How To Get Into Graduate School (in Philosophy/HPS)

This is a guide for the perplexed, curious, and intimidated.

I began responding to e-mails from strangers asking me how I got into the HPS department at Pitt about 2 months after arriving in Pittsburgh. Some e-mails were from friends of friends; some were from strangers. I guess I seemed friendly, or my admission seemed particularly miraculous. Anyway, after answering these e-mails I compiled them into a how-to guide, and as far as I can tell, my advice works. I first “met” one of my closest friends in the department here when he wrote to me asking for advice on applying. But remember, this advice is worth what you’re paying for, so don’t sue me if you follow it and don’t get into the school of your dreams.

The Guide begins with general advice on how to set yourself up well as a candidate for admission, and then it goes on to address specific questions that have been asked of me over the years. If you have questions that haven’t been answered, ask them, and I will answer them to the best of my ability. So without further ado,

How to Get into Graduate School

First, DON’T PANIC. You are incredibly underprepared for the task at hand—and so is everyone else. While this might sound like a dumb hyperbolic platitude, it is a huge comfort to step back and remind yourself of this as you apply. You are underprepared. I am underprepared. Daniel Dennett is underprepared. But we are all underprepared in unique ways, and your job as you apply is to convince graduate programs that you are USEFULLY underprepared.

Second, you should accept this process as the first step of an academic career, and also accept the possibility of failure. What you will find in this process is a lot of the tasks that will comprise an academic career—interacting with prestigious strangers, selling yourself and your accomplishments, writing clearly and well, and working under a deadline that, if you miss it, will affect you more than anyone else. You may discover you don’t like doing these things, and that will teach you that this may not be the career for you.

Third, make a task list and a timeline of the things you need to get done. Your timeline will differ depending on how many other things are going on in your life, but if you are working or still an undergraduate when you apply, your timeline will probably be similar to mine. So I have given my timeline as a starting point:

The Steps

  1. Figure out which schools to apply to.  (Starting in April)
    This is a time-intensive task and should be done over the course of your preliminary application process. You have a number of resources available to you, including your current professors.
    To figure out where to apply, you need to figure out what you are interested in and what schools will nurture those interests. The first task requires some serious soul-searching. The second is comparatively easier, and you should start by figuring visiting the “industry standard” for rankings of schools, overall and by specialty: the Philosophical Gourmet Report. The Gourmet Report offers insight into a particular program’s strengths, and it makes a fantastic resource and procrastination tool. Make a list of the schools you are interested in and their strengths, and update the list as you move through the application process.
  2. Study for, schedule, and take the GREs (Start studying in May, take the test in October). Not much to say here; it’s a standardized test. I like the Princeton Review study guides, and I think it’s important to learn and play the game for the writing portion rather than trying to actually write well.
    For those of you who are concerned about where you stand relative to other candidates, here is a sample of GRE scores for admitted students at Pitt’s HPS program. I don’t know the range that the Pitt admissions committee, or other committees, are looking for, and I do know that how highly a committee values scores varies from school to school. I will tell you my scores were 800 in math, 670 in verbal, and 5.5 in writing. I asked two friends at Pitt and one got 700 verbal, 750 math, and 6 writing; the other got a 97th percentile in verbal, 90th percentile in math, and a 5 in writing (she didn’t remember her numerical scores).
    Do remember to schedule your first attempt for the GREs with enough time to retake it if you don’t do as well as you want the first time through.
  3. Writing Sample (Start finding a suitable paper in June and work it up until Thanksgiving): You need to convince your readers that you have potential to perform academic research and that you understand the basic rules of good academic writing. This means putting out a paper that is organized and clear above all else. It helps if it contains an interesting thesis, but I am under the impression that the content of the argument is secondary to its clarity, validity, and (hopefully) soundness. You need to get factual content correct, though, and getting your professors to fact-check and help to edit your argument can vastly improve your sample. Ask multiple people, because many professors are busy and may not be able to give you the attention you need, and some will see different problems than others. And make sure your first paragraph is flawless, because you never know whether your readers will continue beyond it. Ultimately, what you need to do is produce a piece of work that you feel good about, even if it isn’t in the area you want to concentrate your research on (mine was on Leibniz, for instance, where my primary research is in philosophy of chemistry).
    If you want to see a copy of my writing sample, I will make it available. Just ask.
  4. Assemble your résumé (Start as early as March): Most schools will require some sort of summary of the accomplishments that prove you are ready to take on graduate school. This is not the place to say you won the Most Congenial award in marching band. You need to focus the activities and awards to your audience, so listing achievements in writing, logical thinking, academic concerns, and university service, as well as involvement in philosophy, will all do you well. If you don’t have such achievements, now is the time to get them. Apply to undergraduate philosophy conferences and journals (Earlham University has a great compendium of opportunities), enroll as a tutor in your university’s writing center, start a philosophy club. Ask your professors about other opportunities.
  5. Personal Statement (Start in the summer of the year you are applying): This is, in my view, the most important part of the application. The personal statement should accomplish four distinct tasks: demonstrate your ability to write well, reveal how appealing you are as a human being and philosopher, explain how all your life has been building up to this pivotal moment of entering graduate school, and explain why you are the ideal candidate for the program you are applying to. Let me comment on each of these tasks:
    A) Demonstrate your ability to write well: This is another place to demonstrate that you can write clearly, passionately, and with strong organization. The personal statement needs a thesis just like any essay—it should not be a rambling foray into that one time in third grade when you first realized that people die and how you couldn’t finish your peas that night because they looked so Nietzschean. Don’t use flowery language or overly complex sentence structure. Don’t use $5 words when 10-cent words will do. Just tell a story clearly and simply, and make the moral of that story “you should admit me.”
    B) Reveal how appealing you are as a human being and philosopher: The personal statement is worthless if it is not personal. You need to talk about you, and you need to brag while sounding humble. So tell the story straight, focusing on facts and actions rather than how you feel. But don’t be afraid to spin the facts in your favor: If you dropped out of college the first time around because you partied too much and failed all your classes, talk about how your interim job at the bookstore gave you time to read the whole Ancient philosophy section, which inspired you to go back to school and major in philosophy.
    C) Explain how all your life has been building up to this pivotal moment of entering graduate school: It is false that every moment in your life has been leading toward this moment, but you need to make it sound like it is true. This starts with your thesis statement. Your thesis should be something along the lines of “My whole life has been building up to being an amazing student in your program.” For instance, mine was, “I am seeking admission to the University of Pittsburgh’s doctoral program in history and philosophy of science because I strongly desire to turn this passion into a profession: I want to spend my life teaching, researching, and improving the human understanding of scientific concepts and practices.” Your statement should support your thesis by explaining how the important experiences in your life have shaped you as the kind of person the program wants to have around. This means you have to evaluate what important things have happened in your life, and you have to reflect on what you learned from these experiences.
    D) Explain why you are the ideal candidate for the program you are applying to: This means you need to know a fair bit about each of the programs you are applying to and personalize each statement to each school. So as you are making your list of programs to apply to (see Step 1), make notes on the list about which professors you want to work with and which strengths of the program interest you. Sending off an impersonal statement—or worse, one that is written for another program—is the easiest way to shoot yourself in the foot as a candidate. Your statement should make it clear that you understand the research programs of the school you are sending it to, and it should make it clear how you will benefit from and contribute to those research programs. You need to mention professors you want to work with by name and reference their research.
    Finally, keep in mind that different programs have different length requirements for their statements, and some require a personal as well as a professional statement. What you want to do is have a core statement that you can edit and fine-tune for each of your applications: make it long, but make it easy to cut certain paragraphs and add a section at the beginning that personalizes the statement to each program.
    If you want to see a copy of my personal statement, I will make it available. Just ask.
  6. References: You need stellar references. This means you need to get to know some of your professors before you begin asking them for references. Go to office hours, take multiple classes from the same instructor, and treat them like people rather than just tools for your education. Try to get references from professors whose research interests align with your own. When you ask for references, ask them to be honest and tell you whether they will be able to give you their highest recommendation, and don’t be heartbroken if they say they can’t. Find someone else who can.

Okay, those are the steps. To close out, I’ll reprint excerpts from a few of the e-mails I have sent to people asking me specific questions about the program at Pitt. Perhaps they’ll be useful to you, perhaps not.

Excerpt 1, in response to the question “Who should I contact in the department before I submit my application?”:

It’s good you’ve gotten in touch with Peter Machamer and Edouard Machery. You might think about sending an e-mail to Sandra Mitchell too, for two reasons. First, she is the department chair and so will be very likely to be on the application committee, so it will be good for her to recognize your name. Second, she’s a wonderful and interesting person, so you’ll enjoy talking to her. That said, I didn’t get in contact with any of the professors here before applying, and I’m here now, so I don’t think personal contact with profs should be your very first priority.

Excerpt 2, in response to the following questions. I should make it clear that my research focus has changed since answering these questions, for what that is worth:
1. Am I significantly disadvantaged because of my situation (not having a transcript that shows a significant background in physics)?  Do you find the majority of students entering this specific field to already be fairly accomplished, or is it acceptable for someone with a strong background in philosophy, but not necessarilly in the philosophy of physics to enter a program like yours?
2. Does a program in the philosophy of physics (or science generally) involve both philosophy courses and courses in the relating scientific fields, or is the study of one field far more a focus than the other?
3. What types of topics generally does a student like yourself focus on?  Do you find the research cutting edge where you’re up to speed with the big issues in the scientific fields and somehow complementing or critiquing etc. the work being done?  Better yet, is there a neat division between the two fields of say “the philosophy of physics” and the “science of physics” or are these two disciplines much closer than I’m assuming.

My answers:

1. No. You are not significantly disadvantaged due to your lack of a technical background–I came into Pitt with only 1 completed physics course on my college transcript. (I finished a semester of mechanics, dropped out of E&M, and audited Optics).
You don’t need the kind of physics education that comes from broad-ranging survey courses like first-year mechanics and E&M. You need specialized education in particular fields of physics. And you can get it as a philosophy of physics graduate student. It’s just like becoming an expert on (to take an example from our mutual friend) slippery slope arguments in medical ethics: no undergraduate course will teach you exactly what books to read or what problems to look for when writing about that particular subject, but you will synthesize things you’ve learned in philosophical logic and history of philosophy and medical ethics courses, and you will find the books, and you will get help, and you will become an expert.
There is no “average” phil. physics student; many have physics backgrounds and I can out-metaphysics them any day, even the ones with Ph.D.s, but you can bet they are the ones I turn to the minute I need to learn what the hell a reduced density matrix is. If you’re lucky (which I really, really was), you will find an environment in which the students from different backgrounds are supportive of each other and are willing to teach other–that, so far, has been the biggest source of my physcis education since getting to Pitt. I still couldn’t tell you how quantum chromodynamics relates to gauge theory, but i know how to model general relativity with fiber bundles now, and I didn’t a week ago. I learned because someone had left a doodle on the whiteboard in the graduate lounge, and I asked someone who knows more physics than me. Then I related his explanation to Quine’s web of belief, which he had never heard of: diverse backgrounds. You’ll be fine as long as you can demonstrate that you are capable of learning this stuff and that that is what you want to do.

2. Programs vary. Your best bet is to check the Ph.D. requirements of the departments to which you’re applying. Pitt, for example, requires general history of science and general philosophy of science classes, and does not require any classes outside HPS. However, they do encourage people like you and me, who know more philsoophy than physics, to go take physics classes, and they will help you shimmy around the bureaucracy to get you funded for a physics masters on the way to your Ph.D. in HPS. UC Irvine’s LPS department has a physics trak that requires a certain number of physics courses in their home department. Cambridge, according to Jeremy Butterfield, has almost no course requirements, be they in philosophy or elsewhere. Most places will not impose terribly stringent requirements on you, because you will be expected to be self-motivated as a graduate student.
This is a good place to mention a very important factor in the application process: KNOW YOUR DEPARTMENT before you write your personal statement. Know which faculty are there and what they are researching, and know which of them have research interests close to yours. Mention them. Know what makes each department you apply to unique, and reference it (for instance, Pitt has the Center for the Philosophy of Science two floors down from the department, and it is an integral element in the culture of Pitt HPS). Know things like faculty moves—find this information on the Leiter Reports blog.

3. I’m still in my first few months, so my research is not too narrowly focused yet. I do space-time stuff as well; it is what I am most comfortable with. But I am trying to step out of my comfort zone and write papers on entanglement and the nature of identity in quantum particles. I also write on more general phil. sci. debates such as the realism-antirealism debate, and apply my opinions there (structural realist, by the way) to problems in physics either to justify my belief in structural realism or to make a metaphysical point about physics from a structural realist stance. There are people in the department who write incredibly technical papers that are indistinguishable from general physics papers (and indeed are published in physics journals rather than philosophy journals), but I am not one of them and, while I may try that route sometime in the next few years, I doubt that will ever be my primary MO.

Lastly, and this applies to any graduate program in any field: Even if you have no idea what you want to do, make up some coherent story about your research goals and stick to the story, at least until you get accepted. Wishy-washy isn’t interesting.


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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10 Responses to How To Get Into Graduate School (in Philosophy/HPS)

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  3. nestor says:

    Hi, I’m interested in pursuing grad school because of my love of philosophy and my desire to develop and defend my own conceptual scheme. Like anyone else, I want to join a school where I can learn from the best. I am concerned however that it will be completely political, meaning that entering and excelling will be a matter of whose butt I’m kissing. Has this been you’re experience in grad school?

    • burstenj says:

      It has been my experience that there is some politicking, which can be largely circumvented by finding an advisor with whom you work well. Graduate school, especially a Ph.D. program, is in part training for participation in academic life as a faculty member. And there is some measure of networking/politicking/administration that goes along with that aspect of graduate school. But it has not been the case, in my experience, that this interferes with research. My own graduate experience has expanded, developed, and deepened my own philosophical views in ways I could not have even imagined when I applied.

  4. Andy Moyle says:

    Hi there. I’m currently a sophomore and thinking about pursuing philosophy past my undergraduate degree. I’m wondering if it’s necessary to be able to read and translate philosophical texts from source languages to get into graduate philosophy programs? Should I start learning Greek, Latin, German, French etc? Or could I get by with just English? Thank you.

    • burstenj says:

      It really depends on the kind of philosophy you want to do! If you’re interested in history of philosophy or continental philosophy, then yes, most likely having an additional language will be useful-to-necessary. If you’re interested in contemporary analytic philosophy, on the other hand, probably not. But language skills are not often tested as part of graduate school applications, if that is what you’re asking–translation tests are, however, a requirement of many graduate programs. Best to think about what kind(s) of philosophy you’re interested in doing. Good luck to you!

  5. Alex says:

    I’m very interested in Earth history and philosophy of geology. i realize that pitt is really mostly bio/physics based, but i’m curious if you think a geology based hps grad student would fly well at your institution?

  6. Zbone says:

    Hi, I’m wondering if you can direct me to a new link for the Earlham University list of opportunities for undergraduates in philosophy! I can’t access it but my interest was piqued!

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