Applying to Graduate School in the United States: Some Suggestions

by Bernhard Nickel

Graduate programs in philosophy that guide you to a Ph.D. usually have two components:

  1. Course work and qualifying exam.
  2. Writing a dissertation.

Such graduate programs are looking for students they can train and who are in a good position to take advantage of the resources and opportunities the department and university can offer them. I want to emphasize this point. U.S. graduate programs are not looking for students who already have fixed ideas about a narrow dissertation topic. If you have interests you’re passionate about, that’s great. But it’s certainly not required, and it’s usually not even a point in your favor. Most important is demonstrating a readiness to learn.

In this respect, applying to a Ph.D. program in the U.S. is completely different from applying to a Ph.D. program in the U.K. (often called a “DPhil”). U.K. programs are narrowly designed towards writing a dissertation. These programs expect a successful applicant to have already completed graduate level course work, usually by completing an MPhil, and be ready to set off on writing the dissertation when they matriculate.

Before we look at the details of the application, let me just say: your job in preparing your dossier is to work hard at it and to ask for all of the help you think you need and can benefit from. Your job is not to protect the time of your professors or other advisers. Your teachers are probably quite busy, and you may not wish to be a burden on their time. But do not let this feeling keep you from asking for help. Leave it up to your teachers to make the decision whether they have the time and energy to help you. Many of us want to help the next generation of philosophers on their intellectual journey.

The Dossier

Each school has its own demands for these dossiers, but there are various common elements:

  • Transcript
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Personal Statement
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Writing Sample

All of these are important, and none of them are deal-breakers. Towards the end of the selection process, when a department has narrowed down their list of potential admits and is deciding on whom to offer admission, the writing sample and letters of recommendation probably weigh most heavily.

Transcript

This is the only aspect of the dossier that it makes sense to think about long term. If you want to go to graduate school in philosophy, you should take a lot of philosophy courses. In many departments, the requirements for graduating with a B.A. in philosophy are relatively light. I’d encourage you to take more than the required minimum of courses.

Look for a broad range of courses, too. Let me reiterate what I’ve said above: a graduate program isn’t looking for people who are specialized already. They want to train their students, and it’s better to have a broad base in many different areas of philosophy to build on.

Letters of Recommendation

It’s a good idea to get to know your professors before the year that you’re applying to graduate schools. Go to office hours. Talk about your writing, about what it takes to get better. Ask for things you might read next if you’re interested in a topic or question. Again, it’s not your job to protect your professors’ time.

When it comes time to ask for a letter of recommendation, don’t be afraid to be direct. Ask your professor whether they think that they can write you a strong letter. Also, have a conversation with your professor about your preparation. Professors tend to see students only in a few classes over the course of their college careers, and so might not know everything that makes you a good candidate for graduate school. Talk to them about what you’ve done outside of the classes they’ve taught, what your interests are, and so on. Also, if there’s any part of your dossier that you worry about—perhaps one semester you had some trouble and your grades aren’t where you’d like them to be—talk to your professor about it.

Personal Statement

You’ll be asked to describe your interests and how you see yourself fitting into the Ph.D. program you’re applying to. The personal statement is also a place to explain anything that might not come out in the other parts of your dossier that’s relevant to assessing your candidacy.

Because the personal statement is so open-ended, it’s easy to spend too much time on it. Don’t. Be straight-forward.

Don’t get too cute here—you want to come across as a mature worker, even if your philosophical thinking is still in its early stages.

Don’t just list the names of professors you found on the department website and say “I’m looking forward to working with such distinguished professors as [alphabetical list of everyone ever associated with the department]”. If you don’t have detailed plans, just don’t say it.

Standardized Tests

Many philosophy programs tend to not weight these very heavily, and some don’t request them at all, but some schools use them at higher levels of the administration to decide on school wide funding competitions. If you have the time, get yourself some test prep books and work on them. If there’s a choice between spending time on tests and spending time on your writing sample, spend it on the writing sample.

The Writing Sample

A writing sample for graduate school primarily serves an evidential function: its purpose is to give evidence of your qualifications to enter graduate school at the program you’re applying to. Of course the central way it does so is by being a good piece of philosophical writing, and we’ll spend a bunch of time on that below. But in every philosophical paper, you need to make choices large and small, and it’s good to keep in mind what the writing sample is supposed to accomplish.

Here’s a rough list of aspects of your candidacy that your writing sample is supposed to support:

  1. The ability to work with texts, considered singly: interpret them charitably, achieve critical distance from them, emancipate yourself from the terms of the debate that others set out.
  2. The ability to work with texts, considered in concert: say what several texts agree on, what they disagree on.
  3. The ability to make arguments, both in thought and on the page.
  4. The ability to follow a dialectic through several steps: claim, response, rebuttal/modification, further critical development.
  5. The ability to separate issues according to relevance.
  6. Creativity in making arguments.

None of these is absolutely required, especially at the start of graduate school, but the more of these your dossier credibly shows you to have or be able to do, the better.

Scope and Subject Matter of the Sample

Putting together the observation that graduate schools aren’t looking for fully formed scholars, and that a writing sample should show that you’re in a position to succeed in graduate school, here is the first batch of suggestions.

  • A writing sample is usually around 20–25 pages, 4,500–6,000 words. This is short enough that the admissions committee can read it, long enough that you can show off your abilities. It can be shorter, but it shouldn’t be less than 15 pages.
  • Do not treat the writing sample as a research proposal (see above). The topic need not even be in the area that you’d like to study.
  • If you end up producing an honors thesis that is significantly longer than a writing sample, don’t submit excerpts of your thesis if you can at all help it. Excerpts that are cut and pasted together just don’t show off your ability to write a single, coherent piece of philosophical prose where the philosophical ambition and judgment matches the constraints of the format.

Important Parts of the Writing Sample

This is an abbreviated and modified version of the Dimensions of Excellence for philosophy papers that I have on my website. I encourage you to look at them.

Thesis

Your thesis needs to be the center-piece of your paper. It gives the goal you’re trying to reach, and it structures the rest of the paper insofar as every part of the paper somehow has to be there to contribute to your reaching that goal.

Framing

Framing concerns how you set up the discussion of your thesis. While your thesis gives the goal of your paper, the framing of your paper explains why that is a goal worth pursuing. What is the significance of the topic? This is particularly important for shorter papers like your writing sample, where the particular thesis is probably fairly circumscribed and specific.

One of the key things grad admissions committees look at is whether you can explain what’s at stake in a debate in a direct way that allows non-specialists to get into that debate. This is easier for some topics than others, obviously.

Also: it’s quite likely that your writing sample will not be read by a specialist in your area. So it’s important that you not lose your audience from the start. Framing your topic makes sure that they understand what you’re doing.

Engagement with Others

I said above that working with texts, both singly and considered in concert, is one of the key skills you can show off in your writing sample. That means, in particular, that your exposition is charitable and motivated. It’s charitable in that it should make its author say: “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m glad you put it so well.” I really do mean should in the point above. Actual, flawed human beings might well get defensive if their position is put very precisely and clearly, especially if in the course of doing so, you show that their position isn’t great. Don’t shy away from that if this is really the intellectually honest thing.

It’s motivated insofar as you explain why it’s a position that’s worth taking seriously, especially if you end up disagreeing with it.

Holistic

One of the hardest parts of putting together a writing sample is maintaining the philosophic and dialectical discipline to make the full 20+-page undertaking hang together. Specifically:

  • Paper is structured by the thesis, i.e., the thesis states a clear objective for the paper to achieve:
    • Every component (thesis, interpretation, argument) of the paper contributes to that objective.
    • No component of the paper contributes to some other objective.
    • Every paragraph has a clearly describable job to play in reaching the objective.
    • Every paragraph only has one such job.
  • There are no extra words. You can always tighten your prose.
  • There are no points that don’t contribute to your thesis.
  • The paper is well-proportioned: the most interesting part of your paper receives the most discussion.
  • You close all the loops you open up in your paper.

Workflow

Start early, ideally over the summer before you’re applying. Even if you’re planning on taking classes that are relevant to your writing sample, start reading and writing early.

Your thinking about the topic of your paper will evolve over the course of working on the paper. But the finished paper shouldn’t be a record of how your thinking evolved. It should be a statement of the point your thinking has reached by the end of the process. I’ve got a handout on reverse outlining that may be useful here.

Almost every change you make at one point of the paper will require related changes elsewhere. This is a hard and time-consuming process.

Good luck!

Bernhard Nickel is professor of philosophy at Harvard University. His research is in the philosophy of language and adjacent areas of philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics.

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