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Mark Greene
Thinking of Attending Graduate School in Philosophy?...
(Scott LaBarge graduated in Philosophy from the University of Delaware in 1994 received his PhD in 2000 from the University of Arizona, one of the top programs in the country.)
    What does it take to get into a graduate program in philosophy?  There's no simple answer to the question, nor is there a silver bullet which will guarantee your acceptance, but there are some basic actions you can take and some rules of thumb you can follow which can increase your chances.  I must emphasize, however, that getting into a grad program isn't a foregoing conclusion even for very strong students; competition is very stiff at the top departments (sometimes scores of applicants apply for each position), and students from weaker departments tend not to do very well on the job market once they get their degrees.  Therefore I feel I must sound a warning note from the start:
    Make sure that grad school is what you really want.  Too many philosophy majors here at the U. of Arizona try to become philosophy grad students simply because they are following the path of least resistance.  They don't have any clear idea of what else they could do, so they figure they will go to grad school, which seems to be the natural continuation of what they are doing.  What this usually means is that they are merely putting off hard decisions for several years; the harsh reality is that a lot of the people who get advanced degrees in philosophy don't end up teaching philosophy at the college level and have to find some other kind of employment.  So unless you have the opportunity to study at one of the top philosophy programs (preferably at the top across the board, but at least at the top in the area you wish to study), it's best to face the difficult choice of what to do after philosophy now rather than five or six years down the road.
    Of course there are reasons to study philosophy that have nothing to do with a career, and furthermore some philosophers from less renowned programs do quite well on the market.  I'm merely suggesting that you should be honest with yourself about your motivation for pursuing an advanced degree in philosophy and realistic about the present state of the market for philosophers.
    These cautionary notes aside, there are still some things you can do to improve your chances as you apply to philosophy programs.
    First and foremost, let your teachers know that you are that serious about philosophy.  The sooner your profs know that you want to pursue a career in philosophy, the sooner they can take a hand in helping you develop in that direction.  Your profs see hundreds of students every year, and simply can't give their utmost attention to everyone; if you make it clear that philosophy is not merely a passing fancy for you, profs will be much more likely to take a personal interest in you and your work.  This can cash out in the future in the form of letters, research projects, opportunities to work at T.A.'s, maybe even a co-authored paper!
    On a similar note, ask your profs about the market.  Once they finish telling you all the depressing things, they might then be able to give you priceless information about programs that might fit your interests, professional contacts they can put you in touch with, and the like.  For example, when I was getting ready to apply to ancient philosophy programs, Dr. Stalker put me in touch with his friend Richard Kraut, a highly regarded ancient philosopher, who corresponded with me regularly to help me decide which schools to apply to and attend.  I would not have ended up at Arizona without his advice.
    Take your GRE's and GPA seriously.  There's no single thing you can put on your application that will guarantee your acceptance, but high GRE's (at least high 500's) and a GPA of at least 3.5 are almost a sine qua non; usually programs make their first cut of 30%-40% from the applicant pool by looking at GRE's and GPA's.  If they aren't high enough, you won't even get your foot in the door.  There are exceptions to the rule, but you're best off not betting on being an exception.
    Another thing that won't guarantee your acceptance but can hurt you if poorly handled is your cover letter.  This should be short, and should fit somewhere between the two extremes of excessive humility and excessive arrogance.  If you make it sound like you don't really believe in your own philosophical capabilities, the admissions committee will probably take you at your word.  On the other hand, if you come off like an arrogant jerk, your application is likely to get tossed out; the people assessing your application will be looking at you not just as a potential student, but as a potential colleague.  No matter how good you are, if you come off as intolerable, there are plenty of other applicants out there who can fill that spot.  So shoot for a cover letter that is confident, but realistic don't claim to be the next Wittgenstein.  (This does happen!)
    Once you've made it through the first cut, the most important aspects of your application are your letters of reference and writing sample.  Perfect GRE's and a 4.0 GPA probably won't get you accepted unless your teachers say you can cut it and your writing sample demonstrates as much.  Therefore you should give these elements a lot of attention.  When you're asking your profs for letters, be certain that they feel they can write you good ones; you’d be surprised how frequently committees see letters saying "This student probably isn't ready for graduate work."  Also, you want your letters to be detailed; let your letter-writers see old papers you wrote for them, give them a sheet describing your interests and your extracurricular activities, etc.  If there is a weakness in some other part of your application, e.g. your GRE's tell your writers that as well; if the prof says in the letter that your GRE's are not an accurate reflection of your abilities, that can go some distance towards making up the deficit.
    Where the writing sample is concerned, you want it to be as good a paper as possible, ideally about 8-12 pages in length, though different programs will have different requirements.  (The committee most likely won't read the whole thing, but they'll want some evidence that you can write papers of grad school length usually 15-20 pages.)  Probably the best thing you can do to provide a good paper is to a) decide in advance which class you want to develop a writing sample from and b) tell the prof of that class that you want to get a writing sample out of it.  If the prof knows that you need a really good paper from the class, you'll get much more thorough and honest feedback on it than you might otherwise.  And if you're lucky, the prof will be willing to look at a number of drafts.
    Know something about the programs you are applying to.  Information is available from a number of sources: your profs, college guides, and department web pages are a good place to start.  You should also look at the Leiter Report, an annual ranking of philosophy programs both in general terms and for specific areas of interest. [see note] (E.g. Notre Dame doesn't rank too high in the overall standing but is ranked very highly in Philosophy of Religion.)  A good understanding of what a program is about can be crucial in tailoring your application.  Another example: Probably my strongest writing sample when I was applying was a paper I had written for Dr. Hall on Heidegger.  If, however, I had sent that paper to Arizona, which has a strong bias against Continental Philosophy, I would probably never have gotten a second look.  Even if the committee had thought it was a good paper, they would have figured that I wouldn't be happy at a program like Arizona's.  And it would indicate I hadn't been doing my homework.
    Apply to a lot of schools.  This can be expensive, but there are too many variables at work in the acceptance process not to increase your chances.  I applied to nine schools with a very strong application packet, but I was only accepted at four schools (only three of them with funding).  No matter how strong your application is, there are variables which can knock you out of the running.  For example, programs take different numbers of students every year.  I entered Arizona in a class of thirteen; a couple of years ago we admitted only three students.  You might just hit some programs on a lean year.  Also, programs are often looking for students in particular areas to supply their teachers with students.  If you want to study epistemology at a school that is looking for ethicists, you're probably out of luck, at least for that year.  So you'd be wise not to put all your eggs in one basket.
    Finally, if you already know what you wish to specialize in, you should already be picking up the extra skills that allow you to do work in that area.  For instance, if you want to study the history of philosophy, you should be working on foreign languages Greek and/or Latin if you want to study ancient or medieval philosophy, Latin, French, and/or German if you want to study modern philosophy.  Likewise, if you want to study philosophy of mind, you should have some familiarity with psychology, cognitive science, and/or computer programming.  These extra skills aren't necessary to get accepted, but if you plan to pursue a career in one of these areas, you're going to need these skills eventually, and if you can display them in your application, it is a sign that you are serious about what you are doing.  (And some of your competitors will have them, I promise you.)
    Again, following all these suggestions can't guarantee that you'll get into a good program, but it can help you dodge some pitfalls and notch your chances up a little.  Everything, of course, depends on a lot of hard work, but after that the key to the whole process is preparation.  The earlier you start shaping your application packet and gathering information about the programs you might want to attend, the better your chances are to end up somewhere that can give you a good shot at a lifelong career in philosophy.  It may seem hard to force this kind of discipline on yourself, and it's awfully easy to kickback as an undergraduate, but if you don't have such discipline by the time you get to grad school, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise.  On the other hand, if you go in with your eyes open, grad school can be exceedingly rewarding; in this as in so many things, the readiness is all.
Note: The Leiter Report can be found at:
http://www.philosophicalgourmet.com
N.B. This report is focussed on analytical philosophy; to my knowledge no comparable report exists for Continental philosophy.
 
NB: The primary aim of the Philosophical Gourmet Report by Brian Leiter (cited by Scott LaBarge at the end of his advice) is to provide a ranking of U.S. graduate programs in analytic philosophy, with some mention of programs with continental and/or feminist components.  It is fifty pages long and full of useful information like breakdowns of programs by areas of strength and a section on the study of philosophy in law schools.  It is itself a philosophically interesting document in a number of areas including epistemology, the history of philosophy, and contemporary moral problems in that Prof. Leiter has included a long section on criteria and methodology which deals with such issues as how the programs were ranked, what the fundamental differences are between analytic and continental philosophy, and whether or not a program should be considered less desirable because many of its leading figures are old.  The American Philosophical Association does not approve of ranking schools, but Leiter argues that the information he provides is vital for students considering graduate school.  While we do not take the Leiter report as gospel, we see it as useful and informative.