their courses, and any relevant awards, publications, or conference presentations).

Writing Sample

This is an important element of your application; do not treat it as a mere afterthought. Different programs ask for writing samples of different lengths but most would like to see a writing sample of 10+ pages. One good way to develop a good writing sample is to start with an A term paper that you wrote and polish it. If you have a completed senior thesis when applying to graduate school you might want to use an abridged version of the thesis (again, polished). Please note that the polishing stage is important. If possible, work with one or more DePauw faculty members to get feedback on and revise your writing sample.

Matthew Lu, a philosophy professor at the University of St. Thomas who earned his PhD from Cornell, has this to say about the writing sample:

What readers are looking for in general is probably not so much a brilliant original contribution to philosophy, but the clear exposition of complicated and serious philosophical ideas. They want to see that you can write effectively and develop logical and rigorous philosophical thinking. I think that this is in general more important than the content per se (assuming, of course, that the content is a serious bit of philosophy). … In any case work your submission over repeatedly until it is perfect. Typos and spelling mistakes are next to unforgivable in this context. Much more so than your college admissions, the writing samples you submit to graduate committees are you for all practical purposes. When it comes down to it, when the hard choices have to be made, those choices will be based on the writing sample.

Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose

As with the writing sample, the requested length of this document varies, but 1-2 pages is probably typical.  What should you say?  Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at UC-Riverside, offers the following helpful advice:

So how do you fill up that awful, blank-looking page? With a cool, professional description of your areas of interest. If you have, say, three main areas of interest, devote one short paragraph to each of them -- a few sentences describing what questions or subareas within that larger area you find particularly intriguing or have already thought and written about.

Professor Schwitzgebel has a lot of helpful advice about applying to graduate school in philosophy at his blog “The Splintered Mind.”

The University of Southern California’s philosophy graduate program also has some helpful instructions regarding the application process; much of what they say applies to the admission process to most PhD programs in philosophy.

Where to Apply?

For better or for worse, a ranking of PhD programs in philosophy known as “The Philosophical Gourmet” has become highly influential in philosophy.  It’s available on-line here.

The PG will provide you with a sense of the reputation of various PhD programs in philosophy; again, for better or worse, the ranking of the program from which you earn your PhD will significantly impact your job prospects.  However, it’s also important to find a program that suits your own particular philosophical interests.  Different programs have strengths in different areas of philosophy; the Philosophical Gourmet also includes helpful information about these strengths.  Other factors that are particularly important but do not affect the PG rankings are:

(i) How accessible/friendly are the faculty toward the graduate students?  Earning a graduate degree from a program where Famous Philosopher X is employed can sound impressive, but if X is too busy with her own research to interact with graduate students, X’s presence won’t do much to make you a better philosopher.

(ii) How do the graduate students relate to each other?  Is there a friendly spirit of collegiality and camaraderie among the students, or is there a cold atmosphere of back-stabbing competition?  Receiving constructive criticism on one’s work is crucial in becoming a better philosopher, so how the graduate students interact with one another is an important consideration.

(iii) What is the graduate program’s placement record -- what percentage of those who earn their PhDs there find employment as college professors?  Many departments include this information on their websites, but not all do.

If possible, visit the philosophy departments at the schools you are most interested in and talk with some of their current graduate students.  Such visits can provide invaluable information about the three important factors listed above.

The American Philosophical Association, the main organization representing professional philosophers in the United States, also collects data about graduate programs in philosophy.  Here is a link to the 2012 APA Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy.

Paying for Graduate School

Given the challenging nature of the job market in philosophy, together with the likely existence of student loan debt once you’ve graduated from DePauw, ideally you’ll avoid taking out student loans to finance graduate school in philosophy.  The good news in this regard is that most good programs provide full support for many (and in some cases all) of their PhD students.  The most common model here is a Teaching Assistantship, which typically includes a tuition waiver plus a modest stipend in return for grading and running discussion sections for a large lower-level course.  Different programs provide different funding options; this is definitely something to pay attention to when deciding where to apply.

Women and Minorities in Philosophy

Women and minorities are significantly underrepresented in professional philosophy.  In an attempt to address (at least partially) this defect in the field, the American Philosophical Association has created a Committee on the Status of Women.  This Committee has a section on the APA website that includes various resources related to the place of women and minorities in philosophy.

Summer Seminars in Philosophy

The University of Colorado Summer Seminar

The University of Colorado offers a summer seminar that “is intended for outstanding undergraduates who are considering graduate school in philosophy. The aim is to introduce students to the atmosphere of a graduate-level seminar, giving participants a chance to explore and sharpen their philosophical abilities before they commit to a graduate program.”

Participants in the seminar are typically between their junior and senior years of college, but past participants (including past participants from DePauw) have included recent graduates.  The seminar typically takes place in late July and/or early August and has an application deadline of April 1.  Learn more about this summer seminar at the seminar website.

The Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute

The Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State University regularly holds a week-long summer seminar that is “designed to encourage undergraduate students from under-represented groups to consider future study in the field of philosophy.”  The seminar typically takes place in late June and/or early July and has an application deadline of March 15.  Learn more about this summer seminar at the PIKSI website.

DePauw Alums in Philosophy

Here is a (partial) list of DePauw alums who have gone on to study philosophy in graduate school. (If you are on this list and notice any incorrect information, please let us know.)  They are listed by their year of graduation from DePauw in reverse chronological order:

2014

Ethan Brauer, double major in Philosophy and Physics. Currently working on his PhD at Ohio State University.

2012

April Rodriguez, Philosophy major. Currently working on her MA in Political Theory and Public Law at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

2009

Jordan Kokot, double major in Philosophy and English Literature.  Currently working on his PhD at Boston University.

2008

Emily McGill, Philosophy major.  Currently working on her PhD at Vanderbilt University.

Nick Casalbore, Philosophy major.  Currently a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Colorado.

2007

Patricia (Paddy) McShane, double major in Philosophy and Economics.  Currently finishing her PhD at Georgetown University.

2000

Andrew Cullison, Philosophy major.  PhD from the University of Rochester, 2006.  Currently Director of DePauw's Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics

Christopher Weaver, Philosophy major.  PhD from the University of Miami, 2009.  Currently Humanities Instructor at Forsyth Technical Community College.

1999

Jason Raibley, Philosophy major.  PhD from the University of Massachusetts, 2007.  Currently Assistant Professor at California State University at Long Beach

1993

Colin Mathers, Philosophy major.  PhD from the University of Rochester, 1998.  Currently Lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

1991

Anthony Krieder, double major in Philosophy and Physics.  PhD from the University of Miami, 2001.  Currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Miami Dade College

1987

Todd Grantham, double major in Philosophy and Biology.  PhD from Northwestern University, 1993.  Currently Professor and Department Chair at the College of Charleston.

1984

David Reidy, double major in Philosophy and American Literature.  J.D. from Indiana Law School 1987; PhD in philosophy from the University of Kansas, 1997.  Currently Professor and Head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

 



[1] ^ The quotation is from Michael Huemer’s philosophy graduate school FAQ.  Huemer seems to assume that research-oriented positions are much more desirable than teaching-oriented positions.  For example, he at one point asserts that “[t]he research positions are the ones almost everyone wants.”  In general, Huemer’s document suggests that what is really desirable about being a philosophy professor is the ability to engage in research, whereas teaching is primarily a chore one must carry out.  We reject such a view.  As we hope you can see in your dealings with us, we find teaching and interacting with students to be among the most rewarding aspects of being a philosophy professor.  Huemer’s discussion seems to suggest that only careers at top research-centered universities are desirable and deeply rewarding, we are confident that Huemer is mistaken on that particular point.