I received the following email from a reader this morning:
I wrote you in the spring re: the topic of 'work' and philosophy, after which you provided a helpful response on your blog.
I am writing again to ask whether or not you might do me the favor of asking your readers to provide a 'top 5' list of the most important factors that should be considered when deciding on a graduate program after one has been accepted., i.e. a conversation about how to narrow down ones choices when, say, they have been accepted to something like 50% of the programs they applied to and can think of sound reasons why all schools would be great fits. As the acceptance period approaches I find myself (when in more optimistic moods) wondering about just how I will decide on the one program that is right for me if I were to have the choice between a few. The curious thing about crafting one's Statement of Purpose, but something I also found to quite pleasurable, was that when it comes to writing that final paragraph that tailors one's statement to particular school X, I found myself coming up with very good reasons for why I wanted to attend each program and thus, in the end, I think it'll be a tough decision if I have the choice. I know placement record is key, but what else? Location? Friendly graduate community? Etc.
I think this is a great question, and I'll be curious to see what everyone's answers are! Here's my top 5, along with explanations for each:
- Know which faculty are likely to leave/retire/etc.: I started my PhD career at Syracuse, where I completed 2 years. Mid-way through my second year, four of our best up-and-coming professors -- John Hawthorne, Ted Sider, Dean Zimmerman, and Brian Weatherson -- were hired away (the first three by Rutgers, the latter by Brown). This was a disaster for our program, and I transferred away to Arizona, where I more or less had to start all over again (only a couple of my classes transferred). Finally, not too long after I left, one of the most senior philosophers at Syracuse, William Alston (who I also worked under), died (R.I.P.). Although one cannot of course predict when someone will die, Alston was clearly at the retirement age.
- Know the programs' completion/attrition rates: This, in my mind, is absolutely crucial. You do not want to enter a PhD program you are unlikely to finish -- and, believe you me, they exist. I know of at least one very highly-Leiter-ranked program whose student-completion rate is absolutely abysmal. Given how horrific an outcome never finishing a PhD program can be, I would absolutely prioritize joining a program that graduates the vast majority of its students. [note: the APA recently published a great resource on this]
- Know the programs' placement rates: I know the reader mentioned this, but it is worth reiterating the importance of it. Some very highly ranked programs don't have good placement rates, some lower-ranked programs do. Choose a program that has a good placement rate.
- Know the programs' climates: Different programs have very different climates. Some programs are supportive, some are not. Some have faculty members who look like people you would want to work with on paper, but who (or so I have heard) are nightmares to work with. And of course some programs have sexual predators. Aim for a place that has a climate that will not result in you feeling like you are in hell for the next 5-10 years of your life.
- Know the programs' funding situations: Some programs have no problem continuing to fund students after 5-6 years. Given that most students do not finish in 5-6 years, this is really important. If you are in a program that does not continue funding past 5-6 years, and it takes you 7-10 years to finish, you may have to scramble with crushing adjunct teaching jobs your last few years, which may further delay you (or even prevent you altogether) from completing your degree.
You might have noticed some things I didn't mention, such as: "Go to the program that has the faculty member(s) you would most want to work with", or "Prioritize programs that are really the best in your area of concentration." I did not mention these things because, frankly, I do not think they are that important. Okay, they are sort of important -- and may be more important to some people than others -- but I would like to suggest not underestimating how much your interests can change in grad school. I entered grad school intending to focus on the philosophy of mind (I did my undergraduate thesis with Dennett at Tufts). Then, when I got to Syracuse, I got really into metaphysics and epistemology (thanks to the people who were there). Then, when I got to Arizona, I got really into moral and political philosophy (my current AOS). Grad school throws a lot of things at you that you don't expect. Changing interests are often among them.
Anyway, what's your top-5, my fellow Cocooners?