Advice on Choosing a Graduate Program

So you can't trust the Philosophical Gourmet Report. How are you supposed to find out to which programs you should apply, then? How are you supposed to decide in which program you should actually enroll, once you get all those wonderful offers? The short answer, of course, is that you should talk to your advisors, surf the web, and ask a lot of questions. (A good place to start your search is Keith DeRose's list of PhD programs.) But before doing that, you need to have some sense of what questions need asking and what exactly it is that you're trying to find out.

To do good work in philosophy, one must:

  1. have good ideas;
  2. know a lot (that is, have mastered the relevant literature);
  3. be able to take one's good ideas, think about them in light of what one knows, and thereby develop them;
  4. be able to express the results of this process clearly and effectively.

Students often overlook (iii) and (iv). You can't teach (i). And (ii) is, in large part, a matter of reading a lot, and knowing how to read critically: That, of course, is something one will learn to do better in graduate school, and it can be taught, to some extent. But it seems to me that the most important thing one learns in graduate school, and what can most be taught, is how to do philosophy: How to develop one's ideas, and how to write. How to take that half-baked idea one got in the shower yesterday, the one you're not sure makes any real sense, but somehow seems interesting, and work on it, massage it, nourish it, and grow it, until it turns it into actual philosophy. This aspect of the work is what one might call the 'craft' of philosophy, the day-to-day practice of it, and it is teaching the craft that constitutes what we faculty call 'training' our students.

What one should be seeking is a graduate program that will give one the best possible education and training. And if that is the object, it should be obvious that the mere fact that program A has faculty that are more famous (or even do better work, in the sense of having more interesting and profound research programs) than the faculty in program B is, in itself, not a reason to prefer program A to program B. That fact, in itself, gives us no reason to believe program A does a better job of educating and training its students than program B, and that is what should matter to you.1

To excel at educating and training students, the faculty must excel as teachers of graduate students, not just as researchers. Intellectual brilliance does not always correlate with pedagogical ability, as anyone who's ever been to college can tell you. Moreover, success in teaching and training graduate students requires a commitment not just from individual faculty, but from the department as a whole. No amount of philosophical depth among the faculty guarantees that such a commitment will be in place. (I've heard it suggested that too much philosophical depth can lead to lack of interest in graduate education. I disagree, but I see the point.)

So, again: The problem is to choose a program that excels in the teaching and training of graduate students. The problem is not to find the most famous faculty, or even to find the 'best' faculty, as measured in terms of philosophical depth and power. To conceive the problem in those terms is to missunderstand what graduate education accomplishes and how it accomplishes it. It is not as if philosophical brilliance is some sort of infectious disease that you will catch from your advisor.2

There are a number of corollaries of this simple point.

So, in short: It is the quality of a graduate program, overall, as measured in terms of its ability to educate and train students, that is the important factor. But how can one tell how good a program is, in that sense? That, I am afraid, is a very difficult question indeed, but there are some things worth saying.

It is worth emphasizing again that your best resource, as you seek a graduate program, should be your faculty advisors. You should ask them a lot of questions: You will find, in most cases, that they will be more than happy to answer them. And if the first people to whom you talk don't seem happy to answer them, go talk to someone else. Anyone who is now a professional philosopher was once a terrified but excited undergraduate, trying to make the same decision you are: Most of us had a mentor who guided us through this process, and we are quite happy to repay them by doing for you what they did for us. If you can't tell whether program A has a good placement record, just by reading it, print it out and ask your advisor. If you don't understand the quirks of program B, ask about that. And if your advisor doesn't know, ask him or her to put you in touch with one of their friends at some other school who might. Be persistent. It's your life.7


1. In all honesty, it probably also matters to you what your job prospects might be after you get your degree. We'll get to that in a bit. But let me say, right off, that if this is what matters to you, then you're probably more likely to get useful information about this by studying the placement records of various departments than you are by looking at the rankings in the Gourmet Report.

2. Note that it is entirely consistent with what is being argued here that a strong faculty should be a necessary precondition of a top-flight graduate program. It does not follow, however, that increases in faculty strength (as measured by the depth and interest of the faculty's research programs) imply increases in the quality of the graduate program. To infer the latter claims from the former, uncontroversial, one would be to commit an obvious fallacy. The Philosophical Gourmet Report is, in effect, predicated upon this very fallacy.

3. Certain highly specialized fields, as noted in the next note, may be exceptions, but I am much less sure that they are exceptions to this rule than that they are exceptions to the principle on which that note comments.

4. To only a slightly lesser extent, this is also true of the quality of the undergraduates. At some departments---including Harvard and Brown, for example, where I have taught---graduate students regularly take courses that are (also) intended for the undergraduate concentrators: survey courses on epistemology, philosophy of mind or language, early modern rationalism, Kant, and the like. The courses can be taught at a high-enough level to be appropriate for graduate students because the undergraduates are good enough. That just isn't so at all departments, and so graduate students at some other departments, including some top-notch such departments, have a much smaller range of courses from which to choose. I have often had graduate students from such departments comment to me about how much they wish they could take, e.g., a survey course on epistemology. But no-one is going to teach such a course as a graduate seminar.

5. There are exceptions to the claim about to be made. In certain highly specialized fields, sufficient expertise to guide a student through the literature, and to provide useful comments on papers or dissertation chapters, is rare. Examples would be the philosophy of physics and mathematical logic. Ancient philosophy may be another.

6. It is worth, perhaps, saying a word about what makes for a 'good job'. I assume that you want to go to graduate school because you want both to do philosophy and to teach it. So a good job is one that makes teaching rewarding while providing enough time for one to do one's own research. Having time to do philosophy means not teaching so many courses each semester that one hasn't the time (let alone the energy) to write. And it doesn't hurt to have help with grading and such (that is, to have teaching assistants), which one typically will at a department with a Ph.D. or M.A. program, though not at a department without one. (If classes are small, as they often are at the better liberal arts colleges, that won't be as much of an issue.) Teaching is rewarding when one enjoys it, intellectually, and finds it challenging. Ideally, the gap between teaching and research shrinks to nothing: The experience of teaching contributes to one's research, rather than competing with it. The ideal is rarely attained, but, if one's students are good, discussion in lectures, sections, seminars, and individual advising sessions will be philosophically illuminating in its own right.

7. Thanks to Kate Abramson for some comments on and contributions to the preceding.

A Disclosure of Sorts

My own thought about graduate education is, not surprisingly, shaped by my own experience in graduate school. I was a graduate student at MIT, beginning at a time (1987) when MIT was not, as it is now, widely regarded as a top-flight program. Not that there weren't notable graduates: There were many good ones, and some outstanding ones, though they tended to be widely spaced. More importantly, I have it on good authority that, in those years, MIT struggled to find good students. I and many of my classmates went to MIT because that was where we were accepted. We didn't have the luxury of choosing among MIT and Harvard and Princeton, and few people who got to make that choice back then ended up at MIT. Nor, I think, would MIT's faculty then have been considered top-notch. Not that there weren't wonderful people at MIT: There were, but many of the best, and many of those from whom I learned the most, weren't widely known and certainly weren't famous. I wonder whether it would have cracked the top 10 back, if there had been a Gourmet Report back in 1987.

And yet, beginning in about 1990, MIT started to have all kinds of placement success. It was that success that brought MIT's graduate program the enormous respect it now has, not, note, a string of blockbuster hires. Year after year, students graduated and went to jobs at respected research universities, from the absolutely top-notch to the slighly less so. And what was most amazing about these successes was that MIT wasn't simply starting with the best and brightest: On the contrary, we were a bunch of rejects, and proud of it!

Obviously, MIT was doing a good job of finding the overlooked but still good students. But surely that wasn't all they were doing right. So what was MIT doing right? Having been there, and thought about the question a lot, I think the answer is really quite simple: They were extremely dedicated to graduate education, and they were very good at it, many of the faculty being gifted teachers of graduate students. Let me take this opportunity to thank them all.