Graduate School Advice for Philosophy Majors

SHORT version: Take the $185.00 (or possibly less) GRE exam, preferably in the fall before you graduate and after doing research and preparation. Use faculty and online resources in deciding where to apply--don't do this blindly. Choose three faculty members to write letters--choose wisely and make it easy for them. Review what you want your writing sample to do--it is NOT a term paper. Find out about the people and the programs to whom you are applying. Don't decide too quickly that you cannot afford it until you know what support is available (most students underestimate Ph.D. support). Consider a mix of safe and ambitious programs, and consider Ph.D. programs and M.A. programs. Know your prospects, know what Humboldt has given you, know your strengths and limits. These points and others are spelled out below in a longer version that prints as three pages.


The Dialogue of Titokowaru and Socrates, lithograph by Marian Maguire. 2010, 570 x 760mm from Reprinted by permission of the artist.

This material is intended to assist Philosophy majors (and any other majors) who intend to go on to graduate school in Philosophy. It is primarily directed to students in their last Fall semester who intend to begin graduate school a year hence. There's a section on the GRE, the Graduate Record Exam, which most but not all grad programs require. (The GRE has recently been changed in important ways you should know about, so used test prep materials may be out of date). There's a section on researching and deciding what programs may fit your interests (and some advice about having interests). A section recommends approaches for getting letters of reference. Another has advice about writing samples. Another, about applying to masters' rather than to Ph.D. programs. Some students assume the sticker price is the real price, and there's a note about how some programs provide financial support or wind up costing much less than you may expect.

  • 1. Prepare for and take the Graduate Record Exam, preferably in your last Fall semester. The Humboldt Testing Center, Room 24 in the Lower Library, administers the exam on computer. Registration, though, is not through the Testing Center but is online through and must be done in advance, including the fee. Ideally, you should take the test in October or November before you graduate the next May, but students often take it later. The test has recently been revised, adding to the Language and Quantitative sections an Analytical Writing section with two 30-minute essays, one on an argument and the other on an issue. The test takes about four hours. Preparation for taking the test is important. For instance, the computer on which you compose your essays has a simple word processor with no spell checker. Research has documented a practice effect, in that testers who take the test for the first time without going through sample questions or preparation materials earn scores that are on average substantially lower. The general test costs $185.00, subject tests $150.00 (which may apply to a few students with double majors in math or sciences), and there is a strict refund policy spelled out on their website. If you want more than four graduate programs to receive your scores, each additional report will cost you $20.00. If your financial aid includes awards based on low income, a fee reduction of 50% may be available. Check with your financial aid counselor. Although practice taking the test and work with test prep materials have been shown to increase scores, there's apparently no correlation between the price of the prep program and the amount of score increase. Recent prep books from a used bookstore may be just as effective as the $700.00 Kaplan course. Grad school deadlines are creeping earlier, toward December, with most in January and some in February, though a few are still in March or later. You will miss most application deadlines for this year if you postpone the GRE past early December, and a few deadlines fall in early December.
  • 2. Try to decide what areas of interest or specializations you wish to pursue in graduate school. This may feel premature to you; it may in fact be premature. But it will be helpful if you can articulate your interests as much as possible. This can be done in discussion with your profs. There are three references which might help. Look at the American Philosophical Association's publication A Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy to determine which schools might fit your interests. The Guide is online but the APA has been flitting from server to server, so check on Google. The guide is organized by university, there are no comparative summaries, and it may take more time than you expect. The Review of Metaphysics (in the library at B1 .r34) issues annual statistics on enrollments and a list of the dissertation titles of new Ph.D.'s in philosophy, grouped by program and with the name of the faculty advisor for each dissertation. Looking at the last few years will show how active the program has been and in what specialties. 
    There is also an informative evaluation (The Philosophical Gourmet Report) of philosophy Ph.D. graduate programs at . Major updates are generally done each September or October, with periodic smaller notes during the year. The 2013 update, as of this writing, is very late. The author, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago (formerly of the University of Texas), has appendices tracking moves of notable philosophers and recent hires and retirements. He uses a group of well-known philosophers as consultants and evaluators. Talk to your professors about possible shortcomings. If you cannot decide what areas you want to pursue, consider applying to large programs in which you will have several choices. You can do different levels of research, from website reviews to looking up articles and books written by faculty, or going to visit. You might find a working philosopher in whom you are interested--consider contacting that person via e-mail about graduate work and what places she or he recommends. It is possible to go to the wrong place with disastrous results; some research is highly recommended.
  • 3. Select those three Philosophy profs for whom you have done the most and best work while here at Humboldt. Meet with them to discuss their writing a letter for you. Also, discuss your selections for graduate schools. Ask their opinions about which of your papers is most suitable for revision for your writing sample; draft and get feedback on your personal statement of goals. They can write a stronger letter if you supply an informal written summary of what you have done while enrolled here, including papers you wrote for them, what you are proud of, evidence you will do well and will stick through to the end.
  • 4. Write off for application packets and additional information about your selected schools, or print them off the web. Make a note of application deadlines and put the note up where you will see or remember. If you are applying for financial assistance, that may require an earlier deadline. Check whether any of our former majors are at any of the schools or went there, and if so contact them.
  • 5. Be realistic about where you apply, but that may include taking self-aware risks of rejection. Make sure, though, you apply to some places likely to accept you. Discuss what is realistic with your profs. On the other hand, do consider applying to one or a couple of places of exceptional interest to you even if you think you don't have a good chance of getting in. The worst that can happen is that they turn you down and you've spent the application fee on daydreams--and you might get in. Different schools, and even different admission committees at the same schools, will weigh grades, GRE scores, writing samples, an Humboldt degree, and letters of reference differently. Enthusiastic letters and an interesting, smart writing sample may get you in though your grades and scores are not the highest.
  • 6. Your writing sample will ideally do several things. It will contain some exposition of difficult philosophical material that makes it look easy (so in a plain style and in polished and graceful prose). It will demonstrate an interest that the program's faculty can address. It will contain insights that are your own regarding issues related to the exposition. It won't give the impression that you have everything figured out, since if you do not seem teachable, admission is unlikely. It will be interesting. If you have presented your paper, e.g. to the student conference at Pacific Univ. in Forest Grove, OR, or to a meeting of the Philosophy Club here or to a seminar, you can mention that in the essay at the top.
  • 7. You will need to give your chosen profs enough time to write their letters before deadlines for each school. This usually means you should request letters in November or early in December, but exceptions are possible. A note to the prof, even if she or he knows you pretty well, reviewing your academic career with its high points, will make writing recommendations easier. Especially with Ph.D. programs, letters are moving to electronic systems of delivery (M.A. programs are moving in this direction too). You may need to give letter writers a web address and a password supplied by the program. Most places will send applicants an e-mail for each letter that comes in if submissions are electronic. Check again around the deadline to be sure the letters get mailed or posted. You may need to remind letter writers if letters are not in by the deadline.
  • 8. "Should I apply directly to a Ph.D. program or to a Masters program first?" It depends, and it may be that you should consider applying to both kinds of programs. There are at least three arguments for applying directly to a Ph.D. program: (1) This department has had considerable success in placing our students into Ph.D programs; (2) Successfully doing so will sometimes get you the degree faster; (3) Ph.D. programs usually provide much better financial support packages. However, even if your goal is a Ph.D., there are some advantages to applying to Masters programs. It is generally easier to get into a Masters program, and schools that have both may offer to move you from the Masters to the Ph.D program after the first year if you do well. There are also advantages to applying to programs that offer only Masters degrees. Having (or nearly having) an M.A. will usually be an advantage in applying to a Ph.D. program. Also, you will usually be in classes with students whose background and extent of knowledge may be more similar to your own, avoiding possible intimidation by mouthy Ph.D. students in their third or fourth (or eleventh or twelfth) years. That is, some students find the Master's environment more friendly and conducive to learning.

Time Line: (It's possible to piece together applications later, depending on particular schools.)

During September and October, look over programs, gather their materials, do research, put up a calendar.

Mid-September to Mid-October: arrange and take the GRE; by the time you take the GRE, decide to whom you will apply so you can have scores sent. (Although you can pay for more score reports later.)

November, confer with faculty who will write letters for you. Draft, get feedback, and revise personal statements and writing samples. Provide faculty with written reminders about your interests and accomplishments, especially in their courses. Send in applications this month or next. Some programs (e.g. Stanford) have deadlines early in December. Know your deadlines.

By the end of December, have all applications in unless you are applying to programs with later deadlines. Check that letters from faculty got mailed.

Other questions to consider: Should you go to grad school? Several factors are relevant: do you want to? Have you done well here? Are you good at finishing what you start? Is philosophy compelling for you? You may not like philosophy but you still have to do it. Interestingly, some things may not be as relevant as you think; the financial costs of Ph.D. programs are usually subsidized by departments who give their graduate students waivers of fees and a stipend for working as a teaching assistant. The amount of subsidy varies; see the APA Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy (the website has moved a couple of times recently, but Google seems to keep track) for more information about particular programs. Our recent graduates working toward the Ph.D. are typically getting enough that they do not quite have to take a vow of poverty. Some have finished without much or even any loan debt.

Will you find a job? There is no strong good news here, but the situation is not entirely bleak. The job market for people with new Ph.D.s is allegedly getting better. It is hard to assess this until trends become more clear. If you need a guarantee, go elsewhere. The history of graduate programs in the humanities is relevant. Universities expanded significantly when the Boomers hit college in the late 60's, the 70's, and the 80's; the professors hired as part of that expansion are retiring or have retired. Budgetary problems associated with the recession have delayed hiring their replacements and shifted some hires from tenure-track jobs to lecturers. That may help people with Masters' degrees, but perhaps only temporarily. There may be some pent-up demand for new hires, but when that will lead to opportunities is very unclear. Further, a few programs are expanding as the second echo of the baby boom swells college enrollments. The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported on an increase in hiring in languages and literature, and in math. Some of this same increase seems likely to occur in philosophy, tempered by changes in General Education requirements and budget cuts.

Drafted by John Powell and Jim Derden, with many helpful comments by other faculty. Send comments or questions to