April 18, 2008

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Reflections on the Philosophy Graduate Admissions Process

Well, I'm glad that's over.

On Wednesday, I accepted an offer of almost full funding from the UC Irvine philosophy department. By "almost" I mean that I was waitlisted for funding and the spot I got was actually a California resident spot, so what would have been my stipend is being used to pay for the out of state tuition. This only affects the first year, since it only takes a year to establish residency in California.

When I was applying and waiting anxiously and so forth, I wasn't able to find many resources online that were helpful, so I thought that I would post what I have learned over the last year for the benefit of everyone else who is looking for this sort of information. First, I'm going to give the strong and weak points of my application so there will be some context, and then I'll say what happened in terms of results and when.

Strong Points

These are the factors that I think were in favor of my application.
  • Publications

  • Perfect scores on GRE Math and Critical Writing

  • Undergrad at Penn (rated 27 for philosophy grad school on Philosophical Gourmet and 5 for undergraduate education on US News and World Report)

  • Recommendation from a very widely known and well respected scholar of ancient philosophy

  • 3.88 major GPA

  • Additional majors in classical studies (with Greek language and literature emphasis) and computer science

  • Graduate work in ancient philosophy and contemporary metaphysics

Weak Points

There are the factors that I think were against my application.
  • 680 verbal - a little low for a philosopher

  • Relatively low overall GPA (3.52), mostly due to science and Greek langauge classes

  • Limited background in contemporary philosophy (Penn has traditionally been a very historical department), but said I wanted to do metaphysics

  • Other two recommendations both from assistant professors (at one of the schools I visited, someone asked me why, given my work and interest in early modern philosophy, I didn't have a recommendation from a particular Penn scholar in that area - he didn't know that the scholar in question hasn't taught a course in early modern since I've been here!)

  • "Two body problem" - Lauren and I had to find somewhere we could go together, which limited options both in terms of applying and accepting (of course we knew this was going to happen before we decided to get married; we decided to just deal with it).

  • Questionable match for some departments. My principle interest is in historical and contemporary metaphysics. The historical periods I am interested in are ancient and early modern. I'm especially interested in idealism, and I'm also interested in philosophical theology. I said all of this in my personal statement. Ancient and early modern are the strong points of my record, but I thought I might want to focus on contemporary metaphysics, so I was trying to apply to programs that were good in (at least) early modern and contemporary metaphysics. Some of the programs I applied to may not have thought they matched my interests very well. Also, I felt that I needed to explain my approach to philosophical theology, to show that I wanted to really do philosophy and not what I call "apologetics in the bad sense" (by this I mean that I actually wanted to learn things and not just make up arguments for things that I already knew to be true). The amount of space devoted to philosophical theology in my personal statement may have hurt me at schools that don't really do philosophical theology.

  • Another potential weakness that I feel the need to mention, because people who know more than I do have thought it would be an issue, is that I hold various positions that are considered rather unorthodox in contemporary analytic philosophy: most importantly, Christianity, and idealism (I don't list libertarianism, because I'm not going into political philosophy). It is possible that this was a stroke against me at some schools, but I sincerely hope it wasn't. Philosophers cannot afford this sort of dogmatism.

  • There was simply an enormous applicant pool this year. Most of the top programs told me they had over 100 applicants - in several cases over 200 - for fewer than 10 spots. Some schools saw an increase in applicants this year of as much as 50% over last year. When I list schools I applied to, I'll mention specific numbers where I have them.

Selecting Schools

I began talking to professors about where to apply when I was a Sophomore or a Junior. The most important thing I can recommend is to get to know the contemporary literature and look for where the philosophers you like are located. You should also consult The Philosophical Gourmet (PG) (including the specialtization rankings) and your professors. In retrospect, I suspect that it would be good, especially if you have recommendations from professors who are not well known, to apply to places where your recommenders have connections. It may be worth applying to departments that are not on the PG rankings at all, because even the schools that are near the bottom can be pretty competitive.


As everyone probably knows, application deadlines are mostly between Dec. 1 and Jan. 15. So, here's where I applied and what happened:

SchoolPG RankingInitial ResultFinal ResultNotes
Rutgers University2Rejected via conventional mail March 12
Princeton University3Rejected via e-mail March 5
Stanford University6Vague responses to repeated email inquiries; finally got unofficial rejection in response to an email on April 8; official rejection via postal mail today (April 18)Approximately 180 applicants for 8 spots
Harvard University7Rejected in response to email inquiry March 5Approximately 240 applicants. They didn't say how many spots there were, but they list 52 current graduate students (if I can count) on their web-site, so probably about 10 spots.
UCLA7Rejected via email February 22
UC Berkeley12Wait-listed via email March 17I told them I was very interested in their program but probably couldn't come because Lauren had been rejected by their physics department. I did not hear from them again after this.
University of Southern California16Wait-listed via email February 27Rejected via email April 13I don't know how many students applied, but the word I got (through unofficial channels) is that they made 9 offers and all 9 offers were accepted. I was the first of two students on the wait list.
Yale University16Rejected via email February 25In a cover letter to my writing sample (I used the version of this paper which was reduced to meet the 10,000 word limit for Religious Studies), I asked that it be brought to the particular attention of Kenneth Winkler, since it criticizes an assertion he makes in his book Berkeley: An Interpretation. This gambit evidently did not pay off.
UC Irvine20Accepted via email January 30; told that the graduate chair would be "working on putting together a financial offer for" me.Offered partial funding via phone on April 15 (see below)
UC Davis35Accepted with full funding via email February 22; received funding details via email February 28Turned them down because their physics department isn't any good
Boston University50Wait-listed (position 7 or so) in response to email inquiry on March 12See belowOver 200 applicants for 6 spots

Lauren and I thought we were doing pretty good when we both got in to UC Irvine before the end of January. There was a period of relief. Irvine and Davis both paid for me to visit them in March (note: when you do this, you will be expected to pay for your airfare out of pocket and it can take several weeks to be reimbursed), and I liked both departments. Lauren got in to a wide variety of physics programs and spent a lot of time flying hither and yon. At some of these places, she mentioned that we were getting married, and that she wouldn't be able to come unless I got in there or somewhere nearby, and in several cases the physics department wrote to the philosophy department, but it doesn't seem to have done much good so late in the admissions process. I wonder if it would have been better to mention the "two body" issue up front. The reason we didn't is that we had been advised by professors at Penn that there is still a lot of discrimination against women in physics and it is much worse for married women. Accordingly, we decided not to bring this up until after Lauren was accepted.

When I visited UC Irvine, we were told that, due to the UC system budget crisis, there was not yet funding available. Six letters were in the process of being sent out. I was confident that I was one of them. When I didn't hear anything I wrote to the graduate chair and was told that I in fact offered position 17. Meanwhile, I was in contact with USC where I was in position 1 on the waitlist for admission with funding. When Lauren visited Davis it became clear that this wasn't going to work for us, so I was counting on USC. Boston U got thrown into the mix as well, which wouldn't have been a particularly great option, comparatively speaking, were it not for the fact that Lauren got in to Harvard.

You are ordinarily expected to make a decision on which school you will attend by April 15. Come the middle of April, I was still sitting on wait lists. This was the point at which the process became really stressful. Lauren managed to get extensions from the three schools she was serious considering, depending on where I got in, until the 17th. On the 13th I was rather shocked to be rejected by USC. I emailed UCI and Boston again, a little bit panicked. I started looking at technical jobs in the Boston area, and evaluating the possibility of reapplying after a year. I got conflicting advice from Penn professors on reapplying. When UCI and Boston didn't get back to me I called them on the 14th. By this point I had learned that there were only two or three people ahead of me at UCI and that, in the past, when other departments hadn't filled all of their spots at UCI the funding had sometimes gone to the philosophy department, so I was guardedly optimistic again. I had heard on March 31 that 2 of the 6 spots at Boston were already filled. When I called I learned that that number was now up to 4, but couldn't get an exact number on how many people were ahead of me. I was told that one of the two people who had an offer outstanding had been "unresponsive" as they were trying to get a hold of him, so the process might continue through the 16th.

I called both places again shortly after noon (east coast time) on the 15th. No news. Finally, shortly after 10AM California time (1:00PM here on the east coast) the graduate chair for UCI called me and said that he had an offer of almost full funding for me, and described the details. He said he needed an answer immediately. I said I needed to talk to Lauren and to Boston University. When I pressed for time, he told me that he had classes to teach that would occupy him from 11AM to 5PM, and before that point he had to either start the paperwork for me or call the next person on the wait list, so I would have to get back to him within 30 minutes. I'm not making this up. Fortunately, Lauren wasn't in class, and I had her financial offer from UCLA (which is where she is going) handy, and we had already investigated commutes and such pretty thoroughly, so I was able to get a hold of Lauren on the phone, and we decided that if Boston did not have a fully-funded offer for me I would accept this one (we weren't sure what we were going to do if they did have an offer). I called Boston, and everything was still up in the air, so I accepted at Irvine.

An interesting note: on the 14th, Lauren wrote to UCI's physics department telling them that she wouldn't be coming because (among other factors) I still had not received any funding. Very shortly after I received my funding offer, the physics department contacted her to ask if she would be able to come now that I had funding. The physics department was recruiting her fairly aggressively; it is not clear whether this had anything to do with the resolution to my funding situation.

This post has been mostly narrative, because my experience is mostly all I have to draw on in terms of advice on the process. In retrospect, here is what I would do differently:

  1. Begin working as closely as possible with tenured faculty members as early as possible, and get recommendations from them

  2. Tailor my personal statement more closely to individual programs - don't dwell on subject areas that none of the program's faculty is interested in

  3. Networking - try to develop actual connections to other departments, through participating in conferences or writing to philosophers whose work you are doing research on

It all worked out alright for me in the end, by the grace of God (there were a lot of people praying). Best of luck to everyone else!

Posted by Kenny at April 18, 2008 6:11 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry: http://blog.kennypearce.net/admin/mt-tb.cgi/414
Moving to USC
Excerpt: Today I accepted an offer of admission (with funding) from the University of Southern California School of Philosophy. As those who have been following this blog for a while know, USC was one of my top choices last year. I was encouraged to reapply by ...
Weblog: blog.kennypearce.net
Tracked: March 29, 2009 8:36 PM


Congratulations! I hadn't realized that you were taking such an ambitious approach; what you and Lauren were trying to do is extremely difficult to do to everyone's satisfaction. I'm very glad it came to such a good result. That bodes well!

Posted by: Brandon at April 18, 2008 10:09 PM

What a nightmare! I knew the process was bad for you, but I didn't know it was this bad!

From what I've heard, the writing sample is the single most important part of the application (followed closely by the letters of recommendation). What was your writing sample on, and how well did it fit with your stated interest in contemporary metaphysics?

I've heard that although a bad personal statement can sink your chances of admission, a good personal statement cannot really increase your chances of admission. It probably was a mistake to spend so much time on philosophical theology in your personal statement. Regrettably, I think there is some anti-religious bias at some departments.

I think you're at least as good at philosophy as I am. It's a shame that you didn't get much better results than you did.

Posted by: Eden at April 19, 2008 12:16 PM

The writing sample was on Berkeley, and that had a lot of theology in it as well. I was trying to put something together in contemporary metaphysics, but I just couldn't get it up to the same quality as the Berkeley paper, so I decided to go with that one just because it was good. I'm pretty happy with the final outcome, but the process sure was stressful!

Posted by: Kenny at April 20, 2008 12:01 AM

In my experience at Georgetown, the GREs and grades and to some extent letters are used mainly to discard substandard candidates, and then the letters and writing sample are the main deciding factor, with some differences between committee members (e.g., I lay more stress on the writing sample while others lay more on the letters). So writing an excellent writing sample is crucial.

One of the things I am always worried about in the case of a writing sample in the history of philosophy is that it not be just a "book report"--that it be a creative work in its own right, showing both exegetical and philosophical skills.

Are you sure that CA lets you establish residency while being a full-time student?

Posted by: Alexander R Pruss at April 24, 2008 10:28 AM

Thanks for the info; it's useful for comparison.

I am certain that CA allows this, because all of the public universities REQUIRE that fully funded graduate students establish residency before beginning their second year so the department doesn't have to pay out-of-state tuition. It's harder for undergrads, because if you put your parents' address on things, or have an out-of-state drivers' license, or live in another state all summer, then you can't establish residency.

Posted by: Kenny at April 24, 2008 10:32 AM

Man, I just clicked "submit" on my last (of 15) applications last night.

I would concur (and then some) with your assessment of the role your emphasis on philosophical theology played in your application process. But of course my "and then some" might be best explained by the differing theological perspectives that we come from.

I also think the top of your list was ambitious. But admittedly my read through your piece was cursory. For instance, I have not had a look yet at the publications you referred to. But if these are in the "theistic" direction, then I go back to my previous comment.

Nonetheless I'm excited for you man.

These next couple months (for me) are going to be weird... just sitting and waiting.


Posted by: BrotherTheophilus at January 16, 2009 11:29 AM

Thanks, this gave me a really good idea on how long is average to hear back about admissions from a university...I was getting antsy because it was late January and I hadn't heard back from any American schools (I had heard back from all of the UK schools I applied to within a month) But now I know that it can take up until late march. Still antsy though!

Posted by: Scholar at January 22, 2010 10:16 PM

this was just what I was looking for.

Posted by: robert at March 24, 2011 3:06 PM

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